Monday, September 15, 2014

Acts of Extravagance

Any time I've read today's passage from the Gospel of John, I've wondered if Judas Iscariot really was a thief who stole from the disciples' "common purse," or if this was simply a bit of revisionist history. No doubt the fact that Judas had betrayed Jesus was a little embarrassing for the first Christians, and so there was no small temptation to demonize him.

Of course Judas' objection to the anointing at Bethany actually has a certain logic to it, and calling him a scoundrel doesn't really change that. (In Matthew and Mark, Judas isn't the one who objects. It's "the disciples" and "some who were there" respectively.) It's the sort of objection that is still raised today, often with merit. It's not unusual to hear questions about the expense of mission trips taken by church groups. "Think of all the good that could have been done with that money."

Sometimes mission trips are little more than thinly disguised mission-tourism. Such trips are almost never the most "effective" way to help the people whom such trips seek to help. But following Jesus never has been about what is most "effective." Mission trips can be transformative faith experiences for those who participate in them. (We in the church would probably do well to acknowledge this in our church budgets.) And being part of a mission trip can also be a dramatic act of love that seeks to give concrete form to one's faith.

Most of us have some experience with dramatic and extravagant acts undertaken because of love. The gifts and extravagances that people sometimes shower on the person they love are rarely the stuff of logical computation. Romantic and practical rarely go hand in hand. Love can never be reduced simply to what is effective.

Neither can faith. Faith is not necessarily illogical or impractical, but it is much more than these. It is relational. It is encounter. It is experiencing the almost unimaginable depth of God's love, an experience that is beyond practicalities and efficiencies. Like romantic love, it is overwhelming in its power, and so it calls forth acts of extravagance such as that celebrated in today's gospel.

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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sermon: Ridiculous, Extravagant Love

Matthew 18:21-35
Ridiculous, Extravagant Love
James Sledge                                                                           September 14, 2014

How many times? When Peter asks that question he is speaking of forgiveness, but his question could have been about a number of things. How many times should I help someone? At what point do I say “No”? How many chances should I give someone? What’s the limit?
But Peter asks about forgiveness. Presumably the forgiveness here is for something significant, not some imagined slight or inadvertent failure. Someone has sinned against another, has told lies about her, gossiped about her, cheated her out of something. And it has happened repeatedly. At what point does forgiveness turn into foolishness, making someone an easy mark and a target for more abuse? Seven times?
But what prompted Peter’s question? Perhaps one of the other disciples has done something that really riled him. Of course Jesus had just finished teaching about disciplining members in the church, telling them that when someone sins against you, you should go and point it out to the person. And if the person doesn’t listen to you, take a couple of others to talk to him, and if that doesn’t work put it before the congregation, and if the congregation can’t convince the person to behave, shun him.
All of this is meant to turn the person back, to ask for forgiveness and reenter life in the community. So maybe Peter is just following up, wanting to know how many times this process is to be used. Seven times?  I suspect that Peter thinks this is exceedingly generous. Perhaps he’s trying to score a few brownie points with Jesus by being so forgiving.
If he’s trying to impress Jesus, clearly he fails. Not seven, but seventy-seven. Or maybe it’s seventy times seven. Either translation is possible. Scholars say “seventy-seven” is more likely, but the over-the-top “seventy times seven” would certainly be in keeping with the ridiculous numbers found in the parable Jesus tells.
When Jesus first told this parable, he used examples that were familiar and easily accessible to his listeners. But we do not live in a world of kings settling accounts with slaves, and none of us has ever received a paycheck that was in written out in talents or denarii, so maybe a bit of updating is in order.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

What Comes of Remembering?

There a numerous posts on Facebook today that say "Remember," accompanied by images of the twin towers or first responders or simply the date, 9-11-2001. It's hard to imagine that many who were much more than infants don't remember. I was getting ready to teach the first weekday Bible study class of the fall in a congregation where I was the "new" pastor. A person arriving for the class shared the first, confusing reports of a plane hitting one of the towers.

Many people can remember exactly where they were when they first heard the news of a terrorist attack, a phenomenon similar to previous generations recalling the shooting of JFK or the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It is seared into our memories. Remembering is not something difficult. And so the real question is, what comes of our remembering?

I attended a funeral today. There was a great deal of remembering there, and most all of it brought smiles to people's faces. There were tears as well, but the remembering was a comfort. I expect that those who lost loved ones on 9-11 do some remembering of this sort today. They recall those taken from them too soon, and they hold tightly to their memories.

