Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Assumptions

Why is it that so many "good, religious folks" who encountered Jesus dismissed him?  How is it that people who were trying to be faithful to God, saw Jesus as a threat to that faith?  These are hardly academic questions, and their answers say something about what might cause us to miss God at work in our midst.

How do we know when our religiosity (my spell check says that's a real word) draws us closer to God and when it actually pushes God away.  If we assume that this simply can't happen, then I suspect we find ourselves in precisely the same place as those Pharisees, priests, and other religious leaders who found Jesus so problematic.  Often we tend to minimize this problem by turning the Pharisees and  priests into dastardly villains, people of such wickedness that they are nothing like us.  But there is really nothing to support such a view beyond our desire for them to be nothing like us.

The fact is that many of Jesus' opponents objected to him not because they were terrible people, not because they set out to be enemies of God, but because Jesus acted so counter to their assumptions of what it meant to be good, religious folks.  If we try to view Pharisees as the good, church-going, upstanding citizens of their day, who winced at the immoral behavior of those who never darkened the door of a synagogue, who thought their society would be a lot better off if people were more serious about keeping the commandments, who worried about a culture that was becoming less attuned to the faith because of the enticements of Greco-Roman hedonism, we may see that they are not so different from some of us.  Which brings me back to the question of how such folks missed God at work in Jesus.

What are your religious assumptions about what it means to be Christian, about how we encounter God, about what God is up to in the world and how we connect to that?  And if Jesus showed up, would he fit those assumptions?  Would the Jesus who hung out with outcasts and riff-raff, who saved his harshest words for good religious folks, who never let a religious rule get in the way of helping someone, would he not offend good church folks like us?

Click here to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Sunday Sermon video - Eyes To See

Spiritual Hiccups - Right Beliefs

I enjoyed a delicious dinner last night at the Noor Islamic Cultural Center as part of their Ramadan Iftar.  A large crowd of non-Muslims joined Muslims as they broke their Ramadan fast at sundown.  My dinner table included a couple of fellow Presbyterians, one Jew, a couple of young Muslim men, and a non-Muslim friend of theirs.  I ended up in a long and very enjoyable conversation with Omar, the OSU sophomore seated next to me.  We agreed that I would read the Qur'an and he would read the Bible and we would help each other understand what we read.  Both of us lead pretty hectic lives.  It will take some effort on both our parts to honor that agreement.  Pray for us.

In the course of our discussion, I found myself thinking about the way people of faith sometimes encounter one another.  Even when both are committed to interfaith dialogue, we come with our own truth claims, and for Muslims, Jews, and Christians, those claims are rooted in a text.  Dialogue can often break down over claims about the truth of my text versus your text. 

I suppose that is unavoidable to some extent, but I also wonder about the degree to which this emerges from a modern, Western mindset.  Enlightenment, rational thinking often seeks a right answer.  Empirical data support or undermine different possible answers, leading to the conclusion that this answer is right and that answer is wrong.

This sort of thinking works very well for some sorts of questions, such as whether or not this medicine will help people with a certain disease, but I increasingly doubt its effectiveness in handling matters of faith.

As a pastor, I do my share of weddings, and when I meet with couples for "premarital counseling" (I hate the term but don't know what else to call it) I usually ask them to tell me about why they want to get married.  Their answers used to surprise me, but after 15 years I've come to expect it.  Almost never do couples tell me about deep feelings, about things they can't quite name, about a knowledge that isn't really in their head.  Instead they talk about the traits they admire in the other.  "He's kind and loyal, always there for me."  "She's friendly and just listens when I need to vent."  I'm sure that's all true, but for the life of me sometimes it sounds like they're describing their dog.

Sometimes it seems that we've taken sacred texts that are meant to touch and transform the heart and treated them like empirical data.  And when that happens we end up talking about something that is beyond beauty, that is beyond simple knowing by the intellect, as though we were describing the most mundane sort of thing.  On top of that, interfaith discussion can become little more than a conversation about our different sets of empirical data.

I have some hope that we are moving beyond the Enlightenment, beyond modernity, into an age when we may learn to view "truth" as something more complex than right beliefs, as something that embraces paradox and even contradictions.  Maybe Omar and I can work on that.

What sort of truth do you find in Scripture?

