Friday, July 30, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Still More on Holy Conversations

I once heard someone from the Alban Institute say that one of the problems mainline congregations have is, "People come to us looking for an experience of God, and we give them information about God."  On a day when the reading from Acts is the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, I wonder if the way we approach the Bible doesn't sometimes contribute to this problem.

When our primary concerns revolve around what the Bible says, whether it is historically true and so on, we are focusing on what information is contained in the Bible.  The problem with this is it seems to reduce the faith to knowing the right information.  But as the reading from Acts shows, even disciples who were taught personally by Jesus, who witnessed his ministry first hand and experienced his resurrection, were not able to be the Church until the Spirit lived in them.  The Apostle Paul spoke of something similar, of being in Christ and so something completely new.

How might we approach the Bible so that it could be an encounter with God rather than information about God?  Approaching Scripture as a conversation partner rather than a reference source may be a good start.  But we need to go further and realize that Scripture can speak to us beyond the words on the page, to expect that Scripture has more than information to impart.

Interest in "spirituality" has grown tremendously in recent years.  I believe that, in part, this arises out of the failure of informational approaches to the Bible.  Practices such as lectio divina, divine or spiritual reading, provide means of encountering the text rather than asking what information is there.  Scripture becomes a conversation or prayer partner in which God is experienced, in which new insights and guidance are found quite apart from what a casual reader of the text might see.  This is a rather different kind of knowing from the typical, Western, rational sort of knowing.  (A web search on dectio divina will provide you with numerous articles on it and suggestions for how to practice it.)

I could read every book ever written about a historical figure, be it George Washington, Alexander the Great, Amelia Earhart, or Jesus, but I will never actually know any of these people on the basis of this information.  Knowing about someone and knowing someone are very different things.  And I believe the Bible, set free from being a reference or history book, has the power to help us know God.

Click here to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - More on Holy Conversations

In his fascinating book, A New Kind of Christianity, Brian McLaren says that Christians of all stripes tend to use the Bible as a legal constitution.  Considering that we Americans are the product of a constitutional system of government and law, this is hardly surprising.  And so we use the Bible like a legal reference tool, searching for sections that pertain to the subject at hand.  Worse, we often use it as a reference, searching for those sections that support what we already believe, have planned, etc.  And so at various times and places, the Bible is pro-slavery and anti-slavery; it's for women as pastors and against it, and so on.

But was the Bible ever intended as such a document.  In the previous two days, I've mentioned historical contradictions in the Bible, and one of the variant story's of Judas' demise is a reading for today.  And today's Old Testament reading features the judge, Deborah. She's leading the people of God and giving orders to the military commander, despite the fact that other biblical passages would seem to frown on such a role.

An obvious problem with the Bible as constitution is the fact that such documents were unknown to the biblical writers.  They had laws, of course, but not foundational documents that undergirded those laws.  Their foundations lived in narratives, in stories.  Stories and myths were their primary vehicles for talking about who they were and who God was.  (I use the word myth not in the popular sense of untruth, but in the classic sense of stories that explain the beginnings of creation, peoples, etc.)  Because such stories were used to explain and define, historical accuracy was never their primary purpose.  And so you can find - especially in the Old Testament - stories that contradict one another lying side by side.  For example, read the stories connected to Noah.  If you pay attention you will notice differing accounts that report contradictory numbers of animals on the ark.  There are also two Creation stories with differing orders of creation

Stories, by nature, make poor legal reference material.  We understand this when Jesus tells us a parable, but for some reason we expect the Bible as a whole to abide by our modern notions of truth and accuracy.  But if we can set those aside for a moment, how might we come to the Bible in a more productive manner?  Perhaps the notion of Holy Conversations may be of some help here.

If I see the Bible, with its variety of stories, poems, hymns, laws, proverbs and so on, as a divinely inspired collection that grows out of various faithful people's encounter with God, perhaps I can enter into a conversation with these various folks from various times and places.  (Brian McLaren suggests thinking of the Bible as a "community library," with many thoughts and views on faith, not all of them in lock step agreement with one another.)

Interestingly, John Calvin, the father of my own Reformed/Presbyterian Tradition, modeled what I'm talking about when he took up the issue of lending money at interest.  We modern folks have forgotten that this was once a burning religious issue.  Christians were barred from being bankers because of the biblical prohibitions on lending at interest up until Calvin's day (the 1500s).  But when Calvin looked around the city of Geneva, where he served as both spiritual leader and city manager, he saw how fledgling small business enterprises needed capital to start small factories.  But those pesky biblical prohibitions made it difficult to raise such capital.  A constitutional reading of the Bible was of little help to Calvin.  Finding verses that supported lending at interest was nearly impossible.

But Calvin didn't use such an approach.  Rather, he engaged the Bible in a conversation.  He tried to understand how those biblical prohibitions functioned within the story of Israel and then the Church.  And in this conversation, he came to the conclusion that these prohibitions were not a matter of God being against lending or interest per se, they were protections for the vulnerable and poor.  But Calvin wanted to use lending to fund business that would employ the poor and raise their status.  And so he concluded that lending (with certain restraints to prevent hurting people) was in keeping with the original prohibitions.  He readily admitted that the Bible did not permit lending money at interest, but he claimed that in allowing just that in Geneva, he was upholding the fundamental concerns of God for the week and oppressed, the poor and the widow.

When you read the Bible, what sort of book or resource is it for you?  Do you see the larger narrative and library, the different parts in conversation with one another?  Or do you read verses in isolation like a legal code?  I have to admit that preaching can encourage the latter.  Each week there is a short snippet of Scripture from which I am to draw biblical truth.  I won't claim that it's making my preaching any better, but more and more I am seeing the entire Bible as a part of every sermon, with the verses for that Sunday raising their voice to speak within the great cloud of witnesses, each of whom have some insight to share with us.

