Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Sermon for the Reign of Christ Sunday: Listening to His Voice

 John 18:33-38a
Listening to His Voice
James Sledge                                                   November 21, 2021, Reign of Christ

    When John’s gospel tells the story of Jesus’ trial, Pilate is something of a comic but tragic figure. I say Jesus’ trial, but in John’s gospel, it is actually Pilate who is on trial. We hear only a small portion of the trial in our scripture this morning, but if we had read the entire account, we would have seen Pilate scurrying back and forth between Jesus inside the headquarters and the Jewish leadership gathered outside. For all his apparent power, Pilate is buffeted about, and the situation seems to be totally out of his control.

When Pilate asks Jesus if he is the King of the Jews, Jesus responds with a question of his own. “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” It is a straightforward enough question, but Pilate seems uninterested in answering and changes the subject. To answer would be to engage in the truth, and Pilate has little interest in truth.

For his part, Jesus has just invited Pilate to step into the light of truth, just as Jesus has done with others before. If Pilate would engage Jesus, truly respond to him, there is hope, but Pilate shuts the discussion down before it can ever begin. The truth frightens Pilate.

Pilate has lots of company. Many people fear the truth. Politicians come to mind. They worry about losing the next election and that makes for an uneasy relationship with the truth. You almost never hear a politician say they were wrong or made a mistake. That is a truth most dare not speak.

Sermon video from Nov. 21, the Reign of Christ: Listening to His Voice


Audios and videos of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Sermon video: Gratitude and Doxology

 Audios and videos of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sermon: Gratitude and Doxology

 1 Timothy 1:12-17
Gratitude and Doxology
James Sledge                                                                            November 14, 2021

The Conversion of St. Paul
Bartolome Esteban Murillo, ca. 1675

At a recent staff meeting, I read a meditation by Howard Thurman as a part of our devotional time. The meditation began by speaking of a longing, an urgent seeking and searching for God. But then the meditation took a turn.

With sustained excitement, I recall what, in my own urgency, I had forgotten: God is seeking me. Blessed remembrance! God is seeking me. Wonderful assurance. God is seeking me. This is the meaning of my longing, this is the warp of my desiring, this is my point. The searching that keeps the sand hot under my feet is but my response to (God’s) seeking. Therefore, this moment, I will be still, I will quiet my reaching out, I will abide; for to know really that God is seeking me; to be aware of that NOW is to be found of (God).[1]

I had no real plans for what to do with this reading, and when I finished it, I simply sat in silence for a moment. Then a thought hit me. “When,” I asked, “have you experienced God seeking you?” No one on our Zoom meeting unmuted. It was completely quiet.

I also struggled with something to say, which I found more than a little disturbing. How could I not bring to mind some experience of God moving toward me, God reaching out to me? I had a brief, existential faith crisis. Was God not real to me? That’s certainly a possibility. I know a lot about God, about Jesus, but perhaps I don’t really know God. Or perhaps my god is the one disturbingly described by Anglican scholar N. T. Wright.

For most people in the Western world today, the word ‘god’ refers to a distant, remote being… This god may or may not intervene from time to time in the world, though he usually doesn’t. He has, in fact, left us to muddle through as best we can; which usually means looking after our own interests, carving up the world, and perhaps each other, in our own way. The cat’s asleep upstairs, and the mice — and perhaps the rats — are organizing the world downstairs.

That’s why this remote ‘god’ is the god that the Western world decided it wanted in the eighteenth century: a god to be cooly acknowledged for an hour or so on Sunday mornings, and ignored for the other hundred and sixty-seven hours in the week. No wonder, when they did a survey not long ago, the great majority of people in the United Kingdom said they believed in ‘god’, but only a small minority regularly go to church. If that’s what you believe about ‘god’ …then any sense of worship or religious celebration becomes a vague ritual, a meaningless noise, which merely makes us feel a bit better about ourselves… Can such a god really be God?[2]

The god N. T. Wright describes sounds little like the one the Apostle Paul knew. This God had appointed him for service, had showed him mercy through the love of Jesus, embraced him despite his having persecuted the church. The grace and mercy of God, the call of Jesus are so vivid for Paul that he not only overflows with gratitude, but he cannot help but burst forth in doxology. To the king of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Sermon video: Gratitude, Trust, and Generosity


All the tech people were at our congregation's weekend retreat. Hence the single, static camera angle.

