Sunday, December 8, 2019

Sermon: Needing John (and Accountability) for Advent

Matthew 3:1-12
Needing John (and Accountability) for Advent
James Sledge                                                                                            December 8, 2019

Many of you are aware that the Scripture passages used in worship each week come from something called a lectionary, in our case the Revised Common Lectionary. This is a published list of readings for each Sunday, typically with a reading from the Old Testament, a psalm, a passage from an epistle or letter, and a gospel reading. We never use all the readings, but on most Sundays, we use some of them.
The lectionary follows a three year cycle, imaginatively titled years A, B, and C. Year A features the Gospel of Matthew, year B, Mark, and year C, Luke. The Gospel of John doesn’t get a year but gets woven into all three. As we entered into Advent last Sunday, we transitioned from Year C to A, and so we hear from Matthew today.
If you looked at all the passages listed in the lectionary for Advent, you might be surprised to discover that none sound very Christmassy until the gospel reading on December 22. And John the Baptist shows up on both the second and third Sunday in Advent. A person unfamiliar with church who happened to wander into our worship on those Sundays could be forgiven for suspecting that we didn’t realize what time of year it was. Do we really need to  hear from John so much and so close to Christmas?

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Sermon: Advent, Eschatology, and Moral Arcs

Isaiah 2:1-5
Advent, Eschatology, and Moral Arcs
James Sledge                                                                                       December 1, 2019

Recently I’ve seen a number of articles and posts on social media commemorating thirty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. What a momentous time. The Soviet Union collapsed. East and West Germany became one country. Former puppet regimes began new lives as independent nations. And people heralded the end of the Cold War.
There was great hope for the future and talk of a “peace dividend.” America was the sole remaining superpower, and many hoped that military spending could be curtailed, allowing increased funding for social programs, education, infrastructure projects, and so on.
There were reductions in nuclear arsenals. Military spending remained flat for a few years, but no big peace dividend materialized. After 9/11, military spending increased dramatically, and we’ve been in an endless “war on terror” ever since. Now Russia’s war in Ukraine and interference in US elections feels a little like a return to Cold War days.
Through much of history, hopes for peace often seem to disappear like mist burned away by the morning sun. “Peace on Earth” will soon by plastered all over Christmas cards and Christmas displays, but our hopes for peace always seem to get overwhelmed by our tendency towards violence and war.
Back in 1928, France, the US, and Germany signed something called the “General Treaty for Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy,” better known as the “Kellogg-Briand Pact.” By the time the treaty went into effect a year later, the majority of the world’s nations had signed it, including all the major players in World War II, which would begin only ten years later.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Sermon video: Saying "Yes" to God's New Day

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sermon: Failing the Cowboy Test

Luke 23:33-43
Failing the Cowboy Test
James Sledge                                                               November 24, 2019

I was sitting on the couch watching television the other night. More accurately, I was looking for something to watch. I pulled up the channel guide and scrolled through it, but nothing really grabbed me. As I got to the very end, I saw a listing that read simply, “Cheyenne.”
I used to watch a show called Cheyenne when I was a little boy, and so I clicked on it to see if it was that. Sure enough, there, in beautiful black and white, was Clint Walker starring as Cheyenne Bodie.
Now I suspect that many of you have never heard of either Cheyenne Bodie or the actor who played him, but the show was a huge success when it aired from the mid-1950s to early 60s. According to Wikipedia, it was the first hour-long Western and the first hour-long dramatic series of any sort to last more than a single season.
Cheyenne was a large and muscular, but a gentle fellow, at least until someone needed justice. Then he was more than willing to use his brawn, or his gun, to set things right.
Cowboy heroes were all over the television when I was a boy, both in afternoon reruns and in primetime. There were many variations in the slew of Westerns that filled the airways, but in most all of them, the dramatic climax of the show came when good defeated evil in a fist fight or a gunfight. Good put evil in its place, and, for a moment at least, things were right with the world again.
My and many others’ notions of heroism and bravery and masculinity were shaped by Cheyenne and the Lone Ranger and Marshall Dillon and Roy Rogers and on and on and on. These heroes weren’t afraid to fight for what they believed in, even when the odds were against them. A real hero, a real man, might not want to fight, but he was more than ready to do so in order to defend himself or others.
I wonder if this isn’t one reason that so many of us Christians struggle with following Jesus. He asks us to live in ways that are contrary to accepted notions of strength, of bravery, of masculinity, of might and right. He tells us not to fight back. He tells us to love our enemy. He says not to seek restitution when someone takes something from us.
Jesus fails miserably at the cowboy test, the superhero test. Yes, he does best his opponents in verbal repartee on a regular basis, but when push comes to shove, he refuses to fight back. When he is arrested, he goes meekly. When people give false testimony at his trial, he makes no attempt to defend himself. When he is convicted for being a political threat to the empire, he raises no objection. No wonder that when the risen Jesus comes along a pair of his disciples on the afternoon of that first Easter, they say of him, “But we had hoped that he was the one…” They had hoped, but clearly he was not. If he had been, he would not have gone down without a fight. If he had been, it wouldn’t have ended like this.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Sermon: Saying "Yes" to God's New Day