Click here to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Holy Conversations, continued

Today's readings from Matthew and Acts give me another jumping off point for talking about Scripture as conversation.  As Acts (written by the same person who pens Luke) opens, the disciples meet Jesus a number times over the 40 day period following Easter.  This all happens in Jerusalem, where the disciples have been since Jesus' arrest and where Jesus orders them to stay until the receive the Holy Spirit.  Today's Matthew reading tells of Jesus' death on the cross.  In Matthew, this will be the last time any of the 12 disciples will see Jesus in Jerusalem.  After his resurrection, Jesus appears to the women and has them direct the disciples to a mountain in Galilee where he appears to them.

There is simply no reconciling these different accounts if we are going to read the Bible as a history book.  (Matthew and Acts also offer wildly different accounts of Judas' death.  In Matthew a repentant Judas tries to return his betrayal payment and then hangs himself.  In Acts the wicked Judas buys property with his ill-gotten gain and promptly "burst open in the middle and his bowels gushed out.)  But if the Bible is not primarily a history book, what are we to do with it?

There are a number of options.  Some people look at the obvious historical contradictions and conclude that the Bible is simply unreliable.  And here is where literalists' insistence on the historical and scientific accuracy of Bible often undercuts sharing the faith.  Insisting that two radically different versions of an event are both historically true makes the faith unintelligible to many people.  And the mental calisthenics sometimes used to explain away historical contradictions only make the problem worse.

A far better option, to my mind, is to admit that the Bible is neither a history nor a science text.  Today's accounts in Matthew and Acts are rooted in historical events well known to the first readers of both.  The authors are not trying to tell those First Century readers what happened.  Rather they are trying to explain the significance of Jesus' resurrection.  Acts is tracing how the resurrection has launched a missionary movement centered in Jerusalem and spreading out to all the known world.  Matthew has a more Jewish perspective, and he launches this movement from a mountain in Galilee, mirroring how Israel is constituted at another mountain in the Sinai wilderness.  Both accounts offered rich possibilities for the first Christians to contemplate and understand what was taking place as a result of Jesus' resurrection.  And they still offer fertile opportunities for Christians to enter into conversation around what it means for Jesus to be the new Law-giver on the mountain, and for the Church to be a mission oriented body empowered and pushed ever outward by the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps that's enough for one day, but I think I'll continue this thread tomorrow.

Click here to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Holy Conversations

Christians seem to fight a lot over the Bible.  "The Bible says this.  The Bible says that," we insist, usually to others who don't see it the same way.  What people fight over says something about what they think is important.  So I suppose that all this fighting at least says we consider the Bible important, that we expect it to guide us in some way.  A more cynical view might say that we simply view the Bible as a convenient trump card, and we want to find ways to use it to our advantage.

In our biblical fighting, there are many who see the Bible as literally true, and thus any verse must be taken at face value as God's direct word.  The problems with this stance become obvious to anyone who reads the Bible with much care.  The Bible doesn't always agree with itself. 

I know that biblical literalists are trying to "protect" the sanctity of God's word by their stance, but I fear that they actually do more harm than good.  I fear their stance makes Christianity seem foolish and absurd to those who didn't grow up within such a tradition.  They see the insistence that all the various things in the Bible are literally true to mean that faith requires turning off one's brain.

Today's gospel is a good case in point.  Many people, even outside the church, have heard that while Jesus was on the cross, he engaged in conversation with the two criminals next to him, and promised the repentant one they would be together in Paradise.  Yet in Matthew's gospel, we hear that Jesus was mocked and derided by all manner of folks, and all we hear about the criminals next to him is this, "The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him  in the same way."  That's it.

Then there's today's reading from Judges where God is angry because Israel breaks covenant, and lets them fall to their enemies, but then feels sorry for them when their enemies are bad to them.  Are we really supposed to believe that God is so capricious, that God can't anticipate that Israel will suffer once they are defeated?

It seems to me that we need a better way of accessing the Bible than simply saying "I believe it," or "I don't."  A number of people have suggested the idea of a conversation.  And I like the idea of the Bible as an inspired conversation among people of faith about what it means to live as God's people.  It helps me understand how the Bible can say in one place that Israel's men must "send away" their foreign wives and children (Ezra 9-10) and in another place lifts up a foreign wife as a paragon of faithfulness (Ruth).

What does it mean to you to say the Bible is true?  More on this tomorrow.

Click here to learn more about the Daily Lectionary. 

Monday, July 26, 2010

Sunday Sermon - O Lord, Won't You Buy Me...

Spiritual Hiccups - Missing God

Today's reading from Matthew shows Pilate giving in to the crowd and ordering Jesus' execution.  This story has been misused over the years to support anti-Semitism, but of course those who supported Jesus and those who cried for his death, the disciples, and Jesus himself were all Jews.  Matthew is a Jew who probably never envisioned a day when Christianity would be a religion distinct from Judaism.

Anti-Semitism aside, I am fascinated by this picture of people who are eagerly awaiting a Messiah yet demand the death of Jesus whose followers hail him as Messiah.  No doubt Jesus' opponents operated from a variety of motives, but clearly many of them thought they were being faithful to God in opposing Jesus.  He looked nothing like what they expected from God's Messiah.  Jesus' own disciples struggled at times to reconcile him with their expectations.  So why is it that so many missed God at work in Jesus?

For those who accept that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, we must wrestle with the obvious fact that Jesus defied the religious expectations of his day.  None of the religious traditions in Judaism were looking for a Messiah quite like Jesus.  Their expectations were drawn from Scripture in much the same way many current Christians' expectations about God and faith are drawn from Scripture.  And still the majority rejected Jesus.

I have to think this is more than a one time problem.  A God whose thoughts are not our thoughts and ways are not our ways (see Isaiah 55:8-9) is bound to act in ways that startle and surprise us on a fairly regular basis.  I certainly have my own expectations about God, and they usually cohere with my moderate/progressive sort of Christianity.  Others have expectations that cohere with their conservative sort, and so on.  And it can be very difficult to discern whether our expectations emerged from our religious experiences or if they simply conform to existing preferences we already had.

