Thursday, April 29, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Christianish

I was glancing at my new Presbyterians Today magazine this morning, and I saw a review of the book Christianish: What If We're Not Really Following Jesus at All? And then I looked at today's reading from Matthew. Jesus has just finished saying that he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. He then references the commandment, "You shall not murder," adding, "But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire."

Wow, if this is what Jesus means by fulfilling the law, following him is hardly the free pass some of us seem to think it is. It is certainly hard to read this and say that Jesus doesn't really care what we do as long as we believe in him.

I've not read the book Christianish, but I am intrigued by the title. And I can't help wondering to what degree my own faith might accurately be labeled Christianish or Christiany or something similar. Do I really want to follow Jesus, or would I just like to be associated with him in some way?

Now Jesus says in another place in Matthew that "my yoke is easy, and my burden is light," so it can't be that following Jesus is impossible. But it would seem to require a pretty serious commitment that shapes and transforms every single aspect of our lives.

I have felt very spiritually restless of late, and one thought that has emerged from this restlessness is the idea that the mainline church has gotten far too settled. We sometimes think of faith as a something where all the answers have been given and we simply need to agree with them. But following Jesus can never be settled. It is always going somewhere. It demands that we keep moving, keep growing, keep being remade more and more in Christ's image.

In my spiritual restlessness, I've thought and written a lot lately about how many people, especially younger people, find the Church to be irrelevant. And I wonder if this isn't related to being Christianish rather than following Jesus. But I am increasingly hopeful on this topic because I see more and more signs of restlessness within the Church. Many in the Church are looking for something beyond Christianish. They are looking to go deeper in their relationship with God. They are searching for help to learn practices and habits that can renew and transform them as disciples. And I am convinced that the Spirit is behind this restlessness, and she is seeking to birth new life into an old Church, that we might continue to be the living, vital, and very relevant body of Christ in and for the world.

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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Obedience

I've mentioned before how Christians, especially American Protestants, sometimes confuse "believing in Jesus" for faith. The Protestant notion of salvation by grace and not by works sometimes gets distorted into "It doesn't matter what you do, only what you believe." But Jesus' words in today's gospel would seem to dispel such notions. After insisting he comes not to abolish the law but to fulfill it, he adds, "Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."

I saw yet another article the other day about how young people are abandoning the Church, even though they still think of themselves as spiritual people. There are many ways to interpret this, but my take is that young people still hunger for something more than they get from living by the ways of our culture. They work hard, make money, buy lots of stuff, but still feel like they are missing something. But many have concluded that the Church is of little help with this.

They may be correct. If the people they see at Church look no different from the prevailing culture, act no differently from anyone else they meet (other than occasionally attending worship), what help can we be to them? If we don't model a life that is different, more meaningful, more Spirit filled, more life-giving than what they see elsewhere, why should they be part of a congregation? If we say that we "believe in Jesus," but little about us embodies the way Jesus lived and taught, are they not correct to conclude that we are simply the archaic rituals of previous generations?

I'm over generalizing. Almost no congregation offers nothing distinct from the prevailing culture, and many do a wonderful job of embodying Christ. But to continue the generalization, if we in the Church don't take Jesus' commands, God's commands seriously, why should we expect others to?

O God, help me ignore the siren call of culture with its radical individualism, consumerism, and general unwillingness to put anyone other than "me" first, so that I might follow Jesus in my everyday life.

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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Saltiness

"You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?" So says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. It was interesting to see this verse today when I was already wrestling with what it means to be faithful people in today's world. I grew up in a world where most people presumed the culture to be Christian. Beyond that, we thought that living in the culture shaped you into something that was more or less Christian.

But that world is long gone. Significant aspects of our culture are downright corrosive to Christian faith. Radical individualism, consumerism, and the need for immediate gratification all work counter to the faith Jesus preached. But am I in any significant way able to provide an alternative to the culture, or am I salt with no saltiness? Is the Church able to proclaim Jesus in any significant way, calling people to be formed as disciples who follow the teachings and commands of our master? Or are we salt with no saltiness?

I'm not very confident that my life provides any sort of compelling alternative to the world around me. I look much the same as my neighbors and friends who never go near a church. I like to think I'm not a bad guy, but there is nothing distinctly Christian about being a decent guy. Jesus didn't say, "Be good and decent." Jesus did say, "Take up the cross and follow me... Love your neighbor as yourself... Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you... Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven... Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven."

It seems to me that if we want to get back any saltiness, we need to get serious about helping form each other into people who live out the teachings of Jesus and follow the example of his life. How we live says a lot more about our faith that any words we use. Faith must become much more about what we do, the practices and habits we engage in, if we are to be what Jesus expects us to be. After all, what good is salt that isn't salty?

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Monday, April 26, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Kings

The first line of both morning psalms speaks of God as king. Reading those lines likely shaped the way I read both the Exodus story about the golden calf and the Beatitudes in Matthew. The notion of God as king, as absolute ruler over my life, sounds great when I say it, but God often seems absent in my life, as the Israelites experienced at Mt. Sinai. And Jesus' list of those especially blessed by God is not exactly the list I would prefer. I say I'd like God to be ruler of my life, but I would also like God to conform a bit more to my notions and expectations. God should jump when I call. And God should make me feel happy and content without asking me to live at odds with the culture, and certainly without asking me to take up the cross.