Remembering can also give us wisdom and help us not to repeat mistakes. One would hope that our nation learned some things from 9-11 and its aftermath. Hopefully we will not repeat some of the intelligence failures that preceded it. And hopefully we will not repeat some of the foolishness that followed because we were hurt and angry and wanted revenge.

Remembering also has an unseemly side. Being in relationships with others requires a certain amount of forgetting, at least of the pain another has caused us. As Harriet Ward Beecher once said, "I can forgive, but I cannot forget, is only another way of saying, I will not forgive. Forgiveness ought to be like a cancelled note - torn in two, and burned up, so that it never can be shown against one." Holding on to old hurts and grudges is a destructive sort of remembering that can make life bitter and joyless.

So what sort of remembering is our remembering on this anniversary of 9-11? No doubt it is a mixed bag, but I want to urge and pray for remembering that does not stoke anger and bitterness and fear, because this sort of remembering is toxic, especially so to those who practice it. We should remember and honor those who died, as well as remember and draw wisdom from those events and the way they have changed us. But remembering that seeks to hold onto anger and hatred makes us no safer, and it diminishes us and crowds out more helpful remembering.

As a follower of Jesus, I am called to a life of love, not one that is captive to anger and fear and hatred. I do no honor to Jesus, or to those who died on 9-11, if my remembering helps me fear my Muslim neighbor or hate someone who wears a turban. I only rob myself of the joyful life Jesus invites me to live.

I will remember 9-11. How could I not? I will recall those who died because of others' unwillingness to let go of hate and anger and fear, and I will weep. But I will not let my remembering cause me to  hate. One of the things I remember clearly from those days after 9-11 was a service at the National Cathedral where the preacher cautioned us not to be drawn into the darkness that had assailed us, "lest we become the evil we deplore." And I will not let my remembering lead me toward the darkness, for in Jesus, I am called to be a child of light.

And so, as I remember the horrific events of thirteen years ago, I will also remember that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. I will remember the wonders of creation, the kindness and love I have received from others, the wonderful relationships with family and friends, and the love of God that surpasses my wildest imagination and is stronger than all darkness, even death itself. And I will live, and I will love, and I will appreciate the all the good in my life. And I will not hate, and I will not be afraid.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Pursuit of Happiness and Letting Go

Happy are the people who know the festal shout,
    who walk, O LORD, in the light of your countenance;

they exult in your name all day long,
    and extol your righteousness.

For you are the glory of their strength;
    by your favor our horn is exalted.

For our shield belongs to the LORD,
    our king to the Holy One of Israel.     
Psalm 89:15-18

Happy are... Most of us would dearly like to know with certainty how best to finish this sentence. We long to be happy. We have our own versions of "If only..." that would insure happiness. Many are dedicated to the "pursuit of happiness," but not nearly so many seem to have caught it.

In his devotion for today on contemplation, Richard Rohr says we are caught in old patterns that we do not even recognize. (I think the Apostle Paul's writings on being slaves to sin speak of something similar.) And so rarely do our pursuits lead us where we hope to go.

I find most people operate not out of “consciousness,” but out of their level of practiced brain function, which relies on early-life conditioning and has little to do with God encounter or grace or mercy or freedom or love. We primarily operate from habituated patterns based on what Mom told me, what went wrong when I was young, and the defense mechanisms I learned that helped me to be right and good, to be first and famous, or whatever I may want to be. These are not all bad but they are not all good either.
All of that old and practiced thinking has to be recognized and accounted for, which is the work of contemplation. Without contemplation, you don’t see clearly. Everything is all about you, and you just keep seeing everything through your own agenda, anger, and wounds. Isn’t that most people you know?  Few ever achieve much inner freedom. Contemplation, sadly, helps you see your woundedness! That’s why most people do not stay long with contemplative prayer, because it’s not very glorious. It’s a continual humiliation, realizing, “Oh my God, I did it again. I still don’t know how to love!”
We need some form of contemplative practice that touches our unconscious conditioning, where all our wounds lie, where all our defense mechanisms are operative secretly. Once these are not taken so seriously, there is finally room for the inrushing of God and grace!
The psalmist, the Bible, and Jesus, all speak of being happy or fortunate or blessed in terms that rarely make sense according to our typical patterns of pursuit. Yet even we who seek to follow Jesus rarely seem to break out of these patterns and embrace those of Jesus. We just can't quite trust that organizing our entire lives around loving God and loving others (whether they "deserve" it or not) is a very good plan. We are indeed captive and trapped by our old patterns, with little of the "inner freedom" Rohr says can come to us through contemplative practices that let us see more clearly who we really are.