I don't believe it responsible simply to say that everyone's truth is true for them.  God is God, and not whatever we wish God to be.  Sometimes my expectations are simply wrong.  Sometimes yours are.  So from time to time, whatever our leanings, we need to step back and look afresh at God, and especially at Jesus.  From time to time we need to drop all our assumptions about what faith means, what salvation means, what Church is, and so on, and try to get back to Jesus.  When you peel off all the layers or interpretation and set aside the mosaic picture of Jesus we've constructed from selected gospel stories and  popular imagination, there is much Jesus says and does that still startles and surprises, that still challenges and confounds.  All of which draws us a little closer to the true, living God rather than the God of our expectations.

Click here to learn more about the Daily Lectionary. 

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sunday Sermon - O Lord, Won't You Buy Me...

Text of Sunday Sermon

Luke 11:1-13
Oh Lord, Won’t You Buy Me…
James Sledge                              --                                July 25, 2010

When we were down in South Carolina a couple of weeks ago for my mother-in-law’s birthday, I hit the scan button on the radio to find a local station.  The pickings were a bit slim, so when I heard a Beatles song, I stopped it there. 
Sometime later, they played a song I haven’t heard in years.  It was Janis Joplin singing a cappella, “O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?  My friends all drive Porches, I must make amends. Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends, So Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz?”  A second verse asks for a color TV, but I think I like the third verse best.  “Oh Lord, won't you buy me a night on the town?  I'm counting on you, Lord, please don't let me down. Prove that you love me and buy the next round, Oh Lord, won't you buy me a night on the town?”
We laugh at the lyrics because the requests are so patently absurd, and yet they are not so unlike some of my own prayers. 
Who among us hasn’t, at some point, prayed to win the lottery, or, if like me you’ve never actually gotten around to buying a lottery ticket, prayed to come into a big chunk of change by some other means? 
What sort of things do you pray for?  Do you expect God to meet your requests?  What does it mean if God doesn’t do as you ask?
When I was growing up, I somehow got the notion that getting what you prayed for was a good measure of your faith.  If you believed in Jesus, really believed and didn’t doubt, it would happen.  Which of course meant that failed prayers could be traced back to your doubt or lack of faith.
My childhood notions of faith and prayer had a nice parallel in Santa Claus.  You asked Santa to bring you stuff, and getting that stuff was contingent on you believing in Santa Claus.  A failure to do so could jeopardize you Christmas morning haul.  There was also that business about being good.  Santa is apparently a pretty lenient judge, but being bad could also interfere with getting your Christmas list filled.
Now at first glance Santa Claus looks to be a pretty powerful and influential dude.  He has all kinds of magical powers and abilities, and he can influence the behavior of millions of children.  But it occurs to me that Santa isn’t actually in charge of very much.  There’s a formula or contract that he’s a part of, and if children work the system right, he has to run himself ragged doing what they want.  In this whole Santa Claus business, Santa isn’t really the one in charge.  It’d the kids.
I think that our notions about prayer sometimes reveal a similar sort of Christian faith, one where we are in charge and God is under contract to us.  As long as we meet the terms of the contract, God has no choice but to give us the goodies.
And that brings me back to what we pray for and how we expect God to respond.  Our prayers say a great deal about our image of God and of ourselves.  They give some pretty good clue as to what lies at the very core of our faith.
When you ask Christians about the core of their faith, most folks will give answers that in some way place God or Jesus at the center.  But when you ask questions about prayer, it gets a lot more varied.  And our answers to questions on prayer sometimes describe a faith where we are at the center, and God, like Santa Claus, is supposed to do our bidding.
Now it is true that Jesus says faith no bigger than a mustard seed would allow us to move mountains.  Faith can accomplish tremendous things.  But I don’t think Jesus means that having enough faith turns God into a cosmic Santa.  And today’s reading helps Jesus’ followers understand what sort of tremendous things to pray for.
When we are at the center of faith everything is measured by how it impacts us.  Am I happy?  Do I have enough?  Am I going to heaven?  Is my life fulfilled and meaningful?  The questions tend to be different in different times and cultures because they are our questions and our notions of happiness and fulfillment shape them. 
But when his followers ask Jesus for prayer lessons, the model prayer he gives them doesn’t function this way.  It starts by praising God.  Then it asks that things on earth be set right.  That’s what “Your kingdom come” means.  It is asking that things on earth conform to God’s will.  And when this prayer finally gets to the wish list part, the requests are very modest, enough for the day, God’s forgiveness contingent on our forgiveness to those who have hurt us, and protection from temptation or judgment.  There are no sports cars, no color TVs, no “the good life.”  Rather it is a prayer for a simple life where God provides all we need and our world is reshaped to become the sort of place God intends it to be.
Jesus gone on to encourage us to be persistent in prayer, saying that if we know how to give good things to our children how much more God can be counted on to give good things to us.  But if God is the parent and we are the children, that would seem to presume that God gets to decide what is best for us.
I have known the occasional parents who seem to think that their children get to decide what is best for them and the parents’ job is simply to provide whatever it takes to keep them happy.  Such parents are usually perpetually frustrated by the impossibility of this task.  Their children tend to make everyone around them miserable.  And the children themselves are usually frustrated and unhappy to boot.
It turns out that children rarely know what will actually make them happy.  They rarely can perceive what is actually best for them.  We adults are often only marginally better, and we engage in all sorts of self destructive activity that we hope will make us happy.  And yet I still make judgments about God based on how well God responds to what I think is best for me, on whether or not God responds to me in the way I would like. 
I saw an article the other day that suggested that when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray they weren’t looking for a better prayer technique or pose.  What motivated the disciples’ request was seeing the intimacy Jesus had with God.  They were asking, in essence, “Lord, teach us how to love and trust the Father the way you do, that our prayer lives would increase in fullness and honesty.”[1]
You know, we church people are often a funny sort.  We are drawn to God.  We feel a genuine pull to connect with God.  Yet we often seem frightened of getting too close.  We want to enlist God in our lives and our causes, but we resist turning our lives over to God.  We resist the very thing the disciples saw in Jesus and wanted for themselves.  Often churches have abetted this problem, failing to demonstrate a faith that would prompt anyone to notice our intimacy with God and say, “Teach us to love and trust God the way you do.”
I love the Church.  But from time to time, the Church might do well stop worrying about doctrines, rules, worship styles, and politics, and get back to Jesus, to gaze lovingly and longingly on the person of Jesus.  What if we set aside all notions of what faith and Church are about?  What if we let go of all our images and expectations of God and simply gazed on the face of God in this 1st Century, Palestinian Jew?  What if we dwelled there long enough that like those first disciples, we started to long for the same sort of trust and intimacy with God?  Might we be able to say with them, “Oh Lord, teach us to love and trust the Father as you do, that our prayer lives would increase in fullness and honesty, that your presence and love would become so palpable here that others would long to become more like us.”
Make it so, God; make it so.

