Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Weakness

One of the things I loathe is admitting to my own weakness. I want to project strength and competence, and I admire such traits in others. On this count I'm hardly unique. Americans in general seem to admire strength and detest weakness. We worship great athletes who will their way to championships. We mythologize the self-made man or woman, the people who seem to control their own destiny.

By contrast, many of us hate to be perceived as needy. Indeed the word needy is often used as a derogatory term to describe a dysfunctional dependency on others. And yet I am a pastor in a faith that speaks of Jesus as Savior. Presumably that mean we are in trouble and need to be saved, healed, or changed in some way. We aren't strong enough to fix things ourselves. In other words we are weak and needy.

I was reading today's verses from Paul where he speaks of wanting to do what is right but being unable to do so. (And who among us hasn't decided to do something we knew was in our own best interest, but been unable to follow through.) And I was reminded of a David Brooks column that ran just yesterday in the NYTimes. He was talking about Bill Wilson, the founder of AA and wrote this. "In a culture that generally celebrates empowerment and self-esteem, A.A. begins with disempowerment. The goal is to get people to gain control over their lives, but it all begins with an act of surrender and an admission of weakness. "

I've found myself wondering lately if one of the reasons I sometimes find it difficult to sense God's presence is because I won't let myself be weak enough to need God. Might a little disempowerment, a little weakness be just what the doctor ordered?

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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - God's Will

My Presbyterian denomination, along with many others, expects the Lord's Prayer to be part of just about any worship service. I have some questions about the wisdom of this, but regardless, it means that most who have any church experience know that the prayer asks for God's will to be done. More specifically, the prayer asks that the world conform to how things already are in heaven. In the Bible, heaven is where God lives, so to speak, and not where folks go when they die. In heaven, all is as it should be with God's will always done. And the transformation of the world into the Kingdom of God is about God's will being done here as well.

Given this, you'd think that we Christians would expend more energy than we sometimes do in seeking to conform the world, or at the least our own lives, to God's will. According to Jesus, God's will is about good news for the poor, release to captives, welcome to the outsider, healing and embrace for the sick and the untouchable, denying self for the sake of others, taking up a cross, and so on. And in a pointed parable told to the religious purists of his day, Jesus slams those who get their doctrines straight, who say and believe all the right things, but don't change their lives to conform to God's coming Kingdom, the new day Jesus says that he brings.

Too often my prayer goes, "Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is heaven. Just don't ask me to change or bear any real cost for this happening." Obviously Jesus' own prayers were a bit different, seeing how they led him to a cross.

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Monday, June 28, 2010

Sunday Sermon - Do Christians Follow Jesus?

Spiritual Hiccups - Faith

I like to think of myself as a pretty good exegete (a fancy word for someone trained to take apart and understand a passage of Scripture) and a fair preacher, but I'm a real neophyte when it comes to Christian spirituality.  I love the fact that my Presbyterian/Reformed Tradition values the intellect and insists that it be heavily engaged in the faith, but this sometimes leads to an overemphasis on head knowledge and an underemphasis on what some call heart knowledge.  

I realize that all sorts of things pass themselves off as spirituality these days, some of them things incompatible with Christian faith; some of them incompatible even with good mental health.  But the fact of some problematic spiritualities floating around does not change the fact that spirituality - or mysticism as it used to be called - has a long and cherished place in Christian faith.  And so a think it a wonderful thing that there has been a resurgence in spirituality in many Presbyterian churches.

All of this gives a little background to my own reaction to some of today's lectionary verses.  In Psalm 145 I read, "The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth."  And then in Matthew Jesus says, "Whatever you ask  for in prayer with faith, you will receive."  Now as one who more often than I care to admit feels that God is distant, and who is not overflowing with confidence that I will receive whenever I pray, such verses unsettle me just a bit.

