Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

"I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see." So goes a line of the popular hymn "Amazing Grace." And today's reading from John 9 is also about the blind seeing. In a recurring pattern from John's gospel, blindness here functions on two levels. A man who was literally blind has been healed by Jesus, but by the end of the reading, blindness has become a metaphor. Jesus says, "I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind."

Once more it is the learned, religious folks who cannot see. Their certainty about the rules, about the proper channels and methods that God would use, blinds them so that they cannot recognize Jesus. Worse, they are convinced he is the enemy of God because he doesn't fit their doctrines and their understanding of Scripture. As religious experts, they know, they understand, they "see." But in the presence of God's power and wisdom in the flesh, they become blind.

My own Presbyterian Church (USA) has been embroiled for years now in arguments about whether gays and lesbians may be ordained as elders, deacons, or pastors. As Presbyterians, we naturally go to the Bible to see what it says, and then we claim to know, to understand, to "see." It makes me wonder about that questions the Pharisees ask Jesus. " 'Surely we are not blind, are we?' Jesus said to them, 'If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, "We see", your sin remains.' "

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Monday, March 30, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

When I was growing up in the Presbyterian Church, I think that I likely heard more sermons preached from the Apostle Paul's letters than anything else. That's certainly not the trend nowadays. The "narrative preaching" that I learned in seminary doesn't work as well with Paul. He is a bit wordy, after all, as this portion of today's reading from Romans demonstrates. "But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, 'Why have you made me like this?' Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction; and what if he has done so in order to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory - including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?"

But wordiness isn't the only problem with these words. Paul's description of God's sovereignty jars me. Yes, I know that Presbyterians and others in the Reformed tradition have always insisted on a radically sovereign God. But I chafe a bit at the notion of simply being the clay God fashions. I'm more impressed with myself than that.

Now clearly God has tremendous concern for humanity. The whole Jesus event makes that obvious. But it seems that I still want more. I want God to conform to my expectations, to work in ways that honor my notions of proper human existence. My father once told me, "Any God I can fully understand is no God at all." But I still want God to make sense. I don't want to be told, as Paul does,
"But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God?" It sounds like the divine version of a parent saying, "Because I told you so."

But I did learn as a parent that sometimes, that is the only answer. And, in the end, isn't faith about trusting in God, trusting that God's reasoning, God's wisdom, God's plans, are better than any that I have?

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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sermon for March 29, "The System"

In John 12:20-33, Jesus speaks of his death judging the world. The sermon title comes from a commentary's suggestions that "the world" might be better understood if translated "the system."
(Sorry, no video this week.)

Sermon, 3-29.mp3

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

In my nearly 14 years as a pastor, I have discovered that most people seem to think the term children of God is a synonym for human being. I'm not sure how this came to be. Perhaps because Christians are referred to as children of God, and because for many years our culture was presumed to be Christian, the moniker children of God came to be thought of as ours by birth, as a biological thing.

The Bible clearly has other thoughts. C.S. Lewis is following biblical thinking when he has the children in his Narnia books called "sons of Adam" or "daughter of Eve." This is our nature by birth, the heirs of rebellion against God. But the Bible also speaks of a change in this nature through Jesus by virtue of being adopted. Jesus claims us as his brothers and sisters, and it is here that we become God's children.

Paul speaks of this in today's reading from Romans 8:12-27. Speaking of the transformation that comes from being "in Christ," he writes, " ...but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, "Abba! Father!" it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God."

I know that some folks greatly prefer that they be God's children by birthright. But I find it incredibly heartening to realize that I am God's child because God chose me, because God has gone to the trouble to adopt me. It is no accident of biology. A loving God has claimed me, at great cost, to be part of God's family. Now that's good news!

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

In today's reading from John 6:16-27, Jesus says to the crowds who have sought and found him, "Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you."

Jesus raises the interesting question of what we are looking for when we seek Jesus. My wife has a quote on our refrigerator which I don't remember exactly, but I can paraphrase it. "Stop asking God to bless what you are doing. Get involved in what God is doing. It is already blessed." I know that very often I want God to help me do what I want to do. I spend more time pleading for God's help than I do asking God what I should be doing. But over the years I have found that life seems well ordered and at peace when this is reversed, when I am more focused on discovering what God desires for me.

O God, help me to want most what you want for me.

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sermon Thoughts on a Non Preaching Sunday

I'm not preaching today, but I've done a little thinking about the passage from John 3:14-21 nonetheless. This is the passage where Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. (It's worth remembering the way that John uses dark and light as symbolic categories.) And in these verse we hear the familiar line "For God so loved the world..." These words are beloved by many, but I suspect that people often miss some of what is meant by these words.

