Sunday, May 15, 2016
Waiting and Praying
James Sledge May 15, 2016 – Pentecost
Imagine for a moment that some significant challenge faces your department at work, a group you’re a part of, maybe even your church congregation. Maybe your company’s sales have been hurt by online shopping. Maybe an organization you belong to wants to find a new way of fundraising, but doesn’t know where to start. Maybe your congregation is worried about Millennials not going to church and wonders how to respond.
Regardless of what sort of challenge it is you imagine or actually face, what are some of ways you might go about meeting the challenge? Perhaps form a task force or ad hoc committee? Maybe hire a consultant? Perhaps give the congregation an online survey to provide data for strategic planning.
In the weeks following the very first Easter, the little congregation of Jesus followers faced huge challenges. Many of the 120 or so of them still weren’t entirely sure what the resurrection meant. They had asked Jesus if he was going to restore Israel to power, but he said such things were not for them to know. They were, however, responsible for being his witnesses throughout all the world. Quite the challenge for a little congregation of 120.
Almost none of them had any leadership experience. Many of them had lived in the same place their entire lives. What did they know about going into all the world? Time to form a task force or hire a church growth expert. But they don’t do any of those things. In fact, by my typical way of thinking, they don’t do much of anything. They wait, and they pray.
Over the years, first as an elder on a church session and later as a pastor, I’ve had numerous opportunities to be a part of church or presbytery committees and councils dealing with problems large and small. And though it pains me to say it, I’ve often found myself frustrated by others in these groups who wanted to stop, to wait, to pray.
By nature I tend to be impatient. On top of that, I’m the product of a culture that values production, efficiency, and accomplishment. And it is hard to be productive or efficient or accomplish anything when you are waiting, when you are praying. Yet the explosion of the Christian faith all over the Mediterranean world, surely one of the great accomplishments of history, happened only after waiting and praying. The work was not something that little congregation could do by itself. It could only happen with the power of God, the Holy Spirit working through them, a story that begins at Pentecost.
Monday, May 9, 2016
Sunday, May 8, 2016
A Way of Deliverance and Liberation
James Sledge May 8, 2016
If you were in worship last week, you heard Diane preach about when Lydia met the Apostle Paul at Philippi. Paul had gone out from the city on the Sabbath, looking for a place of prayer. There he met Lydia, and she and all her household were baptized. She then opened her home to Paul, and presumably he and his companions stayed with her during their time in Philippi.
If you were in worship last week, or on any number of other occasions when Diane preached, you heard her close our worship by speaking of Christians as a people sent into the world. She charged us to go out into the world saying, “Consider that wherever you go this week, God is sending you there.”
I wonder if Paul discovered something about this sort of sending in the events of our scripture for today. The story is really a part of that reading from last week were Lydia met Paul and on beyond today’s passage. The story begins when a vision convinced Paul he was sent to Macedonia and its leading city, Philippi. Initially, the story played out along the lines Paul likely expected. He probably set up shop in the city to ply his trade, traditionally thought to be tentmaker, where he would talk to those he met in the marketplace.
On the Sabbath, Paul had gone out to find that place of prayer. There along the river just outside the city, Paul spoke to the worshipers he found there. Lydia was moved by the Spirit, the Church gained a new convert, and Lydia opened her home to Paul.
But then, on another day, Paul headed to the same place of prayer where he had met Lydia and met someone else. More to the point, an unnamed slave girls seems to have met him. The story says that she had a spirit of divination, and because of this possession, she recognizes Paul’s connection to God. She senses the Holy Spirit in him, and begins to follow Paul and his companions around, announcing, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation,” or “deliverance” or even “liberation.”
Perhaps Paul enjoyed the attention at first, especially when he learned about her how people paid her owners (literally “her lords”) for oracles she would speak. Surely her words would confer a bit of prestige on Paul with the locals. But after days of this, Paul was getting more and more annoyed. Curiously, Paul never seems to consider that he might be sent to this slave girl, to proclaim to her a way of deliverance or liberation. Yet when Paul can stand her no more, he heals her in a fit of pique. “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And immediately it was so.
Thursday, May 5, 2016
Interestingly, both readings conclude their respective gospels. But if Luke ends with Jesus telling the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the Spirit, followed by his ascension, Matthew concludes with Jesus sending the disciples out via what is often called "The Great Commission." These words are often cited as a call to evangelism, but such evangelism frequently strikes me as paying scant attention to the content of Jesus' commission.
