Sunday, January 13, 2019

Sermon: One of Them

Luke 3:15-22
One of Them
James Sledge                                                   January 13, 2019 – Baptism of the Lord

In one of her sermons, Barbara Brown Taylor relates an episode from the novel, The Patron Saint of Liars. Much of the book takes place at Saint Elizabeth’s Home for Unwed Mothers, located in Habit, Kentucky. The cook who lives on site has a young daughter named Cecilia. Cecilia has always been doted on and mothered by the young women who come there to give up a children for adoption.
One day when Cecilia is fifteen, she meets Lorraine, a new girl who has come to stay there. Lorraine is terribly nervous and anxious as she waits to be interviewed by Mother Corrine, the nun who runs the place. Cecilia tries to help Lorraine by giving her some advice.
“The guy who got you pregnant,” she tells Lorraine. “Don’t say he’s dead. Everybody does that. It makes Mother Corinne crazy.”
Lorraine sits on her hands and is quiet a moment. “I was going to say that,” she says.
“So what do I tell her?”
“I don’t know,” Cecilia says. “Tell her the truth. Or tell her you don’t remember.”
“What did you tell her? Lorraine asks. Cecilia is speechless. “I sat there, absolutely frozen,” she later wrote. “I felt like I had just been mistaken for some escaped mass murderer. I felt like I was going to be sick, but that would have only proved her assumption. No one had ever, ever mistaken me for one of them, not even as a joke. The lobby felt small and airless. I thought I was going to pass out.”[1]
Cecilia had always been around these young women. She liked them and she tried to help them, but she was horrified to be mistaken for one of them, one of these people who had made such a mess of their lives that families sent them away until that mess could be adopted and they could return home.
Jesus seems not to share Cecilia’s worries. From what little Luke tells us about Jesus’ baptism, I get the impression that Jesus must have simply gotten in line with all the other folks. I take it that Luke says so little about Jesus’ baptism because he, along with the other gospel writers, is a bit embarrassed by it. John’s baptism is, after all, a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and why would Jesus need such a thing? The gospel writers all seem to have a little Cecilia in them, and they would prefer that Jesus not be mistaken for one of them, for one of those sinners. But Jesus obviously doesn’t mind being identified with them, with sinners, with us.
Luke’s version of Jesus’ baptism features a kind of ordination, perhaps more a coronation. The Holy Spirit comes over Jesus, and God speaks. “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”  The language is reminiscent of a psalm used when Israel’s kings were crowned and declared God’s son. But this coronation happens in the context of baptism and prayer. Jesus first aligns himself with sinful, broken humans, declaring himself one of them. And then, as he draws near to God in prayer, his identity and vocation are announced.
I once saw a quote about church that said, “For a place that claims to be a hospital for sinners, the people there sure go to a lot of trouble not to be mistaken for one.” Seems we all have a little Cecilia in us. We don’t mind helping sinners, but we don’t like to think of ourselves as one of them.
And yet, in our own baptisms, we have aligned ourselves with the brokenness, the sinfulness of all humanity. Our baptisms insist that we, like everyone else, need saving. We are all one of them, people who live with the residue of the bad choices we have made, the hurt we have caused, and the pain of others we have ignored.
I know that all too often I expend a great deal of energy trying to maintain a façade that says, I’m not one of them. I want to be seen and to see myself as highly competent, not needing other’s help. The difficulties I have with others are more their fault than mine, and my failures are mostly because of things beyond my control. Of course there’s always the nagging worry that I will be found out, that the façade will crumble, and people will realize that I am a fraud.
Still I cling to this façade, even though life is actually much easier when I can let it go. It is so much easier to be a partner with others, to let go of grudges and hurts, to truly be myself, when I can let go of the fiction that I’m not one of them. 
When we do an infant baptism here, I always ask the parents the name of their child. I tell them ahead of time that they aren’t supposed to say their last name, just the given names. That’s because in baptism we all share a common last name, Christian, brothers and sisters of Jesus, members of the household of God.  
We don’t become part of that household by separating ourselves from them or by imagining ourselves better. We become part of Christ’s body because we’re joined to the Jesus who stands with us, whoever we are, no matter how broken, no matter how badly we fail to measure up to the façades we create for ourselves, or the façades others create for us.
On those occasions when I can claim my place as one of them, when I can let go of the pretensions and the façades, I find that I am much closer to God. I suppose this should be obvious. Jesus has already shown me the way. It is precisely when he stands with humanity that he hears God speak his identity, that he hears his call to the work God has for him, and he is able to begin his ministry.
So too at the font, we are joined in solidarity with all of broken humanity, and God speak to us. “You are my daughter; you are my son. You are all one in Christ, one body, one community called to continue his ministry in the world.”
In a moment, we will all have the opportunity to remember that, to come to the waters once more and remember we are one of them, those whom Jesus joined, those whom Jesus called to be his body in the world.