Perhaps that makes it providential that I also read an interesting piece on faith in a daily meditation I receive via email.  Father Richard Rohr clearly is more experienced in things spiritual than I am, and he had some interesting thoughts on faith. "The opposite of faith is not intellectual doubt, because faith is not localized primarily in the mind. The opposite of faith, according to a number of Jesus’ statements is anxiety. If you are fear-based and “worried about many things,” as he says in Luke 10:41, you don’t have faith in a Biblical sense. Faith is to be able to trust that God is good, involved, and on your side. So you see why it takes some years of inner experience to have faith. It is not just that somewhat easy intellectual assent to doctrines or an agreement with a moral position. This has passed as the counterfeit of faith for far too long."

What does faith mean to you, and how do you grow in faith?  Or to follow Fr. Rohr's thinking, how do you become less anxious?  We seem to be living in anxious times, times which are perhaps corrosive to faith.  For some reasons this reminds me of a cartoon I once saw in which an overly animated flight instructor is screaming at a struggling student pilot, "Relax, dammit!!" 

Oh, for a bit more of the knowledge that doesn't live between the ears.  Oh, for a little more heart knowledge.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Sunday Sermon - Do Christians Follow Jesus?

Luke 9:51-62
Do Christians Follow Jesus?
James Sledge              June 27, 2010

Imagine that one evening you are visited by an alien from some distant planet.  He’s a friendly alien.  He has no weapons, is very polite, and says nothing about being taken to your leader.  But he is curious.  He wants to know about you and your culture, but mostly, he wants to know about religion.  He says, “Please tell me about your beliefs and practices.”
“Well, I’m a Christian,” you say, which of course means absolutely nothing to this alien, who looks a bit befuddled.  Sensing the need to say more you add, “We follow Jesus, God’s Son.  One title for him is the Christ which is how we got the names Christians.”
“Oh,” says the alien, still looking confused.  “But what does it mean to follow Jesus or to say he’s God’s son?”
So you try again.  “God sent Jesus to save us.  He died for us, but then he was raised from the dead.  And we believe in him, and that saves us.”
“Saves you from what?” asks the alien, looking, if anything, more confused.
“From sin and death,” you say, but you are beginning to worry that you’re not doing a very good job at explaining the faith, and so you decide to try a different tack.  You get a Bible, suggesting that perhaps it would be better if he simply reads about Jesus, and then ask whatever questions he has.  You point him to the gospels, and he begins to read.
After a while he looks up and speaks.  “This is very interesting.  And this Jesus is a most intriguing fellow.  And you are one of his disciples?  Are there many others?”
“Oh yes, there are very many who follow him,” you respond, feeling like now you are getting somewhere.  “A majority of the people in this country are Christians.”
“Then it must be a most wonderful place,” the alien says. 
“Yes, America is a great country, but I’m not sure I understand.  What do you mean this must be a wonderful place?”
“Well I assume that there is no war or violence,” says the alien.  “Jesus clearly tells his followers to love their enemies and not to return violence with violence, to pray for any who abuse you and to bless whoever curses you.  Aren’t Jesus’ followers all pacifists?”
“I can see how you would think that,” you say.  “And some of Jesus’ followers are pacifists, but not very many.  We all agree that war and violence are bad things, but sometimes you have to fight to help people or to keep evil from taking over.”
“Oh,” says the alien, beginning to look a bit confused again.  “I didn’t see where Jesus made any exceptions to loving your enemies, but I am new to this.  But surely there are no poor people in your country with all its Christians.  Jesus speaks a lot about how he brings good news to the poor.  He says that God has a special love for the poor.  Surely you Christians have ended poverty.”
You start to look uncomfortable as you respond.  “Yes, Jesus does speak of lot of the poor, and we Christians do many things to help the poor.  At my church we collect food for the hungry and we give money to agencies that help people struggling to pay their rent.  But I’m afraid there are still lots of poor people.”
“Are they part of your church, and do you welcome them into your homes?  I read where Jesus said that when you give a dinner that you should not invite friends or relatives but should invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”
You’re beginning to wish you had never given him that Bible.  “There are very few poor people in my church.  The poor live in other parts of town for the most part.  And it’s scary to invite poor people you don’t know into your house.  Look around.  I have lots of nice things and poor people might steal them.”