[1] Peter W. Marty, “Reflections on the Lectionary,” The Christian Century, July 13, 2010, Vol. 127, No. 14, p. 21

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Alone and Afraid

Today's gospel reading contains the famous story of Peter denying Jesus. I've always marveled that the early church preserved this story about the abject failure of one of its key leaders. But there it is, prominently displayed in all four gospels. When Jesus had earlier told Peter this would happen, Peter was full of bravado, insisting he would never do so and, in some accounts, promising to die with Jesus. But when the moment comes, he curses and swears that he does not know Jesus, has never met him.

Much can be drawn from this story. Bold words don't necessarily lead to bold behavior. But on the flip side, colossal failures and even betrayals don't disqualify us from serving Jesus. It would seem that Jesus did not hold Peter's failure against him at all.

But I found myself pondering how it was Peter went so quickly from bravado to betrayal. Was it simply that he was all talk? I don't think so. Too many other episodes show a Peter who could act in bold ways. I wonder if Peter wasn't feeling terribly alone that night. He had been Jesus' constant companion for a very long time, but Jesus had been taken from him. All alone, Peter's fears overwhelmed him. He was all "fight or flight," and fight wasn't an option.

Being alone, really alone, can be terribly frightening. And we people of faith sometimes try to be faithful and religious all on our own. I'm not referring to individualism, though I suppose that is a problem as well. I'm talking about living our lives without much sense of Jesus' presence.

In one of his books, N. Graham Standish speaks of church meetings where we, in essence, pray at the beginning, then ask God to go get a cup of coffee while we do our work. Then when we're done, we ask God to come back in and bless our actions. As an individual, I often wrestle with issues facing my congregation, or struggle with what I am called to do, all by myself, with little sense of Jesus with me. But without Jesus there with us, our fears can bubble up, can frighten us and even overwhelm us. We become more reactionary and primal in our behaviors, and we often regret our actions or decisions later.

Give us some sure sense of your presence, God. Put your Spirit in us that we may never be alone.

Click here to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Wisdom from Richard Rohr


Question of the Day:
What am I seeking through my religion?

If religion is not primarily a belonging system, but is truly a transformational system, one would need, it seems to me, a very different kind of authority. One needs the experience and conviction of someone who has walked the journey himself or herself. One needs the authority of a person who can say, “I know what God does with pain, because of what God has done with mine.” And not just the authority to say, “You must believe in this and you must believe in that.” This utterly changes the focus of spiritual authority.

For me, almost the best litmus test of whether a person has healthy or unhealthy religion is, “What do they do with their pain?” Because pain is always part of the deal, as Jesus, the Jewish prophets, and Buddha agree.

Spiritual Hiccups - What the Bible Says

Most of the Christians I know speak of the Bible having authority. But what they mean by that comes in many shapes and sizes. Literalism with regards to the Bible seems to be more popular today than it was 50 years ago. For example, the number of Christians who say the believe in evolution has shrunk significantly while those who believe the Genesis creation account is historically and scientifically accurate have increased. (The fact that there are two different creation stories with different orders of creation seems to have escaped these folks, but that's a different blog entry.)

What got me thinking about this was today's morning psalm. It rattles off the attributes of those whom God welcomes to the Temple, those whose lives are pleasing to God. The list includes those, "who do not slander with their tongue... who do not lend money at interest." This got me wondering about biblical authority because slandering with the tongue and lending money at interest seem to be pretty popular in our culture.

I certainly don't claim any sort of personal purity here. I've done my share of slandering with the tongue and I've bought investments that amount to lending money at interest. So how is it that I can claim the Bible as an authority?

I think this is a question that more Christians need to take seriously. Saying "God said it. I believe it, and that settles it" is all well and good. But what about God saying not to lend money at interest?

The worst answer to the question of biblical authority seems to be, unfortunately, the most popular answer: to read
only the parts I agree with. I'll quote those verses that support my views and conveniently ignore those that don't. Big problem with this method is I become the ultimate authority, not the Bible.

So how does the Bible have its own authority rather than simply conforming to mine? To go back to tongue slandering and lending at interest, when I slander with my tongue (or computer blog), it's wrong and something I need to apologize for. But when it comes to lending at interest, it depends. How can that be?

I'm reasonably convinced (by the Bible) that God is not capricious, that God does things for good reasons. And when I look at those places where God prohibits lending at interest, they all seem to be about not oppressing the poor. In the ancient world, one where there was rarely a need for private citizens to raise lots of capital, lending at interest was often used to trap the poor in inescapable debt. (The "company store" of the early 20th century often functioned this way.) But in the modern world, money lent at interest is often used to allow someone to start a company which then hires people who would otherwise be unemployed and poor. In that case, lending money at interest helps the poor. So I think that biblical authority on this issue says, "It depends." Some sorts of lending at interest - the sort designed to trap people in debt - are sinful, but other sorts may not be.

The big question is, "Am I truly recognizing the Bible's authority?" I think I am. What do you think?

Click here to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Trust

Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.

When their breath departs,

they return to the earth;

on that very day their plans perish.

These words from Psalm 146 are echoed in many other places in the Bible. Those who put their hope and trust in human agents and institutions will ultimately be disappointed, but those who trust and hope in God will be vindicated.