Click here to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sunday Sermon - Eyes to See

Text of Sunday Sermon - Eyes to See

Luke 14:1, 7-14 (Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16)
Eyes to See
James Sledge                         --                      August 29, 2010

I was at a church conference a couple of weeks ago that attracted quite a few pastors under the age of 40.  In the course of the conference we had a very interesting intergenerational discussion that grew out of frustration some of these younger pastors felt with us older pastors. 
Now I don’t much enjoy thinking of myself as older, but the fact is I was born in the late 1950s.  I’m old enough to be a father of some of those younger pastors.  But I’m also a Baby Boomer, and we Boomers are a rather narcissistic lot.  We think the world revolves around us, and one of our conceits is insisting that we’re not getting old.  A Boomer coined the phrase, “50 is the new 30,” a phrase those younger pastors find particularly irksome.
I learned this in that intergenerational discussion.  The discussion happened because a conference leader wondered why so many younger pastors had stayed outside during a previous open discussion.  Seems many felt discounted and found it difficult to get a word in.  They felt that older pastors pushed them aside and monopolized discussion.  And so a discussion was held where we older folks had to just sit there and listen for the first hour.  
And we behaved, remaining silent, a task eased somewhat by a keg of beer.  We listened as they spoke of what they saw happening in the church, of their dreams and frustrations.
Now I suppose it is true that every new generation feels put upon by their elders, but I think that the self absorbed tendencies of Baby Boomers may have taken this to new levels.  In our narcissistic insistence that we are the center, that we are still young, we younger pastors scarcely see these younger pastors.  If we are still young, what are they, still children, still waiting for us to admit they have grown up and have much to offer the church?
Now I hope I’m not over generalizing about entire generations based on the discussions of a group of pastors, but I do know that when we are focused on ourselves, we don’t see others very well.  Focus on self hinders our vision.  And I think that is why Jesus pairs two seemingly independent sayings about banquets, one on humility and one on hospitality.
Jesus came from a culture that was big on hospitality.  In the ancient Middle East, in a time before hotel chains and restaurants, travelers were often dependent on the hospitality of strangers.  The Old Testament, the only Scripture Jesus knew, was filled with commands to welcome and care for the stranger, the alien, the traveler.  But Jesus took hospitality to a whole new level.
There seemed to be no boundary Jesus would not cross to show love, care, and concern.  Lepers, beggars, the poor, outcasts, the unclean, foreigners, and those who were considered too sinful to be part of the community, Jesus reached out to them all.  And I think it was because he saw them all, really saw them, met their eyes so that he could not miss the pain, the suffering, the rejection, the hurt in those eyes.  And when he saw them that way, he could not help but give himself to them.
And I think that is where Jesus’ parable on humility comes in.  When Jesus shares his advice about sitting in the lowest place and being honored when you’re moved up, this is not simply a piece of advice for parties.  Our reading says explicitly that it is a parable, a story with meaning larger than the simple elements it contains.  And so going to the end of the line, the bottom rung, the last place, must be a metaphor that speaks of far more than how to get noticed at parties.
I have long been convinced that Jesus was the most fully human person who ever lived.  He was so fully alive because he knew total communion with God, and he was fully present to others.  There was a radical humility about Jesus.  Everyone he met was important, someone he wanted to be with.  Jesus was never looking to move up the social ladder.  He was never trying to figure out who he could ignore because they were unimportant and didn’t matter.  Jesus was perfectly happy to sit at the last table at the banquet even if the host never saw him there and invited him to move up. 
And this radical humility of Jesus is what lay behind his radical hospitality.  Because everyone he met was important to him, he saw them deeply.  For Jesus, no one was ever a faceless “them.”  They were all fellow human beings who needed his help.  Sometimes they needed healing; sometimes they needed correction, but no one was faceless and invisible to him.  And when we squirm hearing Jesus tell us to invite the poor, the lame, and the blind to our dinner parties, in part it is because we realize that many of those folks are indeed invisible to us, a faceless “them.”
No doubt most of you are aware of the furor surrounding plans to build an Islamic Community Center near Ground Zero in NYC.  I hesitate to wander into this minefield, but I think it has something to teach us about humility and hospitality.  Beyond the misinformation about a mosque at Ground Zero when it is a community center open to the general public containing a mosque 2 blocks from Ground Zero, I understand the emotions behind this issue.  I understand that reasonable people can disagree about how close is too close for a big new development. But listening to conversations on the issue, one thing has become clear to me.  Many of us view Muslims as a nameless, faceless “them.”  We don’t look into individual eyes and see hurts, pains, hopes, dreams and want to reach out.  We just see a “them.”
That’s not what Jesus called us to do and be.  When Muslims as a group are made outcasts and demonized, then they are precisely the people Jesus calls us to reach out to.  For Jesus, every human being deserves to encounter God’s love.  For Jesus, even his enemy deserves God’s love.  And as the body of Christ, we are called to show that love.  But we can’t love the world in general.  We embody Christ’s love by seeing others as he saw them, by reaching out to them as he did.
In a few moments we will celebrate an infant baptism.  It will be a wonderful, joyous moment.  But it will also be a small, first step in doing what Jesus called us to do, helping people become his disciples by teaching all that he commanded.  And so we must be a school of love, a school of radical humility and hospitality, a school that teaches the way of Jesus. 
So here’s your homework, I want you to pay attention to the people around you, on the sidewalk, at the store, beside you at the traffic light, at work, in the school cafeteria.  I especially want you to notice those who are others, who are different, who you might label “them.”  Perhaps it’s the unpopular kid at school who others tease, the person of different ethnic background or social status, the person who is a lot older or younger, the person whose eyes you normally try to avoid.  I want you to look into their eyes and see the joy and the pain, the hopes and the rejections, the dreams and the wounds.  See the fellow children of God who just may need you to reach out if they are to experience some real, tangible sign of God’s love.
I know this is a difficult homework assignment for a lot of us.  But it’s actually a beginner’s lesson, not nearly so difficult as inviting “them” home for a meal as Jesus instructs us.  But if even this beginner lesson seems a challenge, don’t despair.  This school of love goes on for a lifetime. And were all here, and the Spirit is here, to help one another in our lessons.
Thanks be to God.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - The Authority of Scripture

