Sunday, March 26, 2017

Sermon: Hearing and Seeing

John 9:1-41
Hearing and Seeing
James Sledge                                                                                       March 26, 2017
John’s gospel is often misunderstood and misused by modern Christians who do not realize that John writes to Jewish Christians. His congregation is in conflict with synagogue leaders who threaten to throw them out over their non-orthodox beliefs. When John speaks disparagingly of “the Jews,” he does not use the term literally (true of many terms in John). It refers only to those powers-that-be who are threatening his community.

As he walked along, (Jesus) saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
“Why is this man blind?” ask the disciples. “What caused this?” Of course they already have assumptions about the causes. When they look at that blind man, they see him in a certain light.
“Whose fault is it that this man is blind?” It must be someone’s fault. There’s some reason that the only way he can survive is to stand on a street corner begging, like those people with their signs that I pass all the time in my car. Who’s fault is it?
The disciples look at the world and see it a certain way, and so they see a man who deserves his fate in some way, at least indirectly. If he hadn’t caused the problem himself, he was the product of bad family background.
Jesus seems not to see the world the same way the disciples do, that I do. He shows little interest in determining fault, but he does see an opportunity to show God’s love moving in the world, to be light in the darkness while there is the chance.
It’s an odd interaction. There’s spit and mud and a command. “Go to Siloam and wash.” The blind man hasn’t even asked Jesus for any help, but when Jesus speaks to him, he does just as Jesus says. And then he can see. Regardless of why he was born blind, regardless of why he’s there at Seven Corners with his sign every day, this is a wonderful moment. He won’t have to beg any more. Everyone that knows him will be celebrating.
But many of his neighbors don’t seem to recognize him anymore. He looks vaguely familiar, but he’s not a blind beggar. It must be someone else.
Way back when I was in elementary school, a girl with some significant learning and emotional challenges sat next to me. This was the 1960s, before there was much sensitivity to such things. She had few friends and struggled to keep up in class. It seemed likely she would have to repeat the grade.
One day we had our weekly spelling test, and Cathy was excited because she had spelled all ten words correctly. I knew better. I had seen her glancing at my paper, and I told the teacher. The classmate behind me agreed, and the teacher had her take the test again. She got them all correct again.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Sermon: Drawn to the Water

John 4:5-42
Drawn to the Water
James Sledge                                                                           March 19, 2017
In this sermon, people playing the parts of Jesus and the Samaritan woman come to the well. They speak the words spoken by these two while the pastor narrates and offers some observations at several pauses in the action. As such the scripture reading is woven into the sermon itself. The congregation joins in reading the last verse of the scripture which also concludes the sermon.

So Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.  (Jesus walks out and sits down.)
7A Samaritan woman came to draw water (Woman comes to the well.), and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (8His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)

A Samaritan woman.  I’m not sure it is possible for us to appreciate the force of these words. We have no experience with the enmity between Jews and Samaritans or the status of women in Jesus’ day. But there are those we’d rather not talk to if we met in a strange or unfamiliar place. Perhaps our Samaritan woman, the one we don’t share things in common with, is a black male, a Syrian refugee, an illegal alien, an unhinged conservative, a raving liberal, a transgender woman.
That doesn’t apply to Nicodemus, the last person Jesus met. He’s a respected, educated, religious leader, a white Presbyterian of his day. He came to Jesus in the dark of night, impressed and curious, but also wary. This unnamed woman, an outsider many of us would rather not speak to, is approached by Jesus, a man she has never heard of, because he is thirsty in the noonday heat and needs her help.

10Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Living water. For Nicodemus the term was born again. In the gospel’s original language, both terms have double meanings. The literal meanings speak of being born a second time or of fresh, flowing water in contrast to that from a cistern. Figuratively they speak of being born from above or of life-giving waters. Both Nicodemus and this woman hear Jesus literally and so misunderstand him. For Nicodemus, this becomes a total roadblock.
But while this unnamed, female, outsider misunderstands as well, she remains open. Something about her, her lack of religious certainty perhaps, her need for water perhaps. “Sir, give me this water. I’m tired of being thirsty and I’m tired of having to come back here over and over. I’m tired of the all the drudgery and barely keeping my head above water. I’m tired of whatever I do not being enough. Sir, whatever it is you have, please give it to me.”

Monday, March 6, 2017

Sermon Video: Listening for Who We Are

Be warned. I have an extended coughing fit in this sermon.

