Monday, January 9, 2017

Foolish Faith

Give ear to my words, O LORD;
      give heed to my sighing.
Listen to the sound of my cry,
      my King and my God,
      for to you I pray.
O LORD, in the morning you hear my voice;
      in the morning I plead my case to you, and watch.
For you are not a God who delights in wickedness;
     evil will not sojourn with you.
The boastful will not stand before your eyes;
      you hate all evildoers.
You destroy those who speak lies;
      the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful.
Psalm 5:1-6

Clearly the author of Psalm 5 is facing some sort of difficulty. No details are given, but presumably those who are evil doers, who are boastful, deceitful, and speak lies, are the people who cause the psalmist to sigh and cry and plead to God. His plea is rooted in his understanding of God’s character as one who will not abide boasting, deceit, and lying.

I’d like to think the psalmist is correct, but there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Lies, boasts, and deceit seem very popular these days, and I’ve seen little indication that God is about to intervene against those who are so fond of them.

Politics has long been a realm of “spin” and stretching the truth, but our current president-elect has taken this to new heights. In one of his latest tweet storms, Mr. Trump insisted that he had never mocked a disabled reporter despite an often shown video of him doing just that. Where is this God who destroys those who speak lies?

It is possible that the psalmist may be asking just such a question. It is not at all unusual to find people in the Bible pleading with God, appealing to God’s character in an attempt to move God to action. Such pleas are not so much statements of fact about God as they are attempts to sway God. “Remember who you are, God, and act accordingly. Remember your promises to uphold the weak and vulnerable. Remember who you are, O God, and save me!” (For a remarkable example of this sort of speech, read how Moses talks God out of destroying the Israelites following the golden calf episode in Exodus 32:1-14.)

If the psalmist is speaking in this manner, demanding that God be true to Godself and take action, I wonder if it worked. Israel suffered through long periods of corrupt and inept leadership without any divine intervention. Despite the words of psalmists and the insistence of prophets, God’s timetable was often excruciatingly slow.

Modern people have often “solved” this problem by relegating God to the spiritual realm. This God is primarily concerned with the disposition of souls after they’ve died and not much interested in the created order. Such a notion is extremely difficult to find in the pages of the Bible, but that has done little to dissuade those who think the primary work of Christian faith is to get one into heaven.

The fact is that living as though God was the destroyer of those who speak lies has always been a minority position. Faithfulness has always been difficult, always been costly, and always been seen as foolish by most people. There are just too many things that are easier to trust than God. There are too many ways of living that are easier and seemingly more rewarding than following the commands of Jesus.

And the Church is often of little help. Like Israel before, it also succumbs to the promises of power and wealth. It ignores the plight of the poor and oppressed if there is any real cost or loss of prestige involved. We prefer being safe and respectable to speaking like psalmists or prophets or Jesus.

Nevertheless, faith has remained all these centuries. Always, it seems, there are a few who take seriously Jesus’ call to deny self and follow him. Like Jesus who goes to the cross despite the obvious foolhardiness of such an act, there are those who take up their crosses. I want to, but oh how I wish God would provide a little more assurance that it’s a good idea.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Sermon: Glimpses of God's New Day

Matthew 3:13-17
Glimpses of God’s New Day
James Sledge                                                                                       January 8, 2017

I have a number of books featuring sermons by Barbara Brown Taylor, along with a book by her on preaching. She’s famous for being a great preacher, and I’ve quoted her in sermons often. But a few years back she wrote a very different book entitled Leaving Church: a memoir of faith. It is about just what the title suggests, and here’s a bit from the introduction.
By now I expected to be a seasoned parish minister, wearing black clergy shirts grown gray from frequent washing. I expected to love the children who hung on my legs after Sunday morning services until they grew up and had children of their own. I even expected to be buried wearing the same red vestments in which I was ordained.
Today those vestments are hanging in the sacristy of an Anglican church in Kenya, my church pension is frozen, and I am as likely to spend Sunday mornings with friendly Quakers, Presbyterians, or Congregationalists as I am with the Episcopalians who remain my closest kin. Sometimes I even keep the Sabbath with a cup of steaming Assam tea on my front porch, watching towhees vie for the highest perch in the poplar tree while God watches me. These days I earn my living teaching school, not leading worship, and while I still dream of opening a small restaurant in Clarkesville or volunteering in an eye clinic in Nepal, there is no guarantee that I will not run off with the circus before I am through. This is not the life I planned, or the life I recommend to others. But it is the life that has turned out to be mine…[1]
When the book came out, many of the pastors I socialized with agreed with one colleague who labeled Taylor “a whiner who never should have entered ordained ministry in the first place.” But I could not dismiss her so easily. I resonated with some of her frustrations with church and the world. And if anything, this last year has left me with an even more skeptical and frustrated view of the world, its institutions, and humanity. 
This can prove challenging for faith, and the combination of post-Christmas let down, winter doldrums, and news of the latest shooting doesn’t help. Christmas speaks of peace on earth, of God decisively entering into human history, and God’s new day beginning to appear. But all these centuries later and the kingdom seems a long way off. The world is still a place of horrible suffering, violence, greed, and selfishness. And the church often just shrugs. Worse, the church is too often an agent of prejudice, greed, hate, and violence.
Today, barely out of the Christmas season and moving into the heart of winter, we hear once more of the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry as he comes to the Jordan to be baptized by John. It is a strange story, one that troubled those early Christians who wrote the gospels. After all, John the Baptist said quite plainly that he baptized people for repentance. So why would Jesus come to him for baptism?

