Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sermon: Worship in the Kingdom

Acts 2:21-27
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!"

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

On Loving One Another

Linus, the character in the Peanuts comic strip, once uttered this. "I love mankind. It's people I can't stand." I imagine many of us know how Linus felt. Peanuts is not popular all these years after Charles Schultz's death because he wasn't a keen observer of the human condition.

It is easy to love humanity in general. It's when they start to become particular people that loving them becomes problematic. In our day the hatred between liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, progressive Christians and fundamentalists, sometimes borders on rabid. But you can find hatred and nastiness within like groups. Look at the sort of infighting that occurs within political parties, or the fights that take place within Christian denominations and congregations.

I assume that the writer of today's epistle reading from 1 John is familiar with this sort of intra-congregational nastiness. Why else would he go on so about how important it is to love other followers of Christ, saying that "whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness"?

I can only assume that the writer knew well that it is sometimes easier to love some unknown person far away, even when that person counts as an enemy, than it is to love that so-and-so you bump into every week, the one who has said nasty things about you, or made your life unnecessarily difficult, or blamed you for a problem not of your making.

How easy it is to seethe against those who have hurt us in ways that are immediate and personal as only those close to us can. But the epistle writer insists that we cannot be followers of Christ when we succumb to this temptation to hate those who are supposed to be in community with us, and that we stumble in the darkness when we do.

In her sermon here last Sunday, Diane Walton Hendricks shared this quote from Parker Palmer's The Company of Strangers. "When people look upon the church, it is not of first importance that they be instructed by our theology or altered by our ethics but that they be moved by the quality of our life together: 'See how they love one another.' "

Most of the congregations I've known over my life spent a great deal of time and energy on doing good worship and on having good programs and activities. Some of this has been geared toward fellowship opportunities and so community-building. But very often, community was more assumed than cultivated. It had occurred, more or less, organically over the years.

I love worship and think it essential to any Christian community. Still, I can't help wondering what church might look like if we spent the same sort of time and energy and money on building loving community as we do pulling off good worship.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Confirmation Issues

Today is the day that members of our congregation's confirmation class make their public professions of faith, becoming full-fledged, adult members of the faith. This group has been meeting together since October, discussing and exploring the meaning of faith and discipleship. Today our congregation witnesses their choice to claim the faith as their own and to walk with Christ as his followers. It is an exciting day, and it is a special day.

Anytime I think about confirmation, I can't help but recall an old (and rather bad) joke. The story goes that a group of pastors are having lunch. One of the group shares that the steeple at her church has become the home to a huge colony of bats, and they are struggling to get rid of them. The other pastors offer suggestions, but each has already been tried. Finally, the Presbyterian pastor says, "We had that problem, but I solved it. I simply enrolled all the bats in our confirmation class, and when the class ended, we never saw them again."

All too often, at least in Presbyterian churches, confirmation classes and professions of faith have tended to be a graduation from church rather than an entry into it. And no matter how seriously a congregation takes this process, no matter how carefully and thoughtfully it is done, the results are still something of a mixed bag. Some of those confirmed today will begin to take a more active role, but others will seldom be seen again.

To be honest, I'm not entirely sure why some parents and young people bother with confirmation. Our culture no longer requires or much encourages church participation, yet certain habits die hard. Some parents who don't participate encourage their teenagers who don't participate nonetheless to attend confirmation and "join." It's an odd sort of cultural holdover from a different time. It is the continuation of a cultural norm that no longer exists but somehow persists here and there. Or maybe it represents a lingering hope that Christ might be met.

One of the interesting things happening in Christian faith these days is the way it is becoming counter cultural. Going to church on Sunday is declining, though still rather common. Seeking to live as a dedicated follower of Jesus is much less common. Maybe it always was but we didn't realize it when church was such a big part of the norm. I wonder how many confirmation class members - at this congregation or any other - recognize this counter cultural aspect of faith. Are they simply participating in the vestiges of an old and quickly fading cultural norm? Or do they still hope to meet the risen one? Will those who we don't see again after today bring their children back for confirmation? If the cultural inducements to church participation completely fade away, will a hope of meeting Jesus still cause people to show up?

