Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sermon Thoughts on a Non-preaching Sunday

Today is Trinity Sunday, and pastors everywhere are grappling with this often neglected doctrine of the Church. 1 + 1 + 1 = 1, God in three persons, blessed Trinity. The Trinity is one of those Christian ideas that gets a lot of lip service but, it seems to me, not much thought during most of the year. A lot of people, even a lot of pastors, seem to view it as a doctrine we'd be fine without.

But I can't imagine faith without it. While the doctrine evades complete comprehension, I find that a good thing. Surely God is beyond my comprehension, and so it seems appropriate that a doctrine about God's nature would be a little hard to get your mind around. Also, the notion of the Trinity keeps at bay some popular misconceptions about God. God created humans because God would be lonely without us? Not according to the Trinity. Relationship already is a part of God. You like to picture God as one who makes simple rules, and then rewards and punishes according how well people keep them? Not according to the Trinity. If Jesus is truly God, then all those words about loving neighbor and forgiving and praying for your enemy are actually God's words. Think God is simply the Father? Not according to the Trinity. The Father is God, but Father no more defines and says all there is to say about God than does Son or Spirit. It isn't "Father-God" and a couple of junior partners who joined the game late.

The only complaint I have with the Trinity, and with Trinity Sunday, is the way we pastors drag out trite little formulas and analogies that try to make the Trinity "understandable." I think we'd do better to claim its mystery and recognize that it expresses something beyond understanding.

Happy Trinity Sunday!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Religiousness and Easy Yokes

"Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." I have to confess that I've always had some difficulty knowing how to reconcile these words with other things Jesus says about denying self and taking up the cross, about us needing a righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees, and so on.

Jesus tells us a number of times that doing God's will can be very difficult, so how can his yoke be easy? I don't know how certain I am about this, but I think Jesus draws a contrast between living in the ways that lead to true humanity, that help us become what we were created to be, compared to being religious for religiousness sake. The fact that Matthew immediately reports an argument about Jesus' disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath followed by a dispute over Jesus healing someone on the Sabbath seems to support this view.

So what's the difference between being religious for religiousness sake and living in ways that help us become what God intends us to be? I suspect that a great deal of current religious debate and controversy spring from differing answers to this question. If nothing else, that probably argues for a low level of certainty and arrogance regarding my own answer to the question.

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - The Dance of Love

I grew up in North and South Carolina. And although the Presbyterian churches of my childhood weren't all that Southern in feel, I had plenty of encounters with the church patterns of Southern Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, and so on. These included prayers liberally sprinkled with the word "just" and Jesus pronounced with three or four syllables. Sometimes this all came together in the faith profession, "We just love Jesus!"

In the congregations I attended, people didn't talk so much about loving Jesus, though I presume most folks there did. So was this just a style difference between us and our fellow Christians from other denominations? Is it like the differences between happily married couples, some who can't go five minutes without saying, "I love you," and others who rarely speak the words but seem to care deeply for each other?

'By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments." 1 John talks a lot about love, about God being love and about us loving God, about the relationship we have with God through Jesus. Sometimes Christians can talk about their connection to God in language that sounds more a contract or formula than a relationship. Believe the right things and get the goodies. But love can't ever be reduced to a contract or a formula.

What does it look like to love God? On the flip side, what does it mean that God loves us? Love seems to me more a dance than a formula, with each party moving and the other responding. So what does it mean to dance with God?

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Loving One Another

Many Christians are familiar with some of the lines in today's reading from 1 John. "Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God... God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them... Those who say, 'I love God,' and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen."

Given our familiarity with such words, it is somewhat disconcerting how easy many of us find it to dislike and hate others. Most everyone has heard examples of the terrible things committed in the name of religion, from the Crusades to burning "witches" at the stake to the group who protests at military funerals, claiming these soldiers' deaths are God's punishment because "God hates fags."

But beyond these sort of examples, I'm thinking more of the type I'm likely to engage in. When there are disagreements in congregations or in the denomination, the fighting can get nasty, with little evidence of love on either side. And it is all too easy to find myself thinking the absolute worst of those who disagree with me. It's an easy progression from they're wrong, to they're stubborn, to they're stupid, to I don't like them, to they're evil, to I hate them.

How do we love one another when we disagree, especially if we disagree about things we think are critically important? There is certainly no easy answer, but Jesus never said that following him was easy. He talked of taking up a cross. And it seems to me that learning to love one another while disagreeing might well be the most powerful witness the Church could make to the world about what it means to be people of God.

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Monday, May 24, 2010

Sunday Sermon - What Sort of Birthday?

Joyful Noise Anthem for Pentecost - "Let All God's Children Sing" by Mark Patterson

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - What Kind of Messiah?

In today's gospel reading, John the baptizer, who is in prison, sends some of his disciples to question Jesus, asking if he is indeed the promised Messiah. I find it interesting the things Jesus says confirm that he is indeed this promised one. "The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them."

When you ask Christians what it means to be Christian, you get lots of different answers. Sadly, these answers sometimes say more about the cultural presuppositions of those questioned than they do about the ways of Jesus. Liberal or conservative, we all have a tendency to believe in a Jesus who talks and acts a lot like us. And so there is patriotic Jesus, meek and mild Jesus, social justice Jesus, sword wielding conqueror Jesus, and so on.