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Hard To Be Christian At Christmas

When I looked at the daily lectionary passages for today, once again there wasn't much connection to Christmas. Elizabeth's pregnancy with the child who will grow up to be John the Baptist is announced to his father, Zechariah, so we are getting closer. But I suspect that a lot of casual observers of Christmas would not connect this story to the birth of Jesus.

Because the daily lectionary has readings daily, duh, it cannot bring out Christmas passages until we're almost there. People not well acquainted with the Bible might expect, based on the amount of attention paid to Christmas, that it is a major deal in our sacred texts. But there's just not very much Christmas in the Bible. None at all in the gospels of John and Mark, and only Luke has anything about a baby in a manger, visited by shepherds.

It is a beautiful story, though, and I'm not at all bothered by how much people like it and enjoy hearing it repeated this time of year. For that matter, I'm well and good with many traditions connected to Christmas; decorating trees, giving gifts, stringing lights, gathering with family, Christmas movies, and even Santa Claus. Most have little connection to Jesus' birth or to Christian faith, but neither do any number of other things that I appreciate and enjoy.

Still, I often find faith more difficult at Christmas than at any other time of the year. That may sound odd considering more people show up at church over the next week than any other time of year. At times, Christmas even draws people back to the Church, for which I'm thankful. But my own faith might be better served by going to sleep around Thanksgiving and waking up mid-January.

If I were to point to a single culprit for this situation, it would be the "War on Christmas," or more correctly, the soldiers who would defend Christmas in this imagined war. Every time I hear someone take offense at "Happy Holidays," or boldly proclaim their use of "Merry Christmas" as though they were a Christian martyr confessing the faith before a Roman tribunal, I want to give up the label "Christian" until the season is well past.

The whole squabble about "Merry Christmas" trivializes faith, making it more about easy statements and comfortable nameplates than about anything Jesus commanded us to do. And in the worst instances, the "Merry Christmas" enforcers act in ways antithetical to Jesus' teachings, treating neighbor in a manner they would never wish for themselves over mostly imagined slights. If this is Christianity, why would anyone want to join such a mean-spirited little clique.

But I shouldn't be too hard on the defenders of "Merry Christmas." In many ways they are carrying on the Church's own work of trivializing the faith, making it mostly a matter of belief statements attendance at worship services. Neither of these require much in the way of following Jesus or obeying his commandments. Perhaps that's why the silliness around the War on Christmas gets me so down. It brings into sharp focus the ways in which the Church itself has undermined authentic Christian discipleship.

The Church's fascination with Christmas may well be a part of this. Aside from the beauty of the Christmas story and the good news of a Savior born for us, there is also the added advantage of a Messiah who cannot yet talk. The babe in the manger will not tell us to love our enemies. He most will certainly not say, "Woe to you who are rich," words spoken by the man Jesus. The babe in a manger is a perfectly safe object of worship and devotion, one who will not ask anything of us.

Regardless, Jesus' birth calls for celebration, and I hope you enjoy the Christmas season with its warmth and joy, its beautiful music and splendor, its promise that God is indeed for us. But I hope you'll forgive me for wanting it to hurry up and be over, for looking forward to the time when there's a slightly better chance we may encounter the Jesus who says to us, "Let go of the things you thought were so important, and come, follow me."