But I have observed that most of us are quite selective in how and where we trust God. And there are some interesting fault lines dividing "liberal" and "conservative" Christians. Conservatives will argue against large scale government social programs and health insurance but support massive military budgets. And liberals will often argue for reductions in military budgets and actions, but support expansion of government spending for social programs and regulation. It seems that both sides at times puts its "trust in princes." We just disagree about where and when.

One of the very real problems for Christians of all stripes is our tendency to domesticate the faith to suit our purposes. We all selectively read our Bibles and we all create God in our image. And liberals and conservatives alike simply ignore Jesus when he tells us that wealth is one of the biggest hindrances to us being a part of God's Kingdom.

I wonder what the faith might look like, what our congregations might look like, if we spent less time trying to convince ourselves that we were truer to the faith than those other folks, and spent more time getting serious about what Jesus calls us to do, both the parts we like and the parts we don't.

Click here to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Sunday Sermon - What Really Matters

Spiritual Hiccups - Love

In his letter to the Christians in Rome, Paul says, "Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law... Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law." Jesus also speaks of loving one another, and he says that the two greatest commandments are to love God with all our being and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus also refuses to limit the scope of our neighbor to people who are like us, as his parable of the "Good Samaritan" shows.

Given all the talk of love in the New Testament, you would think this would be the defining mark of Christians. Even people who weren't Christian would say, "Well I don't agree with their beliefs, but they sure are the lovingnest folks I've ever seen." So why is it that we so often come off to others as narrow-minded, judgmental, and shrill? Why are there so many Christians who seem angry much of the time?

In the US, I sometimes get the sense that many Christians are angry at what they perceive as a loss of power, prestige, and influence in our society. They're mad about rising pluralism and secularism, and they want to "take their country back." But Jesus refused to be the political Messiah that many of his followers wanted him to be. Jesus never said anything about aspiring to earthly power and influence. Rather he talked about being willing to suffer and give up everything for the sake of the Kingdom. He said to resist evil with love and to pray for those who persecute us.

You likely heard that Gandhi at one point in his life seriously considered becoming a Christian, and he frequently drew on Jesus and the New Testament. But because of some very negative experiences with Christians, he rejected the faith. Once when asked why he rejected Christ considering how much he seemed to emulate him, Gandhi responded, “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ."

I have to think that if we focused more on love, Gandhi, and lots of others, might not have thought this way.

Click here to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sunday Sermon - What Really Matters

What Really Matters - July 18 sermon.mp3

Luke 10:38-42; (Amos 8:1-12)

What Really Matters

James Sledge --- July 18, 2010

When I come into the office each morning, like a lot of folks I turn on the computer and check my email. Often I find something there that I need to deal with, but if not, there are usually other tasks. There’s a sermon to write, a bulletin or newsletter to work on, a meeting to prepare for or attend, a visit to the hospital, and so on. I actually like the fact that my days can be quite varied, with different things popping up from time to time. Sometimes it’s a little busy or hectic, yet it’s often rewarding work, so I’m not complaining. But sometimes I get to the end of a long day, and it dawns on me that the one thing that there was no time for in the day was God. Oh I might have worked on a sermon that had something to do with God, but I’ve not actually talked to God, been aware or God, or tried to find God.

If this happens to me as a pastor more often than I care to admit, I can only imagine how much more of a struggle it is for others. A business woman gets up early in the morning and gets ready for the day, all while dragging sleepy children from bed and out to school or day care. In this tough economy, her company seems to expect more and more work out of her with less and less staff to help her. Many days she eats lunch in her office as she catches up on some correspondence. And then she must still pick up children, do something about supper, attend a child’s softball game, and so on. She has a lot more reasons than I do not to have found an hour, or even a few minutes, to engage in some sort of significant spiritual discipline.

In some of the research done exploring why fewer and fewer Americans participate in the worship life of a congregation, a significant number of people cite the fact that Sunday morning is often the one time that they can really relax, can sleep late and catch up on their rest, can spend time with family.

I know that some of you live busy, harried lives. And it’s probably not because you want to be a captain of finance or get your name in Forbes magazine. You’re just trying to get by, to do what you have to do to pay bills, raise a family, cover the mortgage, put gas in the car.

I may have already been thinking about the busyness that gets in the way of my own spiritual life when I first looked at today’s Luke passage. Perhaps that explains why I saw it in a light that I hadn’t considered before. I’ve often viewed Jesus praising Mary for ignoring her domestic duties, for taking the “masculine” pose of a disciple, as something meant to empower women, to say that Jesus calls women just as surely as he does men.

I still think that is a significant piece to take away from this passage, but what to do with Martha. It’s been pointed out to me many times, often by a woman, that Jesus would have gotten nothing to eat that night and not had a clean bed to sleep in without Martha. Martha is the one who engages in biblical hospitality. This is much more than being kind and friendly. It is a hospitality that cares for the stranger, in this case welcoming a traveler named Jesus into her home. Of course once you welcome a guest into your home you have to find something for him to eat. And it’s not like Martha has a refrigerator or a microwave or any prepackaged meals. Welcoming Jesus into her home meant a lot of work. No wonder she needs a little help from Mary.

But because Jesus doesn’t back Martha up when she asks him to make Mary help, I think there is a tendency to label Martha as bad in some way. We’re a little uncomfortable with it, but Jesus does say, “Mary has chosen the better part.” And so Martha isn’t just hospitable and busy, she is worried and distracted. It says so right there in our Bibles. But the truth is, you don’t have to translate it that way. In fact, when I looked at the passage in the original Greek, I saw that our Bible uses “distracted” to translate two completely different words. And so I took a stab at a translation that didn’t want to label Martha as bad.

Here it is: But Martha was burdened by her many tasks, and so she came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are concerned and troubled by many things; but one thing is necessary.”

