Sunday, September 16, 2018

Sermon video: Tribalism Meets God's Love and Grace

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sermon: Answering (and Living) the Jesus Question

Mark 8:27-38
Answering (and Living) the Jesus Question
James Sledge                                                                           September 16, 2018

The other day I stopped into the grocery store to grab a couple of items. As I looked for them, I happened down an aisle that was filled with Halloween candy and paraphernalia. I shouldn’t have  been surprised – it’s September after all, but I was. It was one of those sultry, ninety degree days, and it didn’t feel anything like fall.
But fall is almost here, which means the election is just around the corner. I’ve been something of a political junkie for much of my life, but I confess that I’ve grown tired of it. I don’t want to see all the political ads. I don’t want to see candidates who wrap themselves in a Christian mantle while spouting hatred and intolerance and outright racist ideas. I especially don’t want to watch another round of church leaders doing irreparable damage to the image of the faith by insisting that candidates who show not the tiniest inclination to follow the teachings of Jesus are somehow God’s candidate. Wake me when it’s over.
Of course then the Christmas shopping season will be almost upon us, complete with culture war skirmishes. Some of the same folks who touted God’s candidates will insist that we “put Christ back in Christmas,” and they’ll get angry if someone says “Happy Holidays.” Sigh… Wake me when it’s over.
It’s amazing all the ways that Jesus or Christ or God or Christian faith gets invoked to support all manner of things. There are churches that celebrate the Second Amendment in worship and encourage members to bring their guns. There are churches that loudly proclaim, “God Hates Fags.” There are churches that say Donald Trump is God’s man in the White House, and there are churches that stage protests against Donald Trump. There are churches that see same sex relationships as an abomination and sin, and there are churches that marry same sex couples. And all these churches, at least all that call themselves Christian, claim Christ in some way.
When people insist that we put Christ back in Christmas, which one do they mean? Is it the one who blesses same sex marriages? Is it the one who says to love your enemy and not to resist the one who strikes you? Or is it a different Christ? How many of them are there? Sometimes it seems that we Christians have been given the answer to the question, but we’re not at all sure what that answer means.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Sermon: Tribalism Meets God's Love and Grace

Mark 7:24-37
Tribalism Meets God’s Love and Grace
James Sledge                                                                                       September 9, 2018

A great deal has been written and discussed of late on how tribal we’ve become in America. I read something the other day following the death of John McCain that said although Senator McCain was widely admired, he had become something of a political pariah in his home state of Arizona. All three Republican candidates in the recent Arizona senate primary either distanced themselves from McCain or outright disparaged him.
McCain’s hostility to President Trump is certainly one reason for this, but tribalism is involved as well. Tribalism draws very clear us and them boundaries and tends to view “them” as the enemy. Someone like McCain, who would work with members of the other party and even work against his own party when his principles required it, looks very suspicious to those who view the world from a tribal perspective.
We humans seem to have an innate tendency towards tribalism. We may not be born racists or homophobes or sexists or elitists or any other sort of ists, but we seek comfort and security and purpose by coalescing into groups with others who are like us in some way. It starts at a very young age. School children often form cliques that can be hostile and cruel to those who don’t fit into their group.
This is not a recent phenomenon. In Jesus’ day there were numerous divisions and groups. The Pharisees were a reform movement centered on synagogue and following scripture, opposed to what they saw as the corrupt, priestly Judaism of the Jerusalem Temple. The Essenes withdraw entirely into their own, separatist community in reaction to perceived Temple corruption and a world too accommodating to Greco-Roman culture. Then there was the Jewish – Gentile divide, the biggest tribal division of Jesus’ day.
These divisions are different than those of our day, and some may strike us as odd. But they functioned much the same as the divisions we hardly notice. We gather here for worship each week and frequently hear Paul’s words that say, There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all are one in Christ Jesus. But we hardly represent the diversity and inclusiveness these words suggest. We’re not a representative sampling of America or even our immediate community. We’re whiter, wealthier, more liberal, more likely to be cultural elitists, and so on.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Sermon: Stained by the World

James 1:17-27
Stained by the World
James Sledge                                                                                                   September 2, 2018

There was an article in The Washington Post recently entitled, “Are rich people more likely to lie, cheat, steal? Science explains the world of Manafort and Gates.”[1] If you followed Paul Manafort’s recent trial, you know about the $15,000 ostrich and python jackets, the exorbitant lifestyle and the lengths he was willing to go to maintain that lifestyle.
And of course Manafort is but one example in a litany of cases involving insider trading, misuse of campaign contributions, and so on. According to the Post article, a growing body of scientific evidence finds that wealth, power, and privilege “makes you feel like you’re above the law… allows you to treat others like they don’t exist.”
Among the scientific studies was one where researchers watched four-way stop intersections. Expensive cars were significantly less likely to wait their turn than older and cheaper cars. The same researchers sent pedestrians into crosswalks and observed which cars obeyed the law and stopped when someone was in the crosswalk. Every single one of the older, cheaper cars stopped, but only half of the expensive cars did.
Drawing on many different research studies the Post article said, “That research has shown the rich cheat more on their taxes. They cheat more on their romantic partners. The wealthy and better-educated are more likely to shoplift. They are more likely to cheat at games of chance. They are often less empathetic. In studies of charitable giving, it is often the lower-income households that donate higher proportions of their income than middle-class and many upper-income folk.”
This sort of research is relatively new, and so there is a lot it cannot say about why or how this all works. But the evidence is pretty compelling that being wealthy and/or powerful has a tendency to make you an awful person. And perhaps that’s exactly the sort of thing our scripture is worried about when it to keep oneself unstained by the world.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Sermon: More Than What We Know

