Sunday, May 24, 2015

Unboxing the Wind

Genesis 1:1-5; Acts 2:1-13; John 3:1-8
Unboxing the Wind
James Sledge                                                                                       May 24, 2015

There’s an old joke about the UCC. The United Church of Christ is a close theological cousin of Presbyterians, so the joke could probably be told about us or a number of other “liberal” denominations… expect the joke only works with those letters, UCC. Anyway, the joke goes like this. “What does UCC stand for? – Unitarians considering Christ.”
The joke refers to modern day Unitarians who believe in God but not the Trinity or the notion that Jesus was divine. Of course that also describes Nicodemus. He believes in God. He knows a lot about God. He is well versed in the Scriptures, what we would call the Old Testament, and he is a deeply religious man.
All this has helped him to conclude that Jesus is someone special. He calls Jesus a teacher who has come from God. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, under the cover of darkness, hoping to make some sense of Jesus, but he never really gets the chance. Jesus befuddles him before he can ask his first question, and Nicodemus never really recovers. If you read a little further in John’s gospel, Nicodemus simply fades from view, never grasping what Jesus says.
His confusion turns on a word play that can’t be done in English. Jesus speaks of being born “anothen” (a/)nwqen), a Greek word that can refer to location, meaning “from above,” or to timing, meaning “again” or “anew.” English translations must go with one way or the other, and so some have born again, which is what Nicodemus hears, while others, including our pew Bibles, have born from above, which is what Jesus means.
No doubt Nicodemus hears again because from above is even harder for him to comprehend. He can understand what again means, even if it seems impossible. But to be born from above, of the Spirit, caught in a divine wind whose source is unseen. What on earth is that about?
The notion of being transformed and reanimated by the Spirit is as puzzling to many modern Christians as it was to Nicodemus, yet clearly this experience was a hallmark of the early Church. In the letters of Paul, the gospels, and the book of Acts, the Spirit births the Church, propels it, and sustains it. The Church doesn’t burst into being and spread like wildfire over the Mediterranean world simply because followers of Jesus share his teachings, but because the power of God, the presence of the risen Christ, is palpably present in those followers.
Not that it was the easiest thing to explain or describe. Paul speaks of being “in Christ” through the Spirit. The Pentecost story in Acts tells of a violent wind and of divided tongues, as of fire. At Jesus’ own baptism the Spirit is described as a dove, and in the gospel of John the Spirit is received by the disciples when Jesus breathed on them. In both Hebrew and Greek, the word for Spirit is also the word for wind and for breath. And like the wind/Spirit/breath of God that moves over the waters at creation, the Spirit moves in the lives of Jesus’ followers, and everything gets stirred up and changed and made new.
But as the years and centuries go by, slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, the dynamism of the wind/breath/fire/Spirit gets tamed. As the Church becomes more and more an institution, less and less an uprising, the Spirit gets talked about more than experienced. Writes Brian McLaren, “In the millennia since Christ walked with us on this Earth, we’ve often tried to box up the “wind” in manageable doctrines. We’ve exchanged the fire of the Spirit for the ice of religious pride. We’ve turned the wine back into water, and then let the water go stagnant and lukewarm. We’ve traded the gentle dove of peace for the predatory hawk or eagle of empire. When we have done so, we have ended up with just another religious system, as problematic as any other: too often petty, argumentative, judgmental, cold, hostile, bureaucratic, self-seeking, an enemy of aliveness.”[1]

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Safe But Uncomfortable

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob...
     who executes justice for the oppressed;
     who gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets the prisoners free;
     the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
     the LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over the strangers;
     he upholds the orphan and the widow...  
from Psalm 146

I'm reading Rachel Held Evans' book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. Beneath the chapter title, "Dirty Laundry," sits this quote from Walter Brueggemann. "Churches should be the most honest place in town, not the happiest place in town." The chapter describes AA meetings that create fellowship and intimacy and church that the congregations whose buildings they use would love to experience. 

