Sunday, May 20, 2018

Sermon: Any Life Here?

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Any Life Here?
James Sledge                                                                           Pentecost, May 20, 2018

   The scene is a battlefield where one army had annihilated another. The defeat has been so total, there were either no survivors, or all those who lived had been taken prisoner. No one left to care for the dying; no one to bury the dead. All who fell on the battlefield remained there, scavengers and nature gradually doing their work. When only bones were left, they baked in the sun, drying and bleaching as months turned to years.
   As Ezekiel gazes on this desolate scene, God speaks. “Mortal, can these bones live?” What a ridiculous question. The situation is beyond hopeless. There is nothing here to be resuscitated. There’s nothing left but bones strewn and scattered about, like puzzle pieces that have been shaken up and then thrown all over the floor. 
   As far as the prophet can tell, it’s an impossible situation. There is no way. But the prophet has been surprised by the strange ways of God before, and so he throws the question back. “O Lord God, you know.”
   Sure enough, God provides the answer by giving the prophet instructions. “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.” The prophet does as he’s told, and the bones began to reassemble and take on muscles and skin. Then there is a movement of wind/breath/Spirit, and the reassembled, fleshed out bones come to life.
   Some Christians have tried to make this vision about resurrection and eternal life, but that’s not what God says it’s about. “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel.” Israel may lost all hope, yet God will restore them. God still has plans for them.
   Israel and the prophet are in Babylon, exiled from Jerusalem, which now lies in ruins, Solomon’s great temple nothing but rubble. The walls of David’s great city have been torn down. God’s promise of a house and kingdom that would last forever, of descendants who would always sit on the throne of David, has apparently been revoked.
   In exile, Israel’s theologians and faith leaders struggle to make sense of things. What does it mean to be God’s chosen people when God has allowed them to be utterly defeated and carried into exile? Has Israel’s failure to keep covenant brought it all to an end? Is there any going back? It is a time of crisis, a faith crisis, an existential crisis. Is there any future for Israel? Or is she just a failed experiment, a washed up relic that belongs to another time?

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Sermon: Not Hindering God

Acts 8:26-40
Not Hindering God
James Sledge                                                                                       April 29, 2018

Gathering those who fear they’re not enough, so we may experience grace, renewal, and wholeness as God’s beloved. This new “missional mandate,” that has been printed in our bulletins for about two months now, was developed by Session through a long process that began with last year’s Renew Groups.
Session took the feedback from these groups and created synopsis of what we heard. It spoke of a culture that tells us to be more productive, more athletic, more studious, etc. It spoke of people feeling stressed, tired, and harried. It suggested that we needed to remind ourselves of what we already know. God loves us just as we are.
The synopsis then wondered what this might mean, suggesting, “Perhaps we are called to be a church for recovering perfectionists, of Sabbath keepers. A place where we can rest, where we are enough, where we are fully known, where we are wholly and completely loved by God, and where we can experience true joy.”
Last summer, we presented this synopsis to the congregation, with listening sessions after worship for people to tell us their thoughts, to let us know if we had heard the feedback from the Renew Groups correctly. Overwhelmingly, the answer was “Yes.”
With the synopsis confirmed, Session held a Friday evening, Saturday retreat where we joined in fellowship, worship, and work on a missional mandate. We listened for the Spirit, and over time, the mandate emerged, Gathering those who fear they’re not enough, so we may experience grace, renewal, and wholeness as God’s beloved.
I mentioned in the sermon a couple of weeks ago that further work by Session has identified several strategy areas where we hope to live into this new mandate, areas with much deeper meaning than their shorthand titles indicate: Gather, Deepen, Share.
It has taken a great deal of work to get us to this point, but the most difficult work is just beginning. We must figure out how to live out our mandate. What sorts of programs and ministries will help us Gather, Deepen, and Share? No doubt some current activities will, but we will also need new ministries and methods. And that inevitably will require letting go of some old ones. We can’t become something new doing exactly what we are doing now.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Sermon: Hearing the Shepherd

John 10:11-18
Hearing the Shepherd
James Sledge                                                                                       April 22, 2018