The "world" in John is not a place but a realm. It is fallen creation. It is the realm that is opposed to God and God's will. God's love here is not a warm feeling toward a place, but a determination to redeem a system that seems hell bent on going its own way. And while that might not be what we generally think of when we first hear these words, those are pretty comforting words. I, for one, am glad to know that in Jesus, God is seeking to draw the very system that opposes God back into the divine arms.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

"Jesus said to them, 'Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.' So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple." Jesus really pushes his opponents' button with these words. The "I am" Jesus speaks is used repeatedly in John's gospel to express Jesus' divinity. It picks up on the divine "I am" from Moses' encounter with Yahweh at the burning bush. (Sometimes this "I am" is hidden in English translations. See John 18:5-6 for an example where it translated "I am he.")

This echo of God's name on Jesus' lips is highly offensive to his opponents. The inflammatory nature of Jesus' words is probably lost on most of us, but we have our own "buttons" when it comes to faith. Once or twice I have had a youth at the church push my button by expressing some outrageous statement about church or God or Jesus. Sometimes I've been foolish enough to take the bait, and I've almost always regretted it. When people push my buttons and I feel compelled to defend God or the church or religion, I usually do the opposite of what I intend.

Sometimes my own faith, my own trust in God can be fragile enough that I feel the need to protect it against assault. The emotional level of my response is often more a measure of my own doubts and anxieties than anything else. I've never picked up a stone to throw at anyone, but I've felt like it. Somewhere, God is probably amused and sad at the same time.

A prayer that I find more opportunities for witnessing to God's love and less for defending it.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

"Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin." So Jesus says in today's reading from John 8:33-47. None of us likes to think that we are slaves. We fancy ourselves to be free, to have free will and to be the products of the free choices that we make. But Jesus says we are captives and must be freed. (Paul says a lot about this in his letters as well.)

The people Jesus addresses insist that they are free, that they have never been slaves. It is hard to be freed from a slavery you don't recognize -- a bit like an alcoholic being trapped in that disease because he can't admit to it. I wonder what places Jesus might act more powerfully in my life if I better recognized the ways in which I am captive to sin.

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Text of 3-15 Sermon

John 2:13-22 (Exodus 20:1-17) "Startled by Clint Eastwood"
James Sledge -- March 15, 2009

The other night I was doing a little channel surfing, and I came across the old Clint Eastwood movie, Pale Rider. For those who’ve never seen it, it’s a fairly typical Eastwood western. The setting is the days of the California Gold Rush and a conflict between a group of poor prospectors with their families and a greedy, mining corporation that wants to take over their claims. Some ruffians hired by this corporation are harassing the prospectors when a mysterious stranger played by Eastwood rides into town and manages to bust up these hoodlums wielding an ax handle. The mysterious stranger then takes up with the prospectors, at which point we realize he is wearing a clerical collar. For the rest of the movie he is known only as “Preacher”

At a key moment in the drama, the owner of the mining company attempts to buy off the preacher. He invites him into his office for a drink and explains that he could be more than a preacher for just the prospectors. He could be a pastor to the town. It could be his parish and the mining company would build him a nice church building.

The Preacher seems intrigued and discusses these prospects, and one point noting that as a pastor with a congregation and a building he would naturally be worried about collections. The mining owner can scarcely contain his glee as he explains how there is a lot of money in the town and those collection plates would be overflowing. To which the Preacher responds, “That’s why I can’t do it. The Bible says you can’t serve God and mammon,” and he stares at the owner with steely eyes as he continues, “mammon being money.”

Now I have no idea if Clint Eastwood, in a movie filled with religious overtones, meant to take a swipe at the church with this line or not. But the line rattled me just a bit. After all, rare is the church pastor who doesn’t worry about how much will be in the collection plate. We Presbyterians tend to resist some of the more overt forms of church fund raising; no bingo or fund raising dinners here. But we still worry about how to get members to give enough to meet the budget. Our denomination has a Stewardship Office that produces materials to help with Stewardship Campaigns. And while stewardship and fund-raising aren’t quite the same thing, sometimes it can be awfully hard to tell them apart.

As coincidence or providence had it, I caught the movie, Pale Rider, the evening before I first looked at today’s Scripture readings to begin preparing this sermon. And there was Jesus, fashioning a whip and chasing the money changers and those selling animals out of the Temple. Now years ago I would probably not have made any connection to Jesus cleansing the Temple and that Clint Eastwood movie line. But years ago I didn’t really appreciate the situation Jesus found at the Temple.

I think there is a tendency to make stereotyped bad guys out of the money changers and animal sellers, to view them a little like villains in a Clint Eastwood western. But the fact is that these folks who get Jesus so riled up don’t look much like villains. You see, the Temple in Jerusalem didn’t function like a church sanctuary does for us. Rather it was the center of the Jewish religion, perhaps a bit like the Vatican is for modern day Roman Catholics. Depending on how far away you lived from Jerusalem, you might make a trip there once a year, maybe every few years, or maybe only once in your life. And at times of year such as Passover, huge crowds of pilgrims would flock to Jerusalem and the Temple.