When I was in seminary, I saw some interesting arguments about the resurrection. Most saw the resurrection as a tangible, historical event, and if you didn't believe that you were not really a Christian. Some others argued for a more metaphorical notion of the resurrection. They spoke of the importance of experiencing the presence of the risen Christ in their lives over believing in any particular historical event.

But it strikes me that you can be on either side of this argument while still denying a central truth about the resurrection. The resurrection vindicates the life of Jesus. It proclaims that this life which followed God's will no matter the cost, even when it meant a cross, is indeed the shape of true human life, life as it is meant to be lived. Our fullest humanity comes when God is indeed king, even when that leads to a life that makes someone appear strange and perhaps even dangerous to the prevailing culture.

"The LORD is king!" Well I guess saying it is a start.

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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sermon Thoughts on a Non-preaching Sunday

We Presbyterians have often been labeled "head" Christians, especially when it comes to our worship. Our faith sometimes seems to function mostly from the neck up, and historically our preaching has tended to be on the didactic side. More than once I've had someone come up to me after worship and say, "I really enjoyed the lecture."

Now I like to think that my sermons are not at all like lectures, but perhaps I need to work on that, and perhaps we have trained our folks over the years to expect a lecture. But as important as learning and teaching have been for Presbyterians, Christian faith can never dwell primarily between the ears. It must be lived out as we follow Jesus.

In John 10 Jesus says, "My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me." I went to the Middle East as a seminary student and I once saw a scene that I think is the backdrop for Jesus' words. From the window of a tour bus I looked out over a valley and saw a young Palestinian boy, perhaps 11 years old, walking down a well worn trail. And behind him followed 9 or 10 sheep. He wasn't driving them or herding them as we Americans tend to think of such things. He was in the lead and they were walking, single-file, behind him. In my imagination, that boy was calling his sheep. Trusting him, the sheep willingly went along behind him, confident he would lead them where they needed to go.

To borrow from that image, believing that Jesus is the shepherd is important, but following him is crucial. It does no good to say, "Jesus is my shepherd," if we do not go with him when he calls.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Commandments

The 10 Commandments show up in today's Old Testament reading. They are hardly the only legal commands given to the Israelites in the wilderness, but these are the only ones actually spoken by God to the people. God never speaks directly to them again. Everything else is mediated through Moses. (It's worth noting that different faith traditions divide these commands differently. Jewish commands 1 and 2 are combined as command 1 for Roman Catholics and so on. All the major Jewish/Christian divisions end up with a total of 10, but if you mix and match the divisions you could end up with 11 or 12.)

I suppose this fact that God delivers these commands firsthand warrants the special status they have enjoyed over the years. Not that this special status has necessarily meant we take these commands seriously. The opening commandments relate to God's jealousy, God's passionate zeal for this relationship with us that requires our full devotion. But I find it very easy to have a rather casual relationship with God.

Also, I and many others routinely trot out God to support our views on this issue or that. The commandment against making wrongful us of God's name should probably give us pause, but it rarely does. This commandment is often trivialized into "Don't swear or curse," but it is really about invoking the power of God's personal name, Yahweh, for our own personal gain.

The "second table" of the Law, the part dealing with human-human relations, is perhaps more straightforward than the first. And while the commands against stealing and murder and perjury are more or less universally endorsed, coveting is an essential part of our economy. If advertisers can't get us to covet that shiny new car in our neighbor's driveway...

There's been fair amount of stink in recent years about whether or not the 10 commandments can be posted on public buildings; classrooms, courtrooms, and the like. Doing so has become a major cause for some conservative Christian groups. But given how easily we've ignored them over the years, I'm not sure this is energy all that well spent. Perhaps Christians would do much better to consider taking them seriously ourselves.

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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Our Response

Today's reading from Colossians speaks of how people who were once estranged from God, who used to live in ways contrary to God's desires, have been reconciled through Jesus, "so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him - provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith..." These verses seem to speak of a dialectic inherent in the faith. Our status before God is not our doing; it is a gift to us, a matter of God's grace. But living in this new relationship with God requires a response to the gift, a life of faith.

But too often, this dialectic gets distorted into "Believe in Jesus and get the goodies." Faith becomes agreeing with certain religions beliefs and principles and getting rewarded as a result. But the Colossians passage - and many other places in the Bible - describe a new relationship that is simply given, and a new life that emerges from living into this relationship. In the gospels, Jesus welcomes people into his fellowship by calling them to follow him. The invitation is pure grace, but being a disciple means following: doing as he says, living by his teachings and commandments.

In the Church, we've often forgotten this "provided that you continue..." side of faith. In traditional denominations such as my own, you can see this in how we approach membership. Although our theology would beg to differ, we generally consider people members in good standing as long as they show up for worship now and then. We do very little to encourage them to live out that faith, to serve as disciples, to embody Jesus in their life at the church and in the world.

But this is changing. One of the exciting things in the church is the recovery of "Christian practices," habits and behaviors that shape and form us into the disciples Jesus calls us to be. Be they ministries of hospitality or spiritual practices that deepen our awareness of and attentiveness to God, these encourage the response side of the faith dialectic, and help us actually follow Jesus in our daily living.

What practices help you to respond to God's grace in Christ?

