Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Give ear to my words, O LORD;
give heed to my sighing.
Listen to the sound of my cry,

my King and my God,

for to you I pray.

This plea from the opening of Psalm 5 is a common one amongst the Psalms. Often the Psalms speak from the experience of suffering and of feeling abandoned by God. Sometimes they can be quite strident in demanding that God act according to God's character, to stop the wicked from prospering and the righteous from suffering. It is not at all uncommon for a psalmist to call God to task.

I have those moments, more than I'd like to admit, when God seems distant or absent altogether. But I don't often react emotionally toward God. I rarely shake my fist at God or demand that God act as God should act. Perhaps that is because I am such a thoroughly modern person. God does not seem that involved in day to day life. I don't need God for the sun to shine or the rain to fall. God is so distant from much of life that it almost seems normal for God to be distant in my own life.

It is hard to get angry at someone who doesn't have a lot to do with your world and your life. I can believe in God without really expecting anything of God. But it is hard to be in relationship with a God who isn't real enough to shake a fist at or say a "Thank you" to.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

The Old Testament readings are following the story of Joseph this week. Many of us know about Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers who then told their father that a wild animal had killed him. But of course God will eventually use Joseph to rescue not only his own family but also all of Egypt.

Because Joseph is the "hero" in this cycle of stories, it is easy to forget what a pain in the rear he was. He was a spoiled brat who got special treatment from his father. The dreams he had about his family, and even his father, bowing down to him turn out to be true. But Joseph seemed to relish sharing these dreams with his kin. I have a feeling that Joseph was an easy fellow to hate.

Funny how God's
promise often moves forward through less than savory characters. Jacob, Joseph's father, is a cheat and a scoundrel, but God's promise runs through him.

The world is full of people I think are scoundrels. It is full of folks who are spoiled and whom I find easy to dislike. But in the Bible, God is often at work in the strangest places and through the oddest folks. I wonder where God is at work that I never notice because I'm sure God would never be associated with...

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Monday, February 22, 2010

Sunday Sermon - "Since You Are a Child of God..."

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Mark's gospel doesn't bother with any stories about Jesus' birth or anything leading up to it. He simply dives right in with John the baptizer. But before he tells of John's "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins," he does provide the briefest of introductions. "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God."

For Mark, the good news begins with John calling people to repent. Many of us tend to connect repentance to fire and brimstone evangelists preaching hellfire and damnation sermons meant to scare people into accepting Jesus. But biblically speaking repentance isn't so much about fear. It is about a change of direction when you realize you're on the wrong path. Repentance is when you have become terribly lost while driving somewhere, and then you see a sign that shows you the way; you turn and head for your destination.

Too often we Christians want to relegate repentance to the season of Lent. Repentance is not a part of our day to day faith walk. We'll admit that we've gotten off the path now and then, but we don't like to admit that we need constant help staying on course. We don't like to admit that we have a fundamental problem that tends to get us lost.

I've often heard people in congregations complain about having a "prayer of confession" in worship each week. "They're such a downer," they say. But I think of the prayer of confession used in Presbyterian worship a little like what happens at a weekly AA meeting. It's our version of, "Hi, I'm Joe and I'm an alcoholic." It's how we say to each other, "Hi, I'm Joe and I'm a sinner."

Recovering alcoholics don't think of this regular admission as depressing. In fact, it is what allows them to continue on their new, clean and sober lives. It is the self awareness that keeps them coming to meetings, that helps them lean on the help of fellow alcoholics and on God to say sober.

The beginning of the good news: Hi, I'm James, and I'm a sinner. On my own I keep making bad choices and getting lost. God, help me go where you want me to go.

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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Sunday Sermon - "Since You Are a Child of God..."

When Jesus is tempted in the wilderness, there is no question about whether he is Son of God. The question is what sort of Son he will be. So too for us, the question is what sort of children of God we will be.

Luke 4:1-13

Since You Are a Child of God…

James Sledge --- February 21, 2010

Back in my high school days, I wrestled on a team that was a perennial power. We usually vied for the conference title and sent a number of wrestlers to the state championship. I have a lot of memories from those days: an inexperienced teammate’s win that turned a match in our favor, celebrations after big wins, and grueling practices where I would often sweat away six or seven pounds in two and a half hours.

But I think the most vivid memory of a practice comes from my first year on the team. We had lost a match the night before to a team we should have beaten. Our coach was as tough and hard-nosed as they come, and no one was looking forward to practice that day.