Now naturally these pilgrims wanted to make offerings to God. But for most of them, the money they used in daily life could not be brought inside the Temple. These coins had images of Caesar, who had proclaimed himself divine. These were graven images that were perhaps unavoidable in daily life, but no good Jew would dare present such a graven image to God as an offering. To help alleviate this problem, money changers were stationed in the outer courtyards of the Temple complex, not inside the Temple itself.

And the pilgrims who had come from far away usually could not bring animals with them to offer as sacrifice. And so, there in the same outer courtyards of the Temple complex, you could buy an animal to sacrifice as an offering to God.

Now admittedly animal sacrifice seems a bit odd to most of us, but it was the norm in Jesus’ day, not just in Judaism but in most all religions. And I’m not sure that helping folks buy these animals was any different from being able to buy a candle for you to light in a Cathedral, or even from being able to buy Christian books in a church bookstore. And is it all that different from money changers to offer worshipers the chance to pay their offerings with credit cards or have their pledges directly drafted from their checking accounts, something we’re considering here?

And so perhaps you can see how, for me, when I start to look at the cleansing of the Temple story from this angle, Jesus morphs into Clint Eastwood’s Preacher, looks at me with a steely squint and says, “You can’t serve God and mammon… mammon being money.” And I squirm.

I squirm but I don’t for a moment worry that Jesus is going to chase me out of the sanctuary, or that Clint Eastwood is going to beat me up with an axe handle. Rather I think that Jesus wants to use my squirming to drive me in a much more helpful way, to drive me into deeper trust in and relationship with God.

As a religious professional, one of the real dangers to my faith is that I can find myself serving the church rather than serving God or Jesus. And Jesus and Clint jar me into taking a hard look at myself and discovering those places where my trust and loyalty have gotten misplaced. The 10 Commandments work in similar fashion. While the second part of these commandments deal with run of the mill morality, stealing, murder, etc, the real focus of the commandments seems to be on right relationship with God, on not seeking to manipulate God’s blessing for personal gain, on making sure that all of life is properly oriented toward God.

Now I realize that most of you are not religious professionals, and so Clint Eastwood’s Preacher may not speak through that steely squint to you in quite the same way he does to me. But most all of us have those things we serve or trust in rather than serving or trusting in God. And I’ve known more than a few church members whose loyalty to a particular congregation, or to some group in that congregation, seemed to be considerably stronger than any loyalty to Jesus’ call to follow him.

Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Jesus thinks the church is a bad idea. Clint Eastwood may, but Jesus has called us to be the Church. But he also knows that from time to time we need to remember what it means to be the Church. We need to do a little cleansing of those things that have deflected us from loyalty to God and God’s call to discipleship in Jesus, the things that distract us from the temple that is destroyed and raised up in three days.

You know, beautiful temples and sanctuaries are wonderful places. They can often help draw us toward God, open us to God’s presence, remind us of God’s majesty and transcendence. But there is a more wonderful temple, one not made by hands, and he calls us to follow him into true and full relationship with God.
Thanks be to God!

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

"Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." These words from today's gospel (John 8:21-32) sound a bit odd to me because of where Jesus says them. Jesus' hearers have been totally befuddled by his words, misunderstanding most of what he teaches them. As so often happens in John, people hear Jesus literally and miss what he really means, and yet, "As he was saying these things, many believed in him." But how can these folks continue in his word or know the truth when they don't understand what Jesus is saying?

The 11th century theologian St. Anselm is perhaps best known for his motto, "Faith seeking understanding," and I wonder about this motto as a help with today's gospel reading. Many of us are drawn in some way to Jesus without fully understanding what the heck he is talking about. But as we do come to faith in him, we are called to continue in his word so that we will be disciples and come to know the truth.

American Protestantism often wants to reduce Christian faith to "believing in Jesus." But today's reading seems to call us to a disciplined living with Jesus' words, to a lived out discipleship that is a life of "faith seeking understanding."

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

"The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?" So begins today's evening psalm, Ps. 27. It was the morning psalm last Thursday, and I commented on the abundance of fear in our time. But while there is a great deal of fear in our nation right now, it sometimes pales compared to the fear that I often see in the Church. And this fear was going full tilt long before our current economic crisis.

I suppose I should say that it's the Mainline Protestant Church where I've seen this fear, and it's a fear about survival. Presbyterians and other Mainline groups were used to being important players in the culture, but now we are dwindling, losing numbers and influence, and people are afraid. They fear for the future of their individual congregations. They fear for the future of their denominations. And often they grasp at solutions. Evangelism has become a hot topic for Presbyterians, although it is often a very self serving take on evangelism. How do we find enough new people so we can stay alive, so we can pay the bills?