Because none of us are immune to this problem of fashioning a Jesus in our own image, it is a good idea to simply listen to Jesus now and then, doing our best not to filter what he says through our own biases. I wonder how well what Jesus points to in order to demonstrate he is God's Messiah fits in with what you or I think it means to follow Jesus. And if what Jesus is doing says anything about the Kingdom he is bringing, what does that say about how his followers should live and act?

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Sunday, May 23, 2010

Sunday Sermon - What Sort of Birthday?

What Sort of Birthday - May 23 sermon for Pentecost.mp3

John 14:8-17, 25-27 (Acts 2:1-21)

What Sort of Birthday?

James Sledge -- May 23, 2010 – Pentecost

Today is the birthday of the Church. Happy Birthday, Church. It is also the birthday of Ambrose Burnside, Civil War general from whom sideburns got their name. Bandleader Artie Shaw was born on this day, as was singer Rosemary Clooney. Boxer Marvelous Marvin Hagler, comedian Drew Carey, and singer Jewel also celebrate their birthdays today. Perhaps there is also someone here who is celebrating a birthday today.

Of course we’re not doing anything at my house to celebrate General Burnside’s birthday. I had to do a computer search just to know about it. Same for all those other folks. Some of those births may be historical events, but they’re little more than a passing curiosity to me.

It’s hard to get too excited about the birthday of someone you don’t know, and it’s even harder to get excited about some long dead historical figure. We may put George Washington’s birthday on calendars, but I can’t remember the exact date. I know it’s February. Even Jesus’ birthday had been long forgotten by the time the Church decided we ought to celebrate it. So they borrowed an existing holiday.

Not only do birthdays take on different significance when we know someone, but they feel different depending on the age of the person. I’ve been invited to a few 90th birthday parties, and even a couple of 100th birthdays. They have a very different feel from a first or second birthday party. They may be happy and joyous, a genuine celebration, but they do not anticipate much. The gaze at such a party is mostly toward the past, and there is a lot of remembering and reminiscing. There are certainly no gifts of clothes that must be grown into or toys that will help someone learn a new skill.

And now here we are at the Church’s birthday party. What sort of feel does is have for you? What sort of gifts would be appropriate? Is the gaze mostly toward past or the future?

If you grew up in the Church like I did, or even if you’ve simply been around the Church for a few years, you’ve likely heard about the Church’s birthday, about Pentecost and the Holy Spirit. The reading from Acts shows up most every Pentecost, and so many of us know that today commemorates the sending of the Holy Spirit. We speak of the Holy Spirit often. The Spirit is in our songs and hymns, in our creeds and prayers. And yet I know a lot of Christians who seem to think the Holy Spirit is a relic of the past.

I probably need to qualify that. A lot of Christians think the Holy Spirit described in the Pentecost story is a relic of the past. They’ll speak of the Spirit being with them or in them, but they seem to be describing a rather vague feeling. And sometimes they speak of the Spirit as something innate to humans, something that gives us an awareness of God.

But such notions have little connection to what the Bible and Jesus say about the Spirit. There the Spirit is not something naturally a part of us. Rather it is God’s presence and power sent to us to equip and empower us to be the body of Christ. The story in Acts vividly describes the disciples being given extraordinary gifts via the Spirit so they could share the good news with all. And when Jesus speaks with his followers just prior to his arrest in our gospel reading today, he promises that God will send the Spirit, the Advocate. And this gift is also associated with the church being empowered to continue Jesus’ ministry. Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”

According to our faith story, the Church whose birthday we celebrate is given extraordinary powers through the Spirit. Jesus promises to be present to us through the Spirit, and to do whatever we ask in his name. So why do so many Christians seem to see the Church like a hundred year old aunt or uncle who is still alive and vigorous, but whose days are obviously numbered?

If you’re not up on all things churchy, you may be unaware of the high level of anxiety that is out there in many denominations and congregations. Membership numbers for Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Episcopalians have declined dramatically over the last few decades. In recent years, even folks like the Southern Baptists have joined in the decline. Statistically almost no one is doing well. And yet as we celebrate the Church’s birthday today, we hear Jesus telling us, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” What gives?

Growing up in the Church, I heard people routinely end their prayers with, “in Jesus’ name we pray.” I don’t know about you, but hearing this on a regular basis led me to believe that this was the proper formula to use if you wanted to get what you were asking for. It was a church equivalent of “pretty please” or “Abracadabra.”

But “in my name” was never meant as a formula. Rather, it describes the relationship of what Jesus’ followers are doing to what Jesus has done. It is about continuing Jesus’ ministry, about obeying his commandments. It is about being a community where the world can see the risen Christ still at work. “In my name” is Jesus entrusting us to be his faithful representatives in the world. And it is his promise to be with us and help us when we are faithful to that call.

And that raises a question. If we are feeling anxious about the future, if we are worried about the fate of the Church or our congregation, is it because Jesus was lying when he said he would give us what we asked for? Or is it because what we’re asking for, wishing for, pining for, isn’t what Jesus wants us to be doing on his behalf, in his name?