Maybe when we talk about confirmation, the first question we should ask is how likely people are to bump into Jesus anywhere in the process. Will they encounter the body of Christ somewhere amidst the discussions or service or worship? Will they see Christ in the gathering of the faithful who meet here for worship and service and who will welcome them as members upon their profession of faith?

An encounter with the risen Christ is a powerful thing. It is not something that ever goes away completely. If those confirmation members who drift away did in fact encounter Christ, I will trust that experience, that presence, to do its work over time. And if they did not, why should they stay? And so perhaps congregations should worry less about trying to get the confirmation curriculum or process just right. Those are important, but probably nowhere near so important as being a community where Christ is met.

I firmly believe that, deep down, all people long for God. I don't think this is any less true in our time, a day when church participation is declining at a rapid rate. So perhaps any concerns about why some members of confirmation classes disappear shortly after the class ends should be refocused on why less and less people seem to think that church is a place where they might meet God.

I recently heard a sermon on Jesus' commandment that we "love one another." The pastor spoke on how very often churches are better at loving the neighbor via charity or social justice than we are at loving the people in our congregation, that difficult mix of people who are our community of faith. So how does the love of Christ flow within our fellowship? How is it experienced in ways concrete enough that Christ is encountered now and then in the life of the community? Because an encounter with this love is a powerful thing.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Abiding in Fear

If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 
John 15:10

I'm headed to see my favorite singer/band, The Mountain Goats, later today. (I say singer/band because sometimes the Mountain Goats are simply John Darnielle.) This, combined with today's gospel reading and the murder charges against a SC police officer, made me think of one of Darnielle's songs entitled "1 John 4:16." Here are the words.

In the holding tank I built for myself, it's feeding time
And I start to feel afraid 'cause I'm the last one left in line
The endless string of summer storms that led me to today
Began one afternoon with you, long ago and far away

And someone leads the beast in on its chain
But I know you're thinking of me 'cause it's just about to rain
So I won't be afraid of anything ever again

In the cell that holds my body back, the door swings wide
And I feel like someone's lost child as the guards lead me outside
And if the clouds are gathering, it's just to point the way
To an afternoon I spent with you when it rained all day

And someone leads the beast in on its chain
But I know you're thinking of me 'cause it's just about to rain
So I won't be afraid of anything ever again
I'll let you draw your own meaning from the lyrics. But as I thought about Jesus' commandment that we love one another and Darnielle's words about not being afraid "ever again," I was struck with what a fearful world we live in. And considering how many people like to speak of the US as a "Christian nation," this strikes me as quite odd.

Certainly there are real dangers in our world. There are threats from terrorism, economic concerns, and worries about climate change. But the fearfulness I see in our culture seems out of proportion to such concerns. The shrill, partisan hatefulness in our country these days bespeaks a deep, visceral fear that is terrified of what may happen if anyone who disagrees with me is in charge. And very often it is those who wear their Christian faith on their sleeve who seem most afraid and angry.

Jesus speaks of loving one another as well as loving our enemies. 1 John 4:18 says, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear." So why are we so afraid? Why do we so often speak and act out of our worst impulses rather than out of love? Why do we so often assume the worst of the other, especially the other who is in the least bit different from us?