Isaiah 65:17-25
Saying “Yes” to God’s New Day
James Sledge                                                                                  November 17, 2019

A few weeks ago, one of my Facebook “friends” posted this on her page. “When the time changes next weekend could we please go back to 1965 when life was simple!!!!! I think most will agree the 60’s were the best years of their life!!!” 
“Most”  here obviously doesn’t include anyone born after 1970. It might not include those who served or lost loved ones in Vietnam. It’s probably doesn’t include civil rights marchers who faced dogs, fire hoses, beatings, and death threats. But for many, including an eight year old me, it did seem a wonderful, simple time. We lived what I thought was the nearly idyllic life of a typical suburban family. Oh, for life to be that easy again.
Nostalgia is a way that many of us react when things are not going as well as we’d like. As with my Facebook “friend,” it usually involves some selective remembering that focuses on the good and forgets the bad. Those who want to make America great again, recall a time when American was in its ascendency, the preeminent superpower with a growing middle class, burgeoning suburbs, and an interstate highway system beginning to be built. Of course this nostalgia forgets the large numbers of people who were systemically excluded because of  race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on. It forgets the ecological damage being done without the least bit of concern.
There’s a lot of nostalgia in the church these days. Remember when the sanctuary was always full? Remember when the confirmation class had forty youth in it? Remember when we couldn’t find enough rooms for all the Sunday School classes? Remember?
Of course nostalgia forgets that 1950s Christianity often actively supported laws enforcing racial segregation and criminalizing sexual orientations or behaviors seen as “deviant,” The Church gave religious sanction to American society, speaking in biblical terms of a new Jerusalem, in exchange for the culture all but requiring people to participate in religion. But it was an easier time to be church, although Jesus did say that following him would be difficult.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Sermon: Rightly Ordered Priorities

Haggai 1:15b-2:9
Rightly Ordered Priorities
James Sledge                                             November 10, 2019

I’m not sure when children’s sermons became a standard part of American worship services, but my church had them when I was a child. As with other elements of worship, there are resource books on children’s sermons. I have a couple of old ones that a retiring pastor gave me. Unfortunately, almost all the ideas are object lessons, practical examples used to explain more abstract ideas about faith. But child development experts say that object lesson don’t work with young children whose thinking is too concrete, which explains why it is often adults who enjoy the children’s sermons while the little ones fidget through them.
A colleague once shared with me a children’s sermon on tithing. I really like it, but it’s another object lesson. And so I’m using it in a regular sermon. A basket of ten apples represents a person’s income. Our faith says that all we have is a gift from God. The only thing God asks is that we use the first part of our gifts to do God’s work.
God has given me ten apples. A tithe would be one of them, so I will give one apple back to God. And I still have a whole basket full to use for the things I need and want.
But very often, people don’t do it that way. I take my ten apples and buy a car and food, pay rent, take a vacation, fund hobbies, pay for streaming and cell service, and so on until little is left. Then I think about giving to God, but it would be everything I’ve got.
I can’t imagine that many young children ever made head nor tails of this lesson, but the point is a good one for those of us old enough to understand. The practice of generosity is much, much easier when it comes first. It is difficult to be generous when you only give from what is left over after you are done.
That’s true of faith and discipleship in general. If we seek to follow Jesus, to pray, study, serve others, worship, and so on, only after we’ve done everything else we need and want, there is never enough time or money left over.
Faith, discipleship, true spirituality, are largely about getting life rightly ordered. On some level, we know this intuitively. You may have  heard the adage, “No one on their deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office.’” We nod our heads in agreement yet we still struggle with disordered priorities.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Sermon: Experiencing Love, Sharing Love