But rather than being all worked up and animated, Coach was calm and serene. He didn’t yell or scream at us to work harder; quite the opposite. He calmly told us to work only as hard as we felt like. Some of our opening exercises were normally done to the point of exhaustion, but this day Coach told us to stop as soon as they became difficult. When we moved on to the drills we did each practice he said, “Now if you get tired, stop.”

Of course this worked precisely as he hoped. Everyone gave absolutely everything he had, even as Coach kept urging us to take it easy, not to overdo it or strain ourselves. It’s funny how much you can wish for your coach to be yelling at you when he’s not.

Finally, and I suppose rather predictably, the moment came when things turned. Coach acknowledged the effort everyone was giving and said, “Well if you really want to practice hard, we’ll practice hard. If you really want to be champions, we’ll practice like champions.” What followed was the hardest practice I had ever experienced. But no one seemed to mind. After all, we certainly wanted to be champions.

There was never really a question about that. There was absolutely no chance that anyone would respond to Coach’s “If you want to be a champions…” with a “Nah, that’s okay. We don’t want to be champions. We just like saying we’re on a sports team.”

Many times when someone starts a sentence with, “If you…” that “if” is not really in question. “If you love me… If you really want this job… If you want to graduate… If you want to succeed… If you’re really a Buckeye fan…” Often such statements don’t really question whether the person wants the job or is a Buckeye fan. They presume that “if” part to be true. What is really at issue is how someone who is a Buckeye fan will act or what someone who wants to graduate should do. Even in a patently manipulative statement like “If you love…” the person speaking presumes the other’s love. There would be no chance to manipulate them if that were not the case.

And that’s the situation in the temptations Jesus faces in the wilderness. When the devil says, “If you are the Son of God…” there is no doubt as to Jesus’ identity. That is even more apparent in the original Greek of Luke’s gospel. There is a grammatical structure used here that we don’t really have in English, and you could even translate the devil’s words, “Since you are the Son of God…”

And so the issue in our reading is not who Jesus is, but rather what it means to be Son of God. It is easy to picture these events in rather cartoonish fashion, with a horned devil issuing challenges to Jesus. But Luke clearly understands these temptations to be very real for Jesus. They reflect his struggle to be the Son of God that God would have him be rather than the Son of God that religious people expected, that his followers hoped he would be, that his own desires and fears pushed him to be. And it doesn’t stop here. At the end of our reading, the devil departs “until an opportune time.” In Gethsemane, Jesus will struggle with whether or not he can be the Son of God who trusts God’s will so fully that he can face the cross.

These temptations are things Jesus actually considered. And are they really so bad? Why not turn stones to bread. Palestine is a terribly rocky place. Why not turn lots of stones into bread and feed not just himself but all those hungry people? And why not make a deal with the devil and seize political power? The Bible in other places speaks of Satan as the ruler of this world. Why not acknowledge that if it would mean an end to Roman oppression, an end to military conquests, an end to war? And why not jump from the pinnacle of the Temple and touch down softly in its courtyard, held up by heavenly angels? Lord knows that when I’m struggling to stay faithful I’d love for Jesus to pull a divine magic trick like that and make trusting him a lot easier.

What is it that makes Jesus Son of God? Is it simply an identity he is born with, and there is no changing it? If Jesus had become a military Messiah and defeated the Romans would he still have been the Son of God? If Jesus had gotten cold feet in the Garden of Gethsemane and escaped the cross, would he still have been the Son of God? Or does the fact that he is Son of God preclude him from doing that?

And what if we ask similar questions about ourselves? People often want to claim that all humans are “children of God.” If that is true, what does it mean? From a Christian perspective, we say that in our baptisms we are adopted and claimed by God, becoming sisters and brothers of Jesus and therefore God’s children. But what does that mean? More to the point, what sort of life is consistent with being a child of God?

If you met the devil out in the wilderness, what sort of temptations would he lob your way? “If you are a child of God…” Or better yet, “Since you are a child of God…” The issue isn’t whether God adopts you. The issue is how God’s kids should act.

Since you are a child of God, surely God wants you to be happy. So focus on making yourself happy. Make sure you have plenty of money and things first.

Since you are a child of God, God is there to meet your needs and wants. When you pray, ask God for lots of stuff and have faith that God will give it to you. You don’t have to listen for God telling you what you really need. You know what’s good for you.

Since you are a child of God… What comes next for you?

Every week in worship, we proclaim that we are indeed children of God as we pray to “Our Father in heaven.” That prayers says something about what it means to be God’s children; longing for God’s rule, asking for enough for the day, being as free with our forgiveness to others as God is with us.

And it’s not only the Lord’s Prayer. The Bible is full of information on what it means to be a child of God, with Jesus himself as the obvious model to follow. Our brother Jesus is THE child of God. But who can measure up to this sibling?

