Sunday, July 22, 2018

Sermon: In Need of a Shepherd

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
In Need of a Shepherd
James Sledge                                                                                       July 22, 2018

They had no leisure even to eat. Some of you may know what it’s like for work to keep you so busy that you must eat at your desk. Perhaps your harried, over-scheduled life makes you grab something to eat on the way to school, practice, work, volunteering  or whatever.
Jesus’ disciples have just returned, exhausted from their first mission trip without Jesus, but the demands of the crowd are constant. "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while," says Jesus. He is concerned about them. Humans are not designed to keep going all the time. They need Sabbath, rest, times of silence and stillness.
Jesus’ concern for his disciples causes him to shut down the ministry for a bit. Unfortunately, the planned retreat gets interrupted. The only alone time they get is in the boat. When they get to their destination, a crowd is already there. Jesus is concerned for his disciples, but he is concerned for crowd as well. They are lost and need help, like sheep without a shepherd to guide and protect them.
I wonder if they realize they are lost. Perhaps they are just curious about this strange new rabbi. Perhaps they are looking for healing for themselves or a friend or family member. Regardless, Jesus sees that they’re lost and feels pity, empathy, compassion for them.
Have you ever thought of God being moved by your plight, compassion welling up in the divine heart because you are harried, tired, hurting, or lost? Have you ever thought of God longing to give you rest, Sabbath, or desperately wanting to give guidance and protection?

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Sermon: Stange Priorities

Mark 5:21-43
Strange Priorities
James Sledge                                                                                                   July 1, 2018

Jairus was an important man, was well to do and influential. People cultivated friendships with him and took him out to expensive dinners. He rode in a black SUV, often accompanied by a security detail, and could always get a good table in the best restaurant.
Some of us know people like Jairus. All of us know who they are. When my wife and I recently flew to Austin, a well-known politician was on the flight. When we landed, all us regular passengers had to wait while she departed. I could look out my window and see the motorcade parked under the wing. Jairus got that sort of treatment.
The woman with hemorrhages was not important. Her name didn’t matter, and Mark doesn’t bother telling it to us. She was simply a nameless, faceless member of one of those groups typically precede by “the.” The poor, the sick, the uninsured, the homeless, the hungry, the foreigner, the prisoner.
We’re less likely to know such folks. We know of them, but not typically as individuals. They’re “that homeless guy who panhandles in such and such intersection” or “that woman with her stuff in the  shopping cart.” We don’t often cultivate friendships with such people. More often we avoid eye contact or move away from them. That’s what it was like for the unnamed woman in our gospel passage.
But this woman had even more problems. Not only had she been sucked dry and bankrupted by the health care system, but she also bore a horrible religious stigma. Her constant menstrual bleeding made her ritually unclean. She couldn’t enter the synagogue or attend public events. This had been going on for twelve years, so even if people didn’t know her name, they knew to avoid her.
Jairus and this woman live in completely different worlds. They could not be more different, but the gospel writer weaves together their stories. Jairus comes right up to Jesus. The great crowd is no barrier to him. People move out of his way as he heads toward Jesus. Jairus is used to being treated with honor and respect, but at this moment, he is a desperate man. His daughter is dying, but he’s heard about this rabbi who can heal, and so he bows before Jesus. He begs.
No one is surprised when Jesus goes with him, and the crowd parts and falls back in behind as Jairus, his security detail, and Jesus head to the house.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Not Partisan but Political

Recently someone told me that she liked the bumper sticker on my car, but as she stated her reasons for appreciating it, I realized she had misread it. It was an understandable error. I don't recall exactly when I placed it on the bumper, but it was probably ten or more years ago. As the years have taken their toll on both the bumper sticker and the vehicle it's attached to, the sticker has begun to curl at the edges, partially obscuring the message. The person who liked it had seen only, "God is NOT a Republican." She'd not noticed the "Or a Democrat."

I should add that this admirer of my bumper sticker saw it in a church setting. Unfortunately I didn't have a chance to follow up with her and see if she liked because she thought it a nice counter-balance to the way some conservative Christians have intertwined faith and the Republican party. Or perhaps she liked it because she thinks God is more of a Democrat. But when the bumper sticker spoke its entire message, it proclaims a God belonging to no political party. God is non-partisan, but that does not mean God is not political. In fact, God is very political.

The laws that God gives in the Old Testament require a certain sort of community, one that cares for the poor, where landowners must leave part of their crop behind for the needy, and where land that the rich have acquired must be returned to the original owners every 50 years. All debts were to be canceled at the same time. Implementing such requirements was a political undertaking, and there is not a lot of evidence that Israel ever abided by all these rules. No doubt the rich and powerful objected.