As we celebrate the Church’s birthday, it is natural to look back, to remember her triumphs and accomplishments. And I suppose it is only normal to worry when numbers go down and budgets are tight. But it seems to me that such times are also a call to take stock, to examine ourselves and ask where we are being faithful and where we need to move in new directions if we are to minister in Jesus’ name, on his behalf, if we are to be Christ to the world.

As we celebrate the Church’s birthday, I see clear signs that the Spirit is blowing through the Church, calling and empowering those who will look to the future. I hear the hope the Spirit brings in the voices of those on our Dream Team as they listen for where God is calling us. And I am convinced that when we are attentive to that call, the Spirit will be powerfully present, instructing and guiding us, gifting and empowering us. Where do you hear the Spirit moving us? What is Jesus calling us, and you, to do “in his name,” as his representatives.

As we celebrate the Church’s birthday, peering into an uncertain future, Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” You will do even greater works. And God will be glorified, and the world will see the Son in you.

Thanks be to God!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Saved

What is it about me that most needs saving? That may seem an odd question to ask, but Christianity is, after all, a faith that speaks a lot about salvation and being saved. In his book, A New Kind of Christianity, Brian McLaren says of the younger generations that are drifting away from the Church, "they just can't figure out what they're being saved from, or for, enough to stay." (p. 162)

In today's gospel reading, Jesus first forgives and then heals a paralyzed man. The forgiveness bespeaks a deep compassion, "Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven." The healing is done - or so it seems - mostly to verify Jesus' authority to forgive sin. Would Jesus have healed the man had such proof not been needed? Did he need forgiveness more than healing? Was Jesus already going to heal him as well?

I don't know that the biblical text gives easy answers to such questions. Certainly Jesus is more often portrayed simply healing people, so the story may be more interested in talking about Jesus than about the paralyzed man. Perhaps the commonly held view that such maladies were the result of sin prompts Jesus to assure the man his relationship with God is restored. But in the end, while I try to determine how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, the paralyzed man is both healed and forgiven. His life is made whole and full.

Which takes me back to my original question, What about me most needs saving? Too often in the Church, we want to reduce salvation and saving to a status question meaning, "Has your ticket to heaven been punched." But there is nothing in this story, or any of the other saving stories in Matthew, about going to heaven. They are stories about healing, forgiving, restoring, and wholeness, not stories about what happens to you after you die.

Perhaps McLaren is correct. The biggest problem facing many denominations and congregations is the fact that salvation has become so disconnected from life. When salvation is about some far off heaven, what does it have to do with following Jesus or a kingdom that has "come near?"

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Truth and Love

As the author of Ephesians about how people's different spiritual gifts work together to build up the body of Christ, and how we are called to grow mature, he says that we are to speak "the truth in love." Yet I think I have seen truth used more often as a weapon than I have seen it used in a loving manner. We have proverbial sayings that reflect this. "The truth hurts." And there is nothing nastier than a fight over "religious truths."

But surely speaking truth in love should look somewhat kinder. Looking at the Jesus found in the gospels, when I see him speak his truth, it seems a much more gracious and generous truth that is often spoken by those of us who claim to follow him. He reaches out and embraces those the religious folks thought unlovable. He invites people to follow him, but I don't recall him ever threatening or verbally accosting someone who did not. He rarely spoke harshly or in anger, and then it was usually to stop religious authorities who wielded their "truth" like a weapon.

Insomuch as I and others like me call ourselves "Christians," it seems only appropriate that we should seek to model ourselves after Jesus. But we live in a culture that often prefers spin to truth, and that brings out the truth when it will provide an advantage. But what if we became Jesus-like truth tellers? What a powerful witness to the world that would be.

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Who Is Jesus

In today's gospel, Jesus speaks to the storm, and it obeys him. A raging storm becomes absolute calm. I know that as a preacher, I usually don't like it when such passages show up for Sunday. What do you say about Jesus doing a miracle such as this. About the only question that immediately comes to mind is, "Did this actually happen or not?"

Arguments about the Bible often follow the same sort of pattern. "Do you believe what it says is really true?" But I have started to think that the real significance of this story, and others like it, is less about what did or didn't happen and much more about what it means to depict Jesus as one whose voice can command creation.

I can decide to believe that Jesus did this miracle and that not necessarily make much difference in how I live or how I understand the nature of God, and so on. But when I start to explore the implications of this story... Only God can speak and creation respond. The real issue here is "Who is Jesus?" And if Jesus is indeed, Emmanuel, God with us, all sorts of other issues immediately arise.

For starters, if God can be fully present in a human being, then I immediately have to reconsider some popular notions about fleshy, physical existence being an inferior sort of existence. And if Jesus is truly God with us, then it seems that my understanding of who God is and what it means to be human are to be found here. It's not unusual to hear people speak of a meek and mild, loving Jesus while at the very same time picturing a demanding, harsh, God who has no trouble shipping off millions of people to eternal damnation. But if this Jesus who has compassion on the people because they are like sheep without a shepherd, who welcomes sinners and outcast, and who prays that his executioners be forgiven; if this Jesus is indeed God, then how can God be out to get so many people?

Just who is this Jesus? And do your answers actually fit with your basic notions of God, Christianity, and living
the Christian life?