[1] Quoted by Barbara Brown Taylor, “The River of Life,” Home by Another Way (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1999) pp. 32-33.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Sermon: Christmas Loyalties

Luke 2:41-52
Christmas Loyalties
James Sledge                                                                                       December 30, 2018

Some of you may have heard this story before, but with today’s gospel reading, I couldn’t resist telling it again. I once lost one of my daughters in a drug store. She was four or five years old and standing right there next to me as I looked for some item. But when I looked away from the store shelf to where she had been seconds before, she was gone. I called her name and quickly looked on the adjoining aisles. My panic growing, I traversed the store multiple times, looking down every aisle over and over without finding her. As the minutes wore on, I experienced a feeling of sheer terror.
In desperation, I finally left the store and ran down the grocery store where we had planned to go next. Hoping against hope I ran to the bakery section of the Harris Teeter, where they handed out free cookies to children. And sure enough, there she was, getting her free cookie. She had simply decided that she would go there on her own. Never mind that it was not next to the drug store but at the other end of a strip mall.
If any of you have a had a similar experience, you know how frightening it feels. My terror last but a few minutes, though it seemed much longer. I can scarcely imaging how Mary and Joseph must have felt. According to Luke, they searched for Jesus for three days, retracing their steps to Jerusalem and hunting all over the city before finally finding him.
It sometimes surprises people to learn that this is the only story in the Bible about Jesus as a child. Jesus does come from a humble background, and so makes some sense that little would be know about his early days. Still, stories about great heroes typically include some from childhood, episodes that point to their greatness to come.
I don’t know that it’s taught in school any longer – we live in a more cynical time – but when I was in elementary school I learned the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. Asked if he was the culprit he proclaimed, “I cannot tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.” In all likelihood the event never happened, but that is beside the point. The story’s main purpose is to illuminate something about the character of the man, to demonstrate that his greatness was rooted in a deep, personal virtuousness.
Abraham Lincoln has his own childhood stories that give clues as to the man he will become. For that matter, there are stories about the young emperor Augustus, who ruled when Jesus was born, that point to the great leader he would become. Augustus achieved great learning at a very young age, and, in a story that was likely known by the first readers of Luke’s gospel, Augustus gave the funeral oration for his grandmother Julia Caesaris, sister of Julius Caesar, at the age of twelve.[1]
Luke, writing his gospel for Gentile Christians, seems eager to present Jesus as greater than Augustus, filled with remarkable learning despite not having any of the instruction and education that the emperor-to-be had received. Jesus wasn’t simply groomed to be a great ruler. He was born for the role, part of God’s unfolding saga of salvation.
But that is only part of our gospel this morning. Luke could easily have told the story of a miraculously precocious Jesus without the part about Jesus disappearing on his parents. Jesus could have wowed them at the Temple while the family was there for Passover. This part of the story is about something else altogether.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Christmas Eve Candlelight Reflection

