Sunday, July 16, 2017
Genesis 25:19-34 (27:1-45)
Remembering Our Stories
James Sledge July 16, 2017
“A wandering Aramean was my father.” That famous line is the opening of a statement the people of Israel were to say when they offered their first fruits at the Temple. The full statement traces that wandering Aramean’s journey to Egypt, where living as an aliens, the descendants become great and numerous, were oppressed by the Egyptians, rescued by God, and finally, were brought into the good and bountiful land of the promise.
The statement functions a little like a creed such as the Apostles’ Creed. However, it is not primarily a statement of beliefs. Rather it is a claim to a particular and peculiar identity. This is who I am. This is my story. This is what it means to be this strange community of Israel that is called by God and exists only within its relationship to God.
Identity is rooted in story. Families have stories; communities have stories; cultures have stories. Many would argue that the partisan splintering in our nation today has been greatly aided by the loss of a shared story, a family story. They exist, but we’ve forgotten them, lost them, or can’t agree on them, and so, in a very real sense, we don’t know who we are. Something similar may well be happening in the Church.
Perhaps this is the ultimate goal of individualism paired with consumerism, to reduce each of us to agents of wanting and acquiring with identities built solely on what we can accomplish and get. But we have a deeper identity, a true identity as God’s beloved children. It is an identity rooted in stories of faith that need to become our story. “A wandering Aramean was my father.”
People often think of Abraham, that consummate man of faith, as this wandering, Aramean father. He fits the bill, but so does his grandson, Jacob. If anything, Jacob is the one in whom Israel sees itself. His stories are Israel’s stories. Israel’s identity is deeply bound to that of Jacob, its wandering ancestor.
Sunday, July 9, 2017
Sunday, July 2, 2017
Provision and Testing
James Sledge July 2, 2017
I had a relative who was missing a good bit of one finger, and there was a family story about why. I don’t know that the story was true. I suspect not, but it goes like this. When this person was a child, her sibling or cousin – I don’t remember which – told her to put her hand down on a bench and he would cut off a finger with a hatchet. She complied, and he swung the hatchet. She assumed he wouldn’t actually go through with it; he assumed she would move her hand. Like I said, I doubt it’s true, but it’s a good story.
That story came to mind as I was thinking about the story we’re going to hear from Genesis where God commands Abraham to make a burnt offering of his son, Isaac. As with my family story, it seems like a story that could go horribly awry with one false move.
It is a frightening, even terrifying story. Christians have sometimes played that down by saying it prefigures Jesus and resurrection, trying to distract our attention from the horror of a story where God demands that Abraham put his son’s life in danger.
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” 3So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him.
Why on earth would God do such a thing? Surely this is simply some primitive story from a time when human sacrifice actually happened. Surely it has nothing to say to us. And yet this story was probably just a startling and frightening to the people of Israel. Israel abhorred the human sacrifice practiced by some of the cultures around them.
And while the origins of this story may well be primitive, the story as it appears in Genesis is quite sophisticated. It has a remarkable symmetry to it, a pattern that seems intended to guide our understanding. Three times Abraham is addressed and three times he responds with “Here I am.” Abraham is addressed by God, then by Isaac, and once more by God in the form of an angel. But in only one of those times does Abraham actually converse.
Monday, June 26, 2017
Sunday, June 25, 2017
Meeting God in the Story
James Sledge June 25, 2017
Unless you know the book of Genesis well, you are likely unaware of a small problem with the story we just heard. When Hagar walks out into the wilderness with her meager provisions of bread and water, she also carries her child, who by the way, is in his mid to late teens. You hear a lot about helicopter parents, but I’ve never seen a mother carrying her teenage boy on her shoulder.
Now some may be thinking, “Wait a minute. The story doesn’t say a thing about how old the boy is.” True, but an earlier story that tells of the child’s birth, as well as his name, Ishmael, says that Abraham was 86 years old then. He’s 100 when Isaac is born and children were typically weaned at around three. You do the math.
Of course now that I’ve pointed out this problem, I should add that the problem isn’t really with our story. The problem is modern people who don’t know how to listen to Israel’s faith stories, our faith stories.