More than once I’ve heard someone describe being a Christian, being a child of God, something where you are never good enough, an endless guilt trip. Since you are a child of God, keep trying harder, but know that you’ll never measure up.

My high school wrestling coach asked a great deal of us. He would urge us to work harder and harder, to do things we never imagined we could do. But it never felt impossible. It never felt like we were trying harder and harder all the while knowing we’d never measure up. In fact, many of us would have tried to do just about anything Coach asked us to do. But that was because we were like family. We knew how much he cared for us, how much he loved us. We knew how much he wanted the best for us, and so we trusted him almost absolutely.

All praise and glory to the God who loves us so much, that in Jesus God went to the cross that we might be children of God.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ash Wednesday Meditation

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

There is a gentleman who comes to our church sanctuary to practice on our pipe organ. Now and then I bump into him and we'll chat for a bit. Yesterday he asked if we were doing anything for Ash Wednesday. I told him about our service, and he responded that a Presbyterian friend of his said that Presbyterians don't do Lent.

The Presbyterian congregations I grew up in "didn't do Lent," but I think that many, if not most, do now. But that is not to say we are always sure what to do with Lent. Personally, I cringe at the stereotype of giving something up for Lent. Lent evolved from an intense period of preparation for converts who would profess their faith during the vigil that led up to Easter. It wasn't about giving things up it was about moving toward something.

Now obviously if I am going to draw closer to God by spending more time in prayer, Bible reading, acts of caring, or some other spiritual practice, I may have to do less of something else such as watching television, but the focus is not on what I give up, but what I take up.

The epistle reading for today speaks of "straining forward" and pressing "on toward the goal..." Maybe this Lent would be a good time for me, and perhaps you, to be a bit more disciplined about those things that draw me closer in relationship with God, that make clearer the call I, and you, have in Christ.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

On Ash Wednesday, the gospel reading is a parable from Jesus. Two men go to the temple. One is a Pharisee. The name conjures up images of "the bad guy" for many Christians, but in Jesus' day Pharisees were the folks who took faith seriously. They were reformers who argued against religious ritual and for a life that was obedient to God. Any pastor would be lucky to have a congregation full of Pharisees. There would always be plenty of volunteers, lots of mission projects, and plenty of money for the budget.

The other fellow at the temple is a tax collector. Again what comes to mind when we hear this label probably doesn't fit what it meant in Jesus' day. This was no civil servant. He was a crook and a traitor. Tax collectors were Jews who collaborated with the occupying Romans. They had contracts to collect taxes for Rome, and they could keep whatever they collected above their allotment. They used Roman troops to shake down the people for money, and they often got rich. They were almost universally despised.

Quite a contrast; an upstanding church member and a greedy crook. But Jesus says the tax collector goes home justified, that is, right in God's eyes. And all because he cried out for mercy.

We religious folks often have a hard time not being proud of our religiousness. Conversely, we often look down our noses at those who clearly don't take their religious lives seriously. But this parable argues for a different sort of pose before God.

I don't have the quote in front of me, but Martin Luther once said something like, "When you find yourself before the heavenly judge, plead your faults and not your merits." Neither Luther nor Jesus were arguing that we should live sinful, criminal, or despicable lives. Rather they want us to base our relationship with God on the fact that God loves us, whoever we are. It's not a contractual arrangement that hinges on what we do.

Change Jesus' parable just a bit so that the two men are addressing their spouses or lovers. One dutiful spouse tells his partner what a good catch he is, not like other lovers. But the other fellow falls weeping at his lover's feet, acknowledging his failings and asking for another chance. Personally I think there is more hope for the second relationship than the first.

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." Pilate asked him, "What is truth?"

Pilate's question, "What is truth?" hangs unanswered in John's account of Jesus' trial. However, it should be noted that John carefully crafts his story so that Jesus is the judge, and Pilate, along with the Jewish leaders, is actually the one on trial. Jesus asks more questions than he actually answers, and his answers often serve to befuddle Pilate more than enlighten him. (For some strange reason the NIV Bible has Jesus answer Pilate's question about being king in the affirmative, but that is interpretation and not translation.)

What is truth? And even more pointedly, what does it mean to belong to the truth? We live in a culture of spin and half truths. Very often, we define truth as whatever we happen to hold dear, and we sometimes justify lying and manipulating the truth in order for our view to prevail. And this happens not only in political debates. I see it all the time in debates in the Church. Very often it isn't a matter of belonging to the truth. We decide that we have the truth and will do most anything to ensure our truth wins.

Lord, help me let go of my certainties that are not part of your truth. Draw me into your truth in Jesus.