“But I thought Jesus said you weren’t to worry about possessions, that you should give them away to help the poor,” says the increasingly perplexed alien.  You wish you could start all over, but he continues.  “It doesn’t sound like many Christians are giving away their possessions.  I’m confused.  Are you sure that Christians are people who follow Jesus?”
You sit there stunned.  You don’t know how to respond.  The alien’s question has rocked you to your core, and you wonder if you can answer.  You know that you believe in Jesus, but you’re beginning to wonder if the alien is right.  It seems that you don’t actually follow him.  Worse, you know the alien can asks lots more uncomfortable questions about forgiveness, about being willing to suffer for others, about welcoming the outsider, and so on.  But mercifully, he stops; then departs, still looking confused, but mostly looking sad.
This scenario came to me as I was thinking about today’s reading from Luke.  I know that many people think of stories in the gospels as accounts of things that once happened and not necessarily as things affecting them directly.  But in fact, Luke writes his gospel for Christians who already know the story of Jesus.  He isn’t trying to tell them what happened.  He’s trying to explain what it means for them.  Luke writes this morning’s verses to address two matters facing Christians some 40 or 50 years after Jesus lived, died, and rose again.  First, how are they to handle the inevitable fact that some will not welcome their message?  And second, what is required of them if they are to be faithful witnesses to the kingdom, the new day that springs forth in Jesus?
No doubt there is some hyperbole in what Jesus says about the level of commitment required, but there’s not doubt he’s talking about serious commitment.  Burying one’s father was an extremely important obligation in Jewish culture.  And the part about going home to say farewell and “no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back” is an explicit reference to the prophets Elijah and Elisha.  When Elijah first called Elisha to be his successor, Elisha was plowing and was given permission to go home and say farewell.  So Jesus is saying that following him requires a commitment greater than that of the prophet Elisha.
I often hear people adamantly insist that America is a Christian nation, but I’m not all that sure what this American Christianity has to do with following Jesus.  It seems to me that it is filled with just the sort of compromises with culture Jesus condemns in our reading, the sort of compromises that so confused our alien visitor.
I recently stumbled across a sermon Martin Luther King, Jr. originally preached in his Atlanta church that was rebroadcast on radio Christmas Eve, 1967.  In it he addressed both his opponents who used threats and violence against him, and his more mainstream opponents who saw him as impatient, idealistic, and impractical, striving for some pious utopia.
We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country, and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, and we'll still love you. But be assured that we'll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.[1]
This seems to me just the sort of commitment Jesus demanded of his followers, and the sort of commitment that might have impressed an alien visitor.  And if I and a few others lived lives that demonstrated this sort of commitment, I seriously doubt that so many people would consider the church a worn out relic of another time. 
But I do not despair, and I am not without hope.  According to Luke, Jesus does not condemn even those who reject him.  And what is more, with the coming of the Holy Spirit, timid and frightened disciples became bold and brave, even Peter who denied knowing Jesus just to save his own skin. 
Come Holy Spirit, come!                                                                              

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr, “A Christmas Sermon on Peace” was first preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.  On Christmas Eve, 1967, it was broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.  Text and audio can easily be found online.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Servants

A phrase that gets bandied around in church circles is "servant leadership." I assume that it comes from biblical passages such as the gospel reading for today where Jesus says that "whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant." It sounds good, but let's get real. I want influence and power. I want people to respect me and listen to me when I speak. And when I look around at my pastor colleagues who get called great or successful, the basis for such designations is often the same measures the world uses. Their congregations are big. They have lots of members and staff, and they get things done. Some of them are probably great servants too, but that rarely gets mentioned.

And I want the same things for myself. I want my congregation to be bigger and do important, impressive things that get us noticed. Ideally such things would involve service, but...