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Sermon: Faith Prenups

Matthew 19:16-26
Faith Prenups
James Sledge                                                                                                   March 5, 2017

I’ve told this story before, but it’s a favorite of mine and, I hope, worth telling again. It took place a long time ago in Birmingham, Alabama, where James Bryan served as pastor at Third Presbyterian from 1889 until 1939. Over that time he became an influential and beloved figure in the city. Everyone knew Brother Bryan.
He was noted as an evangelist, for work on racial reconciliation, and especially for his work with the poor and homeless. There’s still a Brother Bryan Mission in Birmingham, along with a Brother Bryan Park and a statue of him that’s a well-known city landmark. 
Bryan thought of himself as pastor to everyone he met. One day he met a well to do businessman, and in their conversations asked the man whether he was a tither. The man was not familiar with this practice of giving the first 10 percent of one’s income to God, so Brother Bryan launched into a stirring biblical argument for tithing. 
The businessman responded, “Oh you don’t understand. I make a lot of money. Ten percent would be a whole lot more than I could afford to give to a church.”
Brother Bryan replied, “Well sir, I think we ought to pray about this.” He got down on his knees and cried out to heaven, “Cut him down Lord, cut him down! Lord, please reduce this man’s income so he can afford to tithe!”
 I don’t know if this story really happened, but I’m pretty sure it’s true. Many make a lot or have a lot that gets in the way of being a disciple, just like the rich man who visits Jesus.
This rich young man seems like a pretty good guy, the sort any church would want as a member. He’s serious about the biblical commands, so unlike that businessman, he did tithe. But like the businessman, there were things he could not let go of. He wanted to follow Jesus, but he went away grieving. The thought of what he would lose was just too much.
This story has unnerved Jesus’ followers from the moment it happened. It might have been an isolated story about one rich man except Jesus adds a blanket statement. “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven… it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.” This stuns the disciples. Like many of us, they think of wealth as a blessing. But Jesus speaks of it as a curse.
A lot of time in a lot of sermons has been spent trying to un-curse wealth, but the meager level of giving in many churches suggests that clinging to our wealth is still a major hurdle for those who would follow Jesus. But while a discipline of giving is critical for anything resembling spiritual maturity, I’m not sure that’s what today’s scripture is about.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Giving Love for Lent

It’s sometimes referred to as the Shema, from the Hebrew word that begins the command. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” This verse from Deuteronomy is the one Jesus quotes when asked for the “greatest commandment." He then pairs it with another from Leviticus. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

I wonder if either command is really possible, but I’m especially doubtful about loving God with all one’s heart, soul, and might. Do we ever really give our all to another? Think about the loving relationships that you have been a part of. Was there not always some small part of yourself that you held back? Can a psychologically healthy self be maintained without some holding back of that self?

Perhaps I’m nitpicking. No doubt God makes allowances for such limitations, but even then I wonder about this command to love God with our all. I certainly don’t do it, and in twenty plus years as a pastor, I’ve not run across anyone I thought was close to pulling it off. Even taking into account the hyperbole typical of biblical/Middle Eastern speech, what does it mean to fail so regularly to keep what Jesus says is the most important commandment?

Of course we Protestants have a long history of neglecting the commandment/obedience side of faith. However it isn’t our theology that has led us astray so much as popular thinking and practice. Our theology correctly points to the love and grace of God that is offered to us simply because that’s how God is. We can’t get God to love us by being obedient. But too often this truth has been perverted to say that we don’t need to be obedient. Pop theology and practice speaks of faith in Jesus being all that’s needed. In such thinking, faith replaces obedience, but that is not so.

Consider those loving relationships you have had with other people. Think especially about the love a parent has for a child. When a child comes into the world she doesn’t usually have any accomplishments to merit love from her parent, but most parents are wired to love their children anyway. Such love simply is. But if a child never learns to respond to that love, never learns to love back, it will be a messy relationship. Her parent may never stop loving her, but just knowing and trusting that she is loved is not sufficient for a relationship.

Marriages and other loving partnerships are similar. One person in a partnership may love the other deeply and give of herself as fully as is humanly possible. But if the other does not respond, never choosing to love back, the relationship is doomed. Even if the one doing all the loving never stops, the relationship cannot work.

The biblical commands are how we love God back. Unfortunately, religious folks have tended to think in terms of requirements and formulas. Such thinking often views commandments/obedience as the old formula now replaced by a new formula of belief/faith. But Jesus rejects such thinking. He even insist on those old commandments to love God with our all and to love neighbor as ourselves, saying that they embody all the “law and the prophets.”

That brings me right back to where I started, those impossible commands to love. I’ve chased myself around in a circle, but perhaps I gained one small insight along the way. Thinking about those human relationships I mentioned above, I would say that on the whole my wife is probably better at loving me than I am at loving her. That imbalance can create problems, but I do try to love her, and I do try to get better at it from time to time. I may not be very good at it, but I do love her back. I do respond to her love, and somehow it is enough to keep the relationship going, even when it is far short of my all.