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Monday, May 17, 2010

Funny Worship Satire

"Sunday's Coming" Movie Trailer from North Point Media on Vimeo.

Sunday Sermon - Too Bad About All Those Other Folks

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - In or Out

I'm not sure why, but I've been thinking a lot lately about the traditional, conventional faith claims of the Church. Of perhaps I've been thinking about the stereotypes of those faith claims. I'm not really sure. Regardless, today's verses from Matthew prompted more thinking of this sort.

A centurion walks up to Jesus and asks him to cure a paralyzed servant. Presumably this centurion is Roman, not Jewish. He likely offers sacrifices at temples to various Roman gods. I can't know for sure because Jesus doesn't ask him for his religious credentials. He just says, "Sure, I'll heal him." Only after that do we see the faith of the centurion who is happy with a long distance healing. No need for any Ernest Angley dramatics.

Then Jesus speaks of people from all over entering the kingdom while "heirs" get left out. Heirs here seems to mean the Jews, and their presumptions about being God's people. But many modern Christians could think they have supplanted the Jews and so could fill that role today.

It seems to me that just about the only time Jesus gets mad at anyone and speaks of them being left out, he is talking to folks who presume they are already in. Jesus never seems to speak as some Christians do, warning outsiders that they had better sign up, better plug into the formula, or they're in trouble.

I think my pondering, in the end, goes to the nature of God. A great deal of Christian thought seems to picture a God who is bound by some sort of formula, who has to punish somebody. Thank goodness Jesus jumps in and takes the bullet. But if Jesus is the fullest revelation of God, it's hard for me to picture a God with the sword drawn or the gun cocked.

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Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sunday Sermon - Too Bad About All Those Other Folks

Too Bad about All Those Other Folks - May 16 sermon.mp3

John 17:20-26

Too Bad about All Those Other Folks

James Sledge -- May 16, 2010

When I was in seminary, I loved studying theology and always thought it odd that some of my classmates disliked it. One of the favorite images I picked up in seminary is that of theology or church tradition as spectacles, lenses through which we read and understand God’s revelation to us in Jesus and in Scripture. We never hear Jesus speak or read a passage of Scripture without some sort of interpretive lenses, without some sort of glasses on.

However, when we get accustomed to glasses or contacts, we can forget we have them on. We don’t think of what we see as being changed or corrected before we see it. We simply see what we see. A similar sort of thing happens with the lenses of theology and tradition. We don’t realize that we see what we see filtered and refracted by our lenses.

I saw this some years ago during an officer training class that I was leading. People elected as elders or deacons are required to receive training in our Reformed theology because as part of their ordination, they promise to be guided by that theology, to use those lenses, to help them understand what it means to be a faithful church. And as the class was discussing our theology, one of those officers-to-be said, “Why can’t we just be Christians? Why can’t we just all read our Bible and do what we find there?”

That’s legitimate and important question. And I suspect that similar questions lay behind the distaste some of my seminary classmates had for theology. Trouble is, the question itself is wearing glasses. The notion that individual Christians should read the Bible for themselves and act on what they find there is in fact a theological position, a set of lenses that some Christians, but not all, wear as they seek to follow Jesus.

As laudable as it is to desire some pristine Christianity not complicated by layers of theology, that’s pretty much impossible. We all carry around with us lenses that have been shaped by our culture, by our experiences in the church, by our place in history, and so on. But these lenses are so much a part of us, they are often more like lens implants than glasses. They are always there, we can’t take them out, and they have simply become a part of us. But what if they are distorting rather than focusing our vision? What if what we think we see is not what is really there at all?

I recently been reading a wonderful new book by Brian McLaren entitled A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that Are Transforming the Faith. The first of those questions is, “What is the overarching story line of the Bible?” And McLaren’s answer suggests that we have seen this story through bad lenses. We not only look back at Jesus, and the Old Testament story from which he emerges, through the accumulated theologies of our church, Calvin, Luther, Aquinus, Augustine, and even the Apostle Paul, but, as part of Western culture, we also see Jesus and his Jewish story through the lens of Greek philosophy, most of us without ever realizing it.

Now I have a feeling very few of you are interested in hearing about Neo-Platonism or its tension with Aristotle, so I won’t go into that. (I’ll be happy to discuss it with you later if you’re one of the few who are interested.) Suffice to say that this Greco-Roman notion of perfection as static, disembodied and spiritual, compared to the messy, decaying, infinitely inferior physical experience of bodies, trees and, such, has profoundly impacted how we see and understand Jesus, humanity, and the kingdom Jesus says he is bringing.

In the worst distortions, our Greek, philosophical lenses produce a Christianity with little use for bodies, for creation, for procreation, or any of the messiness of life. Such Christians are stuck here on earth until they are freed by death for that more genuine, better life that is not physical. And even in its more nuanced forms, this distortion often perceives a God who can scarcely put up with the world and its human inhabitants. God simply can’t abide how bad things are down here, and sooner or later cannot avoid wiping the whole mess out. But if you play your cards right and believe the right things, God will rescue you from this sordid existence into something better. Too bad about all those other folks.

