Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Hiding from God

I am currently on "study leave," one of the perks we pastors enjoy. My denomination requires that churches give their pastors at least two weeks of such leave on top of vacation. I often use this time to attend conferences or workshops, but this one is different. I had the free use of a beach condo, and so I packed up my books (or in this case my iPad with Kindle app) and headed to Myrtle Beach.

It's fairly quiet here in late October, but the weather has been lovely. I've been able to sit on the balcony in the warm sun as I read, looking up occasionally across the dunes to the water beyond. There are a few people on the beach, largely hidden by the dunes, but the pool right below me is deserted. There is almost nothing to distract me save an occasional dragonfly buzzing by. And so I've had to create my own distractions.

I have been getting a lot of reading done, but I've done less well with another piece of my time here. I told some folks I was coming here for "a time of study and personal retreat." For a pastor, the term "retreat" carries some significant spiritual connotations, the expectation that my time here would include some very deliberate time of drawing near to God. But it feels more like I've been hiding.

That thought didn't really occur to me until today. This morning was the first chilly one, and so I had been reading on the couch inside. At one point I got, refilled the coffee cup, then stepped out onto the small balcony for a moment. I stood there, leaning on the railing, and for some reason, the story of Elijah fleeing into the wilderness and ending up at Mt. Horeb came to mind. (If you're not familiar with it, the story begins at 1 Kings 19.)

In the story, Elijah is fresh off one of his greatest triumphs, but there is also a threat on his life. Considering all the wonders God had just done through Elijah on a different mountain, Mt. Carmel, it is a bit strange the Elijah falls into such a deep funk, but he does. He journeys into the wilderness, sits down, and asks to die. Eventually an angel provides food and prods him to travel to Horeb. There he finds shelter in a cave, but his depression seems little improved.

My own back story and situation have little in common with Elijah, but still the image of emerging from the cave struck me as I leaned on the balcony railing. There was no violent wind, no earthquake or fire. There wasn't even a "sound of sheer silence," what older translations rendered "a still, small voice." The sound of the waves was enough that no one would call it silent, but is was still. And I could not help but wonder if God didn't pose the same question to me long ago spoken to the prophet. "What are you doing here?"

What am I doing here? What am I up to? I'm on study leave, of course, but the question is bigger than that, just as it was for Elijah. I imagine it's the sort of question we are all meant to wrestle with at times. Perhaps we even need to be in a bad, depressed, uncertain, confused, or similar place for the question to have the required poignancy. Just what is it we are up to? And along with that, what are we supposed to be up to?

Elijah snaps out of his funk when God gives him work to do and sends him on his way. I suspect that God's "What are you doing here?" question is always connected to a calling, to what it is we're supposed to be doing. It's easy to imagine this being only for larger than life characters such as biblical prophets, but I'm convinced it's equally true for pastors and every other sort of regular person of faith. I wish God would be as obvious as in the Elijah story. Then again, maybe that's just the story's way of making its point clear. Maybe Elijah struggled to hear God a much as I do. After all, he got depressed enough to run away and want to die.

What are you doing here, James? And what are you doing, whoever and wherever you are? I think there is always a command that follows the question, a call to "Go." And somewhere in that "Go" is what it means to be fully alive.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sermon: Not a Party Without You

Luke 15:1-2, 11-32
Not a Party Without You
James Sledge                                                   October 19, 2014 (Stewardship 3)

How many of you enjoy a good dinner party or a big cookout or a great wedding reception with lots of good food and drink? I like nothing better than a gathering of friends enjoying great food and good wine. I’ve been to a few such parties and gatherings where I’m tempted to sound like a commercial and say, “Life doesn’t get any better than this.”
Turns out Jesus thought much the same. When he wants to talk about the coming of God’s new day, he doesn’t use the image of prophets like Isaiah who spoke of a peaceable kingdom where “the wolf shall live with the lamb.”  Instead Jesus speaks of a great wedding banquet.
Wedding were the social occasions of Jesus’ day. They were often huge, lavish events that lasted for a week, and Jesus uses them as an image of the day that is to come. “People will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God,” says Jesus. The book of Revelation sounds a similar note as it moves to its joyful conclusion. “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.”
In the early church, worship included a meal where the Lord’s Supper was celebrated. The imagery is largely lost in our day, but the church gathered at table understood itself to be participating in a preview of the great banquet to come. We still proclaim, “This is the joyful feast,” even if our meager communion elements look little like a grand party.
If a sociologist who knew nothing of Christianity were to study American congregations, I wonder if she would ever conclude that our faith anticipates a grand, extravagant party. Christian faith in our country is so individualistic, about my salvation or my spirituality. People can be members in good standing at most churches with little sense of a joyful, community gathered for a feast. Many seem uninterested in joining a party.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Sermon: Citizens and First Century Stewardship Problems

