Sunday, November 22, 2020

Sermon: Good News for Little Piggies

 Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Ephesians 1:15-23
Good News for Little Piggies

James Sledge                                                                           November 22, 2020

Some of you likely recall the old Beatles song off The White Album entitled, “Piggies.” The four, short verses were set to a fun, bouncy little tune, but the words contain biting, social commentary.

Have you seen the little piggies
Crawling in the dirt?
And for all the little piggies
Life is getting worse
Always having dirt to play around in

Have you seen the bigger piggies
In their starched white shirts?
You will find the bigger piggies
Stirring up the dirt
Always have clean shirts to play around in

In their styes with all their backing
They don't care what goes on around
In their eyes there's something lacking
What they need's a damn good whacking

Everywhere there’s lots of piggies
Living piggie lives
You will see them out for dinner
With their piggie wives
Clutching forks and knives to eat the bacon

Little piggies and bigger piggies. The prophet Ezekiel makes a very similar move, but being Jewish, he can’t use pigs. Instead he speaks of lean sheep and fat sheep, offering the same sort of social commentary George Harrison did in his song. Ezekiel joins a long line of God’s prophets who speak judgment against the wealthy who enjoy the good life at the expense of the weak and the poor.

I don’t know that the world has changed all that much from Ezekiel’s day. America has had a rather remarkable run where a large middle class enjoyed the fruits of the economy, but that seems to be breaking down. Our economic system is becoming more and more skewed toward the wealthy, the well to do, the bigger piggies, the fat sheep.

But Ezekiel insists that God will intervene on behalf of the lean sheep, the scattered and hungry sheep. God will seek out the lost and bring back those who have strayed, who’ve been battered and injured. And this claim is all the more remarkable given the people to whom Ezekiel speaks it, exiles in Babylon.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Sermon: Big Risks

 Matthew 25:14-30
Big Risks
James Sledge                                                                                       November 15, 2020

The Parable of the Three Servants, JESUS MAFA, 1973
from the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN

In every place where I’ve served as a pastor, I’ve become a part of some sort of clergy group, sometimes multiple ones. Some were purely social; some were lectionary study groups; some were meant to be support groups of some sort. But whatever their primary purpose, all of them featured a certain amount of pastors sharing, and sometimes complaining about, their congregations.

Different congregations can have very different personalities. Just like people, some are introverted and some are extroverted. Some always worry about money, no matter how much they have, and some manage to keep conflict going most all the time. But congregations that are very different can still share things in common.

One thing I’ve seen in many congregations is a kind of conservatism. I’m not talking about politics. This conservatism can be quite strong in the most politically liberal congregation. Merriam-Webster gives two different definitions of conservatism. One is a “disposition in politics to preserve what is established,” The other is “the tendency to prefer an existing or traditional situation to change.” I’m talking about the second.

There’s an old church joke that gets used interchangeably with Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and a few others. It goes, “How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb?” The answer, “Change?!!” Generally speaking, the times when people have gotten the maddest at me was when I changed the order of worship or the doxology, or when I was seen as supporting a change from “the way we’ve always done it.”

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Prepared to Wait

 Matthew 25:1-13
Prepared to Wait
James Sledge                                                                                     November 8, 2020

The Wise Virgins, James Tissot
During the day on Tuesday, election day, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and saw a post from a “friend” asking everyone who believed in the power of prayer to take a moment and share his post, a prayer for the nation. It wasn’t one of those ridiculous posts promising something good if enough people shared it. My “friend” was simply hoping that by sharing it others would offer the same, short prayer for healing and guidance. At least I think that’s what it said. I only looked at it briefly before scrolling on down the page.

I started scrolling almost as soon as I realized what the post was asking. I don’t really know why, but later it dawned on me that I do that most anytime I run across a prayer on Facebook. And not  just when the prayers are trite or formulaic. I’ll scroll right past prayers posted by our denomination, by the editor of Presbyterian Outlook, and so on.

Perhaps this is just an aversion I’ve developed over the years from hearing too many prayers that sounded like magic formulas or seemed to view God like a genie or fairy godmother. Maybe seeing and hearing so many bad prayers has made me cynical and suspicious about all public prayers. Maybe.

Or maybe I have a deeper issue with such prayers, even when they’re not bad prayers. Praying for God to heal our bitter partisan divide or to give our leaders the wisdom needed to govern well involves some level of expectation that God might actually do something, might actually touch people’s hearts and remove hatreds, might actually change the hearts and minds of elected leaders. Perhaps when I quickly scroll past prayers on Facebook, it’s really just a way to avoid dealing with my own faith issues.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Sermon: Living as Saints

 Matthew 5:1-12
Living as Saints

James Sledge                                                                         November 1, 2020 – All Saints

The Sermon on the Mount
Gary Bunt

    Every culture has its wisdom literature, wise sayings and proverbs. “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” said Benjamin Franklin.  A lot of American proverbial wisdom speaks of things that lead to success such as Thomas Edison’s, “Genius is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration.”