Like some other parts of the Old Testament, Genesis is a collection of stories, many of which existed independently before being woven together. And because the editors who do this don’t share our interest in precise history or facts, they make no effort to harmonize our story, one clearly about a very young child, with another that makes him much older.
These editors were not stupid people. They were the intellectuals of their day. But they were not writing history or recording events. They were perfectly willing to leave intact and honor stories as they received them, stories that people probably already knew anyway. They wove these into a larger fabric to help Israel wrestle with what it meant to be the people of God, especially in a time when Israel had suffered defeat and exile.
Monday, June 19, 2017
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. - Psalm 5:1-4
I suppose there is some small comfort in knowing that psalmists in ancient Israel strained to find God in the events of their lives. According to some authorities, the cry of lament is the most common of all the psalms. There is nothing new about looking at the world and wondering why God does not act to set things right.
Events of recent days surely qualify. A politically motivated shooting just miles down the road from the church I serve. The horrific loss of life in a London apartment fire where the dangers were known but ignored because it was low income housing. The death of a college student detained and abused by a repressive North Korean regime that does the same to its own citizens on a daily basis. A terrorist attack against Muslims in London that may well have been "revenge" for previous terror attacks by ISIS. Yet another horrific act near the church I serve, a 16 year old Muslim assaulted and killed as she and friend walked from early morning Ramadan services, headed to IHOP for breakfast before the day of fasting began. It may not have been a hate crime, the local Muslim community is understandably on edge. I could continue endlessly. Give ear to my words, O LORD; give heed to my sighing. Listen to the sound of my cry.
I occasionally reread a sermon from the great John Claypool, originally preached following the death of his young daughter from leukemia. In it, he recounts a letter he received from his friend and fellow preaching great, Carlyle Marney shortly before his daughter died. Dr. Marney admitted to having no word for the suffering of the innocent, but he added, "I fall back on the idea that our God has a lot to give an account for." (from A Chorus of Witnesses, Thomas Long and Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. editors, page 120)
I know quite a few people of faith who would be troubled, even offended by such a statement, but I feel certain the psalmist would resonate with it. How could God be a God of justice, a God who cared especially for the weak, the poor, the oppressed, and the hurting, and let things go so awry? The psalmists ask such questions regularly. Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? (from Ps. 44)
Perhaps it is an act of faith to acknowledge that the world is not a God intends and that we feel helpless. Perhaps it is an even greater act of faith to beseech God, even demand that God rouse Godself and act, while we align ourselves with those who suffer in this world so bent on hate and destruction.
Yet all too often, we people of faith become agents of hate and destruction. From terrorists who distort and tarnish their own Islamic faith, killing in the name of God, to Christians motivated by fear who discard the teachings of Jesus in order to abandon the refugee, neglect the sick, and hate their neighbor, we people of faith are all too often guilty of working against God.
Forgive us, Lord. Hear our cry. Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love. (from Ps. 44)
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Sunday, June 11, 2017
James Sledge June 11, 2017, Trinity Sunday
When Naomi was a child growing up in Jerusalem, her parents often told her stories about Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Joshua, Deborah, King David and Solomon. From these stories and more, she learned that God cared for Israel. She was part of God’s chosen people.
Their God was better, more powerful than the gods of other nations. Jerusalem was a light on a hill and Israel was special, exceptional. And so when the Babylonian armies showed up, Naomi was not worried. Babylon’s gods were no match for Yahweh.
But Babylon’s armies had destroyed Jerusalem, had destroyed the great temple that Solomon had built. They had marched Naomi, her family, and the leaders and well to do of Jerusalem, off to Babylon. Every day Naomi saw the temples of the Babylonian gods; now and then, one of the Babylonians teased her and asked what had happened to her God.
About that time, Naomi heard a new story, told by the religious leaders who had been brought from Jerusalem along with the other, defeated Israelites. The story went like this.
1In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Or maybe it was the Spirit of God, Naomi wasn’t sure because ruach could mean wind, spirit, or breath.