2 Corinthians 9:1-15
Citizens and First Century Stewardship Problems
James Sledge                                                   October 12, 2014 (Stewardship 2)

Comedian and actor Bob Newhart is probably known better today for roles such as the elf father in Will Ferrell’s movie Elf or guest appearances on “The Big Bang Theory,” for which he won an Emmy last year. Some likely recall a couple of different Bob Newhart TV shows. And if you’re my age and older, you may remember that he started as a standup comedian, and his signature bit was the one-sided phone conversation.
Newhart, with his slow, deadpan delivery, is a bit of a comic oddity, a straight-man who gets the laughs. That slow delivery allows people to supply the punchline, to imagine the unseen person on the other end of the phone providing it. If you’ve never seen a Newhart phone bit, you should watch a YouTube video of him.
I mention Newhart and his phone routines because we encounter something similar with Paul’s letters. Not that there’s much comedy, but these are one-sided conversations. We hear Paul responding to questions, problems, controversies, situations, and events without having much specific knowledge of those things. We must do some filling in the gaps based on the side of the conversation we can hear.
“Now it is not necessary for me to write to you about the ministry to the saints, for I know your eagerness…” Of course for us, it’s not at first clear what this ministry to the saints might be, why it’s not necessary for Paul to write about it, or why he does, in fact, write a great deal about it.
The ministry to the saints is apparently an offering Paul is collecting for the church in Jerusalem. Paul’s work on this offering shows up in several of his letters, including a previous one to those in Corinth. It’s not clear exactly what the need was, but Paul has obviously placed a great deal of importance on helping the Christians there.
It’s worth recalling that Paul is not always on the best of terms with the folks in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Christians are Jewish, and they require any non-Jews who want to join them to become Jewish first, adopt Jewish dietary restrictions and males be circumcised. But Paul, although he is Jewish, has been starting non-Jewish churches in places like Corinth without requiring circumcision or dietary restrictions. He even insists these not be done.
Yet Paul has no desire to separate from the Jewish Christians or to start a different, non-Jewish faith. Paul understands Jesus as God’s way of joining Gentiles to God’s salvation story that runs through Israel, and he sees the offering for the needy Jewish Christians in Jerusalem as a tangible witness to their unity in Christ. He is excited about this opportunity to demonstrate this unity that they have in Jesus despite their significant theological difficulties.
Apparently the Corinthians were excited, too. Or at least they had been. Now, Paul seems worried that things have changed. He’s bragged about their enthusiastic support of the offering, inspiring others in the process, but will the Corinthians follow through?
And here Paul runs smack into a basic stewardship problem. On the one hand, there is the practical matter of needed funds. He’s made a commitment to help needy Christians in Jerusalem and is determined to keep that commitment. He’s even willing to do a bit of arm twisting, saying both he and the Corinthians will be humiliated if the offering is not ready.
But on the other hand, simply avoiding humiliation and providing funds is not what Paul is after. This explains the tension in Paul’s appeal, and in many church stewardship campaigns. The money is needed, and Paul is willing to work hard to get it. But Paul also wants the Corinthians to discover something deeper. He wants them to be the cheerful, happy, joyful givers that God loves.
Now it may sound hard to believe, but I did not originally notice the connection between today’s reading from 2 Corinthians and this year’s stewardship theme, “Our Community of Joyful Givers.” I’m not sure how I missed it, but I did. When I finally did notice, I went back and read the passage over and over again, wondering just what makes for cheerful, joyful givers rather than reluctant, begrudging ones.