John 6:35, 41-51
More Than What We Know
August 12, 2018                                                                                                         James Sledge

The bread of life; the bread that came down from heaven; the living bread that came down from heaven. If you’ve been around the church for much of your life, these sayings may not register as particularly problematic. But think about what odd statements they are. Jesus says he is bread, living bread at that, and bread that came down from heaven. It’s hardly surprising that “the Jews” complain about this.
(Jews, by the way, is a term used in John’s gospel to designate Jesus’ opponents and not all those who follow the traditions of Moses. Jesus and his disciples are Jews after all.)
I would think that many Jews who heard Jesus talk about bread that came down from heaven – and I include Jesus’ own followers here – would immediately have thought about the manna that the Israelites ate in the wilderness when Moses led them out of Egypt. That was truly bread that came down from heaven. And Jesus clearly wasn’t manna.
Then there is the whole “came down from heaven” thing. Unlike manna, Jesus wasn’t found out of the ground early in the morning. He showed up just like any of us did, born as a helpless little baby. Some listening to Jesus knew his family. They knew without a doubt that he had not come down from heaven.
Many of Jesus’ opponents were religious leaders, and they “knew” lots of things about scripture and God and how to be a good member of God’s chosen people. And along with obvious things such as knowing Jesus’ mom and dad, there were religious problems with what Jesus said. For Jews, and for early Christians, heaven was God’s home. People, living or dead, didn’t go there. To be from heaven was to be divine, and scripture clearly said that God was one. Jesus couldn’t be from heaven.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Sermon: Fauxpologies and Acknowledging the Truth

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a
Fauxpologies and Acknowledging the Truth
James Sledge                                                                                       August 5, 2018

They have become so ubiquitous that they have their own article on Wikipedia. I’m talking about the non-apology apology, sometimes called the nonpology or fauxpology. Most of us have probably employed them at times. But what makes them infamous is their use by politicians and celebrities in attempts to quell some sort of PR nightmare.
The #MeToo movement has led to some terrible examples. Take this one from Charlie Rose. "It is essential that these women know I hear them and that I deeply apologize for my inappropriate behavior. I am greatly embarrassed. I have behaved insensitively at times, and I accept responsibility for that, though I do not believe that all of these allegations are accurate. I always felt that I was pursuing shared feelings, even though I now realize I was mistaken."
Why do such horrible non-apologies occur so often, especially from, media savvy politicians and celebrities who have PR people? Why do people try so hard, in such ridiculous and laughable fashion, to avoid responsibility? What is it about us humans that so hates to admit that we failed, that we hurt someone, that we were self-centered, thoughtless, and cruel? Why do we try so hard to avoid blame, even when it makes matters worse?
Martin Luther, the great Protestant reformer, said that when you find yourself before the judgment seat of God, plead your faults not your merits. Jesus once told a parable that made much the same point.  Two men go to the Temple to pray. One says he isn’t as bad as other folk, tries hard to follow the commandments, and gives lots of money to the church. But the other man is a tax collector, literally a criminal enterprise in Jesus’ day. He stood off in a corner, beating his breast and said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And Jesus says it is the tax collector who goes home right in God’s eyes. (Luke 18:9-14)

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Sermon: Letting Jesus into the Boat

John 6:1-21
Letting Jesus in the Boat
James Sledge                                                                                       July 29, 2018

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. The word Lord doesn’t actually appear in the 23rd psalm, but most English translations continue a Jewish practice that replaces the personal name of God with “Lord.” Many Bibles print it in all capitals to alert you to this.
Jesus said, "Make the people sit down." Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down… Translated literally, Jesus said, “Make the people lie down,” and they lie down in the grass, in green pastures. Once I saw that, I couldn’t help but hear echoes of the 23rd psalm. And those aren’t the only echoes here.
John’s gospel has no Last Supper, but here, at Passover, Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them… Jesus also distributes fish which was often part of communion in the early church. The first readers of John’s gospel surely saw their own celebration of the Lord’s Supper reflected in this story.
Jesus says, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost." When God had Moses feed the people of Israel with manna in the wilderness, no leftovers could be gathered. But here the leftover bread, manna, fills twelve baskets.
John’s gospel is quite different from the so-called synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Those three gospels present a very human looking Jesus, but John goes to great lengths to present Jesus as fully divine. Jesus is the Word, the logos of God. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
In John, Jesus, the Word made flesh, is the Good Shepherd, the bread of life, the resurrection and the life, God. But the crowd doesn’t get that. They think him a prophet and want to make him king, so Jesus withdraws to the mountain. The gospel doesn’t say how he manages this without the crowd following, but he is God in the flesh, after all.
Once they realize Jesus is gone, the crowd disperses and heads home, leaving only the disciples. As darkness approaches, they make their way to the boat and head for Capernaum, for home. Says the gospel, It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them.
Does that strike you as at all odd? Jesus hasn’t come to them yet, hasn’t gotten there yet, but the disciples head out without him. What’s that about?