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Monday, February 15, 2010

Sunday Sermon - "Listening to Jesus"

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

These words from Philippians seem to borrow from an early Christian hymn. The writer is calling the Philippian Christians to be humble and loving, to imitate Jesus. I don't think many Christians would argue against such behavior, but lately I have become more and more aware of how the call to imitate Christ can feel overwhelming and overbearing.

I'm not suggesting that discipleship should be made "easier," its costs pared down. Rather I'm speaking about the motivation for such behavior. As a pastor, I have often cajoled members of my congregations to get more serious about living as Christians, to move beyond believing in Jesus and do more following Jesus. Yet I fear that such cajoling and preaching often doesn't work. Indeed it is often counter productive because it seems to assume that being a faithful disciple is mostly about trying harder.

But I don't think that having "the same mind as Christ Jesus" is about trying harder. There is something about Jesus that makes this natural behavior for him. Not that he isn't tempted to act differently at times, but his relationship with God always keeps him on course. Jesus is so confident of God's love, care, and provision, that he can live without the worries that so often impact us. Jesus is unconcerned about whether he is rich enough, popular enough, successful enough, secure enough, and so on. Knowing that he is loved and embraced by God makes such worries unnecessary. Being Son of God calms all anxiety and fear.

Our culture tends to use the term "child of God" as a synonym for "human being," but the Bible doesn't speak that way. Biblically speaking, being a son or daughter of God speaks of a close and intimate relationship. It is not a biological term. Even when used for Jesus, the focus is on his relationship with God.

Human beings become children of God, not by biology, but by adoption. God claims us and offers us an intimate relationship like the one Jesus has. And it is when we discover this intimate relationship that a new sort of life becomes possible. The Apostle Paul speaks of this as a "new creation; everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!"

None of this comes from our trying harder; it comes from being embraced in God's love, from realizing that we are held just as securely in the loving arms of God as Jesus was. It is that realization, that experience, that allows us to have the same mind as Christ Jesus. And it is that new mind and heart that allows us to embrace the difficult demands of discipleship with joy and without anxiety.

God, let us feel your love embracing us as children, so that secure in that love, we may live as Christ lived.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sunday Sermon - "Listening to Jesus"

The heavenly voice on the mountaintop says to Jesus' disciples,"Listen to him!" This clearly refers back to Jesus saying, deny yourself, take up the cross, lose your life, etc. But I'm not sure we can listen unless we are first sure of God's love for us.

Luke 9:28-43a

Listening to Jesus

James Sledge -- February 14, 2010 – Transfiguration Sunday

Some of you may be familiar with French writer and philosopher Albert Camus. Perhaps you read The Stranger in a high school or college literature. Camus was an agnostic and a pacifist, but became part of the French Underground during WWII after witnessing Nazi atrocities. Though agnostic, he was once asked to speak to a group of Christians. Speaking out of the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust he said this.

What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out, loud and clear; and that they should voice their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could arise in the heart of the simplest man. That they should get away from abstraction and confront the blood-stained face history has taken on today. The grouping we need is a grouping of men resolved to speak out clearly and to pay up personally… Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children. And if you don’t help us, who else in the world can help us?…

It may be, I am well aware, that Christianity will answer negatively. Oh, not by your mouths, I am convinced. But it may be, and this is even more probable, that Christianity will insist on maintaining a compromise or else on giving its condemnations the obscure form of the encyclical. Possibly it will lose all the virtue of revolt and indignation that belonged to it long ago. In that case Christians will live and Christianity will die.[1]

I stumbled across this quote in a book on Christian doctrine, in a chapter entitled “Are You a Christian? The Doctrine of Sanctification.” Shirley Guthrie, the Presbyterian theologian who wrote this book, says that Camus, an unbeliever, wants Christians to take seriously our own doctrine of sanctification. Sanctification is about how we, realizing that God has lovingly forgiven us and adopted us as children, begin to live as God’s children, letting the Holy Spirit work within us to transform us so that we act more and more like true children of God.

I think that Luke is talking about the very same thing when he gives his version of Jesus transfigured on the mountaintop. Luke writes his gospel some years after that of Mark and Matthew. Luke writes in a time when early Christians are just beginning to wrestle with the fact that Jesus’ anticipated quick return is going to take awhile. Luke writes at a time with the Church is becoming less and less Jewish, more and more Gentile. As the first generation of Jesus’ followers is beginning to die off, Luke uses Jesus on the mountaintop to help answer the question of what it means to be a Christian.