I don't know that John Darnielle would approve, but I'm going to let his song be part of my prayer. Let your love abide in us, O God, so we won't be afraid of anything ever again.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Sermon: When Hope Had Died

Luke 24:1-35
When Hope Had Died
James Sledge                                                               April 5, 2015 – Resurrection of the Lord

The stone is rolled away! The tomb is empty! “Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia!” We gather on this biggest day of the church year to celebrate. But according to Luke’s gospel, as the sun sets on that first Easter, no one is celebrating. Angels have told the women that Jesus is risen, but no one seems to believe it, not even the women. Peter goes and finds the tomb empty but then leaves befuddled, not knowing what it all means.
Later in the day, two disciples head to Emmaus. Maybe it’s their home, maybe just a layover. Regardless, they are disappointed and heartbroken. Just a week before they entered Jerusalem shouting “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” But now they their king is dead. Everything had seemed so hopeful. Something new and wonderful was being born. But now that’s all gone. It’s all over, and they are headed home.
Most of us have never had our hopes dashed in such brutal fashion, but many of us have faced a moment when hope was gone, when things we counted on failed us, when it’s difficult to go forward. The loss of a loved one, the failure of a relationship, or a diagnosis from the doctor can throw a person into despair. It can make the future seem bleak, hopeless.
On a larger scale, how do you hope for peace in an era of endless terror, conflict, and war? How do congregations look to the future with excitement when fewer and fewer Americans are interested in church? How do you hope for an end to racism and discrimination when hate seem to be growing worse? How can poverty end when economic inequality is growing?
Without hope and optimism, people fear the future. They tend to get depressed or anxious or overly reactive. You can see that in the hyper partisan politics of our day, in the shrill and vicious “conversations” on social media, in the way many people see little point in voting. You can see it when congregations and denominations engage in nasty fights over how to interpret the Bible or worship styles or most anything else.
Luke’s gospel doesn’t say so, but I have to think there were some pretty big blow ups by disciples that first Easter morning. Some wanted to stay together and see what would happen. Some thought that was crazy and just wanted to go home. Some were angry at the Romans. Some were angry at themselves for ever having followed Jesus. Some were upset that they hadn’t made an effort to save Jesus.
What sort of good-byes had bee said when two disciples left for Emmaus? Had it been a fond parting? Or had they left in a huff, shouting over their shoulders, “We’re out of here.”
Whatever the circumstances, two disciples make their way toward Emmaus on the afternoon of the first Easter. When the risen Jesus joins them, they have no idea who he is. Is this divine sleight of hand, or does seeing him require more hope that they can muster?
Jesus asks what they are talking about, and they stop, looking sad. Their pain is raw, but they share a short synopsis of what had happened over the last few days, ending with, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” They had hoped. But no longer.
Jesus had showed them a new way, a way rooted in love, a way that did not meet violence with more violence, a way that did not always have to have more but trusted God’s provision, a way that cared for the poor and broken, that worked for a new community rooted in God’s love and God’s priorities. Jesus had confronted the powerful, those heavily invested in old ways, with his new way of love. But the powerful had killed Jesus, had shut him up for good, and for two disciples journeying to Emmaus, hope had died, too.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Holy Week Is for Losers

For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
1 Corinthians 1:22-25

It's Holy Week. Not that the world much notices. For that matter, I don't know that I really noticed for much of my life. I do recall some Maundy Thursday services here and there, but in my (admittedly unreliable) recollections, Holy Week was little  more than the time between two celebrations: Palm Sunday and Easter.

American Christianity has long had a triumphalist bent to it. It is a religion for winners, not losers, and so we do not like to linger too long at the cross. We rush from the processional parade of the king to shouts of "He is risen!" The cross is that unfortunate bit of the formula Jesus must navigate in between. But that is all past now. The risen Jesus is a winner, not a loser, just like us Americans.

The gospel writers and the Apostle Paul seem much more inclined to focus and reflect on the cross, and not simply as a formulaic cost that had to be paid. John speaks of the cross as Jesus' exaltation, and Paul says the crucified Christ is the power and wisdom of God. Jesus himself insists that the way of the cross is the way of true life. He says that only in losing our life do we find it. Only in dying to ourselves do we live.