How easy it is for us to forget that our congregations, our denominations, are not the same thing as God's kingdom. God's future is not dependent on us. Ours is dependent on God. I'm all for churches learning new tricks, starting better programs, and doing a better job of connecting with the so-called unchurched folks around us. I think that pastors do need to learn new patterns and methods of leadership. But I don't think any of it will much matter if we don't count most of all on God, if we don't spend more time listening for what God is calling us to do, and trusting in the Spirit to animate and equip us to carry out that call.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

In today's reading from John 7:37-52, some who hear Jesus become convinced that he must be the Messiah. But others raise an objection. "Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he?" Now we may want to quickly dismiss this objection by pointing out that Jesus is born in Bethlehem and not Galilee. However, the gospel of John makes no mention of this. It makes no attempt to explain away this objection. Rather, the fact that the Messiah cannot come from Galilee is simply one of those things that is "known" by the teachers and leaders of Judaism. And what they "know" prevents them from seeing what is right in front of their faces.

In my own faith life, I often want to get things all figured out. I want to get my theology and doctrines all neatly arranged, and I'd just as soon God not go around doing things in ways that mess up my neatly ordered theological and doctrinal precepts. And here I find
kindred souls in the Pharisees of John's gospel.

I've probably raised the following question before in this space, but I think I need to hear it over and over again. How many times do I miss what God is doing in my very midst because I "know" that God wouldn't do things that way, wouldn't work through those folks, or wouldn't go against my understanding of Scripture?

What do you think?

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Monday, March 16, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Following yesterday's worship, a church member spoke to me about my sermon and how it related to some difficulties he was having with church. His comments combined with recent research showing the continued decline of religion in American, and with today's reading from Jeremiah 7:1-15, to make me reflect on the way religion gets perverted.

The prophet Jeremiah speaks to the people of Judah on behalf of Yahweh, wondering how they can live in ways contrary to God "and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, "We are safe!"' The prophet tells the people that they will be safe, "if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt."

It strikes me that American Christianity often looks disturbingly like Jeremiah's Judah. Many who claim to speak for religion seem to think that invoking God's name, keeping the 10 commandments displayed on the side of the courthouse and the nativity scene set up in the town square, will somehow keep us safe. But some of these same folks turn a blind eye to alien and the oppressed, or worse, incite hatred of them. It's no wonder that religion and Christianity are declining in popularity when they are so often defined by people like those Jeremiah confronts.

I suspect that one of the great spiritual challenges of every age is to rescue religion and the church from itself. I wonder what that might look like in my life and in the life of the congregation I serve.

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sermon for March 15, "Startled by Clint Eastwood"

The story of Jesus cleansing the Temple meets up with Clint Eastwood's Preacher from the movie Pale Rider.

Sermon, 3-15.mp3

Friday, March 13, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?" Psalm 22 begins with these familiar words spoken by Jesus from the cross. The psalmist continues for many verses, describing the experience of being desolate, broken, rejected, mocked, and scorned. Yet as horrible as the psalmist's situation is, he does not fall into hopelessness. (Presumably Jesus knows the entire psalm when he quotes its opening.) "The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD."

As a pastor, I often encounter people who have great difficulty speaking words anything like the opening of Psalm 22. For them, to admit feelings of abandonment and hopelessness is a demonstration of faithlessness. But surely this psalm argues otherwise. To deny the times when we experience God's absence in the midst of struggle and suffering is not faith but denial.

It seems to me that this psalm (and presumably Jesus on the cross) are the epitome of faith. To experience the depths of pain and abandonment, to experience a genuine absence of God, but not give in to despair; that is faith. Genuine faith shares the experience of pain and abandonment with God, convinced that God is near. "For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him."

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

"The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? ...Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident." We certainly live in a time when there is an abundance of fear. Along with long standing fears of terrorism and crime, we have recently added economic fears. Millions fear losing their job, losing their home, losing their retirement, losing the funds for their children's education. And yet the author of psalm 27 insists that God is to be trusted. "I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living."

I won't for a moment make light of the current crises facing this nation and the world. The economic meltdown, of course, hurts people on the margins of society the
most , and these are the very people Jesus says he comes to bring good news. But still, surely God can bend this dire moment to the good. Surely there is the hope that I, and perhaps some of you, might learn renewed trust in God rather than possessions, stock portfolios, and retirement accounts.