If you've never been to an AA meeting, they feel very different from most church services I've attended. They are usually much more diverse. Rich and poor, lawyers and factory workers, young and old, liberal and conservative, all bound deeply together by a shared disease and a shared way out. "Hi, I'm Joe, and I'm an alcoholic" goes the introduction. No putting the best possible face on it, just brutal honesty that is a crucial step out of a shared brokenness.

As Rachel Held Evans points out, actual churches often look much more like country clubs by comparison. We dress up nice and do our best to look like we have it all together. As a pastor, people let me in on some of their struggles, but only because they know I won't share it with anyone. Quite often, people don't even want me to let others know when their problem is something perfectly respectable such as surgery or an illness. 

Pastors can get caught up in the "country club" mentality. Rare is the pastor who airs the dirty laundry of her faith struggles or his doubts and feelings of inadequacy. After all, we're leaders of this place where we dress nice and do our best to look like we have it all together. 

I've often read accounts of church novices being intimidated by being in the company of all these people who have faith all figured out. They're afraid to ask a question or speak up in a class for fear of being found out. And I've heard more than a few long time church members say that they keep quiet and turn down leadership positions because of similar fears. Never mind how often we've heard that the church is a hospital for sinners, we're all afraid someone might find out we're sick.


The oppressed, hungry, prisoners, blind folks, those who are bowed down, strangers, orphans, and widows. Psalm 146 lists all of these, along with the righteous, who enjoy God and God's favor. It's a pretty rag tag sounding congregation, made up largely of folks from society's margins, people who would feel out of place at a country club, but maybe not an AA meeting.

The "Dirty Laundry" chapter of Evans' book concludes talking about a very different sort of "church," one called The Refuge. Founded by Kathy Escobar, who left a life of religious success for what she labels "downward mobility," it is rooted in the Beatitudes and AA's twelve steps. It doesn't have creed but it does have this invitation. 
The Refuge is a mission center and Christian community dedicated to helping hurting and hungry people find faith, hope, and dignity alongside each other. 
     We love to throw parties, tell stories, find hope, and practice the ways of Jesus as best we can. 
     We’re all hurt or hungry in our own ways. 
     We’re at different places on our journey but we share a guiding story, a sweeping epic drama called the Bible. 
      We find faith as we follow Jesus and share a willingness to honestly wrestle with God and our questions and doubts. 
      We find dignity as God’s image-bearers and strive to call out that dignity in one another. We all receive, we all give. 
      We are old, young, poor, rich, conservative, liberal, single, married, gay, straight, evangelicals, progressives, overeducated, undereducated, certain, doubting, hurting, thriving. 
      Yet Christ’s love binds our differences together in unity. 
      At The Refuge, everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable.
Rachel Held Evans adds, "Imagine if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable. Imagine if every church became a place where we told one another the truth. We might just create sanctuary." We just might indeed.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Church Decline, The Great Commission, and Christian Optimism

Today's gospel reading comes from the last five verses of Matthew, a passage often labeled "The Great Commission." The remaining eleven disciples are sent "to make disciples of all nations" (or "all Gentiles," depending on how you translate the Greek). This is accomplished by baptizing and by "teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you."

Just over 100 years ago, many people thought the Great Commission was about to be fulfilled. The missionary movement would soon reach every corner and recess of the world, and the 20th Century would indeed be the Christian Century. A magazine by that name still exists. Not so the dreams of a fulfilled Great Commission. This week The Washington Post published a story entitled, "Christianity Faces Sharp Decline as Americans are Becoming Even Less Affiliated with Religion." And the certainty of a century ago erodes a bit more.

For some this simply reinforces the angst that is already prominent in American Christianity, one more bit of confirmation that the sky is falling. But I suspect that this angst is as overblown as the confidence of a hundred years previous. Both the confidence and the angst emerged more from the perceived strength or weakness of the nation than from any promise of divine presence and help.