Some of Richard Rohr's language seems very odd to Mainline, American Protestants. Coming out of a Western, philosophical worldview - to which was later added an Enlightenment, scientific perspective - we are part of a long heritage of domesticating Jesus and faith into a series of beliefs and doctrines we can agree to. But Jesus himself sounds much more like Rohr, speaking of self-denial, losing oneself in order to find true life, of dying in order to become something new.

In our pursuit of happiness, most of us tend to be graspers and grabbers. Our consumer culture is founded on the notion that acquiring more will finally make one happy. (This mostly leads to an insatiable addiction to more.) But Jesus calls us to a life of releasing and letting go. In loving as Christ loved, in forgiving as he did, in serving others as he did, we unclench our grasping hands and begin to discover what it truly means to say, "Happy, fortunate, blessed are..."

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Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sermon:Struggling with Scripture - A Life Founded on the Word: The Evangelical Tradition

Luke 24:44-49
Struggling with Scripture
A Life Founded on the Word: The Evangelical Tradition
James Sledge                                                                                       September 7, 2014

In his wonderful little book entitled Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, Eugene Peterson shares an illustration borrowed from the great 20th Century theologian, Karl Barth. “Imagine,” he begins, “a group of men and women in a huge warehouse. They were born in the warehouse, grew up in it, and have everything there for their needs and comforts. There are no exits to the building, but there are windows. But the windows are thick with dust, are never cleaned, and so no one every bothers to look out. Why would they? The warehouse is everything they know, has everything they need.”
But one day a child takes a stool over to one of the windows, cleans a bit of the dust and grime off, and looks out. There are people outside, walking on the streets, people no one in the warehouse ever imagined even existed. The child calls his friends over, and they crowd around, looking out at this strange world they have never seen before.
They notice that people outside are pointing up at something and talking excitedly. The children at the window look up, but the only thing above them is the warehouse ceiling. After a while, watching people point up and get all excited about nothing becomes boring, and the children tire of it.
But of course the people in the street aren’t looking at a ceiling. They are looking up into the heavens, seeing airplanes or birds or storm clouds. The people on the streets are gazing into the heavens, but “the warehouse people have no heavens above them, just a roof.”
But what might happen, asks Peterson, if one child decided to cut a door in the wall and go outside? What if she was able to convince some other children to go with her, and they discovered the sky and far-flung horizons they had never imagined? Karl Barth said that this is the sort of thing that happens when we really engage and enter into the Bible. “We enter the totally unfamiliar world of God, a world of creation and salvation stretching endlessly above and beyond us. Life in the warehouse never prepared us for anything like this.”
Peterson concludes this picture saying, “Typically, adults in the warehouse scoff at the tales the children bring back. After all, they are completely in control of the warehouse world in ways they could never be outside. And they want to keep it that way.”[1]

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Disturbed by Faith

"A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble, comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last. Do you fix your eyes on such a one? Do you bring me into judgment with you? Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? No one can. Since their days are determined, and the number of their months is known to you, and you have appointed the bounds that they cannot pass, look away from them, and desist, that they may enjoy, like laborers, their days.  Job 14: 1-6

If Job lived in our day, perhaps he would be diagnosed with clinical depression. Job thinks life would be better if God simply let him alone. I wonder how common such feelings are for people of faith. I know that some people fear such feelings and view them as a threat to faith. Job's friends who seek to "comfort" him would seem to fall in this camp. But God has nothing but criticism for these friends when God finally makes an appearance toward the end of the book.

It is surprising how many people have a Joel Osteen sort of outlook on faith. They see faith as one more consumer item to make their lives better. "God just wants you to be happy," say the Osteens, but Job would not seem to agree. Neither does Jesus, and he isn't suffering from depression.

I think one reason that faith can sometimes feel more disturbing than comforting is that it seeks to reshape us in ways that are ill suited for the world in which we live. God's ways, the ways of the kingdom, the ways Jesus teaches his disciples, are perfectly suited to a very different world. It is a place where love reigns, where forgiveness is freely offered, where revenge is never sought, where the strong and powerful act as servants, where the last are first, where divisions of race and class and nation and clan disappear. This, of course, is very different from the world where we live. All too often, it is also very different for the communities we call congregations.