Our local paper, The Columbus Dispatch, has an article this morning on the split occurring in the Lutheran Church as more conservative congregations break off from the ELCA to form a new denomination.  Such a story is hardly surprising.  We Presbyterians have our own, similar movements.  But just once when I read about such things, I would like to hear someone say, "We disagree over the meaning of Scripture, and so it seems best to stop fighting over that and form separate groups."  But instead the quotes normally read like the one in today's article.  Explaining that the split was over bigger issues that gay/lesbian ordination, a spokesperson for the new NALC said, "Also at play is a misunderstanding of what authority - Scripture or 'the mood of the times' - should guide the church."

In today's reading from Acts, we are in the middle of the account explaining how Peter comes to understand that distinctions of clean and unclean do not matter for those following Christ.  While many current Christians are unaware of it, welcoming Gentiles into what was a Jewish faith community caused serious divisions in the early Christian movement.  Jewish Christians continued to follow Torah, and saw no reason for Gentile converts to do otherwise.  Those who would become part of the Jesus movement would need to become Jews, with males being circumcised, women undergoing a ritual cleansing, and both observing the dietary laws.

But the Apostle Paul saw things differently.  He championed the view that emerges in the Acts story about Cornelius.  Those Gentiles who accepted Jesus' gospel were to be baptized and welcomed into the faith as Gentiles.  The old distinctions were gone.  Problem was, the Jewish Christians claimed to have Scripture (which at that time meant what we call the Old Testament) on their side.  The division in the early Church was severe, and many believe that Jewish Christians orchestrated the arrest and eventual execution of Paul.  And I have little doubt that these Jewish Christians were certain that they were following the authority of Scripture, unlike this crazy Paul who was coming up with all these wild innovations that threatened their deeply held faith.  In other words, they followed the plain truth of Scripture while Paul perverted it.

Interestingly, similar arguments were used 150 years ago in defense of slavery.  Many theologians and church people, both north and south, were convinced that slavery was sanctioned and supported by the Bible.  Thomas Cobb, one of the founders of the University of Georgia Law School wrote in large letters on his home when SC seceded from the Union, "Resistance To Abolition Is Obedience to God." 

In the novel Nellie Norton: or, Southern Slavery and the Bible, (written by a Protestant clergyman and published in 1864) the title character is a young, naive New England girl who believes slavery to be a cruel abomination.  But on a visit to Savannah with her mother, through encounters with slaves and discussions with Southerners, she comes to realize how wrong she has been.  After all, as the pro-slavery people she meet point out, "The Bible is a pro-slavery Bible and God is a pro-slavery God."  Also, "The North must give up the Bible and religion or adopt our views of slavery."

And there it is, the same tired argument.  Those who disagree with me have thrown out the Bible.  To borrow from the Lutheran bishop quoted in my local paper, they have traded the authority of Scripture for the "mood of the times."

Sometimes I think it no small miracle that the Christian faith survives and thrives.  How many times have people of deep faith been found to be standing squarely in opposition to God?  And apparently they have had good company all the way back to the very first generation of Jesus followers.

Sometimes I wonder if we haven't gotten this Bible thing completely wrong.  Rather than trying the follow the Bible, maybe we would be better served if we simply tried to catch a glimpse of the God hinted at by all the various stories, rules, songs, and accounts.  Maybe we would be much better off if we quit trying to find support for our views, and simply tried to get to know Jesus a little better.  Maybe if we spent more of our time trying to know Jesus more deeply, trying to draw nearer to him, we'd all be a lot less sure that we know exactly what he'd say about every hot button issue of the day.

Click here to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Room for Faith

By nature I tend to be something of a control freak.  This is often a real liability as a pastor, stifling the efforts of other leaders in the church.  And it also poses a deeper, spiritual problem.  It gets in the way of true faith.  Faith is about trusting something outside myself, trusting God.  By definition that means giving up control.  Richard Rohr's daily meditations this week focus on the theme of paradox, and today's piece spoke to this problem of giving up control.