Every now and then, someone from another congregation calls the church office to ask about leasing space for their worship service. Most of these requests have been immigrant faith communities who are just starting out or have outgrown the space they are renting.
Obviously there are logistical challenges to having two different congregations in one church building, and so when we get such a request our Worship Committee and our Building and Grounds Committee look at the particulars and make a recommendation to the Session. Clearly we’ve never managed to work out the details to everyone’s satisfaction during my time as pastor here as we’ve not had another congregation on site since the Episcopalians left nearly six years ago.
But assuming that we were able to work out the logistics and come up with a rental agreement that suits us and the other congregation, we would still have one more hurdle to clear. Any lease of our worship space requires the approval of National Capital Presbytery.
In our denomination, individual churches hold their property “in trust” for the denomination. It belongs to us only so long as we are operating a Presbyterian congregation here. If a church closes, the members can’t just sell the property and split the proceeds. That property goes to the denomination.
And so the denomination has a vested interest in making sure its congregations don’t take out risky loans, don’t end up with a lien on the property, or get into a lease that might tie the congregation’s hands at some point in the future.
Along with these mostly financial concerns, the presbytery also “reserves the right to disapprove a lease to any organization (including a church) if it or its parent body (1) actively disparages the Presbyterian Church (USA), (2) denies that the PC(USA) is a branch of the true church of Jesus Christ, and/or (3) engages in activities or promotes values that are antithetical to those of the PC(USA).”[1]
I wonder exactly what that last one means. Would we not rent space to a church that doesn’t ordain women? How about LGBT folk? Should we be concerned about where they stand on same sex marriage? What sort of values must they have to rent space here?
Such questions make me wonder about what makes a church truly a church? Where are the boundaries? What is it that gives a church its identity? If you moved to another city and were looking for a church, what would you want to know? What would put a church on your list to visit, and what would keep it off?
It turns out that it’s difficult, even impossible, to do church in a generic sort of way. If worship is going to be an important part of your church, you have to decide what that worship will look like, what sort of music to use, if you plan to use music. You must decide what sources of insight are most important. If there is a big theological controversy, what has the final say? We Presbyterians speak of scripture as the ultimate authority, but Catholics put church teachings on a par with scripture.
Because it’s so hard to be a generic church, because you pretty much have to be some particular kind of church, there are all sorts of modifiers people use to describe their church. I belong to a progressive church. I belong to an evangelical church. We’re a contemporary worship church. I go to a non-denominational mega-church. We do “high church.” And the list goes on and on.
 Amidst all these different sorts of church, it may be interesting to stop and think about what it is that most defines us. Is it that we are a church of Jesus Christ, or that we are progressive, liberal, evangelical and so on?

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Sermon: Enfleshed Faith

Luke 24:36b-49
Enfleshed Faith
James Sledge                                                                                       April 15, 2018

This is the third and final appearance of the risen Jesus in Luke’s gospel. He appeared to disciples on the road to Emmaus, though unrecognized until they stopped for the evening and Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it. These disciples hurry back to Jerusalem to tell the others. There they learn that Jesus had also appeared to Simon Peter. As they tell how Jesus was made known to them in the breaking of the bread, Jesus shows up one more time.
Even though Jesus appears for a third time, his followers still have trouble believing it. They fear it is a spirit, a ghost. And so Jesus says, “Touch me.” And he asks, “Have you anything here to eat?” prompting the disciples to give him a bit of fish. Jesus has some important things to say, but first he eats.
Something similar happens at the end of John’s gospel when the risen Jesus appears on the shore as some of the disciples are out in a boat, fishing. There will be an exchange between Jesus and Peter that seems to remove any taint from Peter’s denials on the night of Jesus’ arrest. But before the story can get to that, Jesus cooks some of the fish the disciples have caught, and they have a nice breakfast there on the shore. Jesus has important things to say, but first we eat.
Both Luke and John want to make clear the Jesus is not a wispy spirit, not a disembodied ghost. He is fully embodied, and he easts. This is the biblical notion of resurrection, a bodily thing, not a soul floating off to heaven but a walking, breathing, eating Jesus. In his letter to the church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul insists that humans will experience a bodily resurrection as well, at the end of the age. We’ll be different, he says, but we’ll have bodies.
In the same letter Paul writes, Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. But in the centuries since Paul first wrote this, calling church the body of Christ has become so commonplace that we may not think much about what that means.
Bodies are pretty much essential to doing many of the things that make us human. We can touch someone, embrace them and cry with them when they are experiencing loss or trauma, because we have bodies. A parent can cradle an infant, speaking in reassuring tones, because we are embodied creatures. We can sit down with a friend for a meal or drinks because we have bodies. We can prepare food and feed people who are hungry at our Welcome Table ministry because we are embodied creatures.
When Jesus walked the earth, he touched people and healed them. He fed hungry crowds. He ate meals with people considered to be outcasts and “unclean.” He suffered and he died, all because he was God’s love embodied, God incarnate. And he calls us to continue that work of embodying God’s love.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Easter Sermon: As Good as Dead