Unless I'm way off when I read my Bible, Jesus comes to bring the Kingdom of God, a term that speaks of a world where God's will is done, and many of the world's values get turned upside down. Just look at the Beatitudes in Matthew to see what I'm talking about. It's the poor in spirit (the poor in Luke's version), those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger for the world to be set right, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted who will be called blessed in this Kingdom, not those who are powerful or "successful." And yet I and many others in the Church often seem to be shaped more by the values of the world than by those of the Kingdom.

I wonder sometimes if the struggles of the Church in our day are because the culture around us is becoming more secular and pluralistic, or because the Church so often fails to point to or demonstrate a better way of life than the one promoted by the world.

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Fairness and Generosity

Would you prefer God to be fair, or God to be generous? I suspect that some of you are like me in that your answer depends on where you are standing. When I think I am being extremely conscientious in my faith, trying my absolute best to do as I think Jesus calls me to do, I think that I merit a bit more consideration from God than those folks whose religious life seems little more than lip service. But when I become acutely aware of my own failings, the ways that I have failed miserably to live as Jesus calls me to do, then I am a much bigger fan of a generous God.

Today's parable of the workers in the vineyard is one of several parables on unfairness that Jesus tells. Workers who toiled for 12 hours in the hot sun end up receiving the very same wages as workers hired just before the day ended. In the parable, the vineyard owner claims to be both fair and generous. Those who worked all day received exactly the wage they agreed to when they were hired. The fact that the late hires received the same amount was an act of generosity. But does that make it unfair?

What is it about our nature that thinks it unfair for God to be generous with others if we feel we don't "need" such generosity for ourselves? Why do we often begrudge such generosity? I won't claim to fully understand why our human nature often seems out so of sync with God's, but it seems to me that becoming new creations in Christ must surely be about becoming more loving and generous toward all. And come to think of it, the need for this transformation may explain why Jesus speaks in another place about how difficult it is for those with wealth to enter the kingdom of God.

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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Lost Sheep & Churches

I was at my high school reunion over the weekend, and a classmate commented on my blog, noting that I seem to have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with the Church. Now seeing that a church pays my salary, this may be somewhat problematic, but I do have a certain unease with the Church at times - not the God part, the human institution part.

In today's gospel reading, Jesus tells the well known parable of the lost sheep. (Luke's version is probably better known.) When one sheep is lost the shepherd leaves the 99 and searches for the one. And when he finds it, "he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray."

But churches are more often gatherings of the 99. And if there are lost sheep out there it someone else's problem. Hey, we'll open the gate on Sunday mornings, and if they want to, they can wander in. But we may not notice them even if they do. We'll be too busy chatting with members of the 99. It's nothing personal.

We in congregations easily claim the moniker, "the body of Christ." If that is indeed what we are, it would seem that we would spend a great deal of our time trying to be the good shepherd, who desires that not "one of these little ones should be lost." But we seem to be content being the 99.

But in fairness to the Church, I think this institution that causes me unease actually worked pretty well in another time. If you assume that there are almost no lost sheep, at least not among the local herds, then it is understandable that the 99 assumed the good shepherd stuff was for overseas missionaries. But if such assumptions were nominally true 50 years ago, they are patently untrue today. But patterns and habits are hard to break, and the 99 keep meeting. But they've noticed that there aren't actually 99 anymore. "Where'd everybody go?" they ask. They wonder. They reminisce. They long for the good old days. But no one actually thinks about going to look for any of the missing.

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Childlike Faith

When asked by his disciples who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew's term from kingdom of God), Jesus plops a child down in front of them and says, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." (Notice that Jesus is talking about entering the kingdom, not about going to heaven.)

We've all heard about the innocence of children and I've heard many folks who assume Jesus is speaking about this. But most of us who have had children will attest that they are far from innocent. They are remarkably self centered and willing to do most anything to get their way. So how is it I'm supposed to change in order to become more like a child.

If a child is self centered, she is also dependent, and the younger the more so. In Jesus' day this dependence was heightened. Children didn't enjoy nearly the status they do in our culture. They had potential but not much importance until they came of age.

I suppose that when you are dependent and unimportant, humility should come naturally. (But then again we all know people whose arrogance has no basis in fact.) But what do Jesus' words about becoming humble say to me? How is it I am to become more like a child?