So when we speak of paradox, I’m trying to open up that space where you can “fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31), because YOU are not in control.  That is always the space of powerlessness, vulnerability, and letting go.  Faith happens in that wonderful place, and hardly ever when we have all the power and can hold no paradoxes.  Thus you see why faith will invariably be a minority and suspect position.  (Click here to read the entire meditation.)

 As I think about my own difficulty giving up control, I wonder about Rohr's comment on faith always being "a minority and suspect position."  Indeed our culture mitigates powerfully against faith as an absolute trust in God.  Many speak of America as a Christian nation, but we trust our security not to the LORD who "builds up Jerusalem" (see today's Psalm) but to a massive military complex.  In faith the psalmist can sing, "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea."  (Psalm 46)  Yet fear drives much of American life.  We fear terrorists, those who are different from us, those who disagree with us, etc.

If letting go and discovering faith is indeed a minority position, then perhaps the most faithful thing those who would embrace faith can do is to make a powerful minority witness.  I say I am, or at least strive to be, a person of faith.  And so I will strive to be a person who is not afraid, who discovers joy in turning over my fears to God, and who learns to live without needing to control.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Yet More Holy Conversations

I while back I wrote for several days running about Scripture engaging us in holy conversation rather than being a set of absolute rules and edicts.  Today's reading from Job draws me back to these thoughts. 

One of the problems with treating the Bible as some sort of divine reference set is that it requires very selective reading of the Bible to maintain such a view.  There are many devout Christians who, when they undergo great pain and suffering, wonder what they have done to deserve it.  They presume that their struggles are related to being out of favor with God.  Such a notion will find plenty of support in the Bible.  The book of Deuteronomy is littered with the phrase "so that it may go well with you," this going well always a byproduct of keeping God's commandments.  But to Deuteronomy's theological certainty that God's blessing and curse springs directly from how one keeps the Law, Job raises its voice to say, "Now wait just a minute!" 

Job is good and righteous.  Even God says so.  Yet Job is visited with all sorts of horrible pain and suffering.  And contrary to quaint sayings about the patience of Job, the Job found in the book bearing his name rues the day he was born, shakes his fist at God and demands an explanation for how it is he can suffer so despite being a righteous man.

The book of Job stands as a kind of protest, a minority report if you will, over and against the more accepted theology behind Deuteronomy.  And unless we are willing to say that one book is right and the other wrong, then it seems to me that we should say that Scripture itself is engaged in a conversation about the nature and shape of faithful life, a conversation in which we are called to become partners.

Click here to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Sunday Sermon - Playing Christians

Monday, August 23, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Eat Me

I receive a daily meditation via email from Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest who founded something called "The Center for Action and Contemplation" in Albuquerque, NM.  (If you are interested you can sign up to receive these emails by clicking here.) In last Friday's meditation, he used some very provocative language, drawing on St. Bernard of Clairvaux's  commentary of Song of Songs. 
He said that we are the mutual food of one another, just as lovers are.  Jesus gives us himself as food in the Eucharist, and the willing soul offers itself for God to “eat” in return: “if I eat and am not eaten, it will seem that God is in me, but I am not yet in God” (Commentary 71:5).  I must both eat God and be eaten by God, Bernard says.  Now this is the language of mystical theology, and is upsetting to the merely rational mind, but utterly delightful and consoling to anyone who knows the experience.
This is strange language to my ear, but not really any stranger than the language Jesus uses in today's verses from John.  "Those who eat my flesh  and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the  last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them." 

Neither "eating" nor "abiding" are the sort of thing I learned growing up in the church.  Of course I heard both words used in terms of the Lord's Supper and in terms of God present to us by faith, but this never had the visceral sort of feel I get from hearing Jesus or Bernard.

Modern Christians in the West have often made faith a mostly head thing.  This is even more true of  Presbyterians.  So where do we encounter God on a more visceral, incarnational level?  For us "from-the-neck-up" Presbyterians, how do we worship in a way that helps people meet a God who doesn't remain a disembodied concept, but who, in Jesus, gets involved in the mundane, profane, messiness of human existence? 