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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Repentence

I've written previously about a huge study of the faith of young people in America, one that labeled that faith "Moralistic, Therapeutic, Deism." Central to this faith is the notion of believing in God and trying to be good (along with hoping God may help you out of a jam). I doubt the faith of the people in our gospel reading would ever have been described as Moralistic, Therapeutic, Deism, but believing in God and trying hard to be good certainly could describe the Pharisees we meet there.

While the Pharisees are often seen as "bad guys" in the gospels, they were a very dedicated reform movement in Judaism, one that insisted ritual alone was not enough. People needed to work hard to be obedient to God's commands. And yet, John the Baptist tells the Pharisees who come to him that they need to "bear fruit worthy of repentance."

Over the years repentance has taken on a narrow religious meaning of feeling remorse and regret over past actions, with an implication of conversion. But biblically speaking, the term has to do with changing one's mind and going in a new direction. Pharisees tried very hard to be good, to be obedient, so I'm not sure we would expect them to be remorseful about such behavior, but still John expects them to turn, to become something different.

Christian faith in 21st century America is often difficult to distinguish from generic notions of spirituality and good citizenship, from Moralistic, Therapeutic, Deism. But if John the Baptist is any guide, following Jesus apparently calls us to turn and become something much more than that.

Beyond believing in God/Jesus and trying to be good and help others, what fruit is born of your turning toward Jesus?

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Monday, April 19, 2010

Sunday Sermon - "The Story Continues"

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Humility

As 1 Peter comes to a close, the author charges church leaders to care tenderly for their flock. Those under them should accept the authority of these leaders, but all should practice humility toward one another because "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble."

I take it from these admonitions that pride has always been a problem for humans. Our culture seems to celebrate self promotion, and "celebutantes" such as Paris Hilton may be a new phenomenon, but a preoccupation with self is nothing new. And what is pride (at least the sort of pride 1 Peter condemns) if not a preoccupation with self.

In my work as a pastor, I have discovered that pride can be a real problem. The tendency to view all things from the perspective of how they impact me can cause great difficulties. I'm willing to work hard and struggle, but I expect some sort of payoff. I'm happy to be faithful, but I think I should be recognized and rewarded in some way.

I'm not arguing for self-flagellation, but if I measure everything by how it impacts me, can I ever really love God with all my heart and soul and mind? In my Reformed tradition, it was once common to speak of a willingness to suffer virtually anything if it would glorify God. That may be a good description of imitating Jesus, but I have to admit that I struggle with that one. And I don't think anyone can want to glorify God above all else unless God does something to the heart.

God, transform my heart. Let it love you so much that my greatest desire is to glorify you.

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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sunday Sermon - "The Story Continues"

April 18 sermon.mp3

John 21 comes after the gospel of John seems to have ended. Perhaps this story after the story has ended serves to unsettle things and get the story moving again. Perhaps we need a similar unsettling.

John 21:1-19

The Story Continues

James Sledge -- April 18, 2010

When the movie ends, the scene fades to black, “The End” appears on the screen, and the credits begin to roll. But rare is the movie where we don’t know it’s the end without these cues.

Music works in similar fashion. More often than not, we can detect that the piece has ended even when we’ve never heard it before. Any musical tension and dissonance resolves into something that feels complete, finished, and we know we are at the end.

In movies, in plays, in novels, in music, this pattern is familiar to us. Things need to be brought to a conclusion. The war must be won. The broken relationship must be repaired. The killer must be caught. The jury must come in. The lovers must find one another. The last note must be played. Otherwise we are left with a sense of loose ends.

The gospel of John has dealt with its loose ends. Jesus has been raised from the dead. Mary Magdalene has seen him. Then he has appeared to the disciples, commissioned them and gives them the Spirit. Finally he has appeared again so that Thomas, who was somehow absent when Jesus appeared that first Easter evening, might see and believe. Thomas does believe, but looking forward from that moment, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

And then the gospel ties up the last loose ends and plays the final note. Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. Fade to black.

But just as we prepare to get up from our seats, suddenly the story resumes. After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias. It’s all rather jarring. Just when we thought we understood exactly how things came out, the story starts up again. It breaks into the feeling of completeness. All that dissonance that had been resolved is stirred up again.

The scene itself is surprising. We’re back at the Sea of Galilee with seven of the disciples. No explanation is given for why they are there. They are just there. It is late in the day, and Peter announces, “I’m going fishing.”

“Sounds like a plan,” the others chime in together. “We’ll all go with you.”

What’s going on here? Has Peter returned to his pre-disciple profession? I don’t know, but he clearly has a boat at his disposal. And they spend the night fishing without catching a single fish.

When the gospel of John seemed to end a few verse earlier, Jesus had already empowered the disciples with the Holy Spirit and sent them as the Father has sent him. But now here they are fishing in the dark.

Now strictly speaking there is nothing all that unusual about fishing at night. But in John’s gospel this seems terribly out of place. Themes of light and darkness are so prominent in this gospel. Jesus is the light that shines in the darkness. But the world prefers the darkness. Nicodemus sneaks out to see Jesus at night. Judas slips off to betray Jesus in the darkness of night. And now, after the resurrection, after the gift of the Holy Spirit, we find the disciples fishing, with no success, in the dark.