Christmas Eve Candle Lighting Reflection

I read a Christmas editorial in the Washington Post that talked about churches that are struggling with declining attendance and resources and yet still typically find their sanctuaries filled to overflowing on Christmas Eve. The column discussed the many reasons that people aren’t going to church like they once did. It mentioned that the fastest growing religion in America isn’t really a religion at all. It’s something called the “Nones,” those who are religiously disaffiliated and check “none of the above” on surveys about religion.
Yet despite this growing religious disaffiliation, despite the lack of cultural encouragement to be part of some faith community, despite the rapidly growing numbers in our society who view church as unnecessary, people show up in droves on Christmas Eve.
Many attribute this to nostalgia or the desire to maintain some family traditions around Christmas, but the columnist suggested that it could be something else. While the lure of church may be nonexistent for many, there still remains a longing, a hunger for the transcendent, for something more than “a society defined solely by self-interest and calculation, by the visible, the measurable and the tangible.”[1]
I can certainly see why Christmas would be especially alluring for those longing for the transcendent. Christmas insists that the God whose speech called forth the wonders of Creation is a God of life and light. Christmas speaks of a light, a goodness that cannot be overcome by the darkness, the pain, the selfishness, the hatred, the greed, the evil of the world. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  
Christmas also insists that the transcendent, the light, the creative force of God, is not simply something far away out there. It moves toward us, seeking us. A child is born. The Word became flesh and lived among us. Emmanuel, God with us.
But God’s move toward us demands a response. God’s move is an invitation for us to move toward God. God has taken the first step in a divine dance we are invited to join, a dance of goodness, love, and self-giving; a dance of generosity, caring, and hope.
The God who comes toward us, who comes as a child born for us, invites us to become bearers of light and hope in a world too often filled with darkness and hopelessness. And the empty cross of the risen Christ reminds us that the deepest and most malevolent darkness cannot triumph over God’s love.
(Lower candles and shield the light.)
And so, in the midst of the world’s darkness, stand and hold your light high. Let it shine. Carry the light with you as you go. Bear the light of Christ into the world. Let it shine against all that is dark and frightening and hate-filled. Go to be light bearers in a world that is longing for light.

[1] E.J. Dionne, Jr. “Churchgoers, cut the ‘Chreasters’ some slack” The Washington Post, December 23, 2018

Sermon video: Mixing Up Our Verb Tenses

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Sermon: Mixing Up Our Verb Tenses

Luke 1:39-55
Mixing Up Our Verb Tenses
James Sledge                                                                                       December 23, 2018

Here we are on the Sunday before Christmas, and finally the scripture readings appointed for the day feel a little Christmassy. Three weeks ago we heard Jesus talk about his second coming, and the last two weeks we heard about John the Baptist. But today, finally, here is Mary, and she is pregnant with Jesus.
Of course the lectionary that lists the scripture readings for each Sunday isn’t trying to be a Grinch. In part it is letting Advent be Advent and not an extension of the Christmas season. But also, the Bible does not really share our fascination with Christmas. Of the four gospels, only Luke actually narrates Jesus’ birth. And Luke seems more focused on the events surrounding the birth, things like the prophetic speech we just heard, than on the birth itself.
It might help for me to go back and recall what has happened to get us to Mary’s prophetic song today. Luke is not only the sole narrator of Jesus’ birth, but he alone tells of John the Baptist’s birth, and he weaves the two stories together. John’s father, Zechariah, and Jesus’ mother, Mary, both receive visits from the angel Gabriel who tells them of miraculous births to come. And both Zechariah and Mary speak prophetically about these births.
Luke loves to use patterns and rhythms from the Old Testament as he tells the story of Jesus. Mary’s song is very much like the song offered by Hannah after she has given birth to Samuel. But more than that, the angel’s visits to Zechariah and Mary follow a formula for divine appearances that repeats throughout the Old Testament.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Sermon: Repentance and Fruit for Christmas

Luke 3:7-18
Repentance and Fruit for Christmas
James Sledge                                                                                       December 16, 2018