Click here to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Sunday Sermon - Playing Christians

Sunday Sermon - Playing Christians

Luke 13:10-17
Playing Christians
James Sledge               --              August 22, 2010

We Presbyterians, like other Protestants, are products of a 500 year old reform movement that said individual Christians should read the Bible for themselves, that God is available to each of us directly through Scripture.  But we live in a day when many Protestants rarely read their Bibles, and so polls show that most of us cannot name the 10 Commandments.  Still, I imagine that this one will sound familiar to many of you.  Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.
Sabbath is a pretty big deal in the Bible.  It’s there at the very start.
 In the first creation account, God makes everything in six days and rests on the seventh.  But apparently, Sabbath keeping didn’t become a really big deal for the Hebrews until they were carried off into exile in Babylon around 600 BC.  In a foreign land, the Temple and Jerusalem destroyed, Sabbath keeping became the primary way Jews maintained a distinct identity.  In Babylon, synagogue and Sabbath became the way that Israel preserved their faith and stayed close to God.
By Jesus’ time, there was a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem.  People could go there for religious festivals and to make offerings.  But synagogue and Sabbath remained important.  Especially for those Jews who thought Temple worship sometimes focused too much on ritual and not enough on living as God intended, Sabbath keeping, along with the commandments in general, was emphasized. 
Protestant reformers such as John Calvin shared a lot in common with these folks.  They thought that much of medieval Catholicism had become too focused on ritual and not enough on living as followers of Jesus.  And so Protestants tended to forego much of the ritual of Roman Catholic worship.  They also emphasized Sabbath keeping, now relocated from Saturday to Sunday, the day of the Lord’s resurrection.
I grew up in a thoroughly Protestant South where Catholics were something of a rarity.  And our world shut down on Sunday.  I almost never heard the sound of a lawn mower on a Sunday afternoon.  And I still find it difficult to crank up my lawn mower on a Sunday.
The Sabbath keeping I knew as a child has largely faded from the American landscape, but it is enjoying a resurgence as a personal spiritual practice.  Many who are seeking to grow deeper spiritually, including some who are neither Jewish nor Christian, have discovered observing a regular day where the work and busyness of our world is set aside, where the focus is on God, on worship, on meditation and reflection, is a powerfully renewing, enlightening, and energizing thing to do.
Jesus himself observed the Sabbath.  He could regularly be found at the synagogue on the Sabbath, teaching as a traveling rabbi.  But Jesus also regularly found himself embroiled in conflict on the Sabbath, just as he does in our reading today when he heals a crippled woman.
Jesus ran afoul of the Sabbath rules, guidelines that had been formulated to help people properly keep Sabbath.  We sometimes misunderstand these rules, seeing them as petty legalism that valued rules over all else, but that really wasn’t the case.  These rules had all sorts of exceptions.  You could do work on the Sabbath to rescue a person or animal in danger.  But if the situation was something that could wait until sundown when the Sabbath ended, you were supposed to wait, the intent being to help people keep their focus on God.
But as well intended as the Sabbath rules were, they shared a problem inherent in just about every form of religious practice.  Practices originally designed to draw people close to God almost inevitably become the focus of the religion.  Even if they no longer serve their original purpose, people will persist in these practices, insisting that they are essential to the faith.  And that’s as true for us as it was for the leader of the synagogue who confronts Jesus.
That synagogue leader saw Jesus violating rules that had served the faith well, that were time honored methods for helping people keep God at the center of their lives.  And so he could not see God at work right before his eyes.  The very thing he trusted to keep him focused on God had, in fact, hidden God from him.
It can happen just as easily to us.  If you grew up in the church, you grew up with some sort of worship style.  You heard certain sorts of hymns and prayers.  Whatever sorts they were, they were originally meant to draw you into God’s presence.  And they have done and continue to do just that for many people.  But a style from a certain time can become a barrier to folks from another time unfamiliar with that style.  It can actually obscure God for them.  And when we decide that a particular worship style, a particular sort of music, a particular way of praying is the right way, we have begun the process of enshrining our way as an idol, forgetting that worship is about drawing near to God, encountering God, not about our tastes.  And this is not a matter of old versus new.  New styles of worship are as prone to this as old.
I think that a great deal of younger generations’ current apathy about the Church is because they see much about us that looks like that synagogue leader’s insistence on a time honored form or Sabbath keeping.  We seem more focused on what we’ve always done than on God. Often, that is a valid criticism of we churchy types. 
Those who have had it with churchy types whom they see as more concerned with going to church than being the church, will sometimes throw Jesus’ Sabbath fights back in our faces, telling us that we’ve perverted Church.  They say, “You should call off your worship services and go out and help the poor and needy.”  Perhaps they’re right.  Jesus does say that those who help the poor and needy, who visit the sick and the prisoner, who welcome the stranger, have done the same to him.
But in truth, Jesus never makes either/or distinctions between worship and serving others.  For Jesus, all of life is about drawing near to God.  Jesus regular spends time in worship and prayer, and it is his intimacy with God that impels him to demonstrate God’s love by curing the sick and embracing the sinner and the outcast. 
When Jesus responds to the synagogue leader who protests a Sabbath healing he says, “You hypocrites!”  Our word hypocrite comes to us directly from the Greek word in our gospel, hupokritai.  But the original meaning of this word is an “actor,” someone who plays a role.  And whenever our practices and traditions let us be religious without actually opening us to God and what God is up to, that’s what we are doing.  We’re playing Christians.
When you come to worship here, or any other church, do you encounter God?  Do you touch and feel the transforming, mysterious presence of the holy?  When you come to the Lord’s table, does God’s grace fill you and nourish you so that you long to share God’s love with others?  And if your answer is “No,” why do you think that is?
God is here!  The Spirit is moving in this place.  In Jesus, God seeks to connect with us, longs to connect with us.   Jesus is here, calling us to become his living body in the world.  The Spirit is here, helping us to hear Jesus’ call, and equipping us to do all that he asks.
Thanks be to God! 