It’s a rather depressing scene, from an actual fishing standpoint as well as the metaphorical one. But then the light dawns, both literally and metaphorically. The disciples don’t realize at first, but Jesus is there on the shore. Suddenly there are fish galore and breakfast is ready and waiting.

If the disciples had somehow misunderstood, thought that the end of the story meant things went back to the way they were before, Jesus shatters that notion. The disciples’ last meal with Jesus will not be a prelude to his death, but a prelude to their ministry.

There is a problem with endings. When the movie ends, when all the loose ends are tied up, when any dissonance in the notes resolves and the song concludes, the energy is also gone. Nothing drives events forward any longer. Everything is settled.

Christian faith is bound to an ancient story, and without remembering and embracing that story we cannot be the people of God. But that story is not ended. It has not faded to black. The great preacher Tom Long even suggests that this strange story in John’s gospel that takes place after the story has ended serves to draw the curtain up again, to unsettle things and put the energy back into an unfinished story.

Of course Peter is a special case, and this story after the end of John’s gospel recalls how Peter’s story seemed to have ended. On the night of Jesus’ arrest, a confident, brash Peter had boldly predicted that he would lay down his own life in order to go with Jesus. Instead Peter had denied Jesus three times as he stood warming himself by a charcoal fire that night.

But that is not the end of Peter’s story. Standing by a different charcoal fire, Peter’s threefold denial is undone. Jesus’ love embraces Peter and restores him. But his restoration does not bring Peter’s story to a conclusion. Rather it is a new beginning. “Feed my sheep. Tend my lambs. Follow me.”

This second ending of John’s gospel leaves many questions unanswered and much left to do. What happens to Peter? Presumably he did what Jesus commanded him. He cared for Jesus’ flock, even though it likely cost him his own life at some point. But clearly the story continues, and much of it remains to be written.

Nearly 2000 years later, I wonder if we might not need another, another ending to the story, something like the second ending of John that unsettled things a bit and injected energy and momentum towards a future still to come. I can’t help but think that religion has gotten far too settled, far too fixed. We humans tend to like things settled, but without some tension and the energy it provides, things stagnate. Without some sense that the plot is still unfolding, that we are moving toward something, things become listless and merely habit.

You don’t need to be a social scientist or researcher to know that young people have left the church in droves in the last few decades. Many of them are children of some of you. But researchers can tell us some interesting information about these folks. For the most part, they don’t have any real conflict with the beliefs or doctrines of their parents’ faith, and they didn’t leave to find “better churches.” They believe in God and in being good. They just don’t see any point to the church part. They can believe in God and be good without church.

And I think they got the notion that what goes on at church isn’t very important from us. We got so settled, so accommodated to the world around us. We acted like the story was over and there wasn’t anything significant left to do. We even acted like there wasn’t anything significant going on in our worship.

A member in the pews on Easter Sunday told me this story. It seems that someone was attending worship with family or friends. And as the service ran a bit past an hour – not surprising with the extra music and the large number receiving communion – this person said, loudly enough for those nearby to hear, “You said it only lasted an hour!”

Now I suppose this person can be excused. For all I know, he wasn’t even Christian. But we often act just like him. We check our watches. People complain if the service runs over a few minutes. They grumble if they didn’t like one of the hymns. But if we really expected to meet Jesus here, I doubt we’d care what music we sang or how long we stayed.

But we act like we’re just telling an old story and singing some songs. Perhaps it’s warm and comforting in a way. Perhaps we enjoy it. But it isn’t meant to stir anything up or start anything. The story has been written, and the screen has faded to black.

Like the disciples in our gospel, we have settled back into our everyday routines. Yes, we’ve heard that Jesus was raised. Maybe we even believe it. But that’s an old story, and it doesn’t have much to do with how we live our lives. At least that’s what we’ve communicated to those who grew up in the church. And they’ve taken us at our word, and so many of them have left. And who can blame them.

But the good news is that Jesus does not condemn disciples who settle back into old routines, who live like the resurrection doesn’t much matter, who fish aimlessly in the dark. Jesus does not even condemn Peter for denying him. He only wants to get the story going again. He feeds his disciples, and he calls them, calls us, once more. “Feed my sheep. Tend my lambs. Follow me.” And the story continues.

Sunday Sermon - "The Story Continues"

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Wrestling with Scripture

Today's reading from 1 Peter is not one of my favorites, but it does raise interesting questions about how one handles Scripture. Some well known injunctions are found here such as the command to "accept the authority of every human institution," including pagan emperors and governors; a requirement that slaves "accept the authority of your masters with all deference," whether such masters be good or bad; and the command that wives "accept the authority of your husbands," even if they are not Christians.

I occasionally hear the last injunction quoted by conservative Christians, but some of these folks have no trouble railing against the government. Never mind this Scripture's command to "
Honor the emperor." And despite some recent attempts to portray the southern Confederate States as some sort of 19th Century Tea Party effort, almost no one is arguing in favor of slavery. Never mind that following 1 Peter literally would seem to have ruled out any efforts to eradicate slavery.

But Scripture is an equal opportunity trouble maker. Faithful people of all political stripes struggle to employ it in meaningful ways. And people of all stripes sometimes end up trumpeting passages that they like while simply ignoring those that they don't.