McLaren argues that such pictures of Christianity and God can be found in the Bible only if you view it through bad lenses, and I’m inclined to agree with him. And these bad lenses are often used to view the Jesus found our gospel for today. There is Jesus, praying for his followers, and also for all who will believe through them. There is Jesus praying for the Church, for us, asking that we may all be one, that he may be in us and us in God, a mystical community bound together by God’s love. But then there’s that bad old world that doesn’t know God, doesn’t recognize Jesus. Too bad about all those folks.

In John, “the world” isn’t really a place. It’s a term he uses to speak of all that stands in opposition to God’s work in Jesus. It’s a slippery term with no simple, one-to-one correspondence. It’s not the culture, or the government, or the pagans, or the Jews. But the oppressive forces of the Roman Empire are certainly part of the world. As are religious institutions so bent on self preservation that they see Jesus as a threat are. And by the way, modern day churches sometimes fall into that group.

Those who are part of this world don’t “know” Jesus; that is they don’t recognize God present in him and so they don’t know God. But Jesus says those who have heard his voice, have recognized it and followed him, do know. And Jesus prays for those folks, which presumably includes us. Jesus prays that we will be part of that mystical communion he enjoys with the Father. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us… I in them and you in me…”

How wonderful that Jesus wants to dwell in us, to give us the sort of intimacy with the Father that he enjoys. How comforting to know that this is the very last thing he does prior to his arrest and the cross. He holds us in the embrace of his prayer, of his longing for us. Too bad about all those other folks.

Except that Jesus comes precisely because God loves all those other folks. For God so loved the world… In other words, God so loved all those folks who don’t recognize Jesus, whether the oppressive forces of empire or the well intended but misguided, self serving operators of religious institutions. Those other folks are the very reason for Jesus.

So why does Jesus cradle us in his heartfelt prayer? To strengthen and encourage us so that we might show the world, might show those folks, how much God loves them.

We live in a time in which the church many of us grew up with is passing away. No matter how much we may long for it, no matter how meaningful it was for us, it is slipping into the mists of the past. That’s actually nothing unusual, and not all that troubling. Various forms of church have appeared and disappeared since the faith was born. Even in our own little denomination, the church of my youth bore little resemblance to the Presbyterian Church of a hundred years previous.

But for some reason, maybe because of today’s rapid pace of change or an increasingly secular culture, or maybe because of the move from a modern to a post modern world, many church people seem to be looking backward more than forward. We huddle in our little enclaves, wondering where all the people went. In a lot of congregations there is a terrible fear of decline, and even of death. And even in congregations like this one, many long for the old days of overflow crowds and monster confirmation classes. And when I talk to them, some seem sure that the best days are back there. But we’ll hang on. We’ll keep doing what we do. Too bad about all those other folks.

Except those are the ones God loves. And Jesus holds us in his prayers; Jesus promises to dwell in us so that those other folks will see God at work in us, so that they will see God’s love take on flesh. Jesus says that he will be in us so that our love and unity will show God in Christ to all those other folks. And if Jesus is truly in us, is there any doubt that we can do whatever Jesus calls us to do?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Being Human

As I was reading today's verses from Hebrews, I found myself wondering about what it means to be human. This question has provided fertile ground for philosophers, theologians, and thinkers of all sorts for eons. "I think, therefore I am," said Descartes. The following was scribbled on the bathroom wall of my college dorm. "To do is to be - Socrates, To be is to do - Kant, Do be do be do - Sinatra"

Sometimes we ask a child, "What do you want to do when you grow up?" And sometimes we ask, "What do you want to be when you grow up? Perhaps these are simply different ways of asking the same thing. But perhaps not.

I've always been somewhat surprised at how seldom I hear Christians make reference to Jesus when answering the question of what it means to be human. Despite the popularity of WWJD bracelets and wristbands, despite the Apostle Paul speaking of Jesus as the "new Adam," that is the new model for humanity, I don't hear many Christians going to Jesus as the perfect, embodied answer to, "What does it mean to be human?"

In the gospel of John, Jesus speaks of coming that we might "have life, and have it abundantly." I can't help but think that this abundant life Jesus offers is about being human in the fullest sense of term. And given the shape of Jesus' life, I have to think that he defines abundant life a bit differently that many of us tend to do.

Click here to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Sunday Sermon - "If You Love Me..."

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Boundaries

I've been reading Brian McLaren's new book, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith. McLaren may be one of the best spokespersons for "Emergent Christianity," and I find the book both refreshing and thought provoking. McLaren's first question is about the overarching message of the Bible. I won't try to paraphrase him, but his answer speaks of God's love that seeks to "liberate and reconcile."

Thinking about a God who "so loves the world," who still cares for Adam and Eve even after they have disobeyed, has always given me pause when considering issues of "salvation." Where is the tender love of God in statements such as, "If you don't accept Jesus as your savior, you're going to hell."

Such questions come to mind for me when I read today's verses from Ephesians. As Paul greets the Christians at Ephesus, he speaks of God's love that "...chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved." Chose and destined are the sort of words that give way to arguments about predestination and such. But I'm less interested in those questions and more focused on what it means to speak of God's love.

