Sunday, July 24, 2016

Sermon: It Starts with Water

Genesis 1:1-10, 26-27, 31-2:3 (Matthew 3:17-17)
It Starts with Water
James Sledge                                       July 24, 2016, start of Vacation Bible Camp

When I first became a pastor at a church in Raleigh, North Carolina, a more experienced pastor was very kind to me. Her name was Wylie, and she gave me a lot of good advice. She also invited me to be a part of group of pastors who gathered each week to discuss Bible passages for upcoming sermons. But before we talked about the Bible, we socialized, ate lunch, and talked about being pastors. One day, Wylie told us a story I’m going to share with you. I think I’ve shared it before, but it’s a good story and worth hearing more than once.
Wylie had gone to a big gathering of pastors from all sorts of denominations and traditions. She found a seat at one of many tables, and there the pastors introduced themselves to one another, telling their denomination, the church they served, how many members it had, and so on. One pastors asked the rest of them, “What day do you take off?” Because pastors work on Sunday, we often take a weekday off instead.
The pastors answered saying, “I take Monday off,” or “I take Friday off.” But one pastor thought taking any day off was a bad idea. “I never take a day off!” he shouted. “The devil never takes a day off.” My friend Wylie replied to him, “God does.”
That’s what the story we just heard says. God finishes with all the work of creation, and then God rests. God takes a day off. What’s more, God gives everybody the day off. The seventh day, the Sabbath, is “hallowed” the Bible says, which means it’s set apart for special purposes. And the main purpose is rest.
But we humans are not always good at resting. I recently read a story in the newspaper about people not using all their vacation time, working instead of resting. And even when we do vacation, we don’t always rest. We cram our vacations with travel and theme parks and activities, so much so that we’re often worn out when we return.

Monday, July 18, 2016

To What End?

The world would be a bigger mess than it already is without rules. Imagine if no one stopped at intersections. It's bad enough because a few don't follow the rules of the road. But rules are not an end in and of themselves. They are in service to some larger purpose, or at least they should be.

"Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy." This commandment or rule is one our society has disregarded to its detriment. The need for sabbath, for rest, is part of what makes us human. Many of us are frazzled and burnt out because we've not realized this, because we've imagined that this rule does not apply to us. This commandment is not simply some arbitrary rule. It is meant to safeguard our humanity.

Sabbath keeping as a rigorous, religious requirement seems to have developed during the time when the Babylonians carried off much of Jerusalem's population into exile nearly 600 years before the time of Jesus. In exile, with their Temple destroyed, Sabbath keeping became a way for the Hebrews to maintain a distinct, Jewish identity. The rule may have always been there, but during the Exile, it came to occupy a central place in what it meant to be a Jew.

The Sabbath rule is also one where Jesus regularly found himself in conflict with Jewish religious leaders. Most often it was when he healed someone on the Sabbath, but on at least one occasion the issue was Jesus' disciples plucking heads of grain on the Sabbath day, grabbing a bite on the move, if you will. But this constituted "work" and so was against the rules. But Jesus, who clearly kept the Sabbath himself, reminds his critics that the Sabbath (like all God's rules) is made for the sake of humanity, and not the other way round.

Many of us are prone to thinking of rules as constraining us and getting in our way as opposed to things that help us. The actress Katherine Hepburn supposedly said, "If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun," but I wonder if that observation doesn't arise from the sort of rule keeping that has forgotten the true purposes of the rule.

Religion seems particularly prone to confusing our rules for the larger purposes behind them. (We're certainly not the only ones with this problem. The Second Ammendment seems to have become an object of worship for many people in our day.) Perhaps this is because we are unsure of what our larger purposes actually are?

A favorite theology professor of mine was fond of saying that the true purpose behind all divine activity in the Bible was "true communion with God in true community with others." That sounds like as good a synopsis as any, and that raises the question of how our rules and required ways of doing things serve that larger end.