To my ear this translation sounds less like Jesus fussing at her because she’s prone to burn the candle at both ends, and more like Jesus inviting her to let go of a few cultural expectations and responsibilities. Jesus knows that she is doing precisely what her society says she should. And he is inviting her to find a new freedom, to let go of everything she had been taught about what was necessary and discover what truly is. Who knows, maybe Jesus even said, “You come and sit beside me, too. Later, we’ll all get dinner ready together.”

The last couple of years, I struggled a bit with my own spiritual life. And to be totally honest, at times I’ve gotten a little miffed at God, more precisely, at God’s silence. But lately I feel like I’ve been making some progress, and I think maybe today’s Scripture is some help to me, and perhaps to you as well.

It seems to me that both our readings have something to say about God’s silence, about why it is sometimes hard to find God. The reading from Amos rails against the rich who build and maintain their wealth at great cost to the poor. Amos threatens a great silence, a famine of hearing the word of God to those who come to church each week and drop their offerings in the plate, but who fail to care for the poor or order their daily lives as God desires.

But then Luke’s gospel introduces us to Martha, who also misses God’s word, not because she is doing something evil, but because she is trying to do what she thinks is good.

I suppose that both Amos and Luke have something to say to me, and perhaps you as well. Oh I would never actually cheat a poor person out of any money or take advantage them intentionally, but then again I don’t get too worked up about having a cheap, abundant supply of fresh food at Giant Eagle or Kroger thanks in large part to the hard work of often abused and always underpaid migrant workers. But if I’m not nearly as bad as those condemned by Amos, I am very much like Martha. And if Jesus, in his great compassion, is trying to invite her to discover what is truly necessary, what does that say to me, or to you?

Jesus clearly tells Martha, and me, that there are choices that must be made. Lots of things, even good things, can push God away. We all have to have money to live, we all need food, people have to work, but Jesus says that nothing is as essential, as necessary as sitting at his feet, which is a way of talking about being his disciple.

One of the core callings of all Christian disciples is to help those around us catch a glimpse of God’s coming Kingdom, God’s reign, God’s new day, whatever you want to call it. In this Kingdom, God’s will is fully done, the poor and the oppressed are lifted up, the peacemaker is exalted over the warrior, and people trust that God will provide enough for the day without worrying about tomorrow. I know almost no one who thinks this describes the world we live in. So how is it that I and so many other Christians seem so at home in this world?

We live in a consumer culture that preaches a full life if you accomplish enough and acquire enough. It demands endless striving and busyness from us. It produces endless anxiety about getting more and about hanging on to what we already have. Yet for the most part we Christians have embraced this culture as if it were fully compatible with our faith. Worse, we often view faith or spirituality as one more consumer item, another piece to be acquired in order for life to be full and good. But Jesus tells Martha, and me as well, that we won’t find much of God in such a faith. If we’re really looking for God, if we really want to hear God, if we really want to discover true life, we will have to realize what is truly necessary, what really matters. And then, oh then we will really have something to share with the world.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Being

We live in a world that values production and efficiency, that honors those who can "get things done." We size people up by what they do. It's the first thing we ask when we meet someone, "So, what do you do?" My religious traditions speaks of all people having a calling, something they are gifted for and meant to do, so clearly we think doing is important. But does our society's focus on doing have a downside?

I arrived at this question after reading Matthew's account of Jesus being anointed with costly ointment by an unnamed woman. The disciples object to this waste, thinking it could have been sold and the money used to help the poor. But Jesus cuts them off and praises the woman.

For some reason, I immediately remembered Marva Dawn's book on worship, A Royal "Waste" of Time, which contains the subtitle The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World. Being Church, a waste of time; Dawn doesn't seem to worry too much about getting anything of "value" done in worship. She makes light of something my denomination has in droves, special Sundays that deal with some issue. We have Theological Education Sunday, Higher Education Sunday, Domestic Violence Awareness Sunday, Race Relations Sunday, Health Awareness Sunday, and many more. There's not a thing wrong with the motivation for any of these Sundays any more than it was wrong for the disciples to be concerned about the plight of the poor. But - I agree with Dawn here - worship is us being with and praising God. It doesn't need to accomplish something.

I we can speak in similar fashion about our spiritual lives. There's a great deal of interest in spirituality in our culture, both in and out of churches. And sometimes I think this hunger is brought on, in large part, because we are so defined by our doing that we don't know who we are. We don't value being enough to connect with our true selves.

Jesus did incredible things, so he was a doer. But all his doing grew out of his being. Jesus spent countless hours in meditation, in prayer, in fasting, and in time alone with God. It was there that he honed his identity. And it was there that he was nourished and equipped for what he was called to do.

Who are you? Not "What do you do?" but "Who are you?"

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Living Right

Today's reading from Matthew is "The Judgment of the Nations" (or Gentiles, depending on how you translate). I've never been clear on whether to read this like a parable or as a prediction of things to come, but one point seems clear, God's judgment ends up surprising a lot of folks.

Jesus was speaking to Jews when he said this, and they likely heard it differently than you or I. To Jews, "the nations" (or Gentiles) referred to those other folks, the non-Jews, the people not a part of our faith. Perhaps that means that as Christians we should read this as "The Judgment of the non-Christians" or of "the Pagans."

Regardless, this judgment raises questions about what matters most to God, getting our belief structure ironed out just so, or aligning our lives with God's priorities. These Gentiles are judged as righteous when they unwittingly care for "the least of these."

If this judgment is about those folks, the people who aren't members of our churches, what are we in congregations to take away from this? A very tentative thought I have relates to the occasional Christian obsession with formulas. Believe in Jesus and get saved. But Jesus' words on the judgment of the pagans makes me wonder if we in the Church don't sometimes miss the point. Granted, it requires believing Jesus' word is authoritative to even have this discussion, but does the Church exist primarily to convince folks of the formula or to demonstrate and teach the way of life Jesus modeled?

John Calvin, the Reformation leader who began the tradition that birthed Presbyterians, often accused the Roman Catholics of lapsing into superstition, believing that certain rites magically guaranteed your standing before God. I wonder if the modern day Protestant Church hasn't sometimes lapsed into a new form of superstition, where a few correctly worded phrases magically guarantee our standing before God (even if we don't actually do very much Jesus told us to do).