John the Baptist shows up two weeks in a row in the Advent gospel readings, and so at the end of a recent staff meeting, I checked with Diane about her sermon on John’s first appearance. I did not want my sermon to duplicate hers. Could I preach on the “brood of vipers” or might she have already touched on that?
Diane said I could have the vipers, though she might touch a bit on John’s ministry during the children’s time. Then the conversation lapsed into silliness. I joked that she could greet children at the chancel steps with, “You brood of vipers! Who told you to come up here?” Then we imagined parents yanking their children out of the worship service, And come to think of it, maybe I shouldn’t share what goes on in staff meetings.
But that bit of silliness got me thinking about why those who came out to see John didn’t head for home the moment he started yelling. All they do is show up, and he calls them a family of snakes, a colorful way of implying that they are children of the devil. Yet these people do not run off. They ask for instructions. "What then should we do?" Clearly they think that something is about to happen, and they want to be ready.
As I thought about the crowds that gather around John despite how unpalatable he is, I found myself thinking about the gathering in the missional mandate the Session has discerned as our call from God. “Gathering those who fear they are not enough so we may experience grace, wholeness, and renewal as God’s beloved.” I thought about the strategies of Gather, Deepen, and Share that we think critical to this missional mandate, and I took a look at this story of John the Baptist using the lens of Gather, Deepen, and Share.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Sermon: Truth-Telling, Grief, and Hope

Luke 21:25-36
Truth-Telling, Grief, and Hope
James Sledge                                                                                       December 2, 2018

There is a social media meme that makes the rounds every so often. It has a picture of Walter Brueggemann at some speaking engagement. Brueggemann is professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, and one of the more respected and influential Old Testament scholars of our time.
On this picture of Dr. Brueggemann is a quote from him, the same one that is on the front of the bulletin. It reads, “The prophetic tasks of the church are to tell the truth in a society that lives in illusions, grieve in a society that practices denial, and express hope in a society that lives in despair.” Perhaps those are good words to keep in mind on the Sunday when we enter Advent, listening to the prophetic words of Jesus.
Truth-telling, grieving, and hope initially strike me as odd companions, perhaps even more so in this time of year. Advent has more and more been absorbed into the celebration of Christmas, and at Christmas many people do not want anything to distract them from the joy and spirit of the season. People who are grieving often find Christmas a very difficult time and church a difficult place to be.
A few years back I preached a sermon I called “Keeping Herod in Christmas.” I borrowed the title from a chapter in Brian McLaren’s book, We Make the Road by Walking. McLaren talks about how Matthew’s gospel tells of the slaughter of innocent children in reaction to Jesus’ birth, and he says that our celebration of Christmas gets off track when it forgets that Jesus comes into a broken world that resists the newness he brings.
My sermon shared the upset I unintentionally created in the Columbus church I served. I leaned a cross against the manger that sat in our sanctuary chancel during Advent and Christmas and learned that many did not want the cross to intrude on their Christmas cheer. Perhaps that’s what Brueggemann is talking about when he speaks of our society’s denial.
Of perhaps he’s talking about the 85,000 children in Yemen who have starved to death because of Saudi Arabia’s intervention there, a campaign supported by the US. You would think that such appalling, and totally preventable, killing of children would be front page news day after day. Surely is deserves to be told and should wrack us with grief, yet it scarcely gets noticed. And with the coming of Christmas, our society has even less interest in truth-telling or grief about such things.
But the gospel reading for the first Sunday in Advent won’t help us maintain a façade of Christmas cheer. It features no angel choirs or heavenly visitors to Mary or Joseph. Instead it finds Jesus in Jerusalem just days before his arrest and execution, and he clearly understands the sort of prophetic voice Dr. Brueggemann wishes for the church. Jesus speaks of hope, of redemption drawing near, but it does not come in the midst of Christmas cheer. It comes amidst warnings of Jerusalem’s eminent destruction, of wars and insurrections, persecution of Jesus’ followers, and frightening signs in the heavens.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Sermon: Belonging to the Truth