Very often we in religious communities seem far more interested in preserving our ways than we do in serving those larger purposes. We live in a time when true community is desperately needed, when our society is fractured into camps, each eyeing others with suspicion, fear, and sometimes hatred. My own, more liberal branch of Christianity often imagines that this is not a problem for us, and it's true that we are not as prone to certain sorts of rule-keeping legalism. Yet we often look down on what we suppose are "less sophisticated" versions of the faith, and we sometimes assume that our carefully thought out, high-brow forms of worship are inherently better.

For that matter, Christians of all stripes are depressingly prone to worrying more about their worship style than they are about true communion with God or true community with others.

I suppose I find myself thinking of such things because the congregation I serve is currently doing some intentional looking at who we are and what we are about. I have some real hopes for this process. Most of all, I hope we can find ways to focus more on how things we do as a church help create true communion with God and true community with others.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Sermon: Famine

Amos 8:1-12
James Sledge                                                                                                   July 17, 2016

We’re celebrating the baptism of Aemon Cashin today, something I love doing. It’s the same sacrament whether for infant or adult, but most baptisms here are young children. Along with the cute factor and joyfulness that goes with such baptisms, they also highlight our covenantal understanding of what it means to be the Church.
Our baptismal covenant mirrors Israel’s covenant with God in the Old Testament. Israel’s treaty or agreement, like other covenants, had expectations of all parties involved. God would be with Israel, help her and protect her. Israel, in turn, would abide by the Law, a gracious gift meant to create true community.
There is similar covenant language in the sacrament of baptism. We make promises to turn from sin and toward Jesus, to follow him as faithful disciples. We recite the Apostles’ Creed and make covenant commitments to one another. Parents “promise to live the Christian faith, and to teach that faith to (their) child?” We as a congregation promise “to guide and nurture Aemon by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging him to know and follow Christ and to be a faithful member of his church?”[1] And God embraces Aemon, making him a brother of Jesus
In baptism, parents, child, congregation, and God become covenant partners. Down the road, Aemon will get to decide if he wants to be part of this covenant and make his own profession of faith, but God is fully committed to Aemon already, just as his parents are fully committed to him before he is really able to love them back.

The biblical notion of covenant with God was rooted in the covenants or treaties common to the ancient Middle East. Larger kingdoms or empires often entered into covenants with less powerful kings or chieftains, promising to come to their aid in exchange for tribute, providing soldiers when the bigger kingdom went to war, and so on. If the smaller kingdom failed in its obligations, the larger likely would punish it, even take it over entirely. If the larger kingdom failed to keep its obligations, the smaller might seek alliances with another.
Israel could describe its relationship with God in such treaty terms, at times sounding almost contractual. Be good and get God’s blessings. Break the rules and get punished. Some Bible verses say just that, and you can find people in our day who say the same. Be good, believe the correct things, and God will bless you and admit you to heaven. Break the rules and God will punish you, maybe eternally.
But Israel does not picture God solely as a powerful king with whom they have a treaty. The covenant is also relational with God seen as spouse, shepherd, or loving parent. This loving God may punish Israel for failing to keep covenant, but it is always in hopes of restoring the covenant, of reconciliation and restored relationship.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Spiritual Famine

I've grown weary of preaching in response to the latest shooting or terror attack. What am I to say? What word of light to declare in the face of such darkness, what word of hope in the face of shootings, racism, and hatred that seem pervasive?

Beyond my own vocational travails, what witness is the Church called to give in such times? What are we to say, do, and be that someone offers hope? My Presbyterian traditions says that one of the primary purposes of the Church is "the exhibition of the Kingdom of heaven to the world." According to the prayer Jesus gave us, this kingdom is a world where God's will is done. How are we to show this to the world?