Such proverbial wisdom is generally meant to be self-evident. By that I mean that once you hear it, its truth will strike you. You will agree that while some people are smarter and more creative, hard work matters greatly. Either that or you will reject it as wisdom entirely.

People have sometimes approached the Sermon on the Mount, and especially its Beatitudes, as though they were pearls of wisdom to guide us on the path of success and well-being. Robert Schuller, of Crystal Cathedral fame, wrote a book back in the 1980s entitled, The Be (Happy) Attitudes: 8 Positive Attitudes That Can Transform Your Life. In it he says, “As we look upon the Beatitudes – The Be-Happy Attitudes – of Jesus Christ, you will discover our Lord’s key to joyful living.”[1]

Schuller sees each Beatitude as a wise saying that is a guide to happiness. The word translated “blessed” in our scripture can mean “happy,” but it is quite a stretch to speak of happiness being found in poverty of spirit, mourning, or being persecuted. And in fact, Schuller must get quite creative in explaining how Jesus’ blessings lead to happiness, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” becomes “I’m really hurting—but I’m going to bounce back!” And “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake” becomes, “I can choose to be happy—anyway!”[2]

This twisting of Jesus’ words is patently absurd, but Schuller’s bigger mistake is thinking that Jesus’ blessings are proverbs at all. They’re not. They are categorical statements about an unexpected reality not evident to the world. It is God’s view of things and so the shape of the new world that God is creating, the Kingdom that Jesus says has “come near.” 

This reality is not self-evident. It is rooted in the character of God and is dependent on the trustworthiness of the one who speaks it, not anything we do. Jesus is describing something at odds with the world as we know it. No one listens to Jesus and nods in agreement saying, “O yes, yes, it is quite good and enjoyable to be persecuted or to weep and mourn.”  Instead, Jesus speaks of a new reality that we are invited to become a part of.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Sermon: The Things That Spark Joy

 John 15:1-11
The Things That Spark Joy

James Sledge                                                                                       October 25, 2020

The True Vine, Adam Cope, 2010
    Not so long ago, the decluttering technique from Marie Kondo was all the rage. She even did a Netflix series, “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.” No doubt some of you have used her methods. I’m not one of them as anyone who’s ever visited my office well knows.

This method involves gathering all your belongings together, one category at a time. For example, you might start with your clothes or books or mementos. You go through each item in the category and discard any to do not “spark joy.”

Regardless of whether or not you plan to do some decluttering, what are the things that spark joy for you? Joy strikes me as something deeper, more profound than happiness, and in John’s gospel, Jesus speaks repeatedly about joy during his final evening with the disciples. We heard a couple of those in the last verse of our reading this morning. “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

I have said these things… These things must be what we should hold onto in order to have Jesus’ joy within us. So what are these things? No doubt they include some things we didn’t hear this morning about Jesus’ oneness with the Father and the promise of the Holy Spirit. But our reading gives some specific instructions. We are to abide in Jesus, bear fruit, become disciples, and keep Jesus’ commandments. Jesus tells us these things so that his joy will be in us and our joy will be full, complete.

That brings me back to the question of what brings you joy. Despite the popularity of Marie Kondo and the idea of decluttering, our culture works very hard to convince us that happiness, joy, and fulfillment come from acquisition. We need bigger, better, and fancier, more excitement, more power, more status, more, more, more. But Jesus speaks becoming disciples and obeying him, of being branches, bearing fruit, and being pruned so we bear more fruit.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Sermon: Joined to God's Blessedness

 Exodus 20:1-20
Joined to God’s Blessedness

James Sledge                                                                                       October 4, 2020

From time to time the 10 Commandments take the stage in America’s culture wars. Some
municipality posts the Commandments in the hall where they meet or some judge insists on displaying them at the courthouse, only to have such moves declared unconstitutional.

Public displays of the 10 Commandments have always struck me as a rather odd choice of battles by conservative Christians. Such Christians often dismiss much of Old Testament law as being superseded by Jesus and a new covenant. But I suppose putting up sayings from Jesus such as “Blessed are the poor… Love your enemy… Turn the other cheek… Do not judge so that you may not be judged…” don’t quite set the right tone.