A great deal of evangelism in America has focused on "accepting Jesus," and on "believing in him." There are certainly New Testament passages that seem to emphasize faith or belief, but this Great Commission in Matthew is not one of them. There is nothing here about believing and being saved. Instead Jesus says, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you." The emphasis is on making disciples, something done by baptizing and by teaching people "to obey everything that I have commanded you."
This call to obedience is how Jesus urges his followers to build his Church. That won't happen from signing up believers or adherents, but by making disciples or followers. And those commandments Jesus says these new disciple must obey include all that fun stuff about loving enemies, not retaliating against those who injure you, not swearing oaths on Bibles or anything else, the impossibility of serving wealth and God, not judging others, denying oneself, forgiving others over and over and over. And the list goes on and one.
Within all those commands, Jesus speaks more than once about a trees and their fruit. Trees, and people it seems, are known by the quality of their fruits. Consider the things the church in America is known for. The list is a mixed bag. It includes feeding the hungry, volunteering at homeless shelters, doing beautiful and uplifting worship, operating health clinics, settling refugee families, and more. But it also includes very public fights over everything from sanctuary carpet colors and worship songs to questions about whether to ordain women or gays. It includes preachers calling for violence against Muslims and carrying concealed weapons for self-defense. (See Jesus' command about "all who take the sword...") It includes "bathroom bills," disingenuously labeled "religious freedom bills," and every manner of discrimination and hate based on race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.
If you were able to take a poll of all non-Christians in America, asking them what "fruits" they associated with Christianity and the Church, I wonder which sort of fruits would top the list. My fear is that they would not be sort Jesus taught. That suggests to me that we need to re-embrace the Great Commission. I'm not talking about trying to "evangelize" people. Our fruits are already publicly proclaiming our faith, for better or worse. I'm talking about seriously embracing Jesus' call to teach each other to "obey everything" he has commanded. If we did that, we'd never have to convince anyone about Jesus.
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Monday, May 2, 2016
(Total aside: Why do reputable publications such as The Washington Post have a "Comments" section accompanying their articles on this or any topic? They seem to serve no real purpose other than empowering trolls. And the fact that we currently have a presidential candidate who sounds like a comment section come to life only adds to my concern about a fourth estate that has lost its vocational bearings. But enough venting for now.)
Gap year, or at least the term, was unknown to me until recently. I suppose there have long been students who chose to hike across Europe or work for a year prior to college, but my admittedly scant knowledge on gap years suggests this is a bit different. The sort of gap year engaged in by well-off suburbanites is likely not available to those of more modest means. Then again, the very idea seems a response to the over-scheduled, overly competitive, enrichment filled lives of many well-off, suburbanite youth.
The church I serve sits in a community that epitomizes well-off suburbia. My own children were grown prior to my arrival here, but here seems an only slightly amplified version of where they went to high school. That means that it feels slightly more tense and anxious . The pressures to measure up, excel, get into a good school, etc. are more intensified in this tense region surrounding our nation's capital.
Enter the gap year. In some versions, such years are no doubt as over-scheduled and competitive and enrichment-filled as was middle and high school. But at a more fundamental level, surely the gap year is an attempt to take a break from all that, from all the activity and competition and anxiety.
Understood thus, a gap year strikes me as a version of Sabbath. Because Sabbath became so connected to worship, a great many people, whether or not they are church-goers, seem unaware that Sabbath was originally about rest rather than worship. It was a command to stop, to cease. And it applied to everyone, even one's farm animals. If ever there was a piece of anti-anxiety legislation, surely the Fourth Commandment is one. (or Third Commandment, depending on your tradition).
I've told the following story so many times I've likely shared it here, but I'm an over-sharer when it comes to good stories. I heard this one from a colleague who related her experience attending some sort of ecumenical, clergy gathering. As with other other lines of work, pastors will "talk shop" when you put them together. On this occasion they began discussing what day each took off, a peculiar concern for pastors who typically "work" on Sunday.
As those gathered debated the relative merits of Friday versus Monday, one pastor objected to the very topic itself. "I never take a day off," he said. "The devil never takes a day off!"