Old notions of a Christian Century were closely connected to American confidence and hubris. Expectations that the 20th Century would be an American Century buttressed hope for a Christian one, and at times it was nearly impossible to separate American hopes of expansion and empire from missionary zeal. Similarly, America's current, shaky self-confidence gets mirrored in today's religious angst. But just because Christendom folded wedded faith to culture doesn't mean God ever did.

In fact, if by "Christianity" that article in The Washington Post means to speak of discipleship, the sort Jesus commands in his Great Commission, then the headline may even be a factual error. By measuring Christianity largely on the basis of participation in institutional churches, the statistics in the article may actually chart a decline of cultural expectations rather than a decline in faith of any real significance. For decades, the culture propped up church participation, meaning church affiliation was never an accurate measure of the Great Commission's fulfillment.

I have long felt that the demise of "cultural Christianity" was a great opportunity for the Church. (By Church I mean the body of Christ and not any particular denomination or congregation.) We have the chance to consider whether what we do is about following Jesus and his counter-cultural Way, or whether it is a remnant of days when we had been co-opted by the culture for its purposes. And here the measure is not adherents or the number of folks who "believe" in God or Jesus. The measure is discipleship which Jesus describes as obeying "everything I have commanded you."

Congregations are always a messy amalgam of discipleship and culture. This is necessarily the case because we exist in the world. It is quite appropriate for a congregation to use its culture's styles of communication and interpretation in teaching and living out its discipleship. But this cultural connection becomes a problem when the congregation or denomination starts to exist to propagate its culture. This happened in the missionary movement a hundred years ago when converts in sub-Saharan Africa were told they needed to adopt Western clergy attire and Western music and instruments in order to be Christian. And it happens today when congregations imagine that part of their calling is to ensure that their cultural ways of being church survive.

This is not a call for churches to junk their pipe organs or embrace whatever the latest fad for attracting people to faith is, far from it. It is a call for us to step back and wonder WHY we do the things we do. Are our activities about faithfully striving to become disciples who obey Jesus and about helping other to become disciples, too? Or do they primarily serve some other purpose? This is critical information because when our efforts are about making disciples, it is hard not to be optimistic. After all, Jesus promises to be with us, and what could be better than that?

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sermon video: Liturgy of Abundance - The Uprising of Stewardship

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Don't Be So Negative

Over the years I've heard my share of complaints regarding the "prayer of confession" in weekly worship. Not  everyone feels this way, but it's not unusual to get a critique regarding such prayers' negativity. "Why do I need to say I'm no good week after week?" people ask.

I sometimes remind folks that many alcoholics find the mantra, "I'm Joe, and I'm an alcoholic" to be anything but negative. It is instead a truth-telling statement that opens them to new possibilities, and prayers of confession can be understood in much the same way.

However, I do think the Church has overplayed the sin hand at times. We've spoken of sin as making us so appalling that God can't possibly love us without resorting to some sort of trickery to remove our stench, namely the cross. God so loved the world, but apparently, this involves holding her nose while looking the other way until Jesus has done his magic.

I blame Greek philosophy for some of the problem here. When an Eastern, Jewish, apocalyptic faith met Western thought, there were bound to be some problems. The God of Israel got re-imaged through Western eyes. Narratives got turned into doctrines and a dynamic and multifaceted God morphed into static perfection. To make matters worse, sin became an inherited problem traced back to Adam and Eve. The devil tempted them and we've been living with that baggage ever since. Never mind that there is no devil in the Genesis creation stories.

And so we in the Church deserve some of the bad press we get about sin. However, that doesn't mean sin is some terrible, negative idea in contrast to the rosy views of the prevailing culture. While the typical America probably does think of herself as reasonably "good" as opposed to evil, our culture actually bombards us with images that are decidedly negative. "There is something wrong with you," says much of the advertising we see daily.

We are not pretty enough, successful enough, smart enough, rich enough, popular enough, and the list goes on and on. Our TV screens are too small and our smartphones are outdated. Our retirement portfolio is insufficient and our clothes are out of style. Much of life is a harried, stressful struggle to ensure we don't turn into the miserable wretches we're sure to become if we don't get good enough grades, attend a good college, make the right connections, get the right job, and on and on. And we are only as good as our latest performance. Our worth is about what we can produce and accomplish and achieve.

