Sunday, October 22, 2017

Sermon: Whose Image Is This?

Matthew 22:15-22
Whose Image Is This?
James Sledge                                                                                       October 22, 2017

In the time of Jesus, Palestine was a colony under Roman rule. Rome allowed a certain level of self-governance, but they retained ultimate power. They levied heavy taxes, a burden that often fell especially on the poor. Many Jews resented the Romans, their armies and taxes. Open rebellion had broken out around the time of Jesus’ birth, and would break out again 30-some years after his death. 
At the same time, many Jews found Roman occupation beneficial. It brought peace and stability to an unstable region. Commerce benefited from Roman presence. Besides, except for brief periods here and there, Israel had been occupied by some power for centuries.
In our gospel reading this morning, pro-Roman Herodians become unlikely partners with Pharisees in an effort to trap Jesus. Normally you wouldn’t expect these two groups to have anything to do with one another, but here they join forces against Jesus, hoping to force him into either a pro-Rome or anti-Rome statement. “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
The question is more difficult and volatile than it may appear. These taxes could only be paid with Roman coins such as the one pictured on the bulletin. Its inscription says “Caesar Augustus, son of God, Father of His People” on one side and “Tiberius Caesar, Son of Augustus, High Priest” on the other. For Pharisees, who meticulously tried to keep the Commandments, this coin, with its divine pretensions and graven image, violated a couple of them. They objected to using such coins at all. Perhaps that’s why they needed the Herodians’ help, but our scripture simply says they brought (Jesus) a denarius, and “they” seems to include the Pharisees.  Strange that they appear unfazed by this idolatrous coin. 
“Whose head is this, and whose title?” Jesus asks. That is not in dispute; it is the emperor’s. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  Or as some of us learned from an earlier Bible translation, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…”
Speaking of Bible translations, I’m not sure why our Bible translates Jesus’ question, “Whose head is this?”  The word Matthew uses is the same word in his Bible’s creation story where God says, “Let us create humankind in our image.”
When the Emperor Augustus or Tiberius put their image on coins, it is an explicit statement about whose coins they are. It’s not unlike the branding that companies practice today when they emblazon their names and logos on their buildings and equipment. 
“Whose image is this?” asks Jesus. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 
But as so often happens when people try to trap Jesus, he does not really answer their question. He doesn’t say what things are the emperor’s and what are God’s.  Does the emperor’s image on the coin really make it his? And what of the image of God that we bear? 
The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it.  So begins Psalm 24, a psalm that Jesus no doubt knew well. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Sermon video: Discovering Our Christ Identity

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

A Different Sort of "Me Too"

To you I lift up my eyes,     
    O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
As the eyes of servants
    look to the hand of their master, 

as the eyes of a maid
    to the hand of her mistress, 

so our eyes look to the LORD our God,
    until he has mercy upon us.

Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us,
    for we have had more than enough of contempt.
Our soul has had more than its fill
    of the scorn of those who are at ease,
    of the contempt of the proud.                                                                                             Psalm 123

If you've been online at all the last few days, you can't have missed the "Me Too" posts, women letting the world know that they too have been sexually assaulted or harassed. My own Facebook page is filled with friends, family, and colleagues who've added their "Me Too" to the growing list. And I can only assume that many others have chosen not to go public with their own experiences.

My initial response to the posts is a mix of sadness and anger. But if I am honest with myself, I also must admit to a reflexive reaction that attempts to soften the impact of all those "Me Too" posts. "Exactly how is 'harass' being defined," I thought to myself. Then I recoiled at my own (male?) reflex that wanted to find a way to make the problem less terrible. No wonder women don't feel safe calling out male behavior. They know from experience that even "allies" may be inclined to dismiss them.

My own male, knee-jerk reaction didn't make it out of my head, but I saw others that did, sometimes from people I assume to be very sympathetic to those posting "Me Too" online. "Women sometimes harass men," read a comment to one "Me Too" on Facebook. Likely a true statement and perhaps not offered with bad intent, but if not then surely another reflexive reaction that softens the impact, that makes the problem seem less terrible. Just as a culture of white supremacy finds it easy to believe African Americans exaggerate the bias, prejudice, and danger they face, so too male supremacy finds it easy and convenient to believe it isn't really all that bad for women.

