Sunday, February 18, 2018

Sermon: The Gospel of Noah

Genesis 9:8-17
The Gospel of Noah
James Sledge                                                                                       February 18, 2018

My mother-in-law collects Noah’s arks, and she gave me a wooden one that sits on a bookshelf in my office. The little animal pairs are typically lying on their sides because children who accompany a parent into my office can rarely resist playing with them. Like those animals on my bookshelf, the animals in the Noah story have proved irresistible to people over the years. That’s just one of the reasons the flood story in Genesis is so misunderstood, even by those in the Church.
Many know the broad strokes of the story: a wicked world, the good and faithful Noah, and a plan to start over fresh. The whole idea seems rather primeval or primitive. It’s an entertaining story in a way, but it has little to say to us, or so many believe.
Many cultures in the ancient Middle East had some sort of flood story. Some scholars speculate that a catastrophic flood centuries earlier provided the raw material for such myths, and it’s safe to say that people of ancient Israel were familiar with more than one version of the story. If you read the story in Genesis with any care, you will notice parts of at least two different accounts included there.
The writers and editors who pull together the book of Genesis are happy to include these sometimes conflicting accounts because they are only peripherally interested in reporting what happened. Their real interest is to use the story, along with other stories in the first eleven chapters of Genesis, to address deep, theological questions about the nature of God and about God’s relationship to creation, especially the human creature. It is this primary purpose of these stories that gets missed when we imagine them to be primitive, ancient tales.
The Noah story begins, some three chapters prior to our reading, with this comment. Yahweh saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And Yahweh was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.  Or perhaps, it grieved her to her heart. Men wrote down the stories after all.
A heartbroken God may seem strange to us, but the Hebrew Bible has no problem portraying a God emotionally impacted by humanity. And so the flood story begins. You’ve surely heard it. A great ark is constructed and animals of every sort are brought on board. Subterranean springs burst forth and rain falls for forty days and nights. Creation returns to its pre-creation chaos where the Spirit of God moved over the waters. But finally, after months, God remembered, and the waters begin to subside. Now, as the story is often understood, creation and humanity can start fresh.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Self-Denial, Guns, and "My Rights"

Compared to most of my colleagues, I'm something of an oddity when it comes to sermon preparation. I try to stay a week or so ahead in preparing them. That means that I was working on a sermon from Mark 8:31-38 when I heard the news of yet another school shooting.

This passage in Mark occurs immediately following Peter's confession of Jesus as Messiah. Jesus then begins to teach his disciples that he will suffer, be rejected, and finally be killed, but be raised on third day. This is too much for Peter, who pulls Jesus aside to straighten him out. In return, Jesus calls Peter "Satan" in front of all the disciples. Then he calls in the crowds and teaches them.

Jesus' words are deservedly famous in Christian circles. "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it."

Self-denial is not all that popular in our culture. We're all about acquisition and freedom, and we bristle at the notion of any curbs on those freedoms or our ability as consumers to acquire whatever we want. Many Americans are drowning in credit card debt because they cannot even deny themselves those things they cannot afford.

Yet Jesus insists that being his followers requires denying ourselves, and it requires a cross, a willingness to take up voluntary burdens and suffering for the sake of others. Jesus' words are at totally at odds with the American ethos, which perhaps explains why American Christians are so often raving hypocrites.

Nowhere is the hypocrisy greater than on the issue of gun rights. For reasons I cannot fathom, many Christians have somehow linked their faith to a love of guns and an absolute right to defend themselves, Jesus' pacifist teachings be damned. But the insistence that protecting "my rights" are more important than the lives of young children runs completely counter to Jesus' absolute demand for self denial and cross bearing. This core teaching of Jesus demands that as his follower, I must be ready and willing to give up things dear to me, no matter how costly to me, for the sake others.

I am perfectly willing to concede that it is easy for me to call out this particular hypocrisy because I am not a gun owner (although I did grow up hunting and shooting). And no doubt I am prone to other hypocrisies that are harder for me to see because impact me personally in a way that gun rights do not. But Jesus does not provide for any sort of "Everyone is doing it" loophole. If we cannot give up things dear to us for the sake Jesus' message, if we cannot endure suffering that could be avoided, then we cannot call ourselves followers of Jesus. And I'm quite sure that this is what it means to say "I'm a Christian."

It is popular in some circles to speak of America as a "Christian nation," a dubious claim at any point in our history. But as long as our knee-jerk reaction to any event is to worry about "my rights" and "my privileges," Jesus certainly won't claim us as his followers.