Mark 16:1-8
As Good as Dead
         James Sledge                                           Resurrection of the Lord                                   April 1, 2018

If you had a pew Bible open as I read our scripture, you may have noticed a heading “The Shorter Ending of Mark” just past where I stopped. And if you looked two sentences further another heading reads, “The Longer Ending of Mark.” Both of these endings got attached many years after the gospel was originally written, presumably in an effort to “fix” that rather unsatisfying, So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. The end.
Scholars debate whether the original ending of Mark got lost along the way, or if the author intentionally ended things in such abrupt fashion. But regardless, for they were afraid is the only ending of the original gospel that we’ve got.
This ending doesn’t fit very well with our Easter celebration. Not a lot of fear and silence today. Instead there are shouts of “Christ is risen!” and the biggest crowds of the year at worship. The music is glorious, accompanied by special musicians, and there is a bright, festive mood. Nothing remotely like, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
In Mark’s gospel, there is no joy on Easter morning, no shouts of “He is risen!” only terror, shock, fear, and silence. Not all that surprising when you think about it. Centuries insulate us from the drama of that morning, the raw emotions of going to a friend’s grave and finding it open and empty, a strange young man sitting there, saying our friend has been raised.
On top of that, we aren’t much worried about meeting our now risen friend. Jesus is not going to be there when we get back home. No chance that he’ll say anything to us about our behavior after he was arrested. We’re not worried about what to say to Peter, who denied Jesus all those times, or the other disciples, who all ran and hid. We’ve got Jesus safely confined to heaven, not running around loose where we might bump into him.
For many of us, Jesus might as well be dead. We’ve heard about him, learned stories about him, are perhaps impressed by some of his teachings, but he doesn’t really intrude into our daily lives. Jesus may be no more alive to us than family, friends, and loved ones who’ve died. He’s gone to heaven, unseen by us. In a sense, he’s as good as dead.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Amnesia, Dismembering, and Remembering

In his book, Sabbath as Resistance, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes, "The reason (Israel) will be tempted by autonomy is that the new land will make them inordinately prosperous. Moses knows that prosperity breeds amnesia. He warns Israel about amnesia: 'Take care that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.' (Deuteronomy 6: 12)"

Over and over in the book of Deuteronomy, set just prior to their entry into the Land of Promise, Israel is urged to remember. As Moses recalls the covenant God made with them at Mt. Sinai, the command to remain faithful and obedient is repeatedly accompanied by the call, "Remember that you were a slave in Egypt." In actuality, none of those listening to Moses ever lived in Egypt, yet it is critical for them to remember, for their parents' and grandparents' experience to become theirs.

The people are also instructed that when, in the future, children ask about the covenant with its laws and statutes, their answer shall begin, "We were slaves in Egypt, but the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand." Similarly, when Jews today celebrate the Passover Seder in their homes, a child asks why this night is different, and the answer begins, "We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Eternal One, our God, brought us out with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm."

Remembering is critical lest Israel forget who she is, a people rescued by God. All this effort to encourage remembering is an attempt to stave off the inevitable amnesia. When Israel begins to prosper in the Land of Promise, they will be tempted to see it as their own accomplishment, forgetting that God brought them into the land. As forgetting continues, those who prosper the most will imagine themselves better than others, and the bonds of community will begin to break down. Rich will exploit poor. The land that God gave as an inheritance will become a possession to be bought and acquired and hoarded. 


The Apostle Paul, in an attempt to correct we he saw as abuses at the Lord's Supper, gave the church in Corinth what we now call the "words of institution." Integral to these words is the command, "Do this in remembrance of me." The synoptic gospels indicate that Jesus' last meal with his disciples is a Passover meal. At a meal of remembering, Jesus institutes another meal of remembering. Such remembering is just as critical for Christians as it is for Jews, and the tendency to amnesia just as problematic. 