Sunday, June 4, 2017
Drunk on the Spirit
James Sledge June 4, 2017 – Pentecost
How many of you have ever seen someone speak in tongues? If so, I’m guessing it probably wasn’t at a Presbyterian church. I’ve only seen it once. I was visiting a service with a group of other seminary students. It was a huge service, with hundreds of worshipers, and it happened a good ways away from me. To my admittedly untrained eye, it looked like an odd combination of worship hand-waving and a seizure. I couldn’t hear it well, but what I could was unintelligible.
When the subject of speaking in tongues comes up in the New Testament, it usually speaks of something similar to what I saw. There’s even a technical name for it, glossolalia, from the Greek words for “tongue” and “speak.”
You could attend hundreds of Presbyterian churches and never see anyone speak in tongues or do anything labeled Pentecostal. For me, Pentecost has little to do with the glossolalia version of speaking in tongues. It’s about our reading from the book of Acts, where tongues instead refers to speaking in other languages.
This is a version of Pentecostal that a Presbyterian can handle. The Spirit gives the disciples abilities they hadn’t had before. I’m perfectly fine with being Pentecostal if it means the Spirit unearths some previously unknown talent. I’m happy with the idea of the Spirit empowering us to do things we didn’t know we were capable of. I could be that sort of Pentecostal. Thank you, Luke, or whoever writes the book of Acts, for giving us this tamer, more palatable version of speaking in tongues.
But there is something odd in the story. After telling us that people from all over could hear the disciples speaking in their native languages and that everyone was amazed, the story adds, But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” Even Peter seems to accept that reasonable people might think the disciples are drunk. His defense is, “We may look drunk, but hey, it’s only nine in the morning.”
Saturday, June 3, 2017
Tuesday, May 30, 2017
One particular song from the Weavers made an impression on me, a Woody Guthrie ballad entitled "The Sinking of the Reuben James." It was about a US ship sunk by German U-boats during World War II. Guthrie wrote the song during the war, but the version I learned from the Weavers, sung in 1960, had an added verse at the end.
Many years have passed since those brave men are goneI thought of those lyrics as I read about the heroes killed in Portland when they came to the aid of a Muslim woman being accosted by a white-supremacist. Two of the best in our society died at the hands of one of the worst. They died precisely because they did what was right, because they stood up to evil.
Those cold, icy waters, they're still and they're calm
Many years have passed and still I wonder why
The worst of men must fight and the best of men must die
In today's gospel reading, Jesus sends "the seventy" out on a mission trip. As he instructs them for their work he says, "See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves."Clearly this is more than colorful speech, more than metaphor.
It is difficult to make sense of such a world, to understand how it is that the worst create pain and conflict, while the very best suffer and die as a result. We do not want it to be that way. Sometimes we insist it is not that way. That is why it is so tempting to "blame the victim," to imagine that people somehow deserve their suffering, their tragedy, their poverty, their loss.
Of course Jesus is the perfect example of that not being so. He is the innocent one who suffers at the hands of the guilty. He is killed for doing what is right, just as the two men in Portland were. In a very real sense, Ricky Best and Taliesin Namkai-Meche embodied Christ in a way that many who speak in Christ's name so often fail to do. That these two men gave themselves for someone who happens to be Muslim, a person many Christians feel free to hate, only makes their incarnation of God's love that much more poignant.
I am heartened to hear so many people speak of Best and Namkai-Meche as heroes, as the best of humanity and American values. And yet, all too often, we prefer the ways and methods of the worst of us. We prefer the way of power and force and intimidation. We prefer to look for a reason that the other does not deserve our help. We prefer to look the other way in the face of suffering rather than risk ourselves to help, a tendency that only grows stronger the more different the other is from us.
In this time when hate is seeing a resurgence, when many feel freed to demonize the other based on their politics or faith or color or orientation or birthplace, I wonder if the tragic events in Portland last week might not have some small measure of redemptive power. If we can indeed embrace the actions of Ricky Best and Taliesin Namkai-Meche as the best of us, as a model we are all called to emulate, then perhaps their deaths will serve some lasting purpose.
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