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Sunday, February 4, 2018

Sermon: Healing Spiritual Amnesia

Isaiah 40:21-31
Healing Spiritual Amnesia
James Sledge                                                                                       February 4, 2018

Over the past year, I have  heard numerous calls for the Church to find its prophetic voice, to “speak truth to power.” At a time when some Christians are willing to excuse the most hateful, misogynist, racist behavior to gain or keep political power, it is incumbent on us to proclaim the way of Christ, a way that has special concern for the weak, the poor, the despised, the oppressed. Yes, we do need to speak God’s truth to power.
The biblical prophets often did exactly that, condemning kings and ruling class for policies that benefited the wealthy and injured the poor, blasting outward religious show that was uninterested in matters of justice and a rightly ordered society. But there is more to prophetic speech than this.
Prophets are about getting people aligned with God. Sometimes that means chastising them or warning what will happen if they don’t straighten up. That explains why some think that prophecy is about predicting the future, but such prophecy is rarely meant to be predictive in an absolute sense. It is, rather, a call to change and create a different future.
But prophecy need not be warning. Such is the case in our reading today. Here the prophet speaks to exiles in Babylon, people who’ve been defeated, Jerusalem and its great Temple have been destroyed, and these exiles struggle to maintain their religious traditions in a strange, foreign land. Some conclude that the Babylonian gods are stronger than their God. Or perhaps God has simply abandoned them. If only they had heeded the words of prophets in the past, but now it is too late. God pays no attention to their prayers any longer.
In this situation, the prophet’s job is not to call the people to straighten up. Rather it is to call them out of their spiritual amnesia. They have forgotten who this God called Yahweh is. Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Memory has failed them. They cannot see beyond their loss and suffering, and so faith and hope evaporate. Is such a moment, the prophet’s work is to help the people remember.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Sermon: LIfe Changing Words

Mark 1:21-28
Life Changing Words
James Sledge                                                                                       January 28, 2018

I’ve been delivering Sunday sermons for over twenty years now. Some people like them; some don’t. Now and then a sermon may touch folks, and I’ll hear more comments than usual. Now and then one touches a nerve ,and I hear more complaints than usual. But if I ever had any illusions to the contrary, one thing I’ve learned over these twenty plus years is that preaching has limited power actually to change people.
Even when I preach a sermon that folks love, it doesn’t mean that it makes a great difference in their lives. It has its moment, then it evaporates. Other pastors tell me much the same. We have a scant examples of a sermon making a big difference in someone’s life.
Perhaps it wasn’t always so. A word from the pulpit likely carried more weight and influence long ago, had more of “Thus sayeth the Lord” quality to it. But as individualism grew stronger and trust in institutions grew weaker, messages from the pulpit were taken with a grain of salt. People need to be convinced.
In one church I served there was a member who would often say to me, “I enjoyed the lecture today.” He meant it as a compliment, but I suspect the only authority my “lecture” had was found in how good an argument it made. It had no intrinsic authority because it came from a pastor or was based in Scripture.
The Bible itself has suffered a similar fate. People will accept what it says if it makes sense to them, if it seems reasonable, but it isn’t assumed to be correct, true, or life-giving just because it’s the Bible.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Sermon: Insane Discipleship

Mark 1:14-20
Insane Discipleship
James Sledge                                                                                       January 21, 2018

At our session meetings (Session is the discerning and governing council for a Presbyterian church.) we always spend some time discussing a passage of scripture. At the January meeting, we discussed our gospel passage for today.
For this particular discussion, I had primed the pump a bit by including some discussion questions in the agenda. “What differences do you see between the two sets of brothers? Do those differences make it harder for some to follow Jesus? What gets in the way of our following Jesus? In the way of the church following Jesus?”
We started with the first question, quickly noting what many of you may have also noticed. The two sets of brothers appear to come from different circumstances. Simon and Andrew have only casting nets to toss from the shore, meaning they are likely subsistence fishermen. James and John, on the other hand, are part of a family business that has employees. The gospel writer emphasizes this for us by saying precisely what these two sets of brothers leave behind when the go with Jesus. Simon and Andrew leave only their nets, but James and John leave their father in the boat with the employees.
We discussed the impact that having a little or having a lot has on being able to follow Jesus. There were a variety of thoughts on this, but most of us agreed that it gets harder to let go of what you have the more that you have. Jesus says as much in his teachings, pointing out what a hindrance wealth is to becoming part of God’s new day.
But then one of our elders observed that for both sets of brothers, what happens is “insane.” They drop everything and go off with this Jesus fellow who just happens by and calls to them. As far as we know from the story Mark’s gospel tells, they’ve never met Jesus, perhaps never even heard of him.
That is insane, and the relative wealth of the different brothers seems not to make any difference at all. We might have expected James and John to struggle a bit more. They were leaving a lot more behind. The gospel writer has made a point of describing the different circumstances of these sibling pairs, but then it plays no role in what happens. Both pairs drop everything and go with Jesus. What on earth accounts for such insane behavior?