Although he gives a very similar account to that of the Transfiguration found in Matthew and Mark, there are interesting differences. Luke links this event to the sayings that precede it, where Jesus tells those who want to be his followers that they must deny self and take up the cross, that if they want to save their life they will lose it, but if they lose their life for Jesus’ sake they will save it. Only Luke tells us what Jesus talked about with Elijah and Moses; his impending “departure” at Jerusalem. And only Luke links the Transfiguration so closely with the disciples’ failure to heal a young boy and Jesus’ exasperation with over this.

In the middle of all this the heavenly voice tells Peter, James, John, and us, “Listen to him!” Listen to him telling us about the cost of being his disciples, the need to embrace the cross and be willing to lose our own lives for Jesus’ sake. Listen to him talking with Moses and Elijah about his own journey to the cross, how the cross is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. And listen to how upset he is with his followers for their failure to bring healing and wholeness to those who are suffering.

The other day in a staff meeting, we were talking about what sort of things the staff needed to be doing to help foster the renewal and change that is necessary for a congregation to stay healthy and vital. In the midst of our conversations Mary Ann, our organist, suggested that we needed to model risk taking.

I thought about this later as I was preparing this sermon. I thought about risk taking and about Jesus’ call for us to deny self, take up our cross, and lose our lives. And it struck me how utterly safe, secure, conventional, and nearly risk free that my life is.

I’m not going to get rich, but I’ve got a nice paycheck coming in every month. I have pretty good health insurance and a right nice retirement plan. Being a pastor may not be the high status job it was fifty years ago, but it’s not too shabby.

But what of crosses, self denial, and risk? Where is that? Is Jesus upset with me, calling me part of a faithless and perverse generation for my failure to help heal the world’s pain and suffering? Is it because of pastors like me, and Christians like me, that American Christianity is waning? Have we become precisely what Albert Camus prophesied, where individuals who say they are Christians are doing just fine but Christianity, that community of disciples who listen to and follow Jesus, is dying?

Lately I’ve been using a little book entitled The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales in my personal devotions. Let me share with you one of those tales.

Once there was an old and learned priest who worked tirelessly in the streets of a city nestled deep in the heart of an empire ruled by an elderly king. This priest was greatly respected by all the people and would constantly be approached by those who needed help in all manner of issues.

The king of this vast empire had a young son who grew up hating the church. He was disgusted by what he perceived to be its hypocrisy and deception. Because of this deep hatred the young prince would often oversee the imprisonment of church leaders and order the break-up of church gatherings. But his actions also betrayed a deep jealousy. Indeed he particularly disliked the fact that there was a priest who received the people’s respect, that he believed was rightly due to him.

Why should the people be so deceived by this old fool? thought the prince. He is like so many of his type: a coldhearted liar who sells the people lies in order to live.

The prince harbored a burning desire to put a stop to the priest’s work, but he did not want to garner the hatred of the people. So he carefully devised a plan that he believed would expose the hypocrisy of the priest to everyone in the empire once and for all.

He is a poor man, thought the prince. I will offer him a great sum of money in exchange for a public confession his hypocrisy and the hypocrisy of the church.

So late one evening, under the cover of darkness, the prince visited the priest and, upon entering his home, said, “I have the power to reach every person in this kingdom through the printed press. For 10,000 rupees would you write a letter to be dispersed throughout the kingdom, in telegrams and newspapers, informing the people that you are nothing but a liar and a hypocrite?”

The priest was indeed a poor man who had been born into poverty and had known nothing but need all his life. He thought carefully for a few minutes before finally responding.

“I will do as you ask, but only under three conditions.”

“What are your conditions?” replied the prince.

“First, if I do this you must leave me and my church alone.”

“Yes,” said the prince.

Second, you must release those brothers and sisters of mine who are innocent of any crime.”

“It will be done,” replied the prince. “And your third stipulation?”

“Well,” said the priest after a great deal of thought, “10,000 rupees is a great deal of money and I am a poor man. You will have to give me time to raise it.”[2]

I can’t imagine acting like this priest, willing to ruin my own reputation in order to help others, even to pay for ruining it. How could I ever be this Christ-like? And no amount of encouraging or haranguing would likely change that. And therein lies the problem with sermons like this that encourage people to answer Jesus’ call to be like him, to deny self and take up the cross.

It seems to me that listening to Jesus, doing as he says, is not so much a matter of effort or trying harder. It’s a faith matter, a trust matter. I’m simply not so confident of God’s love and care as Jesus is. I’m not sure I matter enough to God that God will always be there for me. And so I have to watch out for myself.

God, show me your love once more. Let us experience that love that would risk a cross for our sakes. Embrace us in your love, that we may share it with others, living as the children of God Jesus calls us to be.