By contrast, a biblical understanding of sin is positively uplifting. The Bible says we are good at our core. What's more, God loves us and is committed to us. There's no denying that something is amiss. We are remarkably good at messing things up and engaging in self-destructive behavior. We are prone to be so worried about ourselves that we hurt others. But you don't need a Bible to tell you that, to realize that something (what the Bible calls sin) distorts us from being who we truly are (what the Bible calls salvation).

Prayers of confession are part of this process. They are not about unlovable humans becoming lovable because Jesus somehow sanitizes us sufficiently for God to be able to touch us. God's love simply is. God cannot hate or despise us. And as we come to realize this, we are free to drop the masks and facades we all construct. Trusting in God's remarkable love, we have no need for spin or image control. What is more, God's love can begin to transform us. We can begin to see others as God sees us, those who are loved and longed for. And all that sounds pretty positive to me.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sermon: Liturgy of Abundance - The Uprising of Stewardship

2 Corinthians 8:1-15
Liturgy of Abundance
The Uprising of Stewardship
James Sledge                                                                                       May 10, 2015

From time to time I’ve turned on my local PBS station hoping to watch Frontline or Nova only to discover some well-worn show featuring over the hill folk musicians. Instantly I realize it’s a PBS fundraising campaign. If I give $50 I will receive a lovely tote bag. And if I give more, I will get an autographed CD featuring some of the music.
I’ve never really understood the strategy of putting on tired reruns rather than the programming I’d like to watch to entice me to give. I can appreciate the need for financial support. I just find the process a little distasteful.
I suspect a lot of people have similar feelings regarding church stewardship campaigns. They often feel a little contrived. If you’ve been around church long enough you know what I’m talking about. You’ve seen the campaigns with cutesy names such as The Pony Express. Everyone realizes that the church can’t operate if people don’t give, but the process sometimes leaves something to be desired.
It doesn’t help that stewardship is often just a churchy word for fund raising. I wonder if we don’t need to separate the two, to fundraise unapologetically and then, quite separately, to help people grow into the joyful, life-giving practice of stewardship, generosity born of  new life in Christ.
Getting better at church fundraising is a pretty straight forward project. I’m not saying it’s easy but it is mostly a matter of learning best practices. Stewardship is another issue altogether because some of the basic tenets of Christian stewardship are fundamentally at odds with the cultural and economic world we live in.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Sermon: Freed for Ministry Together - The Upsrising of Partnership

Acts 16:16-34
Freed for Ministry Together
The Uprising of Partnership
James Sledge                                                                                                   May 3, 2015

Imagine for a moment that you are out for a walk on a nice spring day. As you walk down the street you hear something up ahead and you begin to smell smoke. You pick up your pace a bit and round the corner to see a house with flames lapping out several of the windows. It looks pretty bad, but there are no firefighters. Then you spot someone yelling from a window of the third floor. She sees you and yells more frantically. “Please, help! Save me!” In such a situation do you,
a.       Grab your cell phone and call 911?
b.      Take the ladder you see lying there and try to reach the window with it?
c.       Tell her about Jesus?
Now imagine an entirely different scenario. (Or maybe you won’t need to imagine. This has happened in real life to me a couple of times. ) Again you are out for a walk, but this time someone comes up to you and asks, “Have you been saved?” In this situation do you,
a.       Ignore them and keep walking?
b.      Tell them that you are already a Christian?
c.       Stop and tell them about that time you were rescued from a burning building?
Language is a strange thing. We like to think it provides us with a precise means of communicating, but the reality is that even the best communicators get misunderstood with regularity. Every pastor I have ever known has stories about someone coming up following worship and expressing thanks for a word that spoke directly to that person’s situation. But upon further conversation, it became clear that the person heard something the pastor had no intention of saying.
I know a pastoral counselor who is fond of saying that it’s a wonder that we manage to communicate at all.
One of the problems with language is that words pick up a lot of baggage over the years. Take that word “save” and its companion, “salvation.” Both show up in our reading from Acts. The spirit possessed slave-girl whom Paul cures had been going on and on about how Paul and his companions “proclaim to you a message of salvation.” And when a jailor realizes that his prisoners have not escaped after an earthquake opens the doors, he cries out, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And we hear these stories nearly 2000 years later and think we know what the words mean.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Tears for a Far Off Kingdom