Still, I am troubled by this notion that others suffer, that some of the neediest suffer, and out of this I might be drawn closer to God. I don't usually think of myself as beholding to the poor and the needy. And I certainly don't like to think of myself as helping to create the systems that lead to their suffering. But then again, that sounds a little bit like my relationship to the gospel itself.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Text of 3-8 sermon

Mark 8:31-38, The Tyranny of Self, James Sledge March 8, 2009

The young couple beams as they bring their infant daughter up to the front of the sanctuary for her baptism. Proud grandparents and other relatives are smiling broadly as they watch from their pew right up front. And much to the pastor’s dismay, flashes fire from digital cameras that these relatives pull out of purses and pockets.

As the Sacrament of Baptism begins, the pastor asks the parents if they want their child baptized and then asks, “Relying on God’s grace, do you promise to live the Christian faith, and to teach that faith to your child?” The congregation also promises to do its part in helping the child learn to follow Jesus.

Next, the parents and congregation reclaim their own faith as they say Jesus is Lord and Savior, promise to be his faithful disciples, and then repeat the words of the Apostles’ Creed. And finally, the pastor takes their young daughter and baptizes her as the flashes from the grandparents’ pew once again go off. It is a happy, festive moment. There are smiles all around as the service ends, as members come up to speak to the parents and admire the lovely child.

The baptism of a child is one of those wonderful events that most everyone likes. There’s the cute factor. If a lot of family members attend it helps the attendance for that Sunday. It makes long-time members feel good about the congregation to see young children being raised in the church. But I’ve never been sure if very many folks grasp what is going on, if they realize what just happened.

Now it makes perfect sense that even people who are only vaguely religious want to have their children baptized. If you have some sort of Christian faith, well who wouldn’t want to associate their child with that faith and with Jesus. Surely there is some benefit to it, to name the child as somehow belonging to Jesus and God.

But what of all those promises made at baptism, promises by both parents and congregation to live out the faith and teach it to the child?

Like vows said at weddings, promises made at baptisms are usually uttered with every intention of honoring them. The problem usually isn’t intent. It is rather a lack of understanding, not realizing the effort it may take, not comprehending the sacrifices involved.

And so as the years roll on and the now seven year old girl who was baptized announces that she no longer wants to attend church but would rather play Sunday soccer, her parents, who hope their child will be a person of faith, acquiesce. And in congregations, members who would like to see young children grow up to understand and live the faith have busy lives. And they just don’t have time right now to teach Sunday School or work with the children or youth.

I suspect that Peter, and the other original disciples would understand. After all they have answered Jesus’ call, have promised to follow him. Just moments before our reading, Peter has made his own confession of faith, announcing boldly to Jesus, “You are the Messiah.” Like parents and members at a baptism, Peter has proudly proclaimed his faith, his belief that Jesus is God’s anointed one. He fully intends to follow Jesus, but then Jesus goes and messes everything up by explaining what that actually means.

Jesus starts to talk about suffering and crosses and it is just too much for Peter. This can’t be right. This isn’t what Messiahs do. Jesus, what are you talking about? Jesus, this cannot be. It must not be.

It’s easy to sympathize with Peter. He had found the one Israel had awaited for centuries, the one promised by prophets. Peter was one of only a handful who realized who Jesus was. He had to have been proud of himself for being one of the first to come to Jesus. And he had to be excited about what was about to happen. God’s promised glory had come. God’s kingdom was drawing near. All would be set right. All would be well.

So imagine what a slap in the face it must have been for Peter to hear Jesus say, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed…” Jesus goes on to say “and after three days rise again,” but I doubt Peter even heard that. He was too stunned by the talk of suffering and death.

Peter tries to straighten Jesus out, to explain to him what a Messiah is supposed to do, but for his trouble Jesus publicly calls him Satan, the tempter, the one who seeks to twist and distort God’s plans. And then Jesus makes clear what Peter had probably already guessed. If the Messiah is supposed to suffer, then his followers should expect no less. Jesus makes sure everyone hears this. He speaks it to the disciples and the crowds. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

I’ve heard Jesus’ words about denying self most of my life, so often that they have become a stock-in-trade phrase with little meaning. But why would anyone want to deny self? Isn’t self who we are, our individuality? Self is what makes me like motorcycles, what makes me prefer red wine over white, rock music over country, dark chocolate over milk. Self is what makes that seven year old girl want to play soccer, what differentiates her from other little girls, making her unique and special. Why would we want to deny that?

The self is a wonderful thing, but there is a problem with it. The self is convinced that it knows best. The things I prefer are better than the things you prefer. Much of the partisan rancor in our country comes from this, this notion that my choices or ideas are good and other people’s are bad, stupid, misinformed, or misguided. Racism and prejudice are products of the self. In fact, as wonderful a gift as self is, unrestrained, it becomes our master and we its slaves. And Jesus insists that if we are to follow him to the full and abundant life God wishes for us, we must break free from this tyranny of self and trust that he can show us a better way.