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Breaking Barriers

Growing up in the Church, I heard today's reading from Acts many times.  Philip is directed by God to the Wilderness road where he meets an Ethiopian eunuch who is reading Isaiah.  Apparently this fellow is drawn to Judaism in some way as he has been to Jerusalem to worship.  The Spirit directs Philip to talk with the eunuch and the result is another Christian convert, baptized on the spot in some water beside the road.  Then Phillip, his work done, is magically whisked away.

As a child the images that caught my attention were Philip running beside the chariot, the exotic notion of an Ethiopian, and of course that moment when "the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away."  As a young child, I don't think I had any idea what a eunuch was, or why that might matter.

Eunuchs were forbidden from entering the Temple.  The Law of Moses clearly considered them unclean, right along with "those born or an illicit union."  And so this fellow Philip meets - better, who Philip is introduced to by God - has a couple of strikes against him.  He's a Gentile foreigner, and he's a eunuch.  What is to prevent him from being baptized?  Quite a lot actually.

It seems no coincidence that Isaiah is the prophet who envisions a new day when the foreigner and the eunuch will be welcomed, when the old religious barriers will be gone.  And this story in Acts announces that this promised day has arrived.  The Kingdom, God's Dream, the Beloved Community has broken into this world, and it is made visible in the life of the Church as those formerly excluded are now called brothers and sisters.

The image of Philip being snatched away by the Spirit of the Lord seemed wildly incredible to me as a child.  But I have come to realize that even more wildly incredible is when the Spirit helps Christians to see every one they meet as brothers and sisters, those whom God loves and calls us to love in order for the Beloved Community to be seen by all.

Click here to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Scarce Resources

Right now I'm following a discussion on Twitter about the future of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and a lot of the conversation is related to scarce resources.  Strands in the conversation include how older pastors are being encouraged to retire later by the Board of Pensions, which of course makes it harder for new pastors to find positions.  There is also a strand about how we keep funding church camps, often at the expense of New Church Developments (NCDs).  Many younger pastors - quite rightly, I think - see NCDs as essential, but often people my age and older have great memories of their days at church camp, and so they vote to fund camps out of these nostalgic feelings.

When resources are scare, the question of how to allocate them is always difficult.  Many congregation, many families, and many governments are struggling with what to cut and what to retain.  All of which makes today's gospel reading of more than passing interest to me.  It's one of the several accounts of Jesus feeding a huge crowd with just a few morsels of food.  In today's account from John's gospel, Andrew responds to Jesus' question about how they would feed the crowd with, "There is a boy here who has five  barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?"

What are our meager resources in the face of such great needs?

There are two very different ways of understanding the stories of Jesus feeding the multitudes.  One insists it is a full blown miracle.  Jesus multiplies the few loaves and fish into an abundance.  Another view sees the story as a miracle of sharing.  Lots of folks in the crowd had food with them, but kept it hidden until Jesus began to share the boy's small offering.  When everyone shared, there was more than enough.

I'm inclined to view the second understanding as a modern, rationalist view of the story.  But I also think that the bigger issue is not which interpretation is correct, but whether we can act like either interpretation is true.  Can we trust that we have enough between us to do everything Jesus is calling us to do?  Or can we trust that Jesus will provide everything we need when we do what he calls us to do?  Seems to me that how we act looks very much the same whichever understanding of the story we believe, as long as we act out of trust.

None of this answers the question of whether to give funding priority to NCDs over church camps.  I think that is a question of call.  Is Jesus calling the Presbyterian Church to maintain its camps, or to start new faith communities that help 21st Century people learn to be Jesus' disciples?  (The way I frame this question betrays my answer.)  But I am convinced that when we are doing what Jesus calls us to do, there will be enough, and then some.

Click here to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Us vs. Them

I mentioned yesterday how the early Christians thought of themselves as Jewish.  That means that the stoning of Stephen in yesterday's reading and the "severe persecution" against the church in today's verses are struggles of us versus us, not us versus them.  Nearly 2000 years later, Christians are accustomed to thinking of Jews as them, but that simply was not the case for the first generation of Jesus' followers.