[1] Quoted in Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine: Revised Edition (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994) 330.

[2] Peter Rollins, The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales (Brewster, Mass: Paraclete Press, 2009) 52-54.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Today's reading from Romans contains the famous line, "Vengeance is mine... says the Lord." Many times I've heard these words quoted to justify a demand for vengeance, be it the death penalty for a crime or some other form of retribution. But that's rather odd when you consider that Paul is encouraging exactly the opposite behavior.

The lead-in to the quote goes, "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God." Paul doesn't doubt that there is true evil in the world, but he will leave it to God to sort all that out. We humans are to act as we have seen Jesus act, to "overcome evil with good." Paul even gives concrete suggestions such as feeding your enemy if he is hungry.

I'll be the first to admit that Paul's advice is very difficult to follow. Being kind to enemies isn't anything I want to do. It doesn't seem very practical either, but then neither does the cross. We Christians sometimes reduce the cross to a great sacrifice by Jesus that benefits us. But Jesus says we must embrace the way of the cross, and Paul says that the cross is God's wisdom and power on display.

All too often I find myself facing a dilemma. I want to be a Christian but I don't want to be Christ-like. I want to be a child of God but I don't want to act anything like the Son of God, who surely is supposed to be the model for all his brothers and sisters. No wonder people outside the church often think of us as hypocrites.

I wonder just how Christ-like I need to act in order to do something about that.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Do not be conformed to this world,
but be transformed by the renewing of your minds,

so that you may discern what is the will of God --

what is good and acceptable and perfect.

These words from Paul's letter to Christians in Rome are well known to many. And I've heard many people affirm these words over the years. My own tradition speaks of how sin corrupts and distorts all people and institutions so that they all need to be transformed. We even speak of the Church as an agent of "Christ transforming culture."

However, in practice things often seem to work in the other direction. The increasingly polarized political landscape in our country is mirrored by increased polarization in my own denomination. And some of the same issues -- abortion and gay rights -- provide fault lines dividing groups who yell at one another but seldom listen to each other.

As a pastor, a religious professional, I find that I often measure myself by the standards of "this world." Moving to a bigger congregation is a step up the career ladder. Membership, attendance, and financial statistics are measures of my successes or failures. And I sometimes wonder if my motivations are any different from a bank manager or a company CEO. So much for being transformed.

I suppose these are the hazard of religious professionals everywhere, but I think we Americans have an added problem. Our tendency to think of America as a "Christian nation" can seem to put God's stamp of approval on our culture. Sometimes when I hear people talking about restoring America's Christian values by putting up displays of the 10 Commandments and returning prayer to the schools, I wonder if they suppose that 1950s America was the Kingdom on earth, that it was not a part of same world in Paul's warning, "Do not be conformed to this world."

Many people have noted over the centuries how faith tends to get domesticated by the powers that be, how it gets put into service supporting and propping up the status quo. And so a blessed, Christian nation embraced human slavery in the 19th century and government mandated racial discrimination in the 2oth. You can add your own examples for the 21st.

Curious that a faith focused on a Messiah regarded as so dangerous that the religious and political rulers or his day had him executed, so often becomes an agent of conformity. And I think Paul's letter is a reminder to each of us, and to the Church as a whole, that our desire to conform can easily hinder the work of the Spirit.

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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

In today's reading from John, the religious authorities bring Jesus a woman who has been caught in adultery. Her "guilt" is apparently never in dispute. The only issue is how Jesus will respond. "Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?"

Saying "the law Moses commanded us," is the equivalent of someone today saying, "It says right here in the Bible..." And it does say in the Bible, in Leviticus 20 and Deuteronomy 22 to be precise, that a woman caught in adultery is to be killed. (For that matter the man is to be killed as well, but the male religious authorities seem to have forgotten this.) Obviously this woman is brought to Jesus because Jesus has developed a reputation for bending and breaking the rules. Will Jesus say, "Do what the Bible commands," or will he go against the Bible and get himself in trouble?

But as is so often happens, Jesus pulls off a nifty escape that does not require him to say outright, "Disobey the Scriptures." But nonetheless, he does disobey the Scriptures that demand this woman be killed in order to "purge the evil from Israel." There is simply no getting around the fact that Jesus, the Messiah promised by Scripture, decides that certain Scripture should not be followed.

What are we to do with the Bible? Like the religious authorities in today's gospel, many of us are good at using it as a weapon. We employ it selectively to support our causes and bludgeon our opponents. Some say that homosexuality is an abomination because it says so in the Bible. Of course the same passage also says that planting two different kinds of seeds in the same field is an abomination, as is wearing clothing made from two different materials. It also says that children who curse their parents must be put to death, and a stubborn and rebellious son who has failed to respond to his parent's discipline can be taken to the town elders and ordered stoned to death.