Today we baptize a young child, and we will once again hear those questions about living and teaching the faith, about being faithful disciples. I’ve heard these questions and answered these questions many times. I want to follow Jesus. I want to be his disciple. But for me, I guess the real question is whether or not I will let Jesus show me what that means.

All praise and glory to the one who comes to us to show us the way.

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

In today's reading from John 5:1-18, Jesus asks a strange question to a man who has been ill for 38 years. "Do you want to be made well?" The man is lying near a pool purported to have healing powers when its waters become disturbed, but his condition (he is apparently lame or paralyzed) means that others always get to the waters ahead of him. When Jesus sees the man, he can tell that he has been there a long time, but still he asks, "Do you want to be made well?"

It seems an absurd question, and so I wonder why John bothers to record it. It has very little to do with the story. But there it is. Surely the man wanted to be made well.

In the churches I've been part of over the years, attempts were made to find out what people were looking for in adult Christian Education offerings. Over and over again the answer to questions about this was, "We don't know our Bibles well enough. We need some basic Bible studies." But when these churches offered such classes, the people who said they needed them didn't attend. Apparently they didn't want what they said they wanted.

"Do you want to be made well?" I have spiritual longings and hungers in my life, desires to grow closer to God and understand more fully what I am called to be and do. But sometimes these are a lot like the desires of those church members to know their Bibles better.

Sometimes it is a very good thing for Jesus to confront me and ask me a hard question. "Do you really want to follow me? Do you really want to be my disciple?" Surely that's an absurd question. Surely I do.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Today's Old Testament reading contains words of judgment that the prophet Jeremiah is called to speak against Israel. But the beginning of this prophecy looks back to earlier days. "Thus says the LORD: I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride..." There was a time when Israel and Yahweh were like young lovers, when Israel delighted in God as in nothing else.

Many of us know what it is like to "fall in love." I talk to many young couples who are in love and preparing to marry. Generally speaking they are devoted to one another and can hardly imagine life not being that way. But of course, these feelings usually wane over time. I suspect that nearly all couples experience this to some degree. And if the relationship is not tended to, intentionally renewed and revitalized, it can gradually waste away.

Most people of faith have moments when relationship with God, with Jesus, became real and significant. I had several of those moments in my life, the most significant being the flowering of faith that happened in my early to mid thirties. That experience ultimately led to seminary and my calling as pastor. But that was 17 years ago. And at times the intensity and passion of faith, of my relationship with God, seems to wane, to grow stale and dry.

In today's verses, Israel has forgotten God, but Yahweh remembers when things were different. And despite words of accusation and judgment, God's deepest desire is to renew relationship.

I like to think that I've not forgotten God, but I suspect that sometimes my actions might make it seem so to God. But God remembers. What a hopeful thought. God remembers.

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Monday, March 9, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

In today's reading from John 4:27-42, Jesus once more confuses his disciples. When they offer him food and he explains, "I have food to eat that you do not know about." As often happens in John, they take Jesus literally, wondering who might have brought him something while they were gone. But Jesus is speaking of doing God's will as his food.

I've been reading a book by Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor. Peterson says that modern language is about description, explanation, and information, and modern people have largely lost the ear for poetry, for language that touches our hearts and speaks from our hearts. Sunday sermons often reflect this, being more an attempt to explain and convince than to evoke God's presence or touch people's hearts.

In John's gospel, the truth Jesus speaks is almost never found in the literal meaning of what he says. Jesus is "the Word made flesh" but obviously this doesn't refer to some run of the mill word that might be looked up in the dictionary.

One of the greatest spiritual awakenings for me in the the last year or so has been learning the freedom to hear scripture as more than information, more than something to be dissected and parsed. It has a lively power to speak deep within my heart, if only I will listen to it with different ears.

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Saturday, March 7, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

"How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" That is the response of this woman when she is startled by Jesus' request. Normally rabbis didn't speak with women in public, and they certainly didn't speak with Samaritans, who were considered half-breed heretics by the Jews. But Jesus not only asks this woman for a drink, but he engages her in conversation, finally revealing that he is the Messiah. This encounter is all the more striking when contrasted with Jesus' previous conversation with Nicodemus, a Jewish Pharisee who makes no headway in understanding who Jesus is.

That Jesus chooses to reveal himself to someone considered so unworthy by the good religious folks of Jesus' day gives me some pause. It makes me wonder about what folk are my Samaritans. Who are the people I think Jesus wouldn't talk to, wouldn't embrace and offer "eternal life."

But mostly Jesus' encounter with this Samaritan woman reminds me that Jesus' embrace is so surprisingly large, that I am surely included.