Those chosen at Ephesus were Gentiles, a group that many of the first Christians presumed were outside the bounds of God's love. But God's embrace in Jesus turned out to be much bigger than Jesus' own followers could imagine. In fact, it took quite a while before the Church came to accept these Gentile converts fully. That's ancient history, but I can't help wondering about how common, how human it is to set limits on the reach of God's grace. We want to draw boundaries. These boundaries always include us and exclude those that are different in us. How different you must be to get excluded varies, but the desire for boundaries is nearly universal.

I wonder what God thinks of our boundaries. I wonder if they make Jesus laugh, or cry.

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Sunday, May 9, 2010

Sunday Sermon - "If You Love Me..."

If You Love Me... - May 9 sermon.mp3

John 14:23-29

If You Love Me…

James Sledge -- May 9, 2010

If you love me… That’s pretty provocative phrase, sometimes even a manipulative one. Jesus has said just that to his followers on his last night with them. In our reading he broadens the circle saying, “If anyone loves me…” although our translation hides the “If anyone....

If we weren’t in a worship service right now, and you heard someone say, “If you love me…” how would you expect that sentence to end? What comes after “If you love me?”

If the father of a teenaged girl hears her boyfriend say, “If you love me…” look out! A little more responsible use of the phrase might come from a wife whose marriage is in trouble. A woman who still loved her husband while he had become more and more distant, she might quite accurately say, “If you love me you will come to the marriage counselor with me.” It seems quite reasonable for her to expect that if he loves her, he will be willing to take certain steps, to do certain things.

Back to the more manipulative side, I suspect most of us have heard a child riding in a shopping cart screaming to her mother, “If you love me you, you’ll get me that Hannah Montana DVD.”

Whether this phrase is used responsibly or manipulatively, that use is rooted in the expectation that love has tangible consequences. If we love someone, we will act is certain ways. We will treat them well, do things for them, and so on. A child realizes this on some level when she screams and pleads for a toy in the store. But her mother has a more grown up, mature understanding of love. And so she doesn’t give her child everything she wants, but she does care and provide for that child.

If you’re anything like me, you have a few regrets related to the childish, immature version of “If you love me…” Many of us can look back on our earlier years and wonder how on earth our parents did keep on loving us. I know a few people who never seemed to outgrow the childish notion of thinking their parents’ job is to provide whenever they ask. But most of us, eventually realize that our parents’ love requires a response from us, and we began to develop a more mature, adult relationship with them.

Young children, and a few adults, don’t understand that love is about relationship, and relationships always involve a back and forth, give and take where each person does things for the other out of love. Women sometimes seems to get this better than men. We males are sometimes stuck in a more childish, “what’s in it for me” view of love and relationships. Perhaps that’s why women and mothers are more associated with loving and caring. Perhaps that’s why Mother’s Day calls for gifts of flowers while Father’s Day rates a tie.

In John’s gospel, God’s love is all about the back and forth of relationship. Because God so loves the world, Jesus comes to us. God’s love takes tangible, concrete form in Jesus. Jesus gathers followers around him and, not unlike a mother, he cares for them, protects them, teaches them, and demonstrates full and abundant life for to them. He loves them in the most profound way possible, and as he prepares to give his life for them, he promises that even his death will not leave them alone. The Holy Spirit will continue to make him present to them, teaching, guiding, and strengthening them.

But then comes the flip side, the response side, the “If you love me” side. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” Jesus says to his disciples on his last night with them. And in our reading he also speaks past them to us. “If anyone loves me…” “If anyone loves me he will keep my word.” If anyone loves me she will do all the things I have commanded you. If anyone loves me he will bear much fruit. If anyone loves me she will continue the works I have been doing.

Speaking of works, we Protestants have some issues with how works fit into our faith. Going back to Martin Luther, we have said that our standing before God is not a matter of works but of faith. We don’t earn our way to salvation but receive it as a gift. The theological term is “justification by grace through faith.”

But this focus on God’s grace and on faith sometimes leads to misunderstandings. In one such misunderstanding, we replace keeping the commandments and doing good works with faith. Faith, in essence, becomes the thing we do to get God to love us, which of course only makes it a different sort of work. In a related misunderstanding, we narrowly define faith as believing so that faith comes to mean accepting the correct facts and formulas. Faith becomes almost totally a head thing, not a doing thing.

I saw this in action a few years ago when we tried to get a handle on our membership rolls here at Boulevard. Like many Presbyterian congregations, we have quite a few people on our rolls that we’ve not seen in a while. And so we sent out some very pastoral letters letting folks know that we missed them and hoped we could help them reconnect and find a way to be active here again. But if they had moved away or if they just weren’t comfortable here any longer, perhaps we could assist them in finding a place that better fit their new circumstances.

We apparently succeeded in giving the letters a pastoral tone because no one seemed to get offended by them. But a number of people responded that although they had no plans to become active and we would not be seeing them around the church or its ministries, they would still like to remain on the rolls. I’m not sure, but I think they felt that as long as they “believed,” that meant they were faithful and so could expect to remain members.

Now the fact is that our Presbyterian constitution has a long list of responsibilities and requirements for members. But apparently we’ve done a pretty poor job of helping folks understand this. Because we tend to think of faith as something that lives between our ears, our understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus is pretty minimal.