It's hardly a news flash that all of us use the Bible in selective fashion, reading it to support what we like and condemn what we don't. Conservative Christians often claim religious warrant for supporting a strong military and limited government while liberal Christians claim religious warrant for pursuing peace and have large scale social services for the poor and needy. Both can find passages in the Bible to support their stance.

But if today's gospel is any guide, what we are to do as Christians is never as simple as "What does it say in the Bible?" After all, Jesus completely ignores what is says in the Bible.

I'll show my own bias and say that this is why I so like the stance of my own, Reformed tradition that sees the Bible as a witness to Jesus Christ. As a witness it points to something and by its testimony unveils the truth to us. But that truth cannot be found by using the Bible like a dictionary or encyclopedia. We cannot search the index for the passages on adultery or homosexuality or war or parenting or whatever and then say we know what we are to do. That's like rendering a verdict in a court case after listening to a few words uttered by one of the witnesses in a week long trial. Only after we listen to all the witnesses in totality can we come close to understanding what is true.

Why do you think Jesus disobeys the Bible the way he does? What does that say about how we are to read the Bible and use it as we seek to be the people of God?

Click here to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Sunday Sermon - "Joining the Parade"

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Growing up I learned the story of young Jacob stealing his older brother Esau's birthright. But I'm not sure that it registered what a true scoundrel Jacob was. He not only stole Esau's birthright but, with the aid of his own mother (talk about dysfunctional families), he tricked his father into giving him the blessing intended for Esau. Yet despite all this, the story in Genesis makes it clear that God's promise runs through Jacob, this trickster and scoundrel.

I'm not always sure what to make of this, but one thing is certain, God's blessings and plans take a circuitous route that I would never have chosen. That probably recommends that we all exercise a great deal of humility when it comes to deciding who is and who isn't a part of God's plans.

The same sort of problem crops up with Jesus. In today's reading from John, the fact that Jesus comes from Galilee prevents people from being able to embrace him as Messiah. They are sure that nothing good can come from Galilee, not to mention prophecies saying the Messiah would come from Bethlehem. But in John's gospel the issue is not whether Jesus is from Bethlehem or Galilee. The issue is that Jesus comes from God, and so arguments about earthly origins miss the point.

It seems to me that both Jacob and Jesus emphasize that "God moves in mysterious ways." And so whoever we are and however we tend to interpret the Bible, any arrogance that is certain we've gotten it right may well cause us to miss what God is up to.

Click here to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sunday Sermon - "Joining the Parade"

Luke tells a different version of Jesus calling his first disciples than Matthew and Mark do. In Luke, Jesus has been to Simon's house prior to this. Apparently Simon "knew" Jesus but didn't quite realize who he was. But when he does, Jesus calls him.

Feb 7 sermon.mp3

Luke 5:1-11

Joining the Parade

James Sledge -- February 7, 2010

I suspect that many of you have a picture in your mind of Jesus calling his first disciples. I know that I do. In my picture Jesus begins to teach, to proclaim God’s coming kingdom right after he is baptized and then tempted in the wilderness. As he travels along the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee, he encounters a few fishermen. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” Jesus says. And they drop everything and go after him.

In this picture there is simply something about Jesus and his invitation that draws these fishermen from their old life to a new one. It is incredibly dramatic. One minute they are making a living by fishing. The next minute, a stranger speaks to them and they are forever changed. And I think this picture has had a significant impact on the idea of evangelism as a dramatic event where one meets Jesus for the first time and is changed forever.

My picture of Jesus calling his first disciples comes straight out of Matthew and Mark’s gospels. But today we heard a very different story from Luke. Over the years Christians have often tried to harmonize these stories, but I think that misses the point. The gospel writers were often less concerned with telling precise history and more concerned with making a point. Luke writes for a different audience and paints a very different picture than Matthew and Mark, one that may actually have more contact with some of our lives.

To see Luke’s picture, we need to step back a bit and glimpse the entire canvas. As with Mark and Matthew, Jesus has been baptized and tempted in the wilderness. But then he has begun his ministry, taught in his home synagogue at Nazareth, come to the region of Galilee and healed a man with an unclean spirit. Then Jesus has visited Simon Peter’s house, cured his mother-in-law of a high fever, and then cured throngs of sick who were brought to him there. Jesus has become a well known rabbi, followed by adoring crowds prior to inviting Simon, James, and John to follow him.