To which my colleague replied, "But God does." (If you don't get her retort, read the first Creation story from the Bible's opening, Genesis 1:1-2:4.)
I've never fully understood it, but religious people can be remarkably anxious. Especially for Christians, who claim that nothing, not even death, can separate us from God and God's love, such anxiousness seems totally at odds with our faith. If God is indeed sovereign, as we Calvinists love to claim, then how could the world possibly spin out of control just because I took the day off? Never mind what the devil does or doesn't do.
The notion of Sabbath insists that life, in all its intended abundance, cannot occur in a state of constant anxiety. God commands a "gap day" for each week to break our tendency to pursue endless cycles of anxiety. Our culture has become particularly practiced at this. We have learned to quantify almost everything, and then we are able to worry about whether or not we have enough. Inevitably, we need more. We need more money, more power, better grades, more efficiency, more experiences, more accomplishments, more fitness, more sleep, more, more, more.
My old running watch recently broke and needed to be replaced. The old one told me basic info runners like to know: how far I've gone, my pace, and my heart rate. But the new watch does so much more. It has functions popularized by Fitbits and can track my steps and my sleep. If I wear it all night, it tells me not only how many hours of sleep I got but also how many of those hours were "deep sleep." And it color codes both to let me know when I'm deficient, where I need more. Now I can add anxiety about sleep to my others.
There is much in the world over which to be anxious. Neither I nor the Bible advocate a "What me worry?" attitude toward life. But our worries and anxieties are definitely something we need less of and not more. So where do we find our break, our gap, our Sabbath?
Most of us cannot manage a gap year, but we can cultivate practices of cessation, of stopping, of not measuring or marking anything. We can cultivate the spiritual practice of rest, of simply being, of Sabbath. Call it whatever you like, but what many of us need in our lives is to take a break from our culture's dominant focus on consumerism and acquisition. We desperately need a gap in such activities. God has said so from the beginning.
Sunday, April 24, 2016
Transformed by Love
James Sledge April 24, 2016
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” But exactly how new is this commandment? Love your neighbor as yourself is in the Old Testament book of Leviticus. And haven’t parents been trying to get siblings to love one another since the beginning of time? Isn’t a mom yelling, “Why can’t you two just get along?” an exasperated version of “Love one another!”?
At first glance, this command to love one another also seems a lot less noble, a lot less impressive than some of Jesus’ other commands such as, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Now that’s an extraordinary accomplishment, surely something much more difficult than loving those around you, than loving one another.
Then again, “one another” presumably refers to those we spend a lot of time with, those who have ample opportunities to annoy us, hurt us, disagree with us, get under out skin, and disappoint us. And if our enemy is nameless and faceless, some group way over there, they may not stir our emotions nearly so much as that family member we can’t abide, or that member of the congregation who seems to go out of his or her way to be difficult and cause trouble
There’s an old Peanuts cartoon that I think captures this well. (I’ve updated the language a bit.) Lucy has told Linus that he can’t be a doctor because he doesn’t love humankind. Linus yells back, “I love humankind… It’s people I can’t stand!!”
Humanity… nameless, faceless others in general, even some who are enemies, perhaps we can love them on principle. But those people that we encounter on a regular basis, who irritate and annoy and cause us all manner of problems… that’s another matter entirely. “Love one another,” may not sound all that noble or impressive, but doing it isn’t very easy.
That doesn’t really make it a new commandment though. What is new about love one another?
Monday, April 18, 2016
These Beatitudes (from the Latin for "blessing") have suffered from a fair amount of trivializing over the years. They frequently get referred to as the "Be Happy Attitudes," as though Jesus was here offering some tips for self-improvement or success. But any self help guru who suggested mourning, anguished longing for the world to be set right, or persecution as a prescription for happiness would not last long in that role.
Jesus/God clearly has different priorities than most of us do. Jesus has little interest in possessions, and he regularly invites people to leave what they have behind and follow him. Many of the things we call blessings involve acquisition and getting, but Jesus says that the path to life goes through giving, self-denial, and concern for "the other."
My own Calvinist tradition is largely responsible for the so-called "Protestant work ethic." In its origins it equated hard work and success with signs that you were a member of God's "elect." Yet Jesus' beatitudes speak of God's favor being on people most of us would not list as paragons of success. And in Luke's gospel, a similar set of beatitudes says, "Blessed are you who are poor..." And it later adds, "But woe to you who are rich..." The same pattern follows for those who are "hungry" and those who are "full." Not sure how that fits into a hard work + success = God's blessing.