And pagans who never had a clue scratch their heads and enter into the Kingdom.

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Longing

I've written before about experiencing God's absence, seeking God's presence but not finding it. Such times can be very frustrating for those who desire God in their lives. At times such unfulfilled longing can seem like torment.

However, such longing may be God's way of inviting us into a deeper relationship. This longing may be a gift of the Spirit that beckons us. Psalm 42 seems to come out of a time of both longing and despair, a time when the psalmist's soul is cast down and enemies taunt him saying, "Where is your God?" Yet out of this dark night of the soul comes a deep awareness of the psalmist's intense need for God. "As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God."

It is easy to fall into a cursory relationship with God, a business-like, contractual relationship where we believe and do certain things in hope of some payout. But God knows we need something more. We were created out of God's love for love - love shared with God and with others. And sometimes the experience of unfulfilled longing may be just what we need to draw us out of our comfort zones into pure love.

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Monday, July 12, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - God's Love and Individualism

We Americans are a very individualistic sort. Our individualism has generally served us well, although it has its dark side. But however favorably you may view this individualism, one thing is certain. The people who wrote the Bible did not live in an individualistic world. They tended to focus more on the group than on the individual.

You can see this in today's section of Paul's letter to the Roman Christians. Paul is wrestling with the fact that so many of his fellow Jews have rejected Jesus as Messiah. We Americans tend to view this along the lines of individual choice and individual consequences, but Paul seems to view it otherwise.

Paul speaks of their hearts being hardened by God, an event that opens salvation to non-Jews. But Paul also speaks of a still to come "full inclusion" of the Jews. I don't know that Paul is speaking of individuals. More likely he means Jews as a people, but clearly his frame of reference is God's plan to bring all peoples into a redeemed and renewed creation. This is not a contest with winners and losers, not a competition where some make it and some don't. It is simply God's love at work.

In our own families, at least in healthy ones, parents see their children as individuals, but their status as family members, as those who receive care and love, is never about their individual accomplishments. So why is it that so many Christians view the God most often called "Father" more like the coach of an elite team who easily cuts those who don't act just as they should?

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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Religious Certainty

On more than one occasion I have heard people insist that had they been alive in Jesus' day, they would not have joined the crowd in yelling, "Crucify him." They're sure they would have recognized and followed Jesus. I'd like to think the same about myself, but I'm not all that certain.

I thought of this when I read today's verses from Matthew. Jesus speaks of the Pharisees honoring the graves of the prophets and quotes them as saying, "If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets."

The Pharisees were the uber-religious of their day. They were unimpressed by the ritual and pomp of priestly, Temple Judaism, and insisted that being God's people meant taking the commandments seriously and living lives of deep faith and conviction. They were religious reformers, and you could draw some real parallels between their attempts to reform Judaism and the early Protestants' desire to reform Roman Catholic Christianity.

Yet Jesus insists that their certainty about not joining their ancestors in killing the prophets is a hollow boast, which makes me wonder about our own religious certainties.

What was it about dedicated, often sincere, serious people of faith that put them at odds with Jesus? Why is it that Jesus' opponents were mostly religious authorities? What is it about religious life that seems to have the capacity to obscure rather than reveal God's presence? Jesus says over and over that the tax collectors and prostitutes enter into the Kingdom ahead of the religious folks.

One of the problems with all religious institutions is the tendency to substitute beliefs, practices, and doctrines for God. It is all too easy for our ultimate loyalty to be given to how we do things, how we like things, a particular conception of God, or simply to our particular congregation. But anytime we give ultimate loyalty to something other than God, that something becomes our idol. And when we worship an idol, even it if it is the best of congregations, we may see anyone who threatens our idol as evil, even Jesus.

To live lives of faith that matter, we have to make decisions about what we should and shouldn't do, about what God wants and doesn't want. We must discern what God calls us to do and precede to do just that. But we also must always remember that our decisions and our discernments are not God. And we must always be open for God to break through our certainties and show us something new and wonderful.

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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Sunday Sermon - "July 4th and Tribal Gods"

Spiritual Hiccups - Hope

In today's Psalm it says, " 'Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up,' says the LORD." And the Apostle Paul, in his letter to the congregation in Rome says that despite suffering and hardship, "No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us." Both Paul and the psalmist look at situations that seem desperate and say, "We see God at work, and we know that God's will finally wins out.

But while the Bible speaks of the certainty that God will set all things right, that God will indeed redeem and restore creation, many Christians seem to thing that the world is hanging by a thread and if we aren't careful, evil will triumph. A great number of Christians seem to think evil is much more powerful than it actually is. It makes me wonder if they know the line from Martin Luther's "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" which says, "The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo! his doom is sure, one little word shall fell him."

And the cross itself speaks of the impotence of evil in the face of God's love. If the cross is the greatest attempt to thwart God that evil could muster, and the cross is somehow the instrument of our reconciliation with God, then evil's worst deed only furthers God's plans. It would seem that evil has no chance against God.

I talk to a lot of church folks who seem very worried about the future. They worry that the church's best days are in the past, and they are afraid for the church they love. The Church certainly faces plenty of challenges in a culture that is rapidly changing. But I wonder if these challenges don't push us to reexamine the source of our hope. Is our hope in the religious structures and institutions that we have constructed? Or is our hope in the promises of God who brings light out of darkness and life out of death?

What is it that motivates our lives of faith? It seems to me that Christians who trust that God owns the future, and that God will indeed redeem all creation, discover a hope that allows them to embody and enact that coming Kingdom, a hope that can only be known through faith.