Audios and videos of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Sermon: Gratitude, Trust, and Generosity

 Mark 12:38-44
Gratitude, Trust, and Generosity
James Sledge                                                                                     November 7, 2021

The Widow's Mite
    I googled the term “gratitude journal” the other day, and the number of entries was astounding. There was a seemingly endless collection of articles about how to start a gratitude journal, reviews of the best gratitude journals to purchase, reviews of the best gratitude apps, along with articles on some of the research around these journals. And of course, there were ads for hundreds of different gratitude journals.

If you’ve somehow totally missed this phenomenon, the premise is fairly simple. At its most basic, it involves the regular writing down of things you are grateful for. The various journals and apps provide some structure intended to help and guide you.

You might think this simply one more wellness fad, but there is a growing body of evidence that such journaling is good for your health. Studies have found that giving thanks and counting blessings can help people sleep better, lower stress, and improve interpersonal relationships. Another study found that keeping a gratitude journal decreased materialism and bolstered generosity among adolescents. In yet another study, high school students who kept gratitude journals reported healthier eating, and there’s some evidence suggesting it could lower your risk of heart disease and reduce the symptoms of depression in some.[1]

The studies also suggest that it doesn’t work for everyone and that it’s no panacea, but still, the benefits are impressive. Yet gratitude is hardly a new concept. I’ve mentioned before that John Calvin saw gratitude as the basic motivation for the Christian life. So why does this seem like a new discovery to so many?

It may sound odd, but I started thinking about gratitude when I read our scripture where Jesus denounces the scribes and praises a poor widow. The scribes and the widow represent polar opposites in first century Jerusalem. The scribes were learned, professional men of high esteem, “doctors of the law.” There isn’t really anything quite like them in our world, but Jesus’ description of them reminds me of some businesspeople or politicians in our day. They like to wear fine clothes and be greeted with respect in the public square. They make sure to have the best seats at all the fancy shindigs, and they devour widows’ houses.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Sermon video: Well Ordered Lives and Loves


Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sermon: Well-Ordered Lives and Loves

 Mark 12:28-34
Well Ordered Lives and Loves
James Sledge                                                                            October 31, 2021

Love for One's Neighbor, detail from a choir screen,
National Museum of Scotland
 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength… You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus draws these words from what he called scripture and what we call the Old Testament. They are likely familiar to you. The love your neighbor part appears regularly in totally secular contexts. But familiarity is very different from understanding. What, exactly, does it mean to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength? For that matter, what does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself? How are we to define and measure such love?

I recently read an interesting and helpful little book entitled Liturgy of the Ordinary. It’s by Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican priest whose columns on faith appear regularly in The New York Times. The book has chapters on waking, making the bed, brushing teeth, sitting in traffic, and ends with one on sleeping. I’d like to read you something from that last chapter.

Our sleep habits both reveal and shape our loves. A decent indicator of what we love is that for which we willingly give up sleep. I love my kids, so I sacrifice sleep for them (often)—I nurse our baby or comfort our eldest after a nightmare. I love my husband and my close friends so I stay up late to keep a good conversation going a bit longer. Or I rise early to pray or to take a friend to the airport. But my willingness to sacrifice sleep also reveals less noble loves. I stay up later than I should, drowsy, collapsed on the couch, vaguely surfing the Internet, watching cute puppy videos. Or I stay up trying to squeeze more activity into the day, to pack it with as much productivity as possible. My disordered sleep reveals a disordered love, idols of entertainment or productivity…

The truth is, I’m far more likely to give up sleep for entertainment than I am for prayer. When I turn on Hulu late at night I don’t consciously think, “I value this episode of Parks and Rec more than my family, prayer, and my own body.” But my habits reveal and shape what I love and what I value, whether I care to admit it or not.[1]

Who knew that your sleep patterns could reveal so much about you, about how well ordered or disordered your loves and your life may be, about the idols in which you place your trust. So what do your sleep patterns say about you?