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
     whose hope is in the LORD their God, 
who made heaven and earth,
     the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
     who executes justice for the oppressed;
     who gives food to the hungry. 
The LORD sets the prisoners free;
     the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. 
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
     the LORD loves the righteous. 
The LORD watches over the strangers;
     he upholds the orphan and the widow,
     but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
 Psalm 146:5-9

As I read Psalm 146 this morning, my thoughts turned to Baltimore, to the violence, the hopeless desperation, the crushing poverty, the senseless looting, the justifiable anger, the lack of opportunity, the fear... It is so tempting to draw easy and simple explanations, to point a finger and say, "There! That's the problem." But mostly I just find myself horrified by all of it, wanting to cry but unable.

A colleague, Ray Roberts, posted this on Facebook last night. "Watching Baltimore burn and praying for our country. Jesus wept over Jerusalem because they did not know the things that make for peace..." We still don't.

As I mulled the psalm over in my mind, I wondered if the psalmist had experienced happiness from God executing justice, feeding the hungry, lifting up the bowed down, and thwarting the ways of the wicked. Or was the psalmist instead longing for those things, even attempting to stir divine action by reminding God of God's own character.

Jesus came speaking in a manner much like the psalmist. He said he came "to bring good news to the poor... proclaim release to the captive... (and) to let the oppressed go free." But people didn't much listen to the ways Jesus proclaimed and taught, and we don't listen much better today. Surely Jesus weeps over Baltimore, and most other cities in America, just as he once did over Jerusalem.

Faith is hard sometimes. I'm not talking about magic-formula-faith that hopes God will reward me for sharing that Facebook post or punch my ticket for heaven if I believe the right things. I'm talking about a faith that actually embraces the things Jesus and the psalmists proclaim when they insist that God is working to bring down the powerful and lift up the lowly, a faith that lives as though that were really true.

Almost 2000 years ago, Jesus was on better terms with folks like those in troubled areas of Baltimore than he was with religious leaders, police chiefs, governors, or captains of industry. He proclaimed a new day, a kingdom of God without a top or a bottom, a day when those who had plenty used it to make sure all had enough. But the powers that be thought that a terrible idea. And they still do.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sermon: Worship in the Kingdom

Acts 2:41-47
Worship in the Kingdom
James Sledge                                                                                       April 26, 2015

I have a vivid memory of something that happened during worship at a church I previously served. That particular sanctuary was a bit different from ours. It was a longer and narrower. Like ours, there was a narthex just out the sanctuary doors, but it also had a large fellowship space straight through on the other side of the narthex.
More importantly, at least for this story, the back wall of this sanctuary had windows that went all the way across. This meant that the choir and I could look out of the sanctuary during worship into the narthex as well as into a bit of the fellowship area.
This could be distracting during preaching. A few ushers always stayed out in the narthex and were often moving around, getting a cup of coffee, finding the offering plates, arranging furniture in the fellowship area, and so on. I tried very hard to ignore them.
One Sunday while preaching, I saw a fellow who looked like he might be homeless enter the narthex from the doorway just out of my view to my left. He did not make it before he was intercepted by one of those ushers. I could see what happened but not hear anything. The usher appeared to act cordially and probably asked what he could do for him. I assume the man said he was looking for help, and the usher said it wasn’t the best time because he then led the man, gently but firmly, back across the narthex until he disappeared from my view again, headed to the exit.
I don’t know if people in the congregation noticed my distraction. I kept preaching, but my focus was on the other side of those windows. That moment has stayed with me, and I’ve  wondered about them from time to time. Did the usher ask the man if he wanted to stay for worship? Did the man volunteer that he would come back later when told worship wouldn’t be over for another 30 minutes? I don’t know.
The contrasts were stark, though. The usher was in coat and tie, the other man was disheveled and in ragged clothes. The usher and almost everyone in worship were white while this fellow was black. Whatever the particulars of his conversation with the usher, he was not one of  us. He was not like us. And he did not stay for very long.
Watching those events in the narthex, it was easy to imagine the usher reinforcing the racial and economic barriers of our society, although I doubt he meant to. He was just concerned about decorum and order in worship. I know he supported the ministry where homeless families lived in our church building for a week at a time, eight times a year. He just thought of worship and mission as two separate things.
In that sense, he was little different from me. As a second career pastor, I can recall those times my wife and I looked for a church to join. When we did, we sought people who were “like us,” who sang hymns we knew and had a worship style we were used to. And the churches we ended up joining had people that looked like us, dressed like us, and mostly had skin color like us. Looking for a church, for a place to worship, was not about breaking down cultural, racial, or economic barriers. It was about finding a comfortable place to attend.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Endings, Beginnings, and Liturgical Correctness