I don't suppose battles of us versus us should be all that surprising.  If you look at our current political situation, or at the state of the church, the worst fights are often internal ones.  Republicans may want to view Democrats as them and Democrats do the same to Republicans, but of course we are all Americans, all the same us.  And we Christians can be our own worst enemies.  We demonize those who disagree with us in theology or practice.  We try to turn them into a them, but the fact is we are all imperfect, flawed followers of Jesus, all the same us.

We humans seem to need enemies.  We need an us that we can be against.  But Jesus comes breaking down all those us-them barriers.  He is scary to the authorities precisely because he upsets this status quo of us and them.  Worse, he calls his followers to mimic him, to reach out to them, to love them.  Jesus tells us to love our enemies.  Surely this is the ultimate undoing of us versus them.

Given this, it seems unimaginable that the Church would engage in hate, that we would want to label this group or that group a them.  But of course we do.  Sometimes it seems that we are so busy being the Church or being Christians that we forget to be followers of Jesus.  We forget that "God so loved the world," which seems to draw a pretty big circle labeled "us." 

Click here to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Resisting the Spirit

I'm back in the office after attending the wonderful "Church Unbound" conference in Montreat, NC. The very notion that the Church is bound in some way is an intriguing one. It says that we are chained, confined, or constricted in some way that keeps us from being the people God calls us to be. It says that we need to be set loose from something in order to answer our calling to be followers of Jesus.

Of course most of us are not all that keen on admitting that we are bound. Addicts resist admitting that their addiction controls them in some way. Micro managers often can't see the abilities of others because they can't let anyone else control anything. And all of us get stuck in ruts without realizing it.

The Church has these problems along with another.  We often assume that the things we do are somehow divinely ordained.  I've heard people say, "It isn't really worship without a pipe organ."  Of course pipe organs didn't exist for much of Church history, and most American congregations didn't have such organs until the early 20th century.

We all have our own preferences when it comes to worship style, mission emphases, fellowship events, and so on.  But what happens when our preferences get in the way of being the body of Christ?  And if we confuse our preferences with "how it is supposed to be," what then? 

In today's reading in Acts, Stephen's trial comes to an end, and he is stoned to death.  In that trial he accuses his accusers.  "You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you  are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to  do."  Stephen was a leader in the new movement that sprung up after Jesus' death and resurrection.  This movement did not consider itself something separate from Judaism, but an integral part of it.  But what they were doing looked and felt different and new.  And this offended the religious sensibilities of some.  This wasn't "how it was supposed to be."  Therefore it was wrong and needed to be stopped before it caused too much trouble. 

Any time we resist something new that the Spirit is doing, we are bound by our expectations of how things should be.  Our "shoulds" become God, in a sense, become idols which bind us and keep us from following where Jesus calls.  What is binding you?

Click here to learn more about the Daily Lectionary

Friday, August 13, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Concepts of God

In one of the Church Unbound sessions this morning, Brian McLaren quoted or, more likely, paraphrased William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury who died in 1944.  "If our concept of God is flawed, the more we worship the worse off we are.  We would be better off as atheists."  Where do we get our concept of God, and how do we know if it is flawed?  Most Protestants would say we check our Bibles, but I'm not so sure that's a simply task.

Today's readings may illustrate my point.  In one we hear a portion of the Samson stories about a warrior strongman who doesn't look all that different from Hercules.  In Acts we hear a recitation of the Exodus story, of  Moses being prepared to help lead Israel from slavery.  And then in John we see Jesus healing a royal official's son (from a distance) as a "sign."  So we have a strongman who "judges" Israel, a story of rescue from slavery, and a healing.  In the first, Samson doles out his share of death and destruction to Israel's enemies, presumably with God's blessings.  Then we hear of how God works to rescue Israel from bondage under the royal power of Egypt.  Finally we see Jesus who uses no weapons, but threatens the power of Rome by calling people to believe in him, to entrust themselves to a power other than the Emperor.

So the question arises, "Is God a god of violence who visits destruction on our enemies; is God a god who rescues the slave from the oppressor; or is God a god who heals and calls people to abandon traditional loyalties to nation or empire and become citizens of God's reign?"  

I won't for a moment pretend that these are the only three choices for a concept of God.  Nor will I suggest that all concepts of God are mutually exclusive.  But some concepts are.

A different question may be a way of getting at your concept of God.  "What is Christianity's primary message and purpose?"  The way you answer this question says a lot about your concept of God.  To look at one possible answer, if Christianity is supposed to provide a means of escape from this evil world and this messy, bodily existence, what does that say about God's relationship to God's creation?  If God is intent on destroying sinners and the earth, what does that say about the nature of God?

What do you think is the Christian faith's primary message and purpose?  Where did you learn that?  Things to ponder...

Click here to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Church Unbound

I'm in Montreat, NC for the next few days at the Church Unbound conference.  Brian McLaren is a presenter so the conference will clearly have an "emergent" flavor.  In thinking about emerging Christianity and the Church being unbound, I was struck by a line in today's gospel from John.  It's part of the "Samaritan woman at the well" story.  The disciples have been away while Jesus has talked with the woman about living water.  "Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was  speaking with a woman."