Most all of us do some scriptural "cherry picking," but such efforts can only lead to creating a god in our own image. A far more faithful approach might be to wrestle with difficult texts such as this one from 1 Peter. To do so will require some understanding of the passage's context, the situation of the people to whom it was first written. And it will require us to know something about the large message of the Bible so that we can hear these words in the context of many other biblical words. That is to say that wrestling with Scripture, as the term implies, requires some real effort.

Over 70 years ago Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of The Cost of Discipleship, in contrast to "cheap grace." And what could be cheaper than embracing a few verses of Scripture that support what we already believe and labeling that faith.

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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Trust

In today's reading from Exodus, the Israelites head out from the Red Sea after their miraculous escape through the waters. But soon they are thirsty and, finding no drinkable water, they "complained against Moses." Moses cries out to God who gives them water. But soon they are hungry, and even though God has worked one miracle after another, they complain again. "If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger."

It's easy to belittle the Israelites' lack of faith. And I think some of us find their behavior even harder to understand because God is so obviously there for them. Look at all God has done for them. How can they fail to trust in God's provision?

I sometimes find myself wishing that God was more obviously present, like happened in biblical times. But I wonder if the biblical folks experienced it that way. Were they so different from me? Or were they perhaps exactly like me; confident when they sensed that God was there, but quickly imagining God was no longer with them the moment difficulty arose.

I've had my moments when God's presence was real, powerful, and life altering. I felt God calling me to leave a career and attend seminary. I've felt God calling me to refocus my work as a pastor. But then there are those times when I can't seem to find God. And I often find myself doubting those previous experiences of God. Were those signs really God, or was it all just coincidence? And I start to complain. I don't necessarily complain to God, but then neither do the Israelites. They complain to Moses and Aaron. Perhaps God didn't seem real enough at that moment even to merit a complaint. I know how they felt.

I know a lot of people who think that faith is believing what it says in the Bible, believing that God created the world, that Jesus died and rose. But I think that believing such things is child's play compared to the real work of faith. Faith is about trusting that God is at work in my life, that God is somehow moving events toward God's future and calling me to be a part of it, even when I can't seem to find God around me anywhere. In fact, I'm not sure there is faith, at least not in the sense the Apostle Paul speaks of it, without occasionally experiencing what feels like the absence of God.

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Worship

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD.

So goes a portion of Psalm 98. Sometimes I use similar words to open worship. But it is very easy for worship to be something other than an offering to God. For me worship is filled with logistics, worries about all the pieces coming together, not to mention delivering a sermon. For choir members it may be about doing the music they've rehearsed. People in the seats or pews may be able to worry less about such things and take it all in. But it is easy for them to become spectators and worship become something that was either good or bad depending on how they liked it.

How do we make worship something we give to God? I think this is a critical issue for many mainline congregations such as the one I serve. And I think answering this question starts with an enhanced sense that God is in our sanctuaries and worship spaces. We say that when the faithful gather together, Jesus is present with us. But it is easy to act otherwise, to act as if we are simply gathering to do a little singing and to hear someone talk about God.

How present is God in your worship? And how can we do a better job of helping others to encounter that presence.

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Monday, April 12, 2010

Sunday Sermon - "Impressive Congregations"

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Obedience

Today's gospel reading takes place shortly before Jesus' arrest, and it states with clarity that to see Jesus is to see the Father. This is a fundamental claim of John's gospel. It is there in the opening verses about the Word made flesh. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

In the very early years of the Church, Christians argued over the nature of Jesus and his divinity. But those issues were settled long ago. Most Christians don't give Jesus' divinity a second thought. We assume it. At least we do until it comes to our actions.

With scarcely a thought we say, "Jesus is God in the flesh." But when it comes to doing what Jesus says, that is another matter. In today's reading Jesus says, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." But the notion of "turning the other cheek" is not all that appealing to me. And I have enough trouble loving my family. I'm not sure I can love all believers, precisely what Jesus commands we he says, "Love one another." And loving my enemies just seems like a bad idea.

Sometimes we Protestants have so focused on faith that we act like it doesn't matter what we do, only what we believe. But the Bible clearly says that faith without works is dead. And Jesus says that if we love him, we will obey him. Obedience doesn't always sit well with our cultural notions of self-fulfillment and happiness. We are loathe to give anyone that sort of control over our lives. We want freedom. Freedom from God?

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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sunday Sermon - "Impressive Congregations"

There is no audio today, but the video will be posted tomorrow. Sermon text is below.

Acts 5:27-32; John 20:19-23

Impressive Congregations

James Sledge April 11, 2010

Most of you know that I am not originally from central Ohio, that I moved here from my home state of North Carolina. Once I arrived, it wasn’t long before I learned of Columbus’ long running inferiority complex. After years of living in the shadows of Cleveland and Cincinnati, Columbus has a tendency to think of itself as second string, not quite as impressive as these other cities. And this self image has persisted even though both Cincinnati and Cleveland have struggled in recent years, losing population while this area grows and thrives in comparison.

Congregations often suffer from a similar inferiority problem. I have heard church experts say that most churches underestimate their size and capabilities. My own experience certainly bears this out. I’ve heard numerous folks in this congregation and in my previous one speak of being a small congregation. But in fact, we are bigger than roughly three quarters of all Presbyterian congregations.