One possibility jumps to mind, my need to be self-sufficient. (I know that a lot of folks share this with me.) I don't want to be dependent, and I don't like to ask for help. I wonder if the old joke about men not stopping to ask for directions is related to this.

Funny, one of the worst things that can be done to a prisoner is placing him in solitary confinement. We are social creatures and most of us can not last long cut off from others. But we do not want to be dependent on them. Or on God?

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Longing for God

Many people are familiar with a line from today's psalm thanks to a contemporary praise song. "As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God." However, I suspect that many are unfamiliar with the psalm's context, a sense of being abandoned by God. The psalmist longs for a God who seems to have become absent, who has "forgotten" him.

God's absence is a familiar experience for many, though I suspect it is difficult for some to own up to it. As a pastor, it is a bit disconcerting to admit to longing for God's presence. Such longing speaks to not experiencing God's presence now. Church members don't always want to hear that their pastor can't find God, but I think that a little corporate longing in congregations might be a good thing.

I cannot not see into anyone else's heart, so this is conjecture on my part, but wonder how often the typical Presbyterian longs for God's presence or thinks about the Holy Spirit animating her daily life. Somehow I got the idea growing up that Christian faith was mostly about having the right information and believing the right things. I'm not sure I ever longed for God because I didn't realize God was something or someone to long for. I've repeated a quote many times that speaks to God's presence and the malaise of the Mainline Church. "People come to us seeking an experience of God and we give them information about God." (I can't remember who said this but it was someone from the Alban Institute.)

But I do see signs that things are changing. Out of the Mainline Church's struggles, a hunger for God is emerging. It is beginning to give birth to a new Church. By new I don't necessarily mean snazzy or high tech. Sometimes "new" comes from discovering ancient spiritual practices. But I think there is a new longing. Longing can be frustrating sometimes. But longing leads to searching, to seeking. It moves us out of dead habits into new encounters with God. So I think I will claim another line from today's psalm. "Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God."

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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - How to Live

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul contrasts the life of the Spirit with that of the flesh. Unfortunately, we are prone to filter these words through a spirit/flesh dualism that Paul does not share. We often think of life as having a spiritual component and a bodily one, but Paul doesn't share this Western, philosophical worldview. He sees bodily existence as part of our intrinsic human nature. He cannot even contemplate a existence without a body, which is why he insists that the resurrection is bodily, even if it is some sort of body he cannot fully comprehend as yet. (See 1 Corinthians 15:35-57)

Because Paul assumes all human life is bodily, he does not view the body as bad. He is not saying that human life should put aside everything connected with bodies in order to be a good life. Notice that life dominated by what Paul calls "the flesh" is not simply about problems caused by bodily passions. Religious folks often emphasize the bodily elements of this list, "fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. " But notice that many items on this list - strife, factions, quarrels, anger, sorcery, and so on - are not about bodily passions at all.

By the same token, many of the fruits of the Spirit, "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control," cannot even be practiced without a body. In fact most all of these require me to be in relationship with another, a real, bodily relationship where I can do things for them and choose not to do things that would hurt them.

I once preached a sermon that quoted the late
, great, Southern comedian, Jerry Clower. He said, "Some people are so heavenly minded, they ain't no earthly good." I think sometimes that comes from misreading Paul and Jesus and divorcing bodily living from faith. But both Paul and Jesus insists there are fruits of the Spirit, concrete ways that our bodily living demonstrate a new life in Christ. And I am increasingly convinced that the spiritual revival the Church needs, and that is beginning, requires two closely related things: a deepening spiritual relationship that draws closer to God through intentional practices, and an intentional life of discipleship that emerges out of this relationship, a life that focuses more on following Jesus than believing certain things about him.

Jesus said, "You will know them by their fruits." Where is the Spirit calling you into a new way of living that is marked by
"love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?"

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Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Salvation

O sing to the LORD a new song;
sing to the LORD, all the earth.
Sing to the LORD, bless his name;

tell of his salvation from day to day.