Triumphal American Christianity has often seen faith as a strategy for winners rather than a way of life to be embraced. "Believe in Jesus and enjoy the perks of winners." It's often so individualized that it loses all sight of the "Kingdom of God," the new community of love that Jesus says he comes to set loose on earth. It's about each individual becoming a winner.

When Paul writes to the church in Corinth, he is quite upset with them, primarily because they are division among them and they are not caring for each other. Some are declaring themselves winners and looking down on others they deem losers. But Paul reminds them of their own call in Christ, saying, "God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God." God chooses losers, says Paul.

Our culture celebrates winners, and winning usually means getting ahead of someone else. Our culture values those at the top and has little use for those at the bottom. Just look at the paltry wages one earns for being a servant, a waiter, a maid, a nursing home aid, etc. Never mind that Jesus said, "Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave." Those look like losers to us.

In our culture that worships winners, it little surprise that we tend to rush from waving palms to singing "Jesus Christ is risen today." It's easy to see why American Christianity has so little familiarity with the psalms of lament, even though they are the most common type of psalm. Lament psalms come from people in despair, and winners don't think that way. Yet God's victory does not look like our notions of victory. God's power and wisdom looks foolish to the world. It looks a good bit like losing.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Joining the Jesus March

I don't have a written sermon today because our choir is performing "Requiem for the Living" by Dan Forrest for Palm/Passion Sunday. That meant I preached only at our smaller, more informal, 8:30 service. That gives me an opportunity to do things a little differently, working without a script. These are some thoughts and reflections from that.

Our worship has been following along with Brian McLaren's book We Make the Road by Walking since Advent. Today we heard Luke's account of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, but we continued on to hear Jesus weeping because the people don't recognize "the things that make for peace." We also saw him at the Temple where he drove out those who "were selling things there."

Jesus' parade was something of an impromptu affair, not a lot like the parades many of us have attended, taking our place on the side of the road to watch the floats, bands, celebrities, etc, go by. This parade was mostly marchers, and as they picked up steam, it started to worry some folks. What if the Romans saw and thought Jesus was starting a rebellion? After all his followers were calling him a king, and the Romans did not take kindly to kings other than Caesar.

It strikes me that Jesus' Palm Sunday parade looks more like the march into Selma 50 years ago than it looks like any parade we stand on the sidewalk to watch. No one beat the marchers in Jerusalem that day, but they would arrest and execute the leader of the march a few days later. According to the gospels, no one but Jesus gets hurt in the march's aftermath, but that is largely because the rest of the marchers scattered. Only after the resurrection, only with the gift of the Spirit, would they be bold enough to keep going in the face of threats and violence.

Back in the days of the Selma march, it was not uncommon for white religious leaders to ask Martin Luther King, Jr to scale it back a bit, to go more slowly and be more careful. He was scaring people and it was sure to stir up trouble. There were white Christians who joined the march, but for the most part, the institutional church played the role of the Pharisees in Luke's account of Palm Sunday, urging restraint and caution.

Parades need participants, but most of us experience them as spectators. Marches are something else. They are all about those in them and the cause they seek to attain. And Jesus calls marchers rather than spectators. He says that we need to take up our crosses and go with him. There are dangers in joining the Jesus march, as anyone who was in Selma 50 years ago can tell you. But the kingdom, the new day Jesus proclaims, happens only as Spirit filled people join Jesus as he continues to lead us toward God's new day.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Authentic and Compelling Voices

Diana Butler Bass was the preacher at the worship portion of yesterday's meeting of National Capital Presbytery (the local governing body made up of pastors and elder representatives from congregations in DC and the surrounding areas). Prior to our meeting and worship, she also did an extended presentation entitled "Where Is God?: Spirituality, Theology, and Awakening," followed by a time of discussion.

During the discussion time, she made a comment on how the "priesthood of all believers" is morphing into something else. This "priesthood" was an outgrowth of the Protestant Reformation and its ideas that all believers had direct access to God via Scripture, a move away from notions of a church hierarchy controlling this access. But thanks to social media, we're now seeing a "priesthood of everybody." I suspect this notion is as frightening to Protestant institutions as the ideas of Luther and Calvin were to the church institutions of their day.