John 18:33-37
Belonging to the Truth
James Sledge                                                                                       November 25, 2018

“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." That is how Jesus responds to Pilate’s question about whether or not he is a king. But Pilate is not much interested in truth. In the verse that follows our reading, Pilate responds, “What is truth?”
I think perhaps Pilate would fit right into our world of “alternative facts,” of “truth isn’t truth,” as Rudy Giuliani famously claimed. Pilate is a politician, and truth is often a problem for politicians. It has a nasty habit of getting in the way of plans and agendas, and so it often becomes casualty in election campaigns or political debates.
The gospel of John, more so than any other, portrays Pilate as a tragic figure, invited by Jesus into the truth but unable to enter. Pilate must scurry back and forth between the Jewish leaders outside and Jesus inside. He thinks he has power and control, but it is an illusion.
In our reading, Pilate comes inside after speaking with those leaders. He attempts to question Jesus, asking if he is King of the Jews. But rather than answer, Jesus questions him. “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate does not answer, but the question seems to have stung him. “I am not a Jew, am I?” he objects.
Now I need to pause here to clarify something about this word, “Jew.” The writer of John’s gospel is a Jew who follows Jesus. He writes to a congregation of Jews who follow Jesus and worship at the synagogue. Most of the time in John’s gospel, the term Jew refers, not to people who are Jewish, but to the Jewish leadership that opposed Jesus and is threatening to kick this congregation of Jewish, Jesus followers out of the synagogue. One of the great tragedies of history was the failure of later Christians to recognize this, and then to use the gospel of John as a weapon against their Jewish neighbors.
And so when Pilate insists that he is not a Jew – in the Greek, his question is not really a question – he is insisting that he is not like those Jewish leaders who stand in the way of what God is doing, or as Jesus describes it, those who do not belong to the truth.
It’s not that Pilate doesn’t know the truth. He knows that Jesus is innocent, but there are other things that matter more to Pilate than the truth. Jerusalem was hardly a prime posting for a Roman official, and no doubt Pilate wanted things to go smoothly there. No riots during the Passover festival on his watch. If an innocent man needed to die in order for things to stay calm, so be it. Never mind the truth.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Sermon: Faithful Lament

1 Samuel 1:4-20; 2:1-10
Faithful Lament
James Sledge                                                                                       November 18, 2018

In the wake of the horrific murders at a Pittsburgh synagogue, there have been many articles written about the rise in anti-Semitism and racism. Not so many years ago, people talked about moving into a post racial society. That seems naïve foolishness now. Recently I read an article in the Post that talked about how young Jews find themselves confronted with a reality they thought belonged to a distant past.

For many young Jews across the nation, last month’s mass shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh was a jarring lesson. Many millennials who grew up hearing about anti-Semitism from their parents and grandparents think of the Holocaust, Eastern European pogroms and the Spanish Inquisition when they think about violence against Jews — stories they read in history books about events that happened well over half a century ago, and all in the old country, not the United States.
The Pittsburgh rampage, committed by a gunman who reportedly shouted “All Jews must die” as he fired, shattered what remained of that illusion.[1]

I rather doubt that black, millennial Americans ever shared such an illusion. Hate and violence against African Americans never was an old country problem relegated to history books. Still, the mainstreaming of racism in recent years, including its blatant use as political strategy, feels like a huge step backwards. And those who had hoped in some sort of inexorable progress toward a day when racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and so on were confined to history may now find such hope in short supply.
I confess that the last few years have at times left me struggling. When I talk with other clergy types about how they and their folks and managing, I hear of two very different responses. One sounds like the joke Stephen Colbert tells regarding Donald Trump’s claim to have done more for religion than any other president. “It’s true,” says Colbert. I’ve prayed more in the last two years than I ever have.” But others have respond differently, struggling to pray at all because of anger or despair. Me, I’ve gone back and forth between these two.