I wonder what would happen if when people joined the church we changed the questions a bit? Not that there’s anything wrong with the questions we ask now. One of them asks, “Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love?” And another says, “Will you be a faithful member of this congregation, share in its worship and ministry through your prayers and gifts, your study and service, and so fulfill your calling to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?”

Still, what if we simply borrowed some of Jesus’ words from John’s gospel? What if, speaking on behalf of Jesus, we said to every person joining the church, every member of a confirmation class, every parent bringing a child for baptism, “Do you love me? If you love me, you will keep my commandments. Do you love me? If you love me you will feed my sheep. Do you love me? If you love me, you will continue my ministry.”

God loves us so much that God comes in the person of Jesus saying, “Follow me and I will show you the way to full and abundant life. My way is not all that popular. It is not the way recommended by the culture, and many think it silly and foolish. But it is the way of true life, of eternal life. And I will come and dwell in you. The Spirit will strengthen you and guide you in this way. I will do all this and more because I love you.”

“And if you love me…”

All praise and glory to God, who love comes to us in Jesus, calling us to new life. Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Wealth

I was struck by the relationship between what Jesus says in today's Matthew passage and the reading from the law codes of Leviticus. Leviticus almost never appears on anyone's list of favorite books of the Bible, but today's reading contains that much quoted line, "you shall love your neighbor as yourself." It also commands that when fields are harvested, the edges of the fields are to be left alone. Neither is the grain that falls to the ground to be picked up. Neither shall grape vineyards be picked bare, and none of the grapes that fall from the vine may be harvested. These inefficient farming techniques are so that the poor and the alien may harvest some for themselves.

I'm not exactly sure how to update these commands for a non-agricultural economy such as ours, but I assume it would mean that some significant portion of either the product made or the income brought in would be channeled to the poor and the alien.

Jesus' words don't require any non-agricultural update, but that doesn't necessarily makes it any easier for me to embrace them. "You cannot serve God and wealth." I suppose it all hinges on what you mean by "serve," but Jesus clearly understood our relationship to money and wealth to pose one of the biggest problems for a relationship with God. A casual observer might miss this considering how preoccupied Christians can be with things such as family values, sex, and the like. But Jesus talks about the trouble caused by money more than any other issue.

We all need money to live, for basic security. But where does it start to become a problem? Where does my desire for things begin to deny the poor and the alien their share? Where does my desire for wealth start to focus my life on the accumulation of wealth rather than serving God? Sometimes I'd rather avoid such questions. But Jesus says I cannot if I want to follow him.

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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Prayer

Even outside the Church, there is a great deal of interest these days in spirituality and in prayer. There are books galore on both topics. I have some of them, and many of them are quite good and helpful. I particularly like Richard Foster's book, Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home and Thomas Keating's works on contemplative prayer.

But as helpful as these can be, I suspect we would all do well to occasionally go back to Jesus' instructions on prayer. Many of us know "The Lord's Prayer" as a part of a worship ritual. But we might do well to find it in the Bible and hear it teaching us on prayer. Matthew's version is today's gospel lection, and with it Jesus offers a bit of commentary on his own prayer. He focuses in on the line asking "forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors," adding this. "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."

I know that sometimes my prayer life seems quite disconnected from my everyday life. Or worse, it is a laundry list of things I wish God would do for me. But Jesus' prayer instructions remind me that my own prayers ought to help shape me into the sort of person Jesus calls me to be. To that end, there's probably nothing better than praying the prayer Jesus taught as my own prayer, and not simply as an element of worship.

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Monday, May 3, 2010

Sunday Sermon - "Passionate Love"

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Life After Death

When Paul writes to the congregation at Thessalonica, he addresses a concern that is foreign to most modern Christians. Paul writes a mere 30 years or so after the resurrection, when most believers, including Paul, assumed that Jesus would return in their lifetimes. But what of those who died in the meantime? Had they missed out?

Many Christians assume that notions of an "immortal soul" are central parts of our faith. But the fact is, this is a Greek philosophical idea that later gets attached to Christianity. Paul seems to believe that when you die, you are simply dead. The good news is when Jesus returns, the dead will be raised just as Jesus once was raised.

I actually think there is a piece of good news for modern folks in Paul's way of thinking. Notions of "going home" when we die speak of earthly life as though it were a bad thing, that God's creation is some sort of mistake from which we need to be set free. But this is counter to biblical notions of a "good creation" and Jesus' incarnation, which hallows our physical, created nature. And while I realize that some find great comfort in such lines as "God needed another angel" when a child tragically dies. To me, that seems to deny the real tragedy of the event. I think I'll go with Paul on this one. In 1 Corinthians 15:26, he speaks of death as the last enemy to be destroyed, speaking of what is yet to come.

As a pastor, I see many cases where death can easily be called a blessing, and I have prayed at bedsides for God to end the suffering. I think that heroic medical efforts to extend life are often misguided. Yet while I make no claims to know precisely what happens when people die, I going to stick with Paul and hope that resurrection is something much bigger and grander than souls going to heaven. And if I have to rest in blissful peace for centuries until Jesus finally destroys death, I'm fine with that.