Placing the Commandments in court houses is sometimes justified with the claim that they form the basis for our civil laws, which makes me wonder if these folks ever actually read the commandments. Only three of them, those against murder, theft, and false witness, actually correspond to our civil laws, and the need for such laws is so obvious we don’t need God to tell us. Cultures that never heard of the 10 Commandments outlaw murder and theft.

Then there’s the fact that our culture and our economy depend on violating some of these commandments. We are a 24/7 culture that puts little value on stillness and rest, the heart of the command to keep Sabbath. Factories run 24/7 because it’s more efficient. Stores and restaurants stay open 24/7, and advertise that fact proudly. And even most who do attempt to keep Sabbath still expect stores, movies, gas stations, and places to eat to stay open for them.

And if we subvert Sabbath with our 24/7 culture, we’ve actually made coveting a cornerstone of our economy. Every day we are bombarded with advertising designed to make us covet, to want things that others have and we don’t. Our economy depends on convincing enough of us that we need more and more, that if our neighbor has newer and better stuff, we should want it. And we should be willing to go into debt, stress constantly about money, work more hours, and out compete our neighbor so that we can have it.

Of course the 10 Commandments were never intended as generic, common sense rules to govern a well-run society. Yes, a few such rules are there, but the central purpose of the commandments is to create a radically different, alternative community, one that looks very different from the world, one that has much in common with kingdom Jesus proclaims.

This radically alternative community is perhaps best seen in those opening commands about other gods, idols, and misusing God’s name. These commands do not form the basis for any civil law. Rather, they stand in opposition to the distorted cultures we humans devise.


Sunday, September 27, 2020

Sermon: Holy Remembering

 Philippians 2:1-13
Holy Remembering

James Sledge                                                                           September 27, 2020

 Quotes from Mohandas Gandhi, who led a non-violent campaign against British rule in India, often
show up on social media, although revelations of racist attitudes toward Blacks have damaged his reputation recently. “You must be the change you wish to see in the world” “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”  And though it’s not certain that he actually said it, I’m struck by this one. “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” 

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

The quote from Paul and the one from Gandhi seem incompatible. If Christians have the mind of Christ then how could we be so unlike Christ. Yet there is a ring of truth to the Gandhi quote. Too often, Christians do look very little like Jesus. Too often, no one would look at us and think they had caught a glimpse of Jesus, even though that’s what it means to wear the name “Christian.”

When you meet people from another country or culture, especially if it’s a place you’ve never been, you are likely to draw some conclusions about the country or culture from the people you meet. The reverse is true when Americans travel abroad. The way American tourists act in foreign countries gives people an impression of what America is like. 

Gandhi was not Christian but lived in a country that had been ruled by Christians for centuries. What he saw did not impress him. But he also read about Jesus from the Bible, and he was impressed with Jesus.

Gandhi is hardly the only one to encounter Christians who were nothing like Christ. One has to wonder how the Africans brought to America as slaves ever saw Jesus in those who brutalized them and regarded them as property like cows or sheep. How was it that so many slaves embraced faith in a Jesus whose mind was so rarely on display in their “Christian” oppressors? Sometimes I find it nothing short of amazing that anything even resembling the way of Jesus has survived, given how often Christians look nothing like Jesus.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Sermon: Christ Working through Us

 Philippians 1:21-30
Christ Working Through Us

James Sledge                                                                                       September 20, 2020

Following our worship this morning, we will hold a congregational meeting where we will elect a Congregational Nominating Committee or CNC. That CNC will nominate new elders and deacons to be elected by the congregation early next year.

If you’ve ever served on a nominating committee, you know it can be a difficult task. Most every CNC I’ve ever been a part of has dealt with the frustration of being turned down by people they think would make excellent elders or deacons. Inevitably there are more meetings to come up with more names. The whole point of a CNC is to prayerful discern those whom God is calling to lead the congregation, but some years it begins to feel like just filling slots. “Surely there is someone who will do this.”

People have many reasons for saying “No” to a nominating committee. Many are busy and feel like they already have too much on their plates. Often times they say they might consider it the next year. Some people don’t feel they are qualified, doubting that they have enough faith, enough knowledge of the Bible, or enough leadership qualities. Some aren’t sure their personal beliefs line up with Presbyterian doctrines. Others give no reason at all.

In the Bible, when God calls someone, they typically turn down the job as well. But God rarely takes “No” for an answer, and ends up convincing the person, often against their better judgment, to say “Yes.” Nominating Committees are rarely so persuasive. They’re also not God which means they are never 100% sure that God is calling any particular person. For that reason, Presbyterians say that a genuine call has three parts: the individual’s own sense of God’s call, the requisite gifts for the work, and the faith community’s confirming the call.