However, people who go far enough in this faith walk, who are truly reshaped and transformed by it, become something remarkable. They become more and more Christ-like, more and more in tune with God's ways, and yet still able to live comfortably, even joyfully, in this world of ours. I'm not there myself, but I have witnessed it in others. I've seen people who's egos have receded, who live lives that are centered on God and display God's love, and yet they are able to love and embrace this broken world of ours without getting frustrated or angry at its un-Christ-like shape.

I wonder if such folk understand salvation in a way that I have only begun to grasp, an experience of God's love and grace so deep and full that they can love and embrace others without needing to fix or correct them first. A love that can simply love, and wait, and hope.

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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

God's Call and Protection from "This Generation"

“Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan,
   I will now rise up,” says the LORD;
  “I will place them in the safety for which they long...” 

You, O LORD, will protect us;    
  you will guard us from this generation forever. Psalm 12:5, 7

As I meditated on this morning's psalm, Psalm 12, I found myself reflecting on a bit of verse 5 (see above.) I'm sure I've blogged on that verse before, on God's special consideration for the poor and needy, on their groaning being what finally moves God to act. And for the life of me, I could not understand why I would be drawn to this verse. Perhaps it was simply that I already agree with it that made it compelling to me. But if God is speaking to me through Scripture, surely it is to do more than simply confirm what I already know to be God's deep care for the poor.

Then I read the psalm a final time, and this time I was drawn to a completely different place, to a pair of words I had not even noticed before: "this generation." The psalmist speaks of God's protection from "this generation," and I found myself wondering just who "this  generation" was.

Likely candidates would be rulers or Israel who are blasted by the prophets for neglecting the needs of the poor, or perhaps the wealthy attacked by those same prophets for living lives of luxury and acquiring more and more wealth while the poor languished. But what does any of this have to do with me?

One expectation of a "spiritual reading" of Scripture is that God speaks through such reading, seeking to draw our attention and move us to act. So why would God direct me to "this generation?" What was God saying to me and what would God have me do?

This generation... In our generation, inequality in America is growing. The reasons for this are complex, but still there are many in "this generation" who work tirelessly to maintain every advantage that they can, and who seem to care little about whether or not the poor are despoiled or the needy groan. These people have great influence with political leaders and can bankroll political campaigns as never before. And if God stirs against "this generation" because of the plight of the poor, should not the Church as well?

Certainly my faith has shaped my politics, and I've usually been quite open about those politics and how they connect with my faith. But I have tended to shy away from any sort of political activism. Some of this comes from a realization that people of faith can be deep and sincere in that faith but come to different political stances. But some of it comes from a personal timidity about such things. I want people to like me, and so I don't - at least not intentionally - do things I know will infuriate some.

And now I find myself serving a church in the shadows of the nation's capital, a short Metro ride from that capital. Here I am, a pastor not much inclined to be politically activist in a congregation which itself has little history of such activism. And God sets words about "this generation"  and the plight of the needy squarely before me -me, one who is called to lead the body of Christ. Dare I ignore it?

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Sermon video: Sowing Love - A Life of Justice and Compassion: The Social Justice Tradition

Audios of sermon and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sermon: Sowing Love - A Life of Justice and Compassion: The Social Justice Tradition

Matthew 25:31-46 (Isaiah 58:1-11)
Sowing Love
A Life of Justice and Compassion: The Social Justice Tradition
James Sledge                                                                                       August 31, 2014

One of my favorite seminary professors had a saying that I use a great deal. He said that the Jesus and the entire Christian enterprise is about creating  “true communion with God in true community with others.” It was his way of linking love of God with love of neighbor, and it aptly depicts the cross-shaped life of faith that reaches up to God but also out to others.
Human beings most always neglect one of these dimensions. For the religious sort, it is often the horizontal that suffers most. Think of the language Christians sometimes use to describe faith. “I go to church every Sunday, and I read my Bible and pray  daily.” You and me, God; you and me.
A similar problem can inflict people who are less church centered but still interested in spirituality. Spirituality can become a one dimensional pursuit of intimacy with God. You and me, God; you and me. That’s a distortion of true Christian spirituality. One of my favorite writers and spiritual teachers, Father Richard Rohr, operates a center that seeks to train people in the Christian mystical tradition so that they may serve compassionately. To me, this epitomizes a true, holistic and integrated spirituality.
In similar fashion, the unknown prophet sometimes labeled “Third Isaiah” struggles to help the people of Israel integrate both the divine and neighbor dimensions of the spiritual life. The people addressed by the prophet have done all the religious rituals correctly. They’ve attended worship; they’ve said the right prayers; they kept the appointed festivals and fasts. But none of this has transformed their relations with the other, the neighbor, and so the prophet describes another religious ritual or fast, one that undoes injustice, feeds the hungry, houses the homeless, and clothes the naked. No doubt Jesus knew these verses well. Perhaps he even has them in mind when he speaks of a final judgment based on the sort of religious rituals found in our Isaiah passage.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Apathy and Anger toward God

"O you who answer prayer!" This line from the morning psalm (Psalm 65) describes God as such. I suspect that many people of faith have times when they are not so sure. It is not that unusual for me to experience times when God seems absent, and the only answer to prayer is silence.