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Thursday, March 5, 2009

Text of 3-1 Sermon

Mark 1:9-15

Becoming Son of God

James Sledge -- March 1, 2009

Today is the first Sunday in the season of Lent. The gospel reading for this Sunday is always an account of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. The Presbyterian Hymnal has a number of hymns that connect Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness with our 40 days of Lent. “Lord, who through these forty days for us didst fast and pray, teach us with Thee to mourn our sins, and close by Thee to stay.”[1] And sermons on this Sunday typically reflect on the meaning of Jesus’ temptations, his forty day experience.

But in the years that we use Mark’s gospel on this Sunday, such typical sermons are not possible because Mark tells us nothing about the temptations Jesus faced. In fact, Mark manages to squeeze in Jesus’ baptism, his temptations, and the beginnings of his ministry in considerably less verses that Matthew or Luke use to tell the story of Jesus tempted in the desert. But Mark’s gospel is different from Matthew and Luke in another, significant way.

The verses we heard today are our first encounter with Jesus. Mark’s gospel has no Christmas story. He simply opens with, The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Mark then tells of John the baptizer’s ministry before introducing Jesus in our reading for this morning. Mark seems to think that these few short verses are much more important for understanding who Jesus is than any story of his origins. Mark seems totally uninterested in how Jesus was born, what he was like growing up, or anything else about him prior to this moment. For Mark, it all starts here.

I think there may be something here that is a bit peculiar to many of us. When Christians consider who Jesus is, when we think about him as Son of God, many of us tend to assume that Jesus is Son of God in a biological, deep in his bones, sort of way. But it’s not at all clear that Mark views things this way.

Now perhaps Mark doesn’t know the story of Jesus’ virgin birth, or perhaps he does. But regardless, he clearly thinks that the events of our reading this morning are much more critical for Jesus’ own understanding of who he is and what he is called to do than anything about Jesus’ biological nature.

Many of us are so used to thinking of Jesus as divine that we have difficulty thinking of him as just a guy. Yet Jesus seems to have lived a totally obscure and uneventful life up until he begins his ministry. Apart from one stray story in Luke’s gospel about a 12 year old Jesus, we hear nothing about him growing up, and know little about who he understood himself to be. But we do know that Jesus’ baptism and 40 days in the wilderness launched him into his ministry.

Mark’s gospel especially focuses in on this. He presents the events in our reading as something for Jesus’ benefit. The baptism is portrayed as very a personal moment. Mark doesn’t say specifically, but he implies that only Jesus sees the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And the heavenly voice does not introduce Jesus to the world; rather God speaks to Jesus. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The Spirit then immediately drives Jesus into the wilderness where he is tempted and where angels wait on him. And somehow these events prepare Jesus for what is to come.

I recently came across a story about a Presbyterian Church near Pasadena, California that began life as a mission started in 1905 by a number of white congregations as an outreach to Japanese immigrants. The by the late 1930s the church was growing, with over 200 worshippers. But then came the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into WWII, and the members of this church were sent off to internment camps for the duration of the war.

When the war ended and the people began to return to the area, many of their former neighbors did not welcome them. They were “the enemy.” However, some of those white churches had helped store their church property and even to preserve a few of their business. And they helped them get their lives back together when the returned. One white church member who was a realtor even braved death threats to help the returning Japanese Americans find homes.

These events became foundational memories for the congregation, moments that echoed down through the years, spurring the church to become one that helped refugees, that reached out to its neighbors, that became an instrumental part of its community. The congregation thrived, grew to over 600, and relocated to bigger facilities.

But more recently, this congregation has experienced significant decline. And when they found themselves having to search for a new pastor, they used that as an opportunity to set up meeting for members to recall their important stories, to remember the moments when they were most alive and vital, to recall who they were deep in their bones, who they were called to be. They began to reconnect to the foundational, formative events of their life as a congregation, and new life began to emerge.

In our gospel reading this morning, we heard some of Jesus’ foundational, formative events. His experience of God’s loving embrace and the Spirit’s presence at his baptism, along with his learning to entrust himself to God’s provision when he was tempted in the wilderness, allowed him to hone his identity and answer his call to be Savior, Messiah. Those events must have served as a touchstone, a well that he regularly returned to for strength and sustenance.

In every life of faith, and in every faith community, there are foundational moments and formative events where God helps us to realize who we are and what we are called to be and do. When we draw on those moments that assured us of God’s love and provision, that empowered us to be who God calls us to be, our lives are filled with power and joy. But when we get disconnected from them, our lives become distorted and uncertain. They are robbed of power and vitality.

In the waters, God has grafted us into Jesus, empowered us by the Spirit, and called us to new lives as disciples, as sons and daughters of God, and as the living body of Christ in the world. In key faith moments, we have been formed as disciples and as a congregation, and we have been tested and learned to trust in God’s provision.

What are the key moments in your life where God claimed you as beloved child, empowered you and called you to ministry? Perhaps you need to reconnect to those, to remember who you are and who you are called to be. Or perhaps, like Jesus, you need to come to the waters where God can claim, empower, and call you.