If you ask Christian what "salvation" means, many of them will talk about going to heaven. Yet Old Testament texts written long before the Jewish people had any notions of heaven or resurrection often speak of "salvation."

Similarly, the Greek words in the New Testament translated as "save" and "salvation" are thick words, words with many layers of meaning. The phrase so often spoken by Jesus, "Your faith has saved you," can be, and often is, rendered, "Your faith has made you well."

The idea that faith is primarily concerned with the status of souls is not really a biblical one. It required the blending of Jewish and Christian thought into Greco-Roman notions of eternal souls and the true nature of things being non-physical for faith to become preoccupied with non-bodily life.

Jesus says over and over that he comes to bring the kingdom, not that he comes to take us to heaven. Salvation is about delivering us from all that distorts and enslaves us, making us fit for the kingdom. And every time someone is freed to care for neighbor as much as self, every time someone willingly suffers for the good of others, God's salvation is manifested day by day, and a glimpse of the emerging kingdom is seen.

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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - What's the point?

I'm not sure why, but I've decided to call my thoughts on the lectionary readings "Spiritual hiccups." I suppose that's closer to what they really are, things that pop up after I've looked at the readings for the day.

Today, when I read the Old Testament passage from Ecclesiastes, I was struck by how difficult it can be to fit these verses into conventional Christian notions of going to heaven because you (a) lived a good life, (b) believed the right things, or (c) did some combination of both. The writer goes on about how all people, both the good and the bad, meet the same end, and reaches the following conclusion:

Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.

(I should note that Sheol is not the same as heaven or hell. There is no punishment or reward there. It's mostly a metaphor for death, but in so much as it is understood as a place or condition, it speaks of a murky, almost non-existence.)

If nothing else, verses such as this should make it obvious that the Bible is more of a conversation than it is an encyclopedia. And the conversation sounds very different at different points in history, when people have come to different conclusions about God and life with God.

Also clear is how people of deep faith have long wrestled with questions of meaning and purpose, have struggled to understand what the point of it all is.

I've said this before, but I think Christian faith, at least the faith I grew up with in the Presbyterian Church, has become far too settled. We've claimed the Bible and our theology as a definitive encyclopedia containing all the answers to all the questions. But such a view doesn't leave a lot of room to ask new questions or to question old answers.

What is the point of it all? And if someone genuinely asks us this question, can we really engage them in a conversation, or can we just give canned answers? And if the Bible is itself a faith conversation, shouldn't we who claim a biblical faith want to join that conversation, and invite others to share in the discussion?

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Sunday, June 6, 2010

Sunday Sermon - What is God Like?

What Is God Like - June 6 sermon.mp3

Luke 7:11-17

What Is God Like?

James Sledge -- June 6, 2010

What is God like? That may be the most fundamental religious question anyone can ask. What does it mean to be human is a close second, but as a religious person, I assume human life has something to do with God. And so I can’t really talk about what it means to be human without first knowing something about the God who created us, who has a purpose for us. I can’t really figure out how my life is related to God without knowing what God is like.

It’s an ancient question, one that all religious seek to address. But God being so much bigger than us and beyond our comprehension, we tend to picture God as like us in some way. When you look at the images we have for God, often they take the human traits that we admire or that impress us, then magnify and multiply them many times over.

We humans tend to be impressed by power and might, by people who can get what they want, who can shape their own destiny, who can bend others to their will. By comparison, we make fun of people who are weak. Politicians love to label their opponensts as weak; weak on crime, weak on terror, weak on defense, and so on. No worse label could be stuck on a president or on someone seeking that office. No one wants the leader of our strong and powerful nation to be weak.

And so it is hardly surprising that a lot of images of God stress power and might on a grand scale. God as a mighty warrior hurling lighting bolts at enemies is a popular picture, and not only with Christians. Greek mythology had Zeus, the head god with an arsenal of lighting bolts. The Norse god Thor was similarly armed. And we have borrowed other human images of power and prestige, God as king for example.