The psalmist uses words that perfectly capture how easily those with status and power dismiss those who do not share that status and power. "Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud." In addition, the psalmist is quite sure that God will respond with mercy to the cry of those dismissed and scorned.

Jesus seems to agree, publicly proclaiming that he has come "to bring good news to the poor... release to the captives... to let the oppressed go free." Jesus spends much of his ministry with those who are dismissed, scorned, and held in contempt by the privileged, the powerful, the religious, the comfortable. And so one might well assume that the followers of Jesus, that the Church, would  be the champion of all who are scorned and held in contempt. But alas...

From time to time, I find myself deeply disillusioned with Church. It's not that I expect the Church to be perfect. It is made up of sinful people, all who are profoundly shaped and influenced by culture and society. My own reflexive minimizing of "Me Too" is a perfect example. But while any church will be imperfect and caught up in the larger sins of its society, surely the Church should still offer hope, should still be a beacon for those scorned and held in contempt. 

At times we are. We do engage in mission and ministry with those the society dismisses and abandons. But as anyone who has ever worked in a church will tell you, we spend a lot more time and energy worrying about ourselves than we do worrying about those Jesus said he came to help. 

My own "progressive" congregation is part of a denomination that has ordained women for decades and now ordains LGBT folk. We have a wonderful Welcome Table program that feeds hundreds and provides financial assistance for those in need. But we also have a white, male lead pastor (me) and a female associate pastor. I can count on my hands the members of color, and discussion about becoming more diverse can run into a fierce allegiance toward the white, Western forms of worship and music most prefer, even claims that these are "superior."

In ways sometimes intentional and sometimes not, we continue to model the white, male structures of our society. And if someone points this out, we have our own reflexive reactions that minimize the problem or absolve us of blame.

Perhaps I and many others in the Church could use a different sort of "Me Too" hashtag, one that says, "Yeah, me too. I'm a part of the problem." Perhaps that could help us better embody the words from my denomination's "Brief Statement of Faith." 
      In a broken and fearful world
      the Spirit gives us courage
          to pray without ceasing,
          to witness among all people to Christ as Lord and Savior,
          to unmask idolatries in Church and culture,
          to hear the voices of peoples long silenced,
          and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sermon: Discovering Our Christ Identity

Philippians 4:1-9
Discovering Our Christ Identity
James Sledge                                                                                       October 15, 2017

Back in the late 80s there was a hit song by Bobby McFerrin entitled “Don’t worry, Be Happy.” It was the first a cappella, number one song, with all words and accompaniment voiced by McFerrin. It was infectious, and many resonated with the words. “Ain't got no place to lay your head; Somebody came and took your bed, Don't worry, be happy. The land lord say your rent is late; He may have to litigate; Don't worry, be happy.”
Perhaps this is good advice, an antidote for our anxious, worried age. Perhaps being happy can be a discipline, like the practice of gratitude that has become popular of late. Some say that keeping a gratitude journal changes their perspective and helps them to see the good in the world. Perhaps we can find happiness and get rid of worry in similar fashion.
In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul sounds a bit like McFerrin. He speaks of not worrying about anything and rejoicing always. He is in prison when he writes, but no matter. Don’t worry, rejoice.
But does that really work, especially in the face of the news of late. Horrible fires in California. Many areas of Puerto Rico still cut off from help and aid. People still are hospitalized in Las Vegas with terrible wounds, and many more grieve loved ones lost there. Surely none of us would dare say to any of these folks, “Don’t worry, rejoice.”
But Paul is not recommending rejoicing as a pastoral care technique or a strategy for dealing with trouble. His rejoicing is not so that something will happen. His rejoicing is something that he cannot help because of what he experiences in his relationship with the risen Christ, because he is “in Christ.”