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Sermon video: Sight for the Blind


Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sermon: Sight for the Blind

 Mark 10:46-52
Sight for the Blind
James Sledge                                                                            October 24, 2021

Christ Giving Sight to Bartimaeus
William Blake, 1799

I’ve shared before something that happened at the church I previously served, an event that is seared into my memory. It happened one Sunday as I was preaching from the pulpit, and I saw it only because of the peculiar architecture of the sanctuary.

The back wall of that sanctuary had windows that covered its entire width. The choir and I could look through them into the narthex. There were entry doors from outside on either side of the narthex, but they were beyond the view through those windows.

In this church the ushers had a habit of remaining in the narthex, or the parlor just beyond it, during the worship service. The choir and I could see them milling around, going to get a cup of coffee from the parlor kitchen, and so on. And so there was an usher in the narthex when a rather disheveled man entered.

The man was Black, making him a minority of one, unless the immigrant family from Cameroon that we sponsored was there that day. He might well have been homeless, although I don’t know that, and I assumed that he had entered our church building looking for some assistance.

One of the ushers moved quickly to intercept him. I could see them talking but hear nothing. They conversed for a short while, and then the usher ushered him out of my sight toward the door he must have just entered. From what I could tell, he left willingly but, I presume, unhappily.

It was easy to ascertain what I had just witnessed. The man had come to the church seeking some assistance and likely had asked for the pastor. The usher had then explained that I was in the middle of worship. I was busy and he would need to come back later. I never saw the man again.

Something similar happens in our scripture. In this case it’s a blind man who wants help, but Jesus is busy. Jerusalem is just over the horizon. He’s likely got some final instructions he needs to give his disciples, and time is short. No time to deal with one more desperate person seeking help.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Sermon: Help Me, Jesus

Mark 10:35-45
Help Me, Jesus
James Sledge                                                                            October 17, 2021

Study, Christ Washing the Feet of the Disciples,
Henry Ossawa Tanner, ca. 1905
   Many years ago, I had my one experience of hobnobbing with political upper crust at one of those $500 a plate dinners. It was back during my time as a corporate pilot. I was flying for a businessman in Georgia who had gotten politically connected during the time that Jimmy Carter was in the White House. He had a construction company that built subsidized, low-income housing complexes, and so he saw political connections as critical to keeping his business going.

The event was a 1983 Atlanta gathering of Democratic hopefuls for the 84 election. It included Jesse Jackson, John Glenn, Gary Hart, Reuben Askew, eventual nominee Walter Mondale, and others. They were there primarily to curry favor with deep pocketed supporters, including the businessman I was flying. He had a block of tickets for the event, and he invited me to tag along rather than hanging out at the airport.

This businessman had spent a lot of time at the White House during the Carter years, and he had gotten to know Mondale fairly well. He liked him and considered him a friend, but he didn’t think Mondale would be able to defeat an incumbent Ronald Reagan. And so he decided to take a seat at Reuben Askew’s table. He thought that Askew, the relatively conservative governor of Florida, had a better chance against Reagan.

The disappointment from the Mondale table was palpable. He clearly had expected to get support from my boss. He had counted on their relationship to give him an advantage. But for my boss, the relationship mattered much less than a connection with the eventual winner. It was a purely business decision for him. He also had his doubts that Askew could win, and so he eventually began to send money to the Republicans.

There’s nothing particularly remarkable about this story. Any savvy, political observer might have predicted the decision my boss made. It wasn’t personal. Political connections were important to his business, and so he had to do what he had to do.

I wonder if James and John had a similar thought process when they approach Jesus to ask for important roles in his upcoming administration. Mark’s gospel makes clear that none of the disciples really understand what is going on. Jesus has just told them for a third time that he will soon be arrested, humiliated, and executed. But Jesus also said he would rise again in three days so perhaps James and John are focused on that.

Sermon video: Help Me, Jesus


Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.