When Jesus came, he stood firmly in the politics of God and the Old Testament prophets. He said he came to bring "good news to the poor... release to the captive... to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." The year of the Lord's favor is the year when property goes back to original owners and all debts are called off. No wonder Jesus scared the powers-that-be.

A lot of people wish "the church would stay out of politics," but doing so requires ignoring an awful lot that God/Jesus said. Relegating Jesus to a personal Savior concerned only with getting you to heaven requires ignoring huge portions of Jesus' teachings.

Jesus was political. Jesus did not get executed by Rome because he was meek and nice. He got executed because he was perceived as a threat. He proclaimed a Kingdom of God that put the poor and outcast first and the rich and powerful last. "Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the Kingdom of God... But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation." (Luke 6:20, 24)

The people who ran the current kingdom, the one headed by the Roman emperor, didn't like such talk. Neither did the wealthy leaders of Temple Judaism who had a good thing going with the Romans. But the poor, the regular folks who paid the exorbitant taxes, loved it. That scared Rome and the Jewish powers-that-be even more.

But while Jesus is political in the extreme, his methods did not look at all like others who wanted to shake up the system. No violent overthrow. No weapons. Instead he called his followers to operate out of an ethic of love. Jesus called out injustice. He condemned those who exploited the poor and weak and marginalized, but his political vision was to be enacted in strange ways, ways that loved and prayed for enemies. (Although Jesus did once get so upset by Temple vendors who were ripping off pilgrims that he ran them out of the place.)

Perhaps no one in recent US history has embodied Jesus' way of being political better than Martin Luther King, Jr. He pulled no punches in condemning the politics of segregation that dehumanized African Americans while reserving the riches and benefits of America for whites. MLK terrified the powerful in much of America, but not because of weapons or violence.

I wonder if American Christianity can ever recover a faith that is political in the manner of Jesus or MLK. I think Jesus and MLK could act as they did, being very political but not engaging in hatred or violence, because they trusted that God was part of their cause. The assurance that God was engaged in the struggle meant that outcomes were not entirely up to them. They could struggle and suffer because they knew, as Dr. King said, that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." It so bends because God is a God of justice, and justice always involves politics.

As someone who sees much happening in our country right now that goes against God's care for the poor, the vulnerable, the immigrant, it is easy to despair. Such despair often turns to frustration and anger, and I rarely act in ways that are helpful when my anger burns hot.

But if God is indeed a God of politics, a God who will not long remain on the sidelines as the poor and vulnerable cry out, then my despair and anger can be tempered by hope. I can argue and agitate for the politics of God with resorting to self-destructive behaviors driven by anger and despair. But oh do I wish that the arc would bend a little more speedily. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Sermon: Faith and Daring Speech

Mark 4:35-41
Faith and Daring Speech
James Sledge                                                                                       June 24, 2008

I imagine that many of you have heard some version of this story before. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell of Jesus stilling the storm. I’m partial to Mark’s version. Somewhat atypically for the shortest gospel, Mark has the longest and fullest depiction.
Jesus directs the disciples to cross the Sea of Galilee at night, not necessarily a great idea. But the disciples do as Jesus says, apparently without question or objection. But out on the water, in the dark, a terrific storm arises. It whips up waves that begin to break over the sides of the boat. The disciples are no doubt bailing water out as fast as they can, but it is a losing battle. The boat is being swamped.
Meanwhile, Jesus is asleep. He has been teaching and healing at a breakneck pace, and the crowds won’t leave him alone. Perhaps he is so exhausted that he could sleep through anything. But as the situation grows more and more dire, the disciples wake him up.
I don’t know if they expect Jesus to do anything or not. Maybe they just feel like he should be worried and frightened, too. They are all about to drown, after all. But Jesus rebukes the wind and tells the sea to quiet down, and all is calm.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. That’s from Psalm 107, and it’s speaking about God.
“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” the disciples ask, as they quake in awe and fear. 
The story of Jesus stilling the storm shows up every three years in the lectionary, paired with the story of David and Goliath. Typically I’ve seen it focusing on two things. One is Jesus’ identity, and the other is faith. Here faith is about more than believing in God or Jesus. It is about trusting in the power of God to save, the sort of trust that allows the boy David to face the mighty warrior Goliath with only his sling.
But for some reason that didn’t quite work for me this time, at least not the faith part. Jesus accuses the disciples of having no faith. But they have turned to Jesus in their distress. They cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out…” to quote the psalm. Does being afraid mean having no faith? That’s troubling. I’ve got fears a plenty.
If the disciples had come to Jesus cool as cucumbers and said, “Hey Jesus, would you mind fixing this?” would Jesus had done the same miracle but not chastised them about their faith? Or is the faith problem about something else.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Statement from the Session of Falls Church Presbyterian