I have confidence that God is even more tolerant than my wife, which is a good thing because I’m even worse at loving God than I am at loving my wife. But I am trying to work on it. I am trying to get better. Maybe what I need to “give up” for Lent is a little bit more of myself to God.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Sermon: Listening for Who We Are

Matthew 17:1-9
Listening for Who We Are
James Sledge                                       February 26, 2017 – Transfiguration Sunday

When you watch a movie or read a novel, do you ever relate to one of the characters? How about a story or fable with a clear moral or lesson like some of Jesus’ parables?
Consider the parable of the lost sheep where the shepherd leaves the 99 in search of the one. It is endearing partly because we realize that we may get lost now and then. But if we don’t identify with the lost sheep, if we think of ourselves as good little sheep who would never stray, the parable may be less appealing.
The parable of the prodigal is similar. It’s beloved because many like the notion that God welcomes us back and celebrates our return no matter how badly we’ve strayed. But if we only identify with the elder brother, the good, well-behaved, dutiful son whom Dad never celebrated or rewarded, we may not like the parable so much.
Today’s scripture is not a parable so this whole discussion may seem pointless. But Matthew expects us, as the Church, to identify with some of the characters in the story.
We modern folks struggle to use the gospels as originally intended. For ancient people, history and myth were not necessarily at odds, and truth was not primarily about facts. Our modern notions of truth lead us to read the gospels as accounts of what happened. Even those who don’t take these accounts literally still tend to hear them as reports of events.
An online joke shows a Sunday School picture of Jesus teaching the disciples. He says, “Okay everyone, now listen carefully. I don’t want to end up with four different versions of this.” It is funny, but it also misunderstands why we ended up with four gospels.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sermon: Fulfilling Our Purpose

Matthew 5:33-48
Fulfilling Our Purpose
James Sledge                                                                                       February 19, 2017

What are some of the groups or organizations you belong to? I’ve never been a big “joiner,” but over the years I’ve been a member in good standing with a number of groups. I once was a member of the AWSA or American Water Ski Association. I’m a member of alumni associations at two universities and one seminary, and the AARP has sent me multiple invitations to become a member, but I always throw them away.
What does it mean to be a member of a group or organization? Why join the AARP or Water Ski Association or Chamber of Commerce or a club at school? Why are you a member of the groups you belong to?
Reasons for joining groups and organizations vary. I had to join the AWSA in order to enter waterski tournaments. I didn’t really ask to join the alumni associations, and the AARP promises me discounts on products and services along with various other benefits.
I’m not a member of the Smithsonian, though I could become one for $26.00. But I did recently have the chance to visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. You can’t really see it all in a day, but it is a remarkable experience.
The history portion is designed so that you start at the very bottom floor, well below ground, moving through dark exhibits about slave ships and the early slave trade. As you continue you, you move up through the Civil War, Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow and segregation, the Civil Rights movement, ending at the inauguration of our first African American president.
As I worked my way through sections focused on the Civil Rights movement with exhibits on the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Freedom Riders, and the March on Washington, the term “member” was largely absent. There were certainly organizations that one could join that supported the movement, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) or the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), but the big moments of the Civil Rights Movement weren’t about membership. They were about active participation.
I’m not sure how it was that the Church came to use the term “member” to speak of the participants in a local community of faith. After all, we already had a perfectly good word: “disciple.” It’s the word used for the first followers of Jesus and the word Jesus uses when he commands those disciples to begin building the Church. “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 Church’s job, according to Jesus, is to make disciples, something that happens by baptism and by obedience, by learning to obey the commands Jesus gives us. And the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ first big discipleship lesson.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sermon: Fulfilling the Law

Matthew 5:21-32
Fulfilling the Law
James Sledge                                                                                       February 12, 2017

Today’s Old Testament reading is part of a covenant renewal ceremony. Moses has led Israel for decades in the wilderness, but before they finally enter the land of promise, Moses reminds them of the covenant with God made at Mount Sinai, That includes the Ten Commandments, some of which Jesus recalls in our gospel reading. You shall not murder. Neither shall you commit adultery. Neither shall you steal. Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor. Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife.
Notice there’s nothing about coveting your neighbor’s husband. That’s because women were thought of as property. To covet a man’s wife was to think about stealing his property. Similarly, adultery was a property crime in that it damaged another man’s property.
Things had not changed much by Jesus’ day. Wealthy Roman women enjoyed a bit more freedoms, but by and large women were subordinate to and dependent on men. When a man divorced a woman – which could be done easily – she could quickly find herself in poverty and danger. We live in very different times, but residue of those ancient views is still with us.
I recently read a book by local colleague Ruth Everhart. It’s a memoir that begins with a home invasion at the place she and her college roommates rented in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Two intruders held the women for hours at gunpoint and raped them repeatedly. The rest of the book is about the long, long struggle to put her life back together, to become whole again. The title of the book is telling: Ruined.[1]
Perhaps some of you saw Ruth’s column in The Washington Post just before Christmas. She spoke of a religious “culture of purity” that celebrates the virgin Mary in ways that only add to the pain of those like her.[2] Religion has often enforced and encouraged standards of sexual purity that weigh much more heavily on women, echoes, no doubt, of a time when women were reduced to property.
So what to do with religious rules from ancient times and cultures? Christians have sometimes viewed this as an Old Testament problem that gets fixed by Jesus and the New Testament, but there are multiple problems with such a view.