I wonder if part of our problem isn't that we've forgotten what this kingdom is all about. I sometimes lament the fact that Matthew's gospel uses the term "kingdom of heaven" because I think it is misleading to those who already think that kingdom parables such as today's gospel passage are about getting into heaven. In truth, Matthew uses the term in place of Mark's "kingdom of God" because he is a good Jew who prefers to speak indirectly of God. We can still do the same thing today. When someone says, "O thank heaven," we don't think they are thanking a place.

Someone who had no knowledge of Christianity and carefully read the four gospels would probably be surprised to learn that one stereotypical form of Christianity involves beliving in Jesus in order to get to heaven. Jesus says virtually nothing about going to heaven but a great deal about a kingdom that is coming to earth. And he spends much time training his followers in the ways of this kingdom. These ways include radical love that extends to enemies, an embrace of weakness and powerlessness, a call to self-denial, a rejection of violence, and all manner of other behaviors that are at odds with much of the world. It is no wonder that the first name for the Jesus movement was "The Way."

But that Way has degenerated into belief to such a degree that the Church rarely shows the world a radically different way. Christian faith has become as fractured and divided as most everything else in our world, and much of this division is over what to believe rather than how to act, how to live. And when we worry about actions it's often about other people's rather than ours. But how are our actions, our Christ-like lives and Kingdom-shaped communities showing the world a better way?

I've been working on a sermon for next Sunday based on the prophet Amos' warning about a coming famine of the word of God. I wonder if we aren't fulfilling this prophecy, not because God has withdrawn from us but because we won't listen. We simply won't do the things Jesus tells us to do.

There's a famous quote attributed to Gandhi that he may never actually have said. "I like your Christ but I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ." Regardless of its accuracy, it surely is an apt description of "Christians" who are starved for the actual Word of God, who have somehow never heard Jesus calling them to follow him on the peculiar and radical Way that he lives and teaches. No wonder the Church is struggling in our culture. It is in the depths of a spiritual famine.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Sermon: Plumb Lines, Measuring Sticks, and Idolaty

Amos 7:7-17 (Luke 10:25-37)
Plumb Lines, Measuring Sticks, and Idolatry
James Sledge                                                                                                   July 10, 2016

I recently stumbled upon the website of an innovative, urban, Presbyterian Church in another city. Its homepage said simply, “Recess. Closed for Sunday Worship: July 3 & 10,” with a link where you could “Learn More.” There it spoke of  “an active pause… essentially, a sabbath for the system.”[1] There were online liturgies available, but no church.
I was intrigued, and so I showed it to a group of colleagues at a pastor lunch a few weeks ago. One pastor, who shall remain nameless, immediately said, “O how wonderful to be closed on July 3rd and not to have to worry about worshipping the flag.”
The connection to July Fourth had escaped me, perhaps because I’ve never been part of a church where people in uniform march the flag around during worship. I’m thankful to live in this country and happy to share my thanks in worship, but hopefully we never forget that we gather to worship God, that our ultimate allegiance is to our Lord, Jesus Christ.
I hope that, but letting other things get between us and God seems to be a chronic human problem. We don’t usually construct altars or golden calves, but we have all manner of things we honor, serve, or give loyalty to other than God. It is not unusual for them to be well ahead of God on our priority lists. And by definition, whatever sits at the top of the list is our god.
These gods may be security, wealth, power, nation, family, our political views, or simply self-indulgence. Regardless of the god, people will try to enlist their religion for support. People who worship money may say, “God wants you to be rich.” Racists, homophobes, and Islamophobes imagine a god who hates those they hate. More subtly, those of us who worship at the altar of consumerism may think of faith or spirituality as one more item for our shopping carts. Jesus is not our Lord, our God, but an element of our actual faith, one which promises us happiness and fulfillment if we have enough of all the right things.
The theological term for all this is idolatry, and Presbyterian tradition has long spoken of it as a fundamental human problem. The Presbyterian Book of Order includes this line in its list of the key themes of our theology: “The recognition of the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny, which calls the people of God to work for the transformation of society by seeking justice and living in obedience to the Word of God.”[2] People sometimes imagine that faith is a private, personal thing, but our tradition never has.
Jesus didn’t either. After all, Jesus said he came to proclaim the Kingdom of God, and there’s nothing private or “spiritual” about that. The ways of this kingdom were a stark contrast to the kingdom of Caesar, and so it’s no surprise that Jesus eventually drew the ire of Roman authorities.
In our scripture today, the prophet Amos draws the ire of Israel’s authorities. He says nasty things about Israel’s rulers right there in the national cathedral. It’s not like the National Cathedral in DC. It’s more like Westminster Abbey in England, a place where kings were crowned, a place built by a king. The high priest is clearly on the payroll, and he orders Amos out, telling him, “Never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom."
The priest’s faux pas, his idolatry, is too obvious. The king’s sanctuary? The kingdom’s temple? Really? Isn’t it God’s?