If you're the churchy sort, you likely know that Easter is not yet over, that it is a season lasting until Pentecost. I've seen a number of reminders of this on Facebook, some of them quite humorous. I myself have sometimes reminded folks myself about Easter not being over. But I do wonder if this doesn't start to sound like "liturgical correctness" at some point.

Yes, Easter continues. For that matter, every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection, even those Sundays in Lent. Yet in terms of all the build up and preparation leading to the services on Easter morn with huge crowds and brass quartet, the big day has come and gone. Even if we keep watering and caring for those Easter lilies, they're starting to look a bit bedraggled by now.

I love the way we do Easter big. Unlike Christmas, most of the excitement is not about secular things (Easter bunny aside) but about the good news that Jesus lives. There is a problem, however, when Easter is just a celebration of something that happened long ago, and not about the start of something.

If you read this blog often, you know that our congregation is letting Brian McLaren's book, We Make the Road by Walking, guide our worship. He uses the theme of "Uprising" for all of Easter, and today's theme is "The Uprising of Discipleship." It draws on the story in John 21, where after the resurrection, after Jesus has said to the disciples, "As the Father has sent me, so I send you," after Jesus breathed on them saying, "Receive the Holy Spirit," after Jesus appeared to Thomas, after all this Peter says, "I am going fishing," and a number of other disciples join him.

Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but it feels a lot to me like Easter was over for Peter. No doubt he was thrilled that Jesus was alive. Considering how badly he had failed when Jesus was arrested, it was wonderful that his denial of Jesus wasn't the last word. But now Peter was going fishing, going back to what he knew. Did he think his failure had disqualified him? Was Easter a great moment for him, but now it was over; now it was time to get back to his regular life?

If Peter is thinking that way, Jesus sets him right. In a threefold question and command formula, Jesus seemingly undoes any lingering trouble from Peter's threefold denial, and Jesus commissions him to care for the flock. And he utters the original call once more, "Follow me."

Peter nearly gets off track a second time when he looks over at "the beloved disciple" and asks "What about him?" There's always a "what about" that gets in the way of following Jesus, isn't there. If anything, Jesus sounds more irritated with Peter here than he was when he "undid" the denial. In so many words he tells him, "That's none of your concern," and then he calls once more. "Follow me!"

I don't think John's gospel includes chapter 21 (it looks like it could be an addition to a work that seems to finish with chapter 20) just to tell what happened to Peter. Most of us find ourselves in Peter's place from time to time. There are things we've done, things about us, ways that we've failed that surely disqualify us. There are also "What about?" questions that get in our way. But Jesus reminds Peter and us that Easter is a beginning, not an end.

The big celebration of Easter may indeed be over, but the work of Easter is just getting started. And it continues when we hear Jesus speak to us, dismissing our failures or whatever else think disqualifies us, redirecting us from our inevitable, "What about?" and calling us once more, "Follow me!"