Sermon video from Oct. 5: Falling into God

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Make Me Happy, God

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
     whose hope is in the LORD their God,
who made heaven and earth,
     the sea, and all that is in them;
Psalm 146:5-6

If you enjoy trite theology, join Facebook. And you don't need to seek it out. Just "friend" enough folks, and it will find you. Some good stuff may find you, too, but you are sure to see plenty of posters and pictures with pithy sayings such as "God is about to make your greatest pains become your greatest strengths." Perhaps. Or perhaps your greatest pain is some dreadful disease that will shortly kill you. I'm not suggesting that God can't do anything with you beyond that, but I'm not sure that's the same as turning your Alzheimer's or cancer into a great strength.

Sometimes Facebook theology posters feature a scripture verse, but rarely with much context. I don't that I've seen one using today's psalm, but it could work. "Happy are those whose help is in the God of Jacob" plastered over a big smiley face. I don't dispute the psalm, but it turns out that God sometimes defines happiness much differently than I do. Read the entire psalm and you'll get a better sense of that. Jesus' beatitudes offer some more insights.

Of course trite theology is not restricted to Facebook. In fact, most all of us lapse into it at times. We imagine that what we want or what we are trying to do is somehow synonymous with what God wants. And so we pray that God would heal our illness or help our congregations grow and deal with their financial difficulties (which is all well and good). But if we or our congregations don't get better, we may be left wondering what is wrong with our faith or what is wrong with God.

I think that trite theology, both the sort on Facebook and the sort in my life, often arises from a religious life motivated by "my good." I want something that I think only God can give me, and now I have to figure out how to get God to give it to me. But any faith that starts with me rather than God is bound to get off track.

I do think that God wants us to be happy or content or fulfilled or something along those lines, but I'm not so sure that we can ever get there by pursuing those things, by making them our goal. Jesus talks about the need to deny ourselves and lose our lives in order to find true life. But my own life, along with all that trite theology on Facebook, shows just how hard it is to trust Jesus on this one.

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Sunday, October 5, 2014

Sermon: Falling into God

Philippians 3:4b-14
Falling into God
James Sledge                                                             October 5, 2014 (Stewardship1)

Seminary students sometimes have a bit of nerdy fun translating today’s Philippians passage. When Paul says the immense value of knowing Jesus has made all he once valued “rubbish,” the word he uses has a bit more shock value. One Greek dictionary defines it simply as “dung, excrement.” And so at least one seminarian in any class will inevitably translate it using a four letter word I can’t repeat here.
But what is it that would make Paul so thoroughly reassess his former life? Despite how large Paul looms over the New Testament, I’m not sure the Church – and especially the Protestant Church – has always had the best answer.
Heavily influenced by Martin Luther, Protestants have typically understood Paul’s experience, and so salvation and conversion, as rescue from some failed past. This was Luther’s personal experience. As a priest, he was racked by feelings of guilt, sure he could never follow Jesus well enough or confess his failings fully enough to be acceptable. But Paul’s writings on grace, on how restored relationship with God is a gift and not earned, freed Luther from his guilty past.
Five hundred years later, Luther’s notion of faith and salvation as this sort of rescue still exerts great influence on Protestant theology and thought, even if it fails to connect with many in pews. One reason lifelong Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, etc. say they’ve never had a “conversion experience” is because they understand it as rescue, but they’ve never really thought they needed rescue, having grown up in the church.
But it turns out that Martin Luther’s faith experience did not mirror Paul’s. Unlike Luther, Paul never felt oppressed by God’s law. He wasn’t seeking freedom from guilt and worry. In our reading this morning, he describes himself so, “…as to righteous under the law, blameless.” That doesn’t mean he thought he was perfect. It simply means he tried diligently to live a life ordered by God’s law, and could be forgiven when he failed.
But now that he is “in Christ,” Paul views everything from his past in a new light. And many of us have had a similar experience even if we’ve never had a religious conversion: the experience of falling in love.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Holy Waiting

For God alone my soul waits in silence;
     from him comes my salvation.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
     my fortress; I shall never be shaken. 
Psalm 62:1-2

I'm not very good at waiting. That doesn't make me at all unusual. We live in a results oriented culture. We want things fixed, straightened out and made better, and we want it right now. The coach, CEO, or politician brought in to work wonders often gives way to a new savior after failing to meet expectations. And school systems, companies, and church congregation sometimes jump from one fad to the next, ever hopeful that some new way will turn things around. Rarely do we do much waiting. Even more rarely do we wait for God.

"Be still and know that I am God," says Psalm 46. Stillness is surely a close cousin to waiting, and so we aren't terribly good at it either. Being still isn't productive. We need to do something.