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Sermon: Fearless Living and Nominal Christians

Matthew 21:23-32
Fearless Living and Nominal Christians
James Sledge                                                                                       October 1, 2017

I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture twice since it opened a year ago. I know that many of you have been, and I hope all of you will take the time to see it at some point. On both my visits there I was struck by a quote etched into the glass covering one of the displays.
It’s by Olaudah Equiano who, along with his sister, was kidnapped as a child in Africa and sold as a slave in America.. Equiano gained his freedom prior to the American Revolution, left the colonies, and settled in London. There he wrote his memoir and became something of a celebrity and important figure in the British abolitionist movement.
He had become a Christian while still in the colonies, but he must have struggled to reconcile his faith with what he had seen done by Christian slave owners.  In 1789 he said, “O, ye nominal Christians! Might not an African ask you—Learned you this from your God who says to you, Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you?”
In the little research I’ve done, I found nothing to suggest that Equiano ever abandoned his Christian faith, but his lament is commonly echoed by those in our day who have given up on the church. They see little difference in those inside the church and outside it, other than the claim of faith. Like Equiano, they might ask what exactly we learned from our God, from this Christ we say is or Lord, our Master.
This problem of faith existing more in name than in action is apparently nothing new. Jesus addresses it in this morning’s gospel reading. He is teaching in the temple on the day after his big, parade-like entry into Jerusalem. Jesus had caused a ruckus then by coming to the Temple, driving out those selling animals for sacrifice, and turning over the tables used to exchange foreign, profane coins into those that didn’t violate the commandment on images and could be used for offerings. Now Jesus is back, no doubt attracting the same sort of sick and poor and sinners and riff raff he always does, and the leaders approach him.
“What gives you the right to do all this?” they ask. But Jesus doesn’t answer their question. Instead, he asks them about what authority they do recognize. “Answer that, says” Jesus, “and I’ll tell you where my authority comes from. Did the baptism of John comes from God?”
 They do not recognize John the Baptist as having divine sanction, but they are unwilling to say so publically. So Jesus moves on, telling a parable of two sons told by their father to work in the vineyard and then asking, “Which of the two did the will of  his father?”

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Sermon video: Absurd Love - Absurd Community.

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sermon: Imagining a New Reality

Matthew 20:1-16
Imagining a New Reality
James Sledge                                                                           September 24, 2017

I was still in elementary school Elvis Presley’s movie career ended, but his movies ran on television regularity when I was growing up, and I probably saw most of them. I can’t say that I recall very much about them. Elvis didn’t really make cinematic masterpieces, but there is one that made a bit of an impression on me.
I don’t remember the name of the movie or the larger story line, but I do remember a court hearing where an unscrupulous child welfare worker tries to take away the adopted children in an odd, extended family where Elvis is a adult son. Most vividly I recall two, young, twin boys among these adopted children. I didn’t remember their names, but thanks to the internet, I now know they were Eddy and Teddy.
In a recurring gag, these boys have to share a candy bar. I could have this backwards, but we’ll say Eddy would always break the bar in half, but not actually in half. One piece was always significantly larger. Naturally Teddy noticed this inequity and complained about it. At which point Eddy would bite the extra length off and hold the two pieces up again, satisfying Teddy that he was now getting an equal share. Near the movie’s end, Teddy figures out he’s being scammed. And during the court hearing, when Eddy pulls the trick yet again, Teddy grabs the two pieces from him, bites off the extra length himself, and hands one of the now equal parts back to Eddy, with the judge as an astounded, sole observer.
Now I have my doubts that any real child would have taken as long as Teddy to figure things out. In my experience, issues of fairness are pretty high on children’s radar from an early age. “That’s not fair,” is a common childhood lament, and most parents have to deal with the “fairness” issue from time to time.
Did you ever wonder why children become so concerned over whether or not a sibling of friend got a bigger slice of cake or a bit more ice cream? If I have a tasty slice of cake, why does it really matter if anyone else’s slice is a little larger? Why is this a fairness issue?

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sermon: Absurd Love - Absurd Community

Matthew 18:21-35
Absurd Love – Absurd Community
James Sledge                                                                           September 17, 2017