Luke 19:1-10
Experiencing Love, Sharing Love
James Sledge                                                             November 3, 2019

I read an article the other day about recent research on partisanship in America. It said that 9 in 10 Americans say they are “frustrated by the uncivil and rude behavior of many politicians.” But at the very same time, 8 in 10 Americans are “tired of leaders compromising my values and ideals” and want leaders “who will stand up to the other side.”[1]
It would seem, at least the case of partisan divides, that Americans decry the political boundaries that divide us into camps, recognizing that these divisions are caustic and destructive. And yet, these same Americans want “their side” to fight against the other. We lament our divisions while, at the same time, encouraging them.
And in case you haven’t noticed, politics is just one of many things that create “us and them” dynamics. We divide by race, income, gender, age, education level, and more. Some boundaries are more rigid than others, but we learn at an early age how to navigate and deal with them. It doesn’t take long for school aged children to recognize divisions between rich and poor, in and out, cool and not so cool, athletes and nerds, and so on.
Religion gets in on the game, too, with all sorts of boundaries, some clear, some subtle. Are you a member? Are you saved? Do you believe the right things? Do you fit in or not?
We’re a liberal church. We’re a conservative church. We’re a liturgical church. We like highbrow music. We like praise songs. I suppose that some such preferences are unavoidable, but we often take it a step further. It’s not really church if it doesn’t have the right kind of music, right kind of liturgy, right political stance, or, perhaps, no political stance. And if you don’t think such boundaries fence people out here at FCPC, serve at one of our Wednesday Welcome Tables and observe the hundreds of people there. Then observe how nary a one returns for worship on a Sunday. They know that they don’t belong.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Sermon: In Their Shalom, You Will Find Yours

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
In Their Shalom, You Will Find Yours
James Sledge                                      October 13, 2019

Has the ground ever shifted under your feet, something you thought sure, permanent, certain, unchanging, suddenly failed you? For much of the 20th century, American factory workers assumed there would always be good, high-paying manufacturing jobs with pensions for them and their children. But then factories began to close, and jobs began to dry up.
On a more personal level, someone you counted on, the one person you were certain would always be there for you, suddenly betrays you. It could be a spouse, a best friend, a child, a parent, but the trauma of such a betrayal can leave people unmoored and at a loss for what to do next.
American Christianity, or perhaps I should say, American churches have experienced the ground shake under them as well. It happened more gradually than a factory closing or a spouse leaving, but it has been no less devastating for many congregations.
When America sought a return to “normal” after World War II, church was assumed to be a big part of that normal. As suburbs exploded in the 1950s, denominations put scores of new churches in them. Mainline denominations like Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Episcopalians used a formula that almost always worked. If we build it, they will come. People were “supposed” to go to church, and so the new neighborhood churches easily found new members while existing congregations built additions to handle all the people.
Those were heady times for Presbyterians and others. We enjoyed significant influence in the public square. Our seminaries were filled with bright young minds. Denominational headquarters swelled and expanded. “The Protestant Hour” was broadcast on over 600 radio stations nationwide, as well as on the Armed Forces Network.
I grew up assuming that you went to church on Sunday morning, unless you were Jewish. It was a fairly safe assumption in 1960s South Carolina. Nothing much else happened on Sunday morning. The stores and movie theaters were closed. The pool didn’t open until after lunch, and no youth sports team even thought about playing or practicing.
I suspect that many congregations assumed it would always be so. The suburbs would keep growing and so would the churches. We would keep building new churches, keep holding worship services, and the people would keep streaming in, encouraged by a culture that expected religious participation as a part of American citizenship.
But for many of you here today, such a world has never existed. You grew up with Sunday soccer leagues, walk-a-thons, 5Ks, and other community events. Almost no businesses closed on Sunday, and church was just one option in a plethora of them.