Monday, January 15, 2018

Undomesticating Jesus and MLK

Yesterday I preached a sermon from 1 Samuel 3 that wondered how prophets such as Martin Luther King, Jr. are able to hear God speak, able to catch divine visions or dreams. The sermon was written well before President Trump made his remarks about immigrants from sh**hole countries.
Those remarks made me contemplate a different sermon using the gospel reading for the day instead, John 1:43-51, which includes a comment about how Jesus’ hometown was considered a sh**hole country. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” But in the end I decided I didn’t want to do an entire sermon on Donald Trump’s racism.
Still, the confluence of Trump’s comments, the MLK holiday, and the president’s own proclamation honoring Dr. King on Friday, still has me feeling that I need to say something more than I did in worship yesterday. (I did note the gospel reading and its implications prior to the 1Samuel sermon.) I cannot imagine the prophet Martin not speaking out when immigrants of color are disparaged while ones from Scandinavia are lauded.
The strange contrast of President Trump honoring Dr. King on the day after the president’s racist remarks makes me worry about King’s legacy. That Trump could honor him while consistently acting in ways that would have appalled King says something about how King has become a revered image with much of his prophetic speech conveniently removed. Increasingly Dr. King is known by a few pithy and uplifting quotes. His scathing words against moderate whites, his resistance to the Vietnam War, and his outcry against police brutality are rarely mentioned. King has been sanitized and domesticated.
There are too many photographs and too much TV footage for King to be stripped of his blackness. Were that not the case, he could perhaps be made blonde and blue-eyed, totally domesticated in the manner of Jesus. Have you ever seen a depiction of Jesus as African and been jarred by it? But a fair-skinned, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus seems fine?
There is no better way to rob prophets and Messiahs of their power than by domesticating and honoring them. I fear that is happening to Dr. King, and I know it has already happened to Jesus. That people can profess to be Christian, followers of Jesus, and still loudly support Donald Trump, who so often stands diametrically opposed to Jesus’ teachings, reveals a Christianity that honors and celebrates Jesus without taking seriously anything he says.
Jesus reserved his most scathing remarks for wealth and for smug, respectable religious leaders. He came from a sh**hole part of Palestine and was happy to spend much of his time hanging out with those whom respectable people thought were sh**holes. He had special concern for the poor and oppressed, insisted that his followers not defend themselves when struck, demanded love of enemies as well as friends, and required disciples to give up their own good and willingly embrace suffering for the sake of his ministry. That Christians so seldom look like this is an indictment of the Church and of the religion that claims the name Christ.


Last year I saw the Oscar nominated, 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro, based on an unfinished manuscript by James Baldwin. (If you’ve not seen it, it will be airing soon on PBS.) Baldwin has never become enough of an icon that there’s been much need to domesticate him. He remains a figure of his own telling, his own words, unlike King, who is being transformed into a comfortable, benign Negro who is no threat to the white, American status quo.
The real Dr. King terrified much of white America, and many of his words would terrify people still if they were spoken aloud and celebrated. So too Jesus terrified the powers that be in his day. Jesus was no sweet, saccharine Savior interested only in granting tickets to heaven for those who “believed in him.” He proclaimed the coming reign of God, a new day when the poor and oppressed would be lifted up and the rich and powerful pulled down. And he warned those who would follow him about honoring him without doing as he said. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)
If Christians are to wear that name in any meaningful way, and if America is to honor Martin Luther King in any real sense, we will have to un-domesticate them. We must listen to them speak. We must let them startle and challenge us. We must let them change us, or they have become little more than empty symbols. They are neither prophet nor Messiah. They are idols, pocket talismans we expect to bless us on demand.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Sermon: Listening for God

1 Samuel 3:1-10
Listening for God
James Sledge                                                                                       January 14, 2018

The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.  When I was young, and even sometimes as an adult, I’ve thought that it would be great to have lived in biblical times. How much easier faith would  I’d been there to see God act, to hear Jesus teach, to encounter a prophet filled with God’s Spirit and speaking directly to me.
But the opening of our Scripture reading this morning doesn’t sound much like that.  The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.  Sure, people knew stories of God acting in the past, but there wasn’t much current activity. I wonder if people at the time of our reading wished they had lived in an earlier time, when God’s activity had been more vivid and obvious. But for them, God’s word was rare. No dreams or visions to share. No prophets speaking God’s word directly to them.
The opening of our scripture doesn’t sound so different from today, although many of us were alive when one of God’s prophets did speak. I was just a child, but I remember. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a prophet if there ever was one. God called him and gave him a vision to share. If Dr. King had lived in biblical times, I suspect his famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial would have been written down with an introduction something like, “The vision that the prophet Martin was given about the things to come.”  
Dr. King used the term dream instead of vision Perhaps he thought that would work better with both religious folks and more secular types who don’t think much of prophetic visions.