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Cleansing Our Temples

Yesterday's gospel reading includes the famous story of Jesus "cleansing" the Temple. Jesus gets so riled up that he's turning over tables and flinging chairs, but I'm not entirely certain what has Jesus so upset. The only things specifically mentioned, "money changers" and "those  who sold doves," don't seem all that troublesome. They were simply accommodations to the many pilgrims who arrived after long journeys and needed an animal for sacrifice or to convert Roman coins into those used in the Temple. I'm not sure it was all that different from churches selling books or having credit card kiosks for those who no longer carry checks.

Regardless, Jesus goes ballistic at the Temple, which has left me pondering how he might react if he walked into a typical American church some Sunday morning. Are there things that would infuriate him so that he started throwing offering plates and ripping down sanctuary banners?

Jesus' upset is clearly not directed at Judaism in general. He regularly visited synagogues on the Sabbath, and while he gets into verbal tussles with some leaders over Sabbath healings and such, he never starts messing with the synagogue furniture or decorations.

This is something of an over-simplification, but the synagogues of Jesus' day gave rise to the rabbinical Judaism that is still around today. This form of the faith was more focused on following scripture and less focused on ritual. Priests and sacrifices were not a part of synagogue activities. Priestly Judaism was mostly confined to the Temple, a magnificent structure built by Herod the Great as a replacement for Solomon's Temple destroyed by the Babylonians centuries earlier. Priestly Judaism would largely disappear after the Romans destroyed this latter Temple only a few decades after Jesus caused a ruckus there.

The Church that emerged in the century following the first Easter probably looked more like synagogue than temple, but when the Church later became the official religion of the Roman Empire, it brought back more and more of the temple. Over the centuries there have been all manner of combinations and permutations. Some congregations and denominations lean more toward synagogue, other toward temple, but probably a majority feature some mix of the two.

And that brings me back to my pondering about what it was that got Jesus so worked up that day in the Temple. It must be more than helping pilgrims exchange Roman coins or buy a dove, which was happening in the courtyard and not the Temple proper. Surely it had something to do with service to God getting lost in the process of doing the rituals, maintaining the institution, and performing the required religious duties for good standing before God.

After all, this is the same Jesus who earlier taught, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven." Going through the motions, doing institutional religion just right, is not what it means to be part of God's new day.

So what must Jesus think of our synagogue/temple hybrids. Surely there is much in most of our churches that isn't about doing God's will. That many people think of "going to church" as a primary mark of faith sounds a little temple-like, a little Lord, Lord-like, to me.

How about your synagogue/temple hybrid? Are there temple-like elements that could use a bit of cleaning?