And yet, many of us complain about the cost of our hectic lives. We lament the stress and anxiety of our age that demands more production, more results, more efficiency. But to what end? Why do we complain about how things are but seem so resistance to an alternative, even a holy one?

A fair amount has been written about what stressed out and anxiety laden places congregations have become in our time. Not that anyone wants this to be so. Indeed many hope that church would offer something better, yet we manage to import our hectic, impatient, productive ways into our congregations.

I fear there is a great deal of idolatry in all our busyness. We think nothing can happen unless we do it. God's not going to do it; it's up to us. It could be risky to wait for God. How long to wait? What if God doesn't come through? Perhaps it's better to believe in our concept of God than to wait for God and be disappointed. Such disappointment could be an existential threat to our faith. Better to believe in God but not expect anything much.

"For God alone my soul waits in silence." How do we learn to wait? More to the point, how do we learn to trust in something other than our own productive capacities? Perhaps it begins simply by acknowledging that there is a holiness to slowing down, to resting,  to stopping and waiting for God.

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Monday, September 22, 2014

For Just Such a Time

The book of Esther is surely one of the more obscure parts of the Old Testament. I remember once reading something that suggested the book existed only to give a reason for the Jewish festival of Purim. Many have noted that there is no mention of "God" or "the Lord" anywhere in the book. It seems almost oblivious to the Torah's understanding of what it meant to be a Jew, and it was far from a unanimous choice for inclusion in the sacred texts of Judaism (a process that ended several centuries prior to Jesus).

Nonetheless, there is a line from today's reading in Esther that has always drawn me up short, "for just such a time as this." This is spoken to Esther when she states that she cannot help the Jews who are about to be annihilated. Even though she is queen, she is not permitted to approach the king without invitation. To do so is to risk death. (Esther is queen only because the king had gotten rid of her predecessor, and she has hidden her Jewish heritage from him.) But Mordecai, Esther's adoptive father, urges her to act, saying, "Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this."

For just such a time as this... In a sense, it is always just such a time as this. There are always events, situations, injustices, wrongs, and so on that need someone to act if they are to be corrected. And there is generally some risk to those who do act. Both the situations and the risks may be large or small, earth shattering or barely noticeable, but Mordecai's surely applies in all cases. Perhaps we find ourselves wherever it is we are "for just such a time as this."

Perhaps you or I are in a position to make a difference on something  as big as income inequality or racism. Perhaps we are in a position simply to help one person. But for any of us, at any given moment, there is something we can do if we will take the chance, if we will take the risk. For who knows? Perhaps we have come to where we are for just such a time as this.

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Monday, September 15, 2014

Acts of Extravagance

Any time I've read today's passage from the Gospel of John, I've wondered if Judas Iscariot really was a thief who stole from the disciples' "common purse," or if this was simply a bit of revisionist history. No doubt the fact that Judas had betrayed Jesus was a little embarrassing for the first Christians, and so there was no small temptation to demonize him.

Of course Judas' objection to the anointing at Bethany actually has a certain logic to it, and calling him a scoundrel doesn't really change that. (In Matthew and Mark, Judas isn't the one who objects. It's "the disciples" and "some who were there" respectively.) It's the sort of objection that is still raised today, often with merit. It's not unusual to hear questions about the expense of mission trips taken by church groups. "Think of all the good that could have been done with that money."

Sometimes mission trips are little more than thinly disguised mission-tourism. Such trips are almost never the most "effective" way to help the people whom such trips seek to help. But following Jesus never has been about what is most "effective." Mission trips can be transformative faith experiences for those who participate in them. (We in the church would probably do well to acknowledge this in our church budgets.) And being part of a mission trip can also be a dramatic act of love that seeks to give concrete form to one's faith.

Most of us have some experience with dramatic and extravagant acts undertaken because of love. The gifts and extravagances that people sometimes shower on the person they love are rarely the stuff of logical computation. Romantic and practical rarely go hand in hand. Love can never be reduced simply to what is effective.

Neither can faith. Faith is not necessarily illogical or impractical, but it is much more than these. It is relational. It is encounter. It is experiencing the almost unimaginable depth of God's love, an experience that is beyond practicalities and efficiencies. Like romantic love, it is overwhelming in its power, and so it calls forth acts of extravagance such as that celebrated in today's gospel.

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