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Sermon: Christmas Identities

Matthew 1:18-25
Christmas Identities
James Sledge                                                                           December 18, 2016

It’s getting close enough to Christmas that the gospel reading for today actually speaks of Christmas. It’s not what most of us think of as the Christmas story, but it’s all that Matthew’s gospel has. (Matthew also tells of the visit from the Magi, but Jesus may have been two or so when that happened.)
Nearly a hundred years ago, today’s gospel, along with the annunciation to Mary in Luke, provided ammunition in something known as the fundamentalist controversy. To be ordained in the Presbyterian Church back then required belief in a set of fundamentals, one of them being the virgin birth. This was part of a larger fight about the truth of the Bible. In this case it led to a rather ridiculous argument about whether or not the gospels got the science and biology of Jesus right. Never mind that the gospel writers had no notion of such things.
We’re still living with residue of those fights. There is a Christianity that insists on a literal reading of the Bible with cut and dried meanings to the text. It’s a view that’s not very tolerant of questions and tends toward a “believe it or else” mentality.
Then there’s a Christianity not at all bothered by whether or not Mary is a virgin. It’s perfectly content to accept scientific notions of evolution, the Big Bang, and so on. But this Christianity sometimes struggles with just what role Scripture plays in the life of faith. Often Scripture is “true” only if it doesn’t contradict science or my sense of what is possible, and so it cannot really tell me much of consequence that I don’t already know from other sources. 
Recently a church member dropped by the office with a concern. He wasn’t upset with me or with anyone else. Rather he had a nagging worry that the church had lost its way in some sense. Not just this church, but others like it. It seemed to him that our sort of congregation is often a nice group of like-minded individuals, many who do a great deal to make the world a better place. But he wasn’t sure there was much distinctly Christian about it.
As we discussed his concerns, it seemed to me that he was speaking of an issue that has troubled me for some time, one of identity, specifically Christian identity.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Hung Juries and Christmas Hope

Several times in the last week, I've found myself wide awake in the middle of the night, struggling to make sense of a hung jury in the trial of the former police office who shot an unarmed Walter Scott. There is video showing Scott being shot in the back as he runs away. If that is not enough to convict, what is?

If you did not pay attention to the trial, one key moment was when the former police officer took the stand and explained how Scott's actions left him so fearful he had no choice but to shoot. And some jurors accepted that argument.

Fear of black men has deep roots in American culture, especially in the South. In colonial SC, fear of slave revolts was not without good reason. When you oppress someone, they may well try to undo that oppression. They may even simply want to make you pay for it.

When slavery finally ended, oppression did not. Former slaves and their descendants were "kept in their place" by all manner of laws and customs, and so fear was still warranted. To make matters worse, all this was wedded to the Christianity practiced by whites, particularly white southerners.

This fear of blacks did not simply go away as legal discrimination came to an end. I was an eighth grader in Charlotte, NC when the courts ordered a bussing plan to end segregation in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Many white students left for privates schools, an option I never heard discussed in my home. That may have been because my parents were fairly progressive on racial issues. It may also have been because my family didn't have the means to put four children in private school.

Regardless, I clearly recall events early in the start of my ninth grade year when the school lines had again been redrawn to comply with the court, necessitating my attending a third junior high school in as many years. That this school was a formerly black school in a black neighborhood did not seem to bother my parents. My mother had volunteered in the Head Start program at the next door elementary school, after all. But then something happened that was too much for my mother.

The bus that picked me and my brother up as the new school year began was nearly full when it came by my home out in the sparsely populated "country." And almost every other child on the bus was black. It made me nervous, and it must have terrified my mother. She got onto the bus and had words with the driver. She and a few other white parents were soon on the phone to school officials and soon the bus route was changed. There were still black students on my bus, but they formed a more appropriate minority, allaying my and my mother's fears.

I don't know, but I suspect the police officer who shot Walter Scott was shaped by the same fears I learned as a child. No doubt some of the jurors at his trial were as well. It we would be nice to think that the fear I experienced in junior high was a thing of the past, but events keep reminding us that is not so.

As I think about all this, I am troubled by how seldom I have heard the church I grew up in address fear and race and privilege. The churches of my youth, much like my parents, were not racist in any overt way. Some reached out to develop relationships with black congregations. Still, I don't recall ever hearing a sermon addressing the evils of racism, much less one taking on the white privilege that so advantaged me and my fellow congregants. I can't recall a critique of a culture that defined itself by white standards, a culture that was unnerved by too much blackness in much the same way I was unnerved as a 14 year old getting on a school bus.

And now, as we move deeper into Advent and closer to Christmas, many would like to forget about the bitterness of the recent election. Many would like to focus on joy and peace and goodwill. But if we are listening at all to the prophets who herald a Messiah, we realize that their promises are connected to scathing critique of oppressive systems in their day. If we pay attention to the stories connected to Jesus' birth, we will see the powerful lashing out in fear and killing the innocent.