In Luke’s picture, Simon already knows about Jesus, has already met him as he finishes a long night’s work with nothing to show for it. But then Jesus asks to borrow his boat. Surely Simon is tired and wanted to say, “No.” But after all, Jesus had cured his mother-in-law.

Luke seems uninterested in what Jesus taught the crowds who gather on the shore. He skips over that, moving quickly to where Jesus tells Simon to put out into deep water. Once again, Simon would rather not, but he obeys this remarkable rabbi. In an instant there are more fish than anyone has ever seen before. And suddenly, Simon is frightened by Jesus. Suddenly Simon wants to be far away from Jesus. Simon has met Jesus before and knows about his ministry, but all of a sudden Simon senses that he is in the terrifying presence of God. Simon, a rough, uneducated, hard living and swearing, dirty and sweaty fisherman, finds himself where ritually purified priests fear to tread, and all he wants to do is escape. “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

I feel safe in saying that there is no one here today who has never heard of Jesus. Fact is, it is pretty near impossible to grow up in the United States and not know something about Jesus. You may like him or not; you may believe in him or not, but you’ve heard about him.

Now obviously people come to a lot of different conclusions about Jesus based on what they’ve heard and know. For some Jesus is an ethical teacher without parallel. For others he is some sort of divine magic trick that gets them into heaven when they die. For still others he’s a miracle worker. He’s known by all sorts of names and labels: Prince of Peace, Savior, Lamb of God, Son of God.

To one degree or another, most all of us know Jesus, perhaps a lot like Simon knew Jesus before that fateful day in the boat. Most of us have bumped into Jesus here and there, but more often than not he stays pretty far away from our everyday lives.

If we take Luke’s picture of Jesus calling the disciples as any sort of guide, it seems that we can be familiar with Jesus, that we can know Jesus and our lives still go on as they always have. But if we meet Jesus like Simon did, encounter in him the fullness of God with the power to transform; if he becomes real enough that we’re not sure we want him standing right next to us, then life may very well never be the same again.

It’s easy enough to like Jesus, to be a fan of Jesus. It’s like being a fan of anything else. On facebook, the online social networking site, you can become a fan of all sorts of groups, people, and causes simply by clicking on the onscreen button. I’m a fan of a number of causes, a few musicians, a magazine or two, and I’m even a fan of Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. But it doesn’t mean much. I don’t necessarily send any money to the causes, or go to the musician’s concerts, and I can’t remember the last time I bought a Krispy Kreme Doughnut.

More often than not, being a fan is about being a spectator, and that asks not a bit more of me than I feel like giving. Sometimes my relationship with Jesus is a lot like that. But when you run into the awesome, holy presence of God, that’s something else altogether. It’s dangerous, and people almost always come away from such encounters changed.

The crowds that listen to Jesus from the shore liked him, were even enthralled by him. But most of them went home the very same people they were before. Not Simon. Simon may have been a fan before, but suddenly things changed. Simon’s first instinct was to flee. Getting too close to God is dangerous. Simon knew those stories from the Old Testament. Whenever God shows up something happens, and it is never something the person wants. And Simon is right. Jesus tells Simon that from now on he’ll be catching people, and Simon’s life is never the same again. He’s a disciple now. His days as a spectator are over. And I’m reasonably certain that Jesus wants to say the same thing to us that he says to Simon. Jesus isn’t looking for fans or spectators. Jesus calls disciples.

In his new book, Donald Miller tells the story of a rather odd family from San Diego. This family was sitting around one New Year’s Day when one of the kids complained about what a boring day it was. Bob, the father, agreed and they decided that New Year’s was one of the more boring days of the year, and they began to toss out ideas to rectify this situation.

One of the children suggested holding a parade. This being much cheaper than an earlier suggestion to buy a pony, Bob quickly endorsed the idea. They began to think about costumes and getting some balloons. The parents planned a cookout in the backyard afterward and the kids started to invite their friend and neighbors to watch.

But then Bob thought how it is much better to be in a parade than to watch one. And so he quickly made a rule. No one would be allowed to watch the parade, but anyone could march in it. A few neighbors agreed and so the first parade was held. As they marched down the street the few spectators were converted into marchers and at the end a dozen or more folks enjoyed the cookout.

Ten years later, the parade has hundreds of participants. People who have moved away fly back to take part, planning vacations around the event. At the most recent, they invited the neighborhood mail man to be the grand marshal, and he showed up in full uniform, leading the parade by tossing envelopes up into the air. Behind him were hundreds of people wearing costumes, carrying banners and flags, and not a soul was sitting on the curb. After all, no one is allowed to watch. There are no spectators at this parade.[1]

[1] Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009) pp. 233-236.