Our culture often blames those who are poor for their fate. They are presumed to be lazy or without initiative. Yet God seems to be quite taken with the poor. It's a theme that recurs regularly in Old and New Testaments. Whether that poverty is spiritual or literal, God looks with favor on those who are too often despised for their "failings." And I'm pretty sure that Jesus' teachings are encouraging us see things more from God's point of view.
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Monday, April 11, 2016
The context for my wondering is a secular mindset in a secular age. The stories of the Bible, of Jesus, of healings and miracles do not sit easily in our world. I'm not Thomas Jefferson, taking a razor and carefully removing all the miracle stories associated with Jesus in order to produce a pure collection of Jesus' teachings without foolish superstitions about demons and evil spirits and healings and exorcisms. But I do struggle with miracles. When I hear of a televangelist or other religious figure offering healings or other miracles, I assume he or she is a con and a fraud.
But do such secular assumptions create problems for following Jesus? Is there a change of mind, a repentance required of me and those like me if I am to be properly oriented for following Jesus?
I'm unsure of the exact connection, but the rise of a secular worldview seems to parallel the development of individualism. In its best forms this has encouraged everyone to recognize his or her own intrinsic value and worth. In its worst forms it has transformed us into free agents, each of us responsible for self alone, no overriding loyalties, allegiances, debts, or commitments. If one is wealthy, it is because she had done well for herself. If one is poor, it is because he has done poorly.
The message of Jesus certainly seems compatible with notions of intrinsic value and worth for every individual. But it seems totally at odds with being free agents. In the alternative community Jesus proclaims, there are profound commitments and obligations to the neighbor, to the other. And Jesus expands the neighborhood to include outsiders and enemies. It is a worldview that allows Jesus to die for the sake of others, even for enemies.
But central to Jesus' proclamation is the certainty that the power of God to transform, the bring life out of death, to make all things new, is active and at work in the world. God is shaping things, bending the arc of history toward particular outcomes. And if the power of God is at work in the world, then surely miracles must at least be a possibility.
Possibility and control are two very different things, and I suspect that much modern skepticism around religious miracles has roots in issues of control. Think of televangelists who offer healing for a donation or, more commonly, the notion of being healed if you pray hard enough or have sufficient faith. This is less about the power of God moving in surprising and life giving ways and more about formulas to harness such power. And one thing the Bible makes clear over and over is that the God of Jacob, the God we meet in Jesus, will not be harnessed. The God of Sinai and of the cross is radically wild and free.
But if God will not be harnessed, what does it mean to follow this Jesus who could trust his very life to the power of God to make new and give life? Surly it requires, at the very least, being open to the power of God at work in the world. And I'm not always open to such things.
Very often the Christian faith practiced by Presbyterians and other Mainline/Oldline denominations can be a mix of "believing in Jesus" and trying to follow some of his teachings (at least those we like). But this often includes no expectation that anything other than our own devices are involved. We're not inclined to claim any ability to control the power of God. We seem to think that only power involved is the power we possess. At least I often seem to operate from such a point of view.
And that is why I'm wondering about repentance, about a change of mind.
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Sunday, April 10, 2016
The Story Continues
James Sledge April 10, 2016
When I go to the movies, I’m one of those people who sit there as the credits roll. I’m not sure why. Sometimes I’m actually looking for something such as song that was in the movie. Other times it’s just what I do. And every once in a while, something pops up after the credits, a blooper from the filming, an epilogue, a teaser about a sequel.
Something similar happens in today’s gospel reading, though given the way we use scripture in worship, reading a few paragraphs each Sunday morning, it’s easy to miss such things. But go back a page or so and you’ll see it. John has told us of the empty tomb and the risen Jesus speaking to Mary Magdalene early on Easter morning. Then we read of Jesus appearing that night to the disciples, and then appearing again when Thomas, who missed the previous appearance, is present.
Then the gospel seems to conclude saying, Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and through believing you may have life in his name. The End. Let the credits roll.
If you’d been listening to an audio version of John’s gospel in the car, you might well turn it off at thispoint. You might leave during the credits and completely miss our reading for today. Jesus reappears, after the credits, after the gospel is over, after the story has been told.