“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” At the water, God speaks those words to us. “You are my son; You are my daughter, the beloved.” And true life begins.

[1] Claudia Hernaman, No. 81 in The Presbyterian Hymnal

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

"For God so loved the world..." Those are some of the more familiar and beloved words from the Bible. These verses from John 3:16-21 promise that the Son comes not to condemn but to save. This sounds like unadulterated good news, but there is a caveat. The light has come into the world, but people prefer darkness.

I vaguely recall an essay by Walker Percy that I believe was entitled, "The Message in the Bottle." It speaks of messages washing up on a desert island shore, most of them containing true information, but nothing that would change your life; for example, stating that water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. But if a message were to direct the recipient to fresh water, well that could be another matter. It could be life saving if one was thirsty and had no water.

A professor of mine once suggested that the world is like someone who is dying of thirst, but doesn't realize that water will cure the problem. And so the message about fresh water just around the bend seems as trivial as one on water's boiling point.

"For God so loved the world... the light has come into the world..." That would seem to be great news, as long as we realize we need God's love and God's light. I sometimes wonder if God is trying to "save" me from all sorts of things, but I'm too content and comfortable with things to think that this is good news. When God's bright light shines on me, do I step back into the shadows? How do I become more open to God's love and God's light?

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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

"Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." So says Nicodemus when he comes to Jesus "by night." Nicodemus "knows" that Jesus is from God, and yet Nicodemus is portrayed in John 3 as unable to understand when Jesus speaks of being "born from above." (The Greek word means both "from above" and "again," and it is impossible to render these words in English so that both possible meanings are apparent. Nicodemus hears the literal "again" while Jesus speaks of the more figurative "from above.")

Nicodemus is a learned teacher who comes to Jesus as one who "knows." Yet he seems to leave the encounter befuddled. And I wonder how often what I "know" gets in the way of what Jesus would say to me.

In other gospels, Jesus speaks of needing to become like children in order to enter the Kingdom. Being like children probably has many possible meanings, but perhaps one of them is to not be so sure of what we know, to be open to new possibilities, to allow the Holy Spirit to show us things we've never seen before.

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The Gift of Reading

Students at East Franklin Elementary are happy to read their books to Emma Sledge, a senior at Upper Arlington High School. As part of her senior project, Sledge helped the students in the South-Western district school buy books at the school’s March Scholastic Book Fair. The students earned “paychecks” by meeting reading and writing goals. Sledge received a grant from her church, Boulevard Presbyterian in Grandview Heights, as well as donations from family and friends, to pay for the book project. (from the Columbus Dispatch, Eric Albrecht, photographer)

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

"Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!" says Jesus in today's reading from John. All the gospels contain a version of this story, and I learned it as a small child. As a child it seemed a simple enough story, but I find it more troubling as I get older.

The activities in the Temple -- the money changers and the animal sellers -- were integral to worship there. They allowed pilgrims who had come from foreign lands to convert their money to the proper Jewish currency in order to make offerings. And people who had journeyed far could not bring animals with them for sacrifice, but they could buy them at the temple. And none of these things were happening inside the temple proper. They were out in the courtyard, not unlike when tickets to the spaghetti supper are on sale in the church lounge.

It's a lot easier to enjoy this story when the folks Jesus throws out are evil and nasty, not at all like me. But when they are simply part of the religious apparatus, not so different from congregations taking credit cards or setting up bank drafts for paying your pledge, the story hits a little closer to home.

I take it as a given that all religion has a tendency to try to make God and God's blessings manageable. But Jesus seeks to pull us back to the core of faith, trusting ourselves to the provision of God rather than setting up systems to manage them.

As a pastor, I think that religious institutions are essential to our faith lives. But still, we need to remember where our ultimate loyalties lie, to God who is revealed to us through Jesus the Christ.

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Monday, March 2, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

I was 35 when I enrolled in seminary. As most people would probably assume, I had some personal faith experiences intense enough to prompt a dramatic career change. And yet I still often find myself participating in what God warns against in today's reading from Deuteronomy 8:1-20. "Take care that you do not forget the LORD your God..."

Now by "forgetting" I don't mean that I forget that God exists. Rather my past faith experiences recede far enough into my memory that they no longer move me to act. I take it that this is a common problem, otherwise it would not be such a common biblical theme. When we go through a crisis of faith, identity, purpose, hope, or countless others, we can have profound experiences of God's presence and guidance. But later, when things have calmed down, when God perhaps seems less present, those experiences become wispy memories. They can lose their sense of being "real."

Perhaps this all too common an experience helps explain why there is a regular need for faith renewal, for seasons such as Lent where we reconnect to our own faith stories as well as to the faith story of Scripture. May Lent be a time of renewal for all of us.