If there is real and meaningful hope to be found at Christmas, it is not located in the warmth of nostalgia or gathered families, as wonderful as those things may be. It is to be found in the assurance that God enters into human history on the side of the poor and the weak and the oppressed. And even if the Church too often forgets that, too often aligns itself with the powerful and with fear, God does not. Not if the Christmas story is true. God, I hope it is true.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Sermon: Is Jesus the One?

Matthew 11:2-6
Is Jesus the One?
James Sledge                                                                                       December 11, 016

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” asks John the Baptist from his prison cell. This is same John who did not want to baptize Jesus, who said, “I need to be baptized by you.” Perhaps John had expected more of Jesus, more vivid signs that God’s reign was indeed arriving. After all, John had announced the kingdom was coming. He had told people to repent, to change and get ready for it. But now he was in prison, soon to be executed, and the world didn’t look very different. Maybe he’d been wrong about Jesus.
Is Jesus the one? I think a lot of people still ask that question. Maybe not out loud, but it’s there, unspoken. In less than two weeks, our sanctuary, like many other sanctuaries, will fill to overflowing with people celebrating Christmas. I suspect that most will want the message of Emmanuel and Peace on earth to be true. They hope it might be and come on Christmas Eve, hoping to glimpse signs of it.
But soon enough, they will look around, see that the world still looks unchanged. Like John the Baptist, they’ll have trouble holding onto the hope of Christmas and believing that Jesus really is the one. Hope may stir once again next Christmas, but it is hard to maintain during most of the year.
When John’s question is brought to Jesus, he says to go and tell John, “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”  This is the proof Jesus offers John.
It’s a curious list Jesus provides. It includes some pretty impressive miracles and healings, but such things were not unknown from Israel’s past. Old Testament prophets Elijah and Elisha healed the sick and even raised the dead with no expectation that they were about to bring God’s reign. So why would Jesus’ miracles be proof that God’s new day was close?
I wonder if Jesus’ point isn’t more about the last item in the list, “the poor have good news brought to them.” Come to think of it, most of the people on the list were poor. There was no social safety net in those days, and the lame, blind, and deaf mostly survived by begging. For Jesus to end his list with the promise of good news for the poor suggests that he’s not just making a point about his ability to do miracles. He’s saying that he is the fulfilment of prophetic hopes that God would one day lift up the poor, put an end to oppression and exploitation, raise up those at the bottom, and pull down those at the top.
Is Jesus the one? The Church says he is, and so we might expect that the Church would be largely focused on good news for the poor. But somewhere along the way, the Church’s message became more about personal salvation.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Sermon: When God Stirs

Matthew 3:1-12
When God Stirs
James Sledge                                                                                       December 4, 2016

I wonder if I would have gone out to see John the Baptist, or would I have missed him entirely? It’s not like you could bump into him by accident. He wasn’t any place I ever lived, not the city, the suburbs, or even out in the rural countryside. He was in the wilderness.
When I hear wilderness I sometimes think of pristine forests. In American thought, wilderness often describes lands untouched by human hands. The US has designated wilderness areas, set aside to protect them from human encroachment. But the wilderness in our gospel reading is a different sort.
The word “wild” forms the basis for our word “wilderness,” but not so the word in our gospel. It speaks of deserted, desolate places. It describes deserts and the barren wilderness where Israel and Moses wandered for forty years, surviving only because God provided manna for food.
John the Baptist is not some back to nature guy, living in a remote area where we might want to go hiking. He is grizzled prophet, living on the margins of society, where life is precarious,. Why would anyone go out there to see him?
Israel had an interesting relationship with wilderness. It was a hostile, inhospitable and dangerous place, yet it was also the place where God had given the Law and had been with Israel most concretely. And so when Israel was worried or hoped for God to intervene, they sometimes turned toward the wilderness, where their ancestors had once experienced God more directly than seemed possible for them.
I don’t know that we Americans have anything comparable, anyplace where we turn our gaze, longing for some sign that God may be stirring. This time of year we do turn our gaze toward Christmas, but I’m not sure it’s because we hope for signs of God about to do something. If anything, Christmas becomes a balm, a distraction, a respite, one we don’t expect to last much beyond the new year.
John the Baptist is something of an intrusion into our Christmas preparations. He breaks into the warmth and nostalgia to insists that God is stirring, and that we must change if we are to be part of it. Sure, John. Whatever.
I doubt I would have gone to see John. We may live in worrisome, difficult times, but I’m not much expecting God to intervene. I’m even less inclined to think I need to repent, to change because of my part in how things are. No, I probably would have stayed in Jerusalem.