Not too long ago we began an Appreciative Inquiry process here leading to the formation of our Dream Team. They are seeking to hear where God is calling us as a congregation. And in the early part of this process, as we catalogued the many activities and programs already going on at Boulevard, I heard a number of people express their surprise at how busy a place this actually is. That didn’t quite fit with the small image some of us have.

As I said, this seems to be normal. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because there is always some congregation that is bigger and more impressive, we tend to underestimate ourselves. Regardless, our tendency to minimize our own gifts and abilities does limit us, does sometimes keep us from doing all that we might do. But I actually think this is a rather minor problem.

I say that because there is a bigger problem afflicting many congregations, no matter how accurately they view their gifts, talents, and resources. The problem is that they view their congregation as nothing more than the sum of the members’ gifts, talents, and resources. What they, what we can do or can’t do is purely a function of these members. If we are an impressive bunch of folks with an impressive array of abilities, then we will be an impressive congregation. If not, well…

Of course we can always work to improve our credentials. Our elders and deacons can attend leadership seminars. Our teachers can attend teacher training. There are companies that will sell us stewardship programs guaranteed to increase pledges. Pastors can attend preaching, worship, and other workshops. There are endless things we can do to make ourselves better and more impressive. But none of these will solve the problem of thinking that a congregation rises and falls simply on the strengths and weaknesses of its members.

Our two scripture readings for this morning may be helpful in understanding what I’m talking about. Granted these stories come from a time before denominations and church buildings, but they are still about congregations, about groups of believers who have banded together.

One of these congregations is depicted in John’s gospel. It has gathered for a Sunday evening prayer service on the very day of Jesus’ resurrection. It is the end of what must have been an incredible day. Jesus had been executed on Friday and his body placed in the tomb late that day. In Jewish thought the new day began at sundown, and so the Sabbath had begun almost as soon as Jesus was in the tomb. That meant that nothing more could be done until Sunday. Sunday began following sundown on the Sabbath, but in a world without electricity or streetlights, no one headed for the tomb until early in the morning.

Mary Magdalene was so eager that she had actually gone before first light, only to find the tomb open and Jesus’ body gone. She ran back and got two of the disciples who went to the tomb and found it just as Mary said, but then they had returned. But Mary had remained, and she had met the risen Jesus. Afterwards she had rushed back to tell the others. “I have seen the Lord,” she said to them, and she told them what Jesus had said about ascending to the Father.

Word had quickly spread among the eleven and then to the larger community of disciples. What did this all mean? All their hopes had been dashed on Friday, but now some of them felt a faint glimmer. And so they gathered for that prayer meeting as darkness descended. They carefully checked the door as people arrived, verified who they were and let them in. And they kept the door securely locked. The authorities had killed Jesus; they would not hesitate to kill the disciples if they got wind that they were trying to keep things going. They were terrified, and who could blame them.

There is a slightly different congregation found in our reading from the book of Acts, although we see only a few of the congregation’s leaders. They’ve been arrested by the same authorities who so frightened those attending that Sunday night prayer meeting the day of Jesus’ resurrection. Actually, this is the second time they’ve been arrested for saying Jesus is the Messiah and that he has been raised from the dead. They had been strictly ordered not to do this, but they have persisted despite the threat of arrest and even death. And they will not back down even when they stand before those authorities.

Of course many of you know that these aren’t really two different congregations. True, the congregation has added a few members between the story in John and the one in Acts, but it is the very same folks who hid behind locked doors who now boldly defy the authorities.

But even though it is the same people, they sure seem like different congregations. One is frightened and worried about self-preservation. The other is bold and fearless, totally unconcerned about its own safety, focused on reaching out to others. They are the same people, with the same gifts and talents, but nothing looks the same.

Now if congregations are simply the sum of their members’ gifts, talents, and resources, these folks must have been quite busy attending seminars and workshops. They must have gone to evangelism classes and leadership workshops and motivational events. They must have countless hours in meetings to come up with a better mission statement and better programming for their church. Still, it is hard to comprehend how the same folks locked behind closed doors are now standing boldly and fearlessly before the very people who terrified them only a few weeks before.

When I went to seminary and took “Preaching and Worship” my first year, the very first sermon I wrote was from today’s gospel reading. In it I wondered aloud how on earth Jesus could possible hand over the reins of his Church to this frightened bunch hiding behind locked doors. Could there be a much less impressive group of folks? What was he thinking turning loose this bunch?

In that first sermon, I also wondered about the congregations I had grown up in. Some were better than others, but we could be pretty timid and unimpressive ourselves. If Jesus had ever showed up at one of those congregations and commissioned us like he did to those disciples hiding behind locked doors, I’d have wondered what in the world he was thinking then, too.

But when Jesus looks at those folks quivering in fear, when he looks at us, he sees something different than I do. He sees bold, fearless believers who defy the authorities despite arrest, imprisonment, and the threat of death. Jesus looks at people who seem totally incapable of something so important as continuing his ministry on earth and sees an incredible future. He knows that they are not limited by their frailties and uncertainties and fears, because he does not send them out on their own.

Jesus says, “Receive the Holy Spirit… Receive the Holy Spirit… Receive the Holy Spirit… “ (each time facing a different area of the congregation). “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Identity

In today's reading from Exodus, Moses commands the people of Israel to remember. "Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." Israel can not be who she is called to be without remembering. Her own identity is caught up in this remembering. When Israel forgets that her very existence is a gift from God, that is the beginning of an identity shift. Israel will begin to become something other than God called her to be.