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Sunday, May 2, 2010

Sunday Sermon - "Passionate Love"

John 13:31-35

Passionate Love

James Sledge -- May 2, 2010

Unless you’ve been on a desert island for the last several months, you can’t have missed the uproar in the Roman Catholic Church over abusive, pedophile priests. I don’t want to join the debate over how well or poorly the pope has handled this, but there is no doubt that, at times, church hierarchy turned a blind eye to abuse, exposing the most vulnerable to horrible crimes, all in order to protect the reputation of the Church and the priesthood.

Of course this didn’t protect the Church’s image. It had the opposite effect. It sullied and tarnished the church. Worse, it sullied the faith and therefore its namesake, Jesus. How could it not? Followers of Jesus allowed children to be abused. What does that say to non-Christians about the nature of our faith?

But sullying the faith is hardly restricted to Roman Catholics. We Presbyterians may be less susceptible to the particular abuses seen in the Catholic Church, but in the past we have moved around male pastors who preyed on vulnerable women in their congregations. Beyond that, when we fight in the church, we often fight dirty. In our recent battles over whether or not gay and lesbian members can be elders, pastors, or deacons, we often engage in the sort of partisan nastiness normally seen only in politics. And if you ask a non-church person what they know about Presbyterians, it’s not uncommon to hear, “Aren’t they the ones always fighting about gays?”

Jesus said… “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Jesus says that one of our most powerful witnesses is when we embody his love, when we love one another as he loved us. This is how people will understand what Jesus and the faith is about. So what sort of witness are they getting? Far too often it is church institutions concerned primarily with self-preservation. It is denominations and congregations that fight about everything from who can be ordained to what music we sing to what color the carpet should be. By this everyone will know that we are Jesus’ disciples?

Of course the Church’s failings and fights are not our only witness. There are countless acts of love and kindness done within this congregation alone. Some members diligently visit those who are sick, in the hospital, or confined to home or care facilities. Many people have told me how much love and care they received from members when they were going through some great difficulty, be it an illness, the loss of a job, or the death of a loved one.

And beyond this congregation, church groups and denominations continue to work rebuilding the devastation from Hurricane Katrina and other such disasters long after the novelty wears off for the general public. As Nicholas Kristof wrote in a NY Times editorial the other day, there is a Church beyond what people see in the headlines of abuse and fights.

But before we get too smug about how good we regular church folks are at loving one another, it might be good to remember just what Jesus means when he says to love one another. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Jesus defines our love for one another by his love for us. And the love we see in Jesus totally and completely gives itself for us. It risks ridicule and abuse. The love we see in Jesus is even willing to die for us.

One of the more hopeful signs I see for the mainline Church in our day is the movement away from faith as simply believing the right things and toward the idea of faith as deepening spirituality nurtured through particular practices and behaviors. I think that this move opens the door to a much deeper sort of faith because it is inherently more relational.

Love is not about belief; it is about relationship, and in Jesus we encounter God’s passionate love for us. The idea of God or Jesus as a passionate lover is an ancient one in the Christian faith. But many modern, Protestant churches gave up such notions in favor of theologies rooted in rational understandings of God and Jesus. All we can do with a rational idea is accept it or not. But the love given by a lover is something altogether different.

When someone loves another deeply and passionately, it is amazing what she will do for the one she loves. She will put her desires and needs on hold for the sake of the other. She will sacrifice for the sake of the other. She will forgive terrible pain and hurt caused by the other. But none of this will really matter if that other has not fallen in love with her.

Jesus has loved us deeply and passionately. Jesus put his own desires and needs on hold for our sake. Jesus sacrifices for our sake. Jesus would forgive even the pain of the cross out of love. But none of that really matters if we do not fall deeply and passionately in love with him. And when we do, Jesus says that it will be visible in how we care deeply and passionately for one another.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in the spring of 1968, he was not the universally revered figure he is today. Much of the country was still segregated. I was in elementary school at the time, but I still knew many folks who thought of Dr. King as little more than a rabble rouser and trouble maker. And when he had come out against the Vietnam War in 1967, that only intensified their dislike.

I can recall some of these people rolling their eyes when President Johnson declared a national day of mourning following Dr. King’s murder, as well as when Atlanta schools closed for the day of his funeral. It can be difficult to recall now, but it was a terribly tense time and racial divisions were high, especially in my native South. President Johnson did not even attend the funeral over fears that his presence might spark riots or violence.

As thousands of African Americans, civil rights workers, politicians, and dignitaries streamed into Atlanta for funeral events, lodgings were scarce. And at that moment, Central Presbyterian Church, a mostly white, upper middle class congregation, knew they had to help. Led by Pastor Randy Taylor, they provided meals and lodging for as many as they could. Members brought food. Nine hundred cots were set up, but more people than that came. Folks were sleeping on the floor, and the church stayed open round the clock for days.

Given the times, it would have been easier to have done nothing. But Central Presbyterian had realized years earlier that Jesus’ call to love one another just as Jesus has loved us meant getting involved in the civil rights movement, even if it invited insults and threats, even if it put them in danger.

American Christianity has often had a tendency to become mostly about ideas and beliefs, and about very individual, personal decisions to embrace those beliefs. But Jesus came to love us passionately with a love so fierce he would even die for us. And when that passionate love truly moves within us, we cannot help but respond with love of our own. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.”