Such images are found in the Bible. God is an awesome, powerful beyond measure, more than able to whup anyone who thinks otherwise, mighty, warrior king. Except that this is only one of many images of God found in the Bible. We’ve also got God as a potter, God as shepherd, God as Father, God as husband, God as broken-hearted lover, God as the champion of the poor and oppressed, and even “God is love.” So which image do we use when we try to answer the question, what is God like?

If I were going to start a religion from scratch, this would be one of the first things I’d deal with. I would clearly spell out just what my God was like so there would be no confusion. That’s what I would do, but the God we meet in the Bible does nothing of the sort. Instead of a nice, neat list of God’s characteristics and traits, we get hundreds and hundreds of pages of stories and songs and letters where people of faith encounter God in their daily lives and in the events of history. And when Jesus shows up, not only do we get lots of stories about him, but he tells more stories. When people ask Jesus what God is like or what God is doing, he is more than likely to tell them a story.

Now this does not lend itself to a simple picture of God that will fit in a wallet or purse, and so a lot of people pick an image that suits them. You’ve heard it said that people can justify most anything using the Bible, which is true as long as you carefully select only certain passages. And people can find all sorts of images of God using the same process. And so not only do a lot of people have a powerful, warrior God, but some folks even have a powerful, sword-wielding, warrior Jesus. I recently ran across a quote from a pastor named Mark Driscoll. He said, “In Revelation, Jesus is a prize-fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in his hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is the guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.”

I looked in Revelation, and Jesus does have a sword, but it is not in his hand. It is in his mouth. His only weapon is his word. And the primary picture of Jesus in Revelation is a lamb that has been slain. So if I ever meet pastor Driscoll, I’d like to ask him if his picture of Jesus is an accurate one, or simply what he wants Jesus to be like.

We’ve got a picture of Jesus painted for us by Luke this morning. As Jesus travels, he journeys to a town called Nain. When he arrives, he encounters a funeral procession, and it is the funeral of a widow’s only son. This is not a bit of stray information. It is critical for understanding what happens. In Jesus’ day, women had little legal standing, and they were extremely vulnerable without a male to provide for them and protect them. A widow without male children was at grave risk of quickly becoming destitute.

A lot of people hear this story about Jesus and hear a story about his power, a power so great he raises a man from the dead. But Luke tells the story so that it focuses on something else. After telling us that the dead man’s mother is a widow with no other male children, Luke writes, When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” And after Jesus raises the man Luke tells us …and Jesus gave him to his mother.

Based on this story, what is Jesus like? And if Jesus is indeed God in the flesh, based on this story, what is God like? Does God see someone who is suffering, whose life is in jeopardy, and simply respond out of warmth and compassion? Wouldn’t God first ask for her religious credentials? Wouldn’t God want to know if her theology was straight?

And if we decide that this is a true picture of what God is like, what does that say about what God’s people should be like? Should we act in ways that demonstrate God’s compassion? Or should we be more concerned that they get their theology straight, get the right beliefs in the right order?

Answering such questions requires deciding if this picture of Jesus and God is a truer one than prize-fighter Jesus looking to make someone bleed, or than divine-judge God whose primary concern is whether or not someone gets into heaven, or than any number of other images of God that are floating around.

What is God like? And once you answer that question, what does a church gathered around this God look like? I know that some people find such questions a bit unsettling. They imply that we’re not sure about the answers, or worse, that our answers could be wrong. But I think it is critically important we ask ourselves such questions. Is Christianity primarily about what happens to you after you die? Or is it supposed to be just as concerned about what is going on in the world, in our lives, right now?

In the story Luke tells today, Jesus seems mostly focused on insuring that a widow’s earthly life is secure and safe. He seems deeply moved by concrete concerns for her day to day life. And this is hardly an exceptional case. The Bible, both Old and New Testament is filled with God’s care and concern for earthly life, for creation and people and communities. And while God’s care and concern and love extends beyond death, I think it a terrible misreading of the Bible to view faith is primarily concerned with what happens to souls after death. When I read the Bible I find a God who wants to transform our lives now, to meet us in our everyday lives so that we might help show the world God’s compassion, God’s hope and desire that we might live in peace and security, in love and community, in a world where swords are beaten into plowshares, where tanks and bombers are melted down for tractors and combines.