Identity and remembering are closely related. When married couples forget how their spouse used to make them feel, when they forget the sacrifices the other has made, and when they forget the promises made to each other, they can begin to lose their identity, to live as though they were not husband and wife.

In today's gospel, Jesus commissions the disciples and the Church saying, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you." But this task requires a great deal of remembering. "Teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" requires us to remember. And here, remembering includes doing.

I think a good argument can be made that some of the Church's difficulties in our day are the result of a loss of identity, an identity crisis brought on by failing to remember. Very often we in congregations "believe" in Jesus but obey very little that he commands us. We have forgotten all that nonsense about taking up the cross, about giving ourselves totally to God, about our neighbors' needs - even neighbors who are from other cultures and countries - being every bit as important as our own. We've forgotten more than we remember, and so our identity has become so compromised that we are virtually indistinguishable from the culture.

One of the great medical tragedies of our time is Alzheimer's disease. A big part of its horror is the slow forgetting that accompanies it, the slow loss of a loved one who gradually forgets who he or she is. Sometimes we in the Church look a bit like someone in the early stages of Alzheimer's. We continue with some of the same routines, but increasingly their meaning is lost as we forget who we are.

But in the Church's case, this is not irreversible. Our identity can be recovered if we are willing to do the work of reclaiming it, of remembering who it is Jesus calls us to be.

Click here to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Easter Sermon - "Facing the Darkness"

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Awe

The LORD is king;
let the peoples tremble!
He sits enthroned upon the cherubim;

let the earth quake!

In a Bible study class this morning we were talking about a story in Joshua where God "fought for Israel," killing the enemy with hailstones and causing the sun to stop in midheaven. The story unashamedly insists that God intervened in history for Israel. But class members struggled to speak literally of God intervening in history. The story in Joshua seemed an ancient perception of natural events.

Today's lectionary passages speak of a God whose power at work in the world is amazing, even terrifying; the Passover and Israel's escape from Egypt; and perhaps the most incredible exercise of divine power, the Resurrection. Psalm 99 also opens by acknowledging the power of God that cause the people to tremble and the earth to quake.

But many modern Christians worship a God who is distant, withdrawn, and little interested in intervening in history. If this God is concerned with us, it is only on a very personal level. Indeed the only examples this morning's Bible study could come up with for God intervening in history were little personal nudges that had perhaps altered their lives' trajectory a bit.

It sometimes seems that we have traded the awesome God of all creation for a divine buddy who can make us feel better, but little else. No wonder a recent, mammoth study of the faith of American youth and young adults characterized that faith as "Moralistic, Therapeutic, Deism."

In her book, When God Is Silent, Barbara Brown Taylor wonders about our current situation where God seems downright quiet compared to biblical times. And she draws on the prophet Amos and his warning about a coming famine, "not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD." And I wonder if our loss of awe, our loss of any sense that God can act powerfully in history, is not of a piece with this. Indeed, why should God speak to a people who cannot imagine that God might intervene with power and might for the poor and oppressed, for the weak and the vulnerable, and against those who exploit them?

Click here to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Resurrection

Most Sundays in worship, our congregation repeats the Apostles' Creed, in which we say that we believe in, among other things, "the resurrection of the body." Like a lot of things that get repeated routinely in worship, I don't know that people often give much thought to what they say. I feel pretty safe that they don't with this line considering how little most folks connect resurrection with "the body."

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, Christian belief in resurrection has become wedded to Greek philosophical notions of the immortality of the soul. For a lot of Christians, resurrection is simply another way of saying that our soul persists after death, with the added benefit that it is with God in some way.

It is interesting to contrast this with how Paul thinks about resurrection. For him, and indeed for the Bible, resurrection is connected to bodily existence. Jesus' bodily resurrection at Easter is a precursor of what is to come. When Jesus returns, death will be totally defeated and the dead will be raised. In our reading today, Paul speaks of death as an enemy, the last enemy to be defeated when Jesus returns. Paul does not view death as a natural passage from this life to the next. Rather he sees death as an enemy of life itself. But Jesus' resurrection means the power of death is not absolute. This enemy could not hold Jesus. And so we trust that it will not be able to hold us.

Richard Hays, in his commentary on First Corinthians (in the Interpretation series p.279), tells of a young woman whose 18 year old sister had been killed in an auto accident. Friends and family kept telling her that she should should be glad that her sister was in heaven. Surely her sister, who had been an unhappy child, was much happier now. This young woman was infuriated by pious talk that seemed to deny the tragedy of her sister's death. But she also felt guilty that, as a Christian, she ought to believe the pious things she was being told. This young woman found Paul's words to be incredibly liberating. They allowed her to mourn the tragic death of her sister, while giving her a strong hope that she would yet embrace her sister again some day.

What do you understand resurrection to mean, and how did you come to have this understanding?

Click here to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Easter Sermon - "Facing the Darkness"

In John's gospel, Mary goes to the tomb "while it was still dark." And Mary is caught up in that darkness even after finding the empty tomb. Mary's witness is powerful precisely because she knows the depth of the darkness.