If you've spend much time on social media, you know that the quality of the priests there varies wildly. Of course that's true of all priests, the formally ordained sort and the "all believers" sort. There are a lot of different versions of God and Jesus floating around on the internet, not to mention all other manner of spiritual "helps." The same has long been true in churches and temples. Social media has simply given every single person who wants one a pulpit.

This cacophony of voices must surely be confusing to people hoping to hear a genuine word from God. How is one not firmly grounded in a particular tradition to make sense of the competing and sometimes totally antithetical voices? At that meeting yesterday, our presbytery voted "Yes" on changes to our denomination's constitution allowing for same sex marriage, a somewhat anticlimactic event because the required majority of presbyteries have already voted in favor. Meanwhile Franklin Graham, the somewhat less kind and gentle version of his famous father, has said my denomination should no longer be able to call itself a church because of our willful sin.

Meanwhile the internet priests weigh in. Many of the voices, both left and right, are more notable for their shrillness than anything else. How is God/Jesus ever to be heard through such mouthpieces? How is an authentic and authoritative word to be found amidst all these words?

These are difficult and troubling times for religious institutions, for denominations and congregations and seminaries and more. Sometimes it seems everything we've developed and counted on is coming apart. Not that this is a novel experience. Imagine what it must have felt like to be a church leader 500 years ago in the aftermath of Luther nailing his list on the church door. The Church was splintering into countless churches, often in connection with political and nationalistic movements. The whole things got so nasty and bloody that it also spawned the Deist movement that gave rise to modern Unitarianism. You might say they got so disgusted by all the competing and arguing voices that they became their day's "spiritual but not religious."

But Christian faith not only survived. It changed and grew and thrived. Cherished ways of doing church did disappear, but faith in Jesus and the Church, his body on earth, did not. I do not know just how Christian faith will change and grow and thrive this time, but I have no doubt that it will. Cherished ways of doing church will disappear, but the living body of Christ will persist.

And so the question for me is how those of us who love Christ and his living body on earth are to offer an authentic and compelling voice amidst all those other voices. The gospels may offer a hint. They tell us that Jesus taught "as one with authority, and not as their scribes," a line that might get updated in our day to "and not as their learned clergy."

The gospels don't really describe how folks recognized this authority. It apparently was an intangible thing that's hard to describe but that people know when they see it. I suspect the appeal of Pope Francis is a little like this. There is something authentic and compelling in his voice, so much so that even non-religious people have taken notice.

I think there's a lesson there. Speaking in a manner that is authentic and compelling won't come from getting all the facts or doctrines just right. It won't come from winning all the arguments or votes. And it won't come from demonizing the other, even when that other is indeed an enemy. But it may just come if we are known more for embodying Jesus than for other things that often define us. Perhaps we're known for our shrill voice on social and political issues; perhaps we are so hidden behind church walls that we're known mostly for our buildings; perhaps we're so identified by our slick worship that we look like little more than a show. But what if we were known for acting like Jesus?

On that note, a quick mea culpa is in order. No one would be likely to confuse me with Pope Francis. So how do I need to let God work in me in order that I might better model Jesus? It starts there, I suppose.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Post Event Letdown

I assume this happens to people in other vocations and not just to pastors. You go to a conference, hear all sorts of exciting and wonderful ideas, and dream of all the ways you will use them upon your return home. But then you get back, the excitement recedes, and gradually things go back to "normal." In my case, last week's Next Church conference also included inspiring worship (I assume this would not be typical for other vocations.), and we pastors often don't get to do much actual worshiping. But as things get back to "normal," this, too, can seem a long way off and and a long time ago.