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Sunday, July 4, 2010

Sunday Sermon - "July 4th and Tribal Gods"

July 4th and Tribal Gods - sermon for July 4.mp3

2 Kings 5:1-14
July 4th and Tribal Gods
James Sledge -- July 4, 2010
I’ve always loved July 4th. As a kid we would go to the lake for the day, swimming and water skiing, and then taking a 30 minute boat ride to watch a big fireworks display. When I got older, I remember going to uptown Charlotte for the big fireworks show they shot off one of the tall buildings and coordinated with one of the local radio stations so you could watch and listen to a sound track.
The grand finale was always the 1812 Overture. But no Forth of July medley would have been complete without Kate Smith singing “God Bless America.” Smith introduced the song just prior to World War II, and it quickly became a patriotic favorite, so much so that some lobbied for it to replace the Star Spangled Banner as our national anthem.
Kate Smith has been dead for decades, but many people still associate her with the song. The song itself enjoyed a resurgence of sorts after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Members of the US Senate sang it from the steps of the capital after the attack. It even replaced “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch at some baseball parks.
After the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the phrase “God bless America” began showing up on yard signs, often written in red, white, and blue, or displayed on a background of the US flag. Variations on this theme also showed up such as “God bless our Troops.”
If you know the lyrics to “God Bless America,” you know it is a simple prayer. It isn’t militaristic. It doesn’t call down God’s ire on any others. It simply asks for God’s guidance and blessing. But in those yard signs, and perhaps even in the military-style, march music of the song, it is easy to move beyond a simple request for blessing to a call for God to bless us and curse our enemies. Now surely God is on the side of good and against evil, but does that means God is our God and not theirs? Are we always in the right? Does God wear red, white, and blue?
Does God belong to one nation and not another? People of the ancient world thought so. Indeed the world in which Israel lived thought of gods as local divinities. Every group had its own god and all wars were holy wars because they were contests between the adherents of different gods. And whoever won the battle or war must have had the mightier god.
Israel comes to know the God they call Yahweh in this setting. And at first they think of Yahweh just like other folks think about their tribal gods. God is for Israel and against their enemies. There are plenty of stories in the Bible where God is described just so. But as Israel comes to know this Yahweh better, images of a tribal god begin to break down. Yahweh isn’t just their god, but is God of all creation. And Yahweh doesn’t care just about Israel. Indeed, God’s special relationship with Israel is for the sake of those others. When Abraham first meets God, Yahweh says, “I will bless you and make your name great… And in you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.”
The prophet Isaiah describes Israel as God’s servant, words the New Testament writers later apply to Jesus. “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant… I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” And Jesus himself embodies this, sending his followers to carry the good news to “all nations.”
Yet despite all this, images of a tribal God persist. Many Americans have a great deal of difficulty separating “God and country,” assuming that the two simply go together. America is a great and wonderful country. And some of our most appealing attributes are drawn from Christianity. But if loving God and loving country are two sides of the same coin, does that mean the God of the Bible, the God seen most fully in Jesus, is our tribal god?
So perhaps providence has placed today’s Old Testament reading in the lectionary. Every three years it shows up near July 4th, this year on the day itself. And what a curious little story it is. In the midst of many stories about the prophet Elisha, we meet a fellow called Naaman, a general in the armies of Aram. He is a powerful and important man, but he has some sort of skin disease which will not go away. But after we’ve been introduced to this Naaman, nothing else in the story happens quite the way you might expect.
The story plays havoc with expectations about how God works and where real power lies. A captured Israelite slave points Naaman toward possible healing. Naaman assumes that such power must go through channels, and any prophet able to heal must be in service to the king. And so he goes to Israel’s king with a great deal of wealth to buy a healing. But the king of Israel presumes it is a ruse meant to manufacture an insult that will justify an attack. The Israelite king doesn’t think to summon Elisha. Perhaps he is so focused on issues of us versus them that it never occurs to him that God might want to heal Naaman.
Nonetheless Elisha summons Naaman, who then takes offense when proper pomp, pageantry, and ritual aren’t followed. And for a second time, it takes unnamed servants to point the powerful Naaman toward God’s healing.
And so finally God does heal this foreigner, and an enemy at that. No doubt there were those in Israel who had prayed that God would strike down the Arameans, including their commander Naaman. But instead, God heals Naaman.
In much the same way, people of Jesus’ day expected God to send a Messiah who would strike down the Romans and the commanders of their armies. But instead Jesus heals a Roman centurion’s slave and praises the centurion’s faith. He tells a parable featuring a hated Samaritan as the hero, and tells his followers to proclaim forgiveness to all nations.
But despite the witness of Elisha, despite the God we meet in Jesus, we are still drawn to the image of a tribal God. Not that we all belong to the same tribe. Some want a red, white, blue God. Some fashion a Republican or a Democratic God. Some picture Jesus with blue eyes and blond hair, a member of their white tribe. Some people hate gays and so their god does, too. Some people hate liberals or conservatives, and so their gods do, too. But whatever tribal god we embrace, such a god seems far different from the God we say we have seen in Jesus who is, according to the Bible, the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.
I don’t know about you, but I have realized over the years that I have a great deal of difficulty being in close relationship with people who have very different views and values than I do. Similar behavior likely accounts for why most people marry people who are a lot like them, why social groups are often made up of similar folks, and why churches can often be categorized as liberal or conservative, black or white, high society or working class. Such congregations seem to refute the Bible’s insistence that we are all one in Christ, but they fit well with my own tendency to think of God as a bigger and better version of me, sharing my difficulty being in relationship and loving people who are different from me. I know better logically and theologically, but still I presume that if God really loves me, then surely God must hate the folks I hate. Presto, my own tribal God.
We live in one of the greatest countries the world has every known. I pray that God will bless and guide us, and I have no doubt that God loves us. But the moment we decide that this means God loves others less, or worse, that God hates others, we’ve created a tribal God, an idol. But in Jesus we meet a very different God. And this Jesus calls me and you to proclaim God’s love to all the world, to bear witness to and demonstrate the coming dominion of God, that promised day when people from east and west, north and south, from every part of God’s creation shall join together in the great feast of the kingdom, where there is neither Jew nor Greek, American nor Irish, Jordanian nor Chinese, Iraqi nor Russian, Ethiopian nor Thai, where all are one, where all are welcome, and all are called children of God.
Thanks be to God!