In light of US immigration officials separating children from parents, and the US Attorney General's appeal to Scripture to support this, this congregation's Session (discernment/governing council) publicly declares the following:

The Falls Church Presbyterian Church (FCPC) rejects the claim that the Christian faith or the Bible excuses or condones government policies that forcibly separate children and their parents, or otherwise dehumanize refugees and immigrants. We reject any practice, policy, or law that denies God's beloved children their dignity. We oppose all attempts by the powerful to justify oppression or mistreatment of the powerless. We follow Jesus, who teaches that faithfulness is better measured by the loving care we provide to strangers, foreigners, and prisoners than by public proclamations of piety--and so we at FCPC rededicate ourselves to ways we can provide direct support and care to those in need.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Sermon: Crazy Like Jesus

Mark 3:19b-35
Crazy Like Jesus
James Sledge                                                                                       June 10, 2018

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that most of you don’t spend a lot of time worrying about Satan or the power of demons. In fact, many progressive Christians, including pastors such as myself, are a little unnerved, even embarrassed, by biblical talk of Satan and demonic possession. Clearly this comes from ancient peoples who weren’t sophisticated enough to understand things like mental illness or epilepsy.
But sometimes I wonder if our “sophistication” isn’t actually an arrogance that does not serve us well. We sometimes imagine that there’s no evil, only problems to be solved. At some point progress and advancement will inexorably lead to a better and better world.
At the dawn of the 20th century, many believed progress would soon do away with war in a unified Christian earth, only to witness one world war followed shortly by another. Imagine the despair of those who thought humanity was about to achieve world peace but instead saw millions and millions slaughtered in battle, killed by bombs raining down on civilian populations, and exterminated in the Holocaust.
Mainline and progressive Christians often fall captive to despair these days. I know I do. Granted we do not face world war or Holocaust, but things we hoped for and counted on have failed us. Our heralded democracy seems to have welcomed racism, xenophobia, hatred, and outright lying as accepted parts of the process. Christianity itself is too often a tool of hatred, bigotry, and the acquisition of power at any cost.
I wonder if we sophisticated moderns don’t need to take the problem of evil more seriously, even if we do not personify it. How else to explain school children slaughtering classmates with easily obtained weapons of war? Or followers of Jesus cheering war, spewing hate for those different from them, embracing lies, immorality, and disdain for the least of these, in the pursuit of power?
How else to explain many of us swallowing consumerism’s big lie that if we only acquire enough, if we only get more, we’ll be truly happy? How else to explain turning childhood into a high-stress, cut-throat competition where children must outduel others to get ahead, and we are willing to sacrifice children with fewer advantages for the sake of our own?

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Sermon: Jesus and New Coke

John 3:1-17
Jesus and New Coke
James Sledge                                                               May 27, 2018  - Trinity Sunday

When you make a decision, what sort of process to you follow? The decision could be about what kind of car to buy, what movie to watch, where to go to school, whether to make a career change, or how to vote. Obviously some decisions require more careful deliberation, and others we can make on a whim. But what steps do you follow if the decision is important? How do you know you’ve made the right one?
People in this area and in this congregation are often highly educated. Presumably that makes more resources available to us in decision making. We’re educated to be rational, to use reason, to employ science, and so on. You would expect such things to give us some advantages in making good decisions.
Nicodemus is a well educated man, trained in Torah and in the ways of God. People would have gone to him to get expert advice on matters of scripture and the Law. His opinions would have carried some weight for those wrestling with a religious decision.
Nicodemus is intrigued with Jesus. As a religious expert, it’s obvious to him that Jesus has a connection to God, and he so he goes to see Jesus in order to learn more. Presumably he wants to make a decision about Jesus. Yes, the power of God is clearly with him, but what exactly does that mean. But when Nick goes to talk with Jesus, he goes at night.
In John’s gospel, light and darkness are terms loaded with theological symbolism. Jesus is the light that shines in the darkness, the light no darkness can overcome. For some reason, Nicodemus visits at night, in the darkness. Not a good sign.
Sure enough, Nicodemus struggles to understand Jesus.  Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above/again.”  There’s not a comparable English word that carries both these meanings so it’s hard for us to join in Nick’s confusion, to hear something different from what Jesus intends. We have to translate it one way or the other, either “from above,” or “again.”
Still, it should not have been that hard for Nick to get it. “From above,” is the more typical meaning, and even if Nick mistakenly went with the more literal meaning initially, the correct meaning should have become clear when Jesus tries to clarify things, speaking of being born of the Spirit. But Nicodemus remains stupefied.