The problem of needing to know more about a scripture passage’s context in order to understand it has showed up so frequently of late that I wonder if we don’t need a Bible version of that real estate adage, “What are the three most important things in real estate? Location, location, location.” Except our answer would be “Context, context, context.”
Take today’s reading. It’s not a stand-alone parable. Our verses are the final lesson in a larger set of teachings, the last big teaching moment Jesus has with his disciples prior to Jerusalem and the cross. That says something about their importance. And because Matthew uses private moments with the disciples for Jesus to speak directly to the Church, that says something about how important these words are for us.
There is an interesting ebb and flow in these teachings. They start with Jesus saying that we must become like children to be part of God’s kingdom, that those who are humble like a child are called greatest in the kingdom. Jesus then shifts from actual children to “little ones,” a phrase that speaks of those new to faith. Here the emphasis is about how terrible it is to cause a little one to stumble, and about the great lengths we must be willing to go to avoid stumbling ourselves. Jesus goes on to say how important these “little ones” are to God, telling the parable of a shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to find the single lost one.
Jesus then shifts gears, insisting that this community also be a place that holds its members accountable. He lays out a method for confronting those who sin. Meet privately first. If that doesn’t work, a few members should speak to the person. If that fails the entire congregation gets involved, and finally, the offender is to be cast out.
It is in this context of holding community members accountable that Peter speaks in our reading this morning. Quite likely Peter is thinking of the elaborate process Jesus has described of confronting offenders alone, then with a few members, then before the congregation. Perhaps Peter has in mind some difficult folks he worries will abuse this process. They’ll cause trouble and resist correction until they’re on the verge of being thrown out. But later they’ll go back to their old ways, and the process would start over again. Surely there have to be some limits to this. “Is seven times enough, Jesus?”

Monday, September 11, 2017

Mixed Feelings

Like most Americans born prior to the early 1990s, I can recall where I was and what I was doing when I first heard that an airliner had struck one of the twin towers in New York City. Now comes another 9/11, and people are remembering. My Facebook feed is filled with posts of pictures labeled "Never Forget," tributes to first responders and those who died, and calls for God to bless America.

I must confess that I experience mixed emotions as I remember. Some 9/11 memories are horrific and terrifying, but they are not the cause of my mixed feelings. It is important to remember failures and sufferings in order to prevent their happening again. My jumbled feelings are more about what happened in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Take the frequent refrain of "God Bless America." I hope God does bless America, but in a 9/11 context that request often seems to include an unspoken corollary. "And curse our enemies." We might well expect God to be against those who commit horrendous acts of terror, but that's different from God being pro USA. As a verse from this morning's psalm says,
         The LORD is good to all,
             and his compassion is over all that he has made
. (Ps. 145:9)
The God becomes a flag-draped, star-spangled God, we have abandoned the God of Jesus, of the Bible, and embraced a tribal idol.

On a more positive note, many recall the days after 9/11 and wistfully remember the pause in the bitter partisanship that has come to dominate American politics and life. For a brief moment, the shared crisis overcame division. In similar fashion, the desire to help recent hurricane victims can momentarily bring disparate folks together in common cause for good.

Our coming together post 9/11 did feel good, but it had an element not found in response to natural disasters, an enemy. Having a common enemy can be tremendous unifying force. Osama bin Laden was as much the enemy of Democrats as he was of Republicans, of liberal as conservatives, and the threat he posed dwarfed the enmity between political parties, making it seem trivial for a time.

Sometimes we humans seem to need enemies. They provide an "against" by which to define our group, and enemies are often a more powerful, unifying force than anything our group is "for." Fear is a powerful motivator, and enemies merit fear. But fear is also a great manipulative tool, especially when used to inflate a true enemy or even to create one where none exists.

Following 9/11, some felt the need to make an enemy out of all Islam. It made things simpler, neater, and for Christians it had the added benefit of making our group the "good guys" and theirs the evil enemy. Creating such an enemy proved so compelling that many embraced the idea despite a complete lack of logic of facts to support it.

Enemies, especially those deemed mortal enemies, lose their humanity to some degree. Their deaths become necessary, even a good thing to be celebrated. When all of Islam becomes the enemy, the death of civilians ceases to matter so much. The same thing happened with Nazis and Japanese during WWII. Wholesale slaughter of civilians was seen as acceptable.

I wonder if Jesus' commands us to love our enemies because he wants to undermine our ability, our apparent need and desire, to demonize "the other." If we took Jesus seriously and truly saw our enemy as another neighbor to love, how might things look different? Put another way, if America actually were a Christian nation, how might our post-9/11 response have been different?

And so, on 9/11, I will engage in somber remembrance and reflection. I will mourn for those who died, for those who continue to die from terrorist attacks, and for the many more civilians who have become "collateral damage" in our war on terror. I will hope for lessons learned that may prevent future 9/11s, and I will pray for peace in the world. And I will wonder if the world, or Christians for that matter, will ever actually embrace the way of Jesus.