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sermon: Learning to See

2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
Learning To See
James Sledge                                                                                                   June 26, 2016

A distinctive feature of Presbyterians is that we ordain not only pastors or teaching elders, but also ruling elders and deacons. All three take the very same ordination vows, plus a vow specific to each ministry area. Because they are ordained or “set apart,” deacons and ruling elders are also required to have training and to be examined “as to their personal faith; knowledge of the doctrine, government, and discipline contained in the Constitution of the church; and the duties of the ministry.”[1]
As part of this training, elders and deacons here at FCPC utilize an online video series that includes a helpful study guide. We also ask them to write a personal faith statement, and one of those study guides provides helps for this. It lists a number of faith topics and then asks people  to complete “I believe…” statements about each one. People jot down thoughts on what they believe about God, sin, Church, humanity, scripture, and so on, the sort of things you might expect someone to include in a personal faith statement or creed. But one of the belief topics initially struck me as a bit odd: “End times.”
End times. This in the study guide of a very Presbyterian, academically oriented, video. At first I planned to skim the topic in training. I was never asked about end times when I was going through the ordination process for pastor. Surely this was something of a fringe topic.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how important the topic actually is. If Church leaders do not have a picture of what God is up to in the world, of the future that God will bring, how can we show the world the hope of God’s new day? When Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” he could do so because he had a clear sense of God’s purposes, of where history is ultimately headed.
I wonder if being able to see God’s purposes and ends isn’t a part of today’s story about Elijah, Elisha, fiery horses, and chariot. I’m thinking of the part where Elisha asks Elijah to inherit a “double share” of his spirit. That request may not be what you think. A “double share” was the inheritance typically given the eldest son who would carry on the family lineage. Elisha is asking that he be successor, the one to continue Elijah’s ministry.
Elijah gives a strange answer to this request. It depends. It depends on whether or not Elisha has learned how to see things that are not earthly but heavenly. It depends on Elisha knowing how to see beyond the sphere of human activity and glimpse the work of the divine.

Sermon video from June 19: From Despair to "Go"

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Sermon: From Despair to "Go"

1 Kings 19:1-16
From Despair to “Go”
James Sledge                                                                                       June 19, 2016

Many of you recently took a lengthy, online survey known as the Congregational Assessment Tool or CAT. Thanks to the large numbers who participated, we got a lot of great information about our congregation. The Session, the governing council of our church, received a lengthy report with all sort of statistics and charts and graphs. It’s a little overwhelming, which is why we weren’t simply given the report. It was interpreted to us for nearly three hours by people who have been trained in understanding and utilizing these reports. Even then it was a bit overwhelming, and we’re still grappling with just how to follow-up and utilize all this information in moving forward.
During that initial presentation, one of interpreters told us that he had spoken with a consultant at the company that owns and administers the CAT, who said that based on our survey data, we appeared to be a congregation  that was “sitting on ‘Go.’ ”  We have great resources and energy, a vital congregation ready to do great things but, in some ways, we are sitting at the starting gate, sitting on “Go.”
I should add that those interpreters also said that our report was one of the better ones they had seen among the many Presbyterian congregations in this area who have taken the CAT. The comment about sitting on “Go” wasn’t a “Here’s what’s wrong with you” statement. Rather it was a call for a strong, solid congregation to explore where we should go and what we should do to fulfill the potential that’s just waiting to be tapped.
But where to go? What to do? What is it God expects of us right now? These are difficult questions at any time, but we live in a time of great uncertainty and great challenges for the Church. We live in a time when the world seems to brim with hate and fear and violence. How are we to comfort and support LGBTQ sisters and brothers after an attack on what many of them consider a sanctuary, a safe place? How are we to love those who have so often been the victims of the world’s and the church’s hate?
How are we to love Muslim brothers and sisters in this time when Donald Trump and others use them a political punching bags? How are we to show Christ-like love to those who are hated and condemned because terrorists claim to be followers their faith?
What are we to do, where are we to go in response to never ending gun violence in this country? What is God calling us to be and do in the face of cold cynicism that says, “Nothing is ever going to change.”?
I confess that right now, I do not know what to do. I feel numb, dejected, at times hopeless. I may even feel a new sense of kinship with the prophet Elijah, who is so dejected and hopeless that he is ready to give up.