The Next Church conference planners took this into account and are planning local followup sessions. I'll be interested to see how this may help us to put into practice some things we learned at the conference. I hope it works. If so it may help with a similar problem that seems to have become pattern in many local congregations.

Very often, Sunday worship can work a bit like the conferences I attend. It can be inspiring and stimulating, but the energy doesn't really carry over into life outside the church. Interestingly enough, I heard David Lose speak at a regional Next Church gathering about how church as "concert hall" didn't seem to be working very well. Even when the worship is top notch, inspiring, creative, and more, it often doesn't impact daily life much. In that sense it becomes like going to a play, or a concert, or a movie. It may be wonderful and enriching, but it doesn't necessarily do anything to shape people to live as God's people in the world.

I worry a little about trying to make worship into something utilitarian, but still, if worship moves us yet doesn't inspire us to take any actions, to live differently in the world, is it what it should be?

Worship, of course, is something we offer to God, and in that sense it is not primarily about us getting something from it. That said, any genuine encounter with God is surely transformational. Meeting and hearing God as we worship should direct us in some way. It should call us to more faithful lives. It should  help form us as disciples of Jesus. But does it?

I worry that as the church has struggled in recent decades, we've tried harder and harder to do great worship. Often we've succeeded, but church attendance continues to plummet. Have we turned church into an event that is moving, entertaining, inspiring, thought provoking, and any number of perfectly good things, but somehow stopped helping people live out their faith beyond the church? If so, what sort of followup sessions do we need? Or do we need to think about worship differently altogether?

Sermon video: Part of Something That Matters

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Sermon: Part of Something That Matters

Matthew 7:13-29
Part of Something that Matters
James Sledge                                                                                      March 22, 2015

Last month I was at a Saturday gathering of something called Next Church. The featured speaker was David Lose, president of Luther Seminary in Philadelphia, and he told a story about an extremely extroverted colleague who took his seat for a 14 hour long flight, introduced himself to the passenger next to him, and asked, “Do you go to church?”
His fellow passenger apparently wasn’t put off by this because he not only responded, he told how he had attended church for most of his life, but that he and his family were thinking about dropping church. He went on to explain that like many families, his was overcommitted and needed to drop some things. At a family meeting they had listed all the things they were involved in, then prioritized them by whether they really seemed to matter, really made a difference in their lives. Girl Scouts for his daughter did, but church did not for any of them.
The father was troubled by this. He had always gone to church. But he agreed that church wasn’t really important in their lives. It made little difference in how they lived away from church, so it just didn’t make sense to commit the time and energy it asked of them.
Dr. Lose what quick to tell those of us listening, pastors and elders, that this wasn’t our fault. We had not messed up church so badly that this family, and many others like it, had decided to leave. There’s been more energy and innovation in church and worship in the last couple of decades than any time in history, yet across the board – conservative or liberal, traditional or contemporary – people are leaving and attendance is dropping. And even committed members are attending less frequently.
The Church lives in a very different world from the one of my childhood. A generation or two ago, people raised in the Church tended to stay in it. People went to church because they were supposed to. But as our world has become filled with more and more choices, more and more options, going to church became one choice among many. “Supposed to” no longer cuts it, and church now gets weighed among other possibilities.
This situation poses some real challenges for churches who grew accustomed to the culture sending us people on Sunday. But it also poses some interesting opportunities to examine what it means to be the Church, followers of Jesus, the body of Christ in the world. Surely there is something very important about it, something about it that really matters. Why else would we toss around terms like salvation, new creations, abundant and eternal life?
As Jesus concludes his Sermon on the Mount, he clearly thinks he has just shared something important, something that really matters. He speaks of a narrow way that leads to life, of the need not to be misled, of how essential it is to do God’s will and act on his words. But just what is this narrow way? What is the will of God for you and me?
If someone asked you how your life is different because you follow Jesus, what would you say?  How is your way directed, your path narrowed from that of the world? How is your relationship to money different? How is God’s new day being born in you?