What is God like? What sort of church would do justice to the God we meet in Jesus? And where is Jesus calling you to help show the world this God?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Heaven

Last night on the Colbert Report, the intrepid host interviewed Lisa Miller about her new book entitled, Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife. She noted that most Americans believe in heaven but few of them have a very well defined sense of what that means. In fact, most notions of heaven are cobbled together from a variety of sources, with very little reference to the Bible or any other sacred texts.

"For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth? So I saw that there is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work, for that is their lot; who can bring them to see what will be after them?"

I know a lot of Christians who might find these words troublesome, even offensive. But of course they are from the Bible, today's reading from Ecclesiastes. They are perhaps even more offensive when you realize that the word "spirit" doesn't describe what most of us mean by the word. There is no immortal soul here. Rather it describes the essence of life, including the bodily part.

It startles many people to discover that the Bible nowhere speaks of people going to heaven when they die. (Paradise, mentioned by Jesus from the cross, is not the same as heaven.) The first Christians were terribly concerned about fellow believers who died before Jesus' return, worried that they had missed out on the Kingdom. The Apostle Paul reassures them that when Jesus returns, the dead will be raised. But in the meantime, they are dead.

Going to heaven when you die is one of those places where Christian belief got merged with Greek ideas about immortal souls - another idea not found in the Bible. And if one of the most deeply held beliefs of many Christians isn't actually biblical, what other places have we gotten way off track?

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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Faith and Fights

Today the lectionary continues reading from Paul's letter the the congregation in Galatia. You get some idea of how intense the conflict was over whether or not people had to become Jewish in order to be Christian. Paul says that he had to stand up to Peter (here called Cephas) over the issue. Paul also tells how the conflict divided him from his missionary partner, Barnabas.

Living a long way and a long time from this conflict, it is hard for us to see how bitter it was, and how its outcome was uncertain. More than a few New Testament scholars think that Paul's eventual arrest and execution is orchestrated by Jewish Christians who thought Paul was perverting the faith.

I take some small measure of comfort in knowing that the terrible conflicts in the first century Church did not produce the faith's demise. In fact, the Church grew dramatically in this period. I also find myself warned about being overly certain regarding my theology or doctrines. Paul's view, one that many Christians today think of as the gold standard, was rejected by the majority of Christians and the Church leadership in Jerusalem and Antioch during Paul's lifetime. I wonder what certainties of mine, what structures I view as sacrosanct, will be long dismissed by Christians centuries from now.

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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Musings on the Daily Lectionary - Stumbling over Jesus

Paul is "defending" himself in today's reading from Galatians. When you read Paul's letters, it is clear than many of the first Christians were not very happy with him. He was baptizing Christians without requiring them to be circumcised and become Jewish first. Quite understandably, those first Christians assumed that the faith emerging because the Jewish Messiah had died and been raised was a Jewish faith. How could it not be? And so Paul's activities didn't fit with their understanding of the faith. These new, Gentile converts were welcome, but only if they became Jewish.

In a similar fashion, the people of Nazareth in today's gospel are astounded at the power and wisdom they see in Jesus, but they simply cannot fit that into their already fixed view of things. They know who he is, where he comes from, who his family is. "And they took offense at him."

In the Greek language of the New Testament, the word translated "took offense" is the root of our word "scandalize." It literally means "to cause one to stumble." The folks in Nazareth stumbled over their preconceived picture of Jesus just as many of the first Christians stumbled over their preconceived picture of Jesus' followers having to be Jewish.

All of us have preconceived notions of what it means to be Christian, to be good and faithful. Many of these are likely reasonable and understandable notions. Many of them may be correct. But good, religious folks just like you and me rejected Jesus and tried to stop Paul because of their reasonable and understandable, preconceived notions. I wonder which of mine are tripping me up and causing me to stumble.

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