I'm not always sure who to blame when this happens. For a "religious professional," I can be remarkably bad at this prayer thing. Sometimes I fear that I keep my expectations of God quite low so that I am not disappointed. I don't really expect much of an answer from God. An inkling, a hint, or a nudge will do. I'm not really looking for much beyond that.

Curiously, today's Old Testament reading from Job features prayer to God, but it is not a pretty picture, and Job has nothing nice to say about or to God.
Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul... When I say, 'My bed will comfort me, my couch will ease my complaint,' then you scare me with dreams and terrify me with visions, so that I would choose strangling and death rather than this body. I loathe my life; I would not live forever. Let me alone, for my days are a breath... Will you not look away from me for a while, let me alone until I swallow my spittle? If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of humanity? Why have you made me your target? Why have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity? For now I shall lie in the earth; you will seek me, but I shall not be."
(If all you know about Job is his reputation for patience, you ought to read the book sometime. His patience evaporates after a two chapter, prose introduction. The next forty chapters sound more like the passage above.)

Job has had it with God, and I wonder if I, and perhaps others, don't need to be more like Job from time to time. Not that yelling and shaking one's fist is an optimum communication or relationship practice. But any deep relationship is bound to have frustrating moments that provoke anger and even rage. If I never lose my temper with God, it seems likely it's because I've never really allowed myself to become vulnerable and unguarded before God, never allowed myself to be hurt if God didn't act as I thought God would.

If I never get angry and rage at God as Job did, perhaps it is because I really don't believe that God answers prayers. And thus my God may be so vague and nondescript so as never to give offense.

I think I'll end here. I need to have a chat with God that I'm not sure I want to be public.

(This post refers to the lectionary readings from yesterday, August 27.)

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Godly Attributes and Utilitarian Religion

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
     whose hope is in the LORD their God,
 who made heaven and earth,
     the sea, and all that is in them; 

who keeps faith forever;
     who executes justice for the oppressed;
     who gives food to the hungry.
     Psalm 146:5-7

One of the classic problems of religion is its tendency to become utilitarian. Faith easily becomes about getting God on the side of me and mine. God becomes a resource to be employed and even exploited for my good. "God bless America" does not necessarily fall into this trap, but it does whenever the petition contains an unspoken "and not them."

Utilitarian religion invariably imagines that God is more like us and less like them. This, of course, is the beginning of creating God in our own image. Religious people on both the left and the right presume themselves to be in the right, and so it only stands to reason that they are more like God than those who disagree with them. But this presumption that we are in the right is seldom a judgment dispassionately arrived at by considering the attributes and will of God. Often our "rightness" is relatively unexamined and based in little other than the fact that it is our position.

Christian faith, along with many other faiths, speaks of being made new and transformed. For Christians, this is a matter of becoming more Christ-like, which we understand as the ultimate human embodiment of godliness or being like God. Yet most of us Christians fall so short of being Christ-like that our critiques of other Christians who are not as in the right as we are border on being a farce.

Today's morning psalm touches on a few attributes of God "who executes justice for the oppressed." As the psalm continues we hear more about what God is like and cares about.

The LORD sets the prisoners free;
     the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
 The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
     the LORD loves the righteous.
 The LORD watches over the strangers;
     he upholds the orphan and the widow,
     but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

I've seen a few articles this week critiquing the Church for its failure to really address some of the great societal problems in our culture. Of late, the problem of racism comes easily to mind. These critiques were aimed more at the progressive sorts of congregations where I am most at home, and that might seem more likely to engage issues such as racism. Yet somehow much of our energy ends up going elsewhere. There are so many places where we do not much resemble the body of Christ, yet so much of what we do and how we do it remains unexamined and simply assumed to be right and correct.

The Apostle Paul writes, "If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation." Lord, make it so. Reshape us in your image. Trying to cast you in ours is not working out so well.

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