Christians are to remember that we are "saved," in some way made new and whole, by the gracious acts of Jesus. In our baptisms, we all are joined to Christ, and so we all become sisters and brothers to one another. But the consumer culture we live in is an agent of amnesia. It seeks to break down the bonds that join us all into one family, dismembering us one from another as we acquire new identities rooted in acquisition and competition. We matter, not because we are joined to God's love in Christ, but because we are rich enough, thin enough, pretty enough, accomplished enough, got in the right school, wear the right clothes, and on and on. Our very sense of self is dismembered as our true identity as God's beloved children is obscured and hidden.

Such dismembering fractures not only the bonds joining together the body of Christ, but also the bonds of our larger communities and culture. We are not all in this together. Too often, our neighbor is the object of our love only under certain conditions. Ours is a world of anxious striving where neighbor may be our competitor, may be suspect because of their political views, or may be feared for "taking our jobs." 


"Do this in remembrance of me." I've often been uncomfortable with those words. My Presbyterian tradition has at times reduced the Lord's Supper to nothing more than a recollection of a long ago event with no sense of Christ's presence in the meal. And so I have tended to focus on encountering Christ in the meal, downplaying the remembering part.

But remembering is crucial. Remembering is an antidote to dismembering. It lets us recover our true identity, one not dependent on acquisition or accomplishment, an identity as those whom God so loved that Jesus gave himself to us and for us. Remembering can cure our amnesia, restoring the bonds of community as we realize that we are all God's beloved, and so we are all one family.

Remember. Remember you were slaves in Egypt and God brought you out with a mighty hand. Remember you are God's beloved child, one so deeply loved that Jesus would risk even death for you, and for every one of your and my neighbors. Remember, we are joined together in our baptisms, joined into a new community, a new family that is to be known for its love of one another. Remember.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Palm Sunday, Cheap Grace, and the March for Our Lives

Growing up in the Presbyterian Church, I had never heard of Passion Sunday. For me, it was Palm Sunday, all palms, all celebration. It was the warm up for the big celebration the coming Sunday. As a child, the celebration of Palm Sunday faded directly into new spring clothes, girls and women in new spring hats, Easter egg hunts, special music at church, and Easter baskets filled with goodies. I was aware of the events between Palm Sunday and Easter. I may even have attended a Maundy Thursday service at some point as a child. But for me, Holy Week was celebration leading to celebration, joy leading to joy.

I suppose that Passion Sunday got paired with the palms to help with this, to deal with the common problem of getting to Easter without suffering, without pain, without a cross. This childhood pattern of mine in some ways epitomized the "cheap grace" Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke against in his famous book, The Cost of Discipleship. Wrote Bonhoeffer, "Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."

I found myself reflecting on cheap grace and costly grace yesterday evening. I was going through the pictures I took at the March For Our Lives in DC earlier in the day and looking at others' pictures and posts on social media. I thought of those young people, some children, others barely out of childhood, participating in something that requires them to keep reliving those horrid moments they surely would love to forget. I watched a replay of the speech by Emma Gonzalez, including its long, painful silence. As I watched, I also watched the stream of comments that were regularly interspersed with the most hateful remarks directed at her and the other youth with her.

I thought about a broken world than can only be healed by a cross, a broken world that needs the deaths of scores of children before it can begin to act. I thought about costly grace that does not shy away from pain and difficulty. I thought about all those thousands gathered yesterday in our own version of a Palm Sunday procession where signs replaced cloaks and palms.

The youth on the stage seemed to get the idea of costly grace, perhaps because this has already cost them so dearly. For them yesterday was not a magical moment that fixed anything. It was merely a step in a difficult and painful discipleship sort of walk.

I wondered about me and all those others there, about how many of us were ready for a costly discipleship, about how many of us might go home feeling good about the day, and wanting that to somehow make it all better. I wonder if I and others were more interested in cheap grace "we bestow on ourselves," proud of having participated but now ready to move on, not so interested in costly discipleship.

On one of those social media posts from yesterday's marches, I saw people carrying a sign that has often been used as a benediction in church worship services.
Go out into the world in peace; have courage; hold on to what is good; return to no one evil for evil; strengthen the fainthearted; support the weak, and help the suffering; honor all people; love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Yes... this.