April 4 sermon.mp3

John 20:1-18

Facing the Darkness

James Sledge April 4, 2010, Easter

Surely Easter is the brightest day of the year for the Church. The culture may prefer Christmas, but the Church knows that Easter is the center. The very fact that we worship on Sunday rather than the Sabbath is a nod to Easter. Each Sunday we celebrate the resurrection.

This Sunday would have been a great day to attend an Easter sunrise service. The light streaming over the horizon signals a new day, the Day of Resurrection. We rejoice in its dawning. But in John’s gospel, there is no sunlight on that first Easter morn. Mary heads to the tomb early, while it is still dark.

In John’s gospel, we hear often of light and dark. The gospel opens with the Word that was in the beginning with God. This Word is the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. But try telling that to Mary as she makes her way in the darkness to find an empty tomb. In the dark, the empty tomb brings no joy to Mary. All she can think is that grave robbers have struck. And so she runs to find Peter and that other disciple. Maybe they can help her find Jesus’ body.

I’m not at all sure what motivates the foot race that follows. The last time we saw Peter he was denying that he was one of Jesus’ disciples, but the other disciple was there with Jesus at the cross. Is Peter trying to redeem himself here? What does he hope to find when he gets there? But the other disciple bests Peter again, although Peter enters the tomb first.

They see the grave clothes, neatly folded, not at all like when Jesus raised Lazarus who came out of the tomb all tangled up in cloth, needing to be unbound. When the beloved disciple with Peter goes in and sees it, he believes. Just what he believes is a bit unclear. The reading says he doesn’t understand that Jesus must rise from the dead. He apparently doesn’t get what has happened. Still he believes.

Maybe this comforted him in some way that he couldn’t quite understand. I don’t know. But he and Peter go home, leaving Mary alone in the dark. Sometimes I think that we in the church are a bit like this. We see the empty tomb. We believe it is good news in some way. We celebrate Easter and we go home. And we never quite seem to recognize or confront the darkness. But Mary does.

Mary is caught up in darkness. How could she not be? Her loss is so great. Obviously she has loved Jesus dearly. She stood by him as he died. Now, before it was even safe to be out, she has gone his grave. But his body is not there.

Desecration of a body was a terrible thing for Jews such as Mary. In our day, we’ve seen news stories about funeral homes that didn’t actually bury people where they said or presented families with ashes that weren’t actually their loved ones. The trauma for these families is terrible. First the loss of a loved one and then this. Darkness on top of darkness.

But today is Easter and we are here to celebrate the light that darkness could not overwhelm. But that does not mean there is no darkness. And I worry that the church’s witness is sometimes compromised by not confronting or even acknowledging the darkness.

Sometimes people outside the church view us as a bunch of Pollyannas who see the world through rose colored glasses. I realize that does not accurately describe many of you, but it is how we are often perceived. And we do sometimes live out this stereotype.

As a pastor I spend more than my share of time around illness, pain, tragedy, and death. And I see church members lovingly care for one another and support one another in times of great difficulty. Yet I have observed that those whose presence is least comforting are often those who waltz into the room with an Easter message on their lips. “Cheer up. Everything is going to be okay. He’s in a better place. You should be happy that she is in heaven.” All those things may be true, but they do not change the fact that the pain, the loss, the darkness of that moment can be overwhelming. This sort of “comfort” seems to deny the darkness.

True Christian witness knows all about darkness. That is why Mary is such a compelling witness, even in a day when women were not considered reliable or legally valid witnesses. Mary is no cheery-faced Pollyanna. She does not go to the tomb sure that everything will come out all right in the end.

She is distraught. She has watched Jesus die an agonizing death. She has had to delay visiting his grave because of the Sabbath. And now that grave is empty. Even the presence of angels cannot draw her out of the darkness. At first, even Jesus himself cannot deflect her desire to find the body, to find some small anchor to hold onto in the midst of the darkness that she fears may swallow her up entirely.

Then Jesus speaks. The good shepherd calls his sheep, and she recognizes his voice. The darkness is real, but it has not been able to swallow up this light. And when Mary tells the others, “I have seen the Lord,” it is the powerful witness of one who knows full well the terrors of the darkness. It is the powerful witness of one who knows that no matter the terrible pain and suffering in the world, no matter the awful power of darkness, God’s love will somehow triumph.

This is a promise that has transformed countless people prompting them to live totally new lives, to challenge the powers of darkness even at the risk of their own lives, because they know that even death cannot separate them from God’s love.

But then religious folk go and domesticate the message, robbing it of its power and hope. I’m not talking about people like you. I’m talking about people like me, pastors, theologians, and educators who want to explain it and help everyone understand. We compare resurrection to a butterfly emerging from a cocoon and invoke images of spring, as if the whole business was simply the normal course of things. Oh, there’s not really any darkness. It was just winter. It’s just the natural order.

Mary knows better. Mary can come and sit with the mother who has just lost a child, the soldier whose body and mind was shattered by a roadside bomb, the father who has lost job and home and must take his family to a shelter, the person whose marriage has disintegrated. And Mary can speak good news to them because she knows their darkness is real. She makes no claims that it is not, nor does she pretend to fully understand how on earth God’s creation could have gotten so messed up, so filled with darkness. Her message is simple. She has seen the Lord, and so she knows that no enemy, no darkness, is stronger than God and God’s love.

Darkness is real. Most of us have times in our lives when we fear that it could swallow us. But, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. God has done the impossible! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Thanks be to God!