Monday, March 28, 2016
I suppose it could be a matter of getting older. I do notice the impact of the years. I'm a slower runner than I once was. I injure more easily and heal more slowly, the typical stuff. But I do not think age explains my tiredness.
I wonder if the problem is not related to Easter, but not with regards to all the energy expended because of the season. I wonder if my tiredness does not come from a nagging sense that the victory of Easter feels hollow.
I say that out of a my understanding of just what the victory of Easter actually entails. I realize the this victory often gets reduced to little more than personal immortality. Believe the right things and get your ticket to heaven. But such a reduction requires ignoring a great deal of what Jesus said and did and commanded.
Jesus came proclaiming God's rule, the kingdom. This very political term speaks of a society arranged according to very different values and principles than those of most societies. This kingdom is especially concerned with those at the bottom and those who are outsiders. It is rooted in an ethic of radical love, one that loves even enemies. It calls for self giving and self denial, behavior clearly seen in Jesus' own willingness to give his own life.
The way Jesus teaches is thought to be foolish and ridiculous by the world. (See 1 Corinthians 1:18ff.) Anyone who fully embraces the way of Jesus will be torn apart by the world, which is precisely what happens to Jesus. The world won and Jesus lost. Yet the resurrection insists otherwise.
And so we celebrate that Christ is risen, risen indeed. We sing our Alleluias. And then we continue to live as though the world had triumphed. We hate our enemy and pray for victory against them. We build a society that celebrates wealth and goes to great lengths to protect it. We imagine that our ease and comfort matters more than the life and death struggles of those who are different from us or have the misfortune to live in other lands.
I do not say such things meaning they are someone else's problems. I too celebrate Easter and then live as though it never happened. I worship at the idol of wealth and possessions. I'm a willing participant in our consumerist culture of "more." And my life has more than a few people that I cannot seem to love or pray for as Jesus commanded.
Sometimes I think my tiredness is a matter of despair, and I want God to do something about it. I want God to straighten me out, straighten the Church out, straighten the world out. And I'm tired of waiting,.. Tired of waiting.
When I find myself experiencing this sort of tiredness, I sometimes find comfort in knowing that my longing for God to act is a not uncommon refrain in the Bible. The phrase, "How long, O LORD" occurs over and over in the psalms. Indeed the psalm of lament is the the most common form in the psalter. (Ps 13 How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? Ps. 35 How long, O LORD, will you look on? Ps. 89 How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever?)
Jesus goes so far as to announce God's favor on those who are tired of waiting, saying that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who long for the world to be set right, are blessed. And Easter proclaims that Jesus' view of things is correct. Yet the world, and I, keep living in ways that suggest otherwise.
In the gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus begins his ministry with a call to "Repent." There is change required if we are to be part of the new thing Jesus is doing. But I cling to the ways of the world. I resist the ways of the kingdom Jesus proclaims, even if those ways triumphed over death itself. I struggle against the new life Jeasus invites me to enjoy. Maybe that's we I'm so tired.
Sunday, March 27, 2016
Light in the Darkness
James Sledge March 27, 2016 – Resurrection of the Lord
The first church I served as pastor did an Easter sunrise service with four other churches, though the term “sunrise” was a bit of a misnomer. Only one of the five pastors wanted to make it a true sunrise event. Every year he would argue for a location and a time where worshipers would experience the sun rising above the horizon mid-service. And every year the rest of us would shoot him down. None of us really liked getting up that early to begin with, and we always scheduled the service as late as practical.
I suppose that sunrise services are to be expected considering that the first Easter happens early in the morning. Interestingly, however, there is no mention of sunrise in John’s gospel, quite the opposite. The gospel tells us that Mary went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and presumably, the entire story takes place in darkness.
Of course darkness has featured prominently in John’s gospel from the beginning. John’s gospel has no Christmas story. Instead it goes all the way back to Creation for its start. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (By the way, if you know the Genesis story that starts, In the beginning… you know that darkness covered the face of the deep. But to continue with John’s beginning.) He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him is life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
In the darkness, Mary heads out for the tomb. She’s distraught at having lost Jesus, and now that Passover and Sabbath are over, she can go and visit his tomb. A body is all she has now. But then she discovers that even that is gone.