I'm not sure we appreciate the shock of the disciples.  Rabbis did not teach or talk to women, not to mention a Samaritan woman.  In a world filled with boundaries, this woman was on the outside, and Jesus' crossing of that boundary was nothing short of scandalous. 

All religions create boundaries.  Perhaps they can be helpful at times, but Jesus went out of his way to cross them.  The religious boundaries that accrue over the years often become so much a part of the landscape that we don't actually see them, and so we are astonished when someone crosses one. 

The Church has lots of boundaries, many of them simply presumed to be the way things are, the same way the disciples presumed that Jesus shouldn't talk to a Samaritan woman.  And when boundaries become presumed, so taken for granted that they are like the air we breath, we don't even know they are there.  At least we don't until someone violates them.

What are the boundaries that are constraining the Church, that we must throw off if we are to be the body of Christ to the world?  One thing is certain, we will take offense when some of those boundaries are questioned or crossed, even when those boundaries are the very thing binding Church and Gospel.

Click here to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Religious Certainty

In a new N. Graham Standish book I'm reading he talks about conflict in churches over worship.  As he discussed why worship and worship styles often leads to conflict, he said something about Baby Boomers tending to be ideological and thus prone to conflict.  Some researchers say that we Boomers tend to be narcissistic and have a very strong sense of our values being right, which of course means that others' values are wrong.

I don't know if this helps explain the deepening partisan divide in our country or not, but it may well contribute to it.  And the same sort of divisions are apparent in churches and denominations.  Of course Boomers are not the only ones who arrogantly conclude that their take on things has to be the correct one.  We all have values that we presume to be valid that will cause us to react against things that challenge those values.

The same was true of the Jewish leaders described in today's reading in Acts.  There is an unfortunate tendency to view the opponents of Jesus and his followers as cartoon villains rather than a mix of people with varying motives.  Some of them were only interested in preserving the status quo, but others were people of deep faith who were doing what they felt certain was the right thing to do.

Acts reports an interesting word of warning spoken by one of these Jewish authorities, a certain Gamaliel.  Gamaliel warned the other authorities against executing the leaders of the fledgling Jesus movement saying, "Keep away from these men and  let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human  origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able  to overthrow them - in that case you may even be found fighting  against God!"

I wonder how often we religious folks, acting out of our religious convictions, end up fighting against God.  If only every religious (and political) group had a few Gamaliels around to remind us of this.

Click here to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Sunday Sermon video - Investing in God's Dream

Spiritual Hiccups - Church in Decline

In today's reading in Acts, the Church is shown adding new believers right and left despite a general fear of persecution.  Today we find ourselves in a very different situation.  The Church is losing members right and left.  This seems to be the case by most any measure, whether it be the membership statistics of denominations, worship attendance figures from congregations, or polling statistics that show fewer and fewer Americans participating in the life of any congregation.

Interestingly, I occasionally hear people blame this decline on our culture's hostility to the Church, citing things such as "removing prayer from schools."   But even the most vocal advocates for America as a full-fledged, Christian nation would never argue that US Christians face the sort of hostility reported in the book of Acts.  No one gets arrested for saying, "Jesus is Lord."  In fact, state legislatures routinely invite local pastors to offer prayers, and pastors and Bibles are regular attendees at presidential inaugurations.  So why is it that the Church in Acts is growing while so many American congregations are declining?

I think a clue may be found in the language used by many Christians to describe the situation.  A great deal of angry words from Christians lament our loss of prominence and power in the society.  Such language seems to think of power as something that can be bestowed or removed by the culture.  But the power the Church displays in Acts is present despite all attempts of cultural authorities to stamp it out.  Where is that sort of power in our churches today?

It is an interesting contrast.  The Church of the First Century had no official powers, no legitimizing endorsements from the culture, but it was alive with divine power.  The Church of our day is accustomed to walking the halls of cultural power, to being propped up and supported by the culture, but often we seem dead when it comes to spiritual power.  And I'm pretty sure that no official, cultural, or societal power will be able to resuscitate us.

Click here to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Sunday Sermon - Investing in God's Dream

Sunday Sermon - Investing in God's Dream

Text of Sunday Sermon - Investing in God's Dream

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 & Luke 12:32-40
Investing in God’s Dream
James Sledge                                                        August 8, 2010

I recently ordered a book by a Presbyterian pastor about helping people encounter the Holy in worship.  The opening chapter began with this little anecdote. 
One Sunday morning, a mother went upstairs to her son’s room to wake him for church.  Slowly opening the door, as it softly squealed in protest, she said, “Dear, it’s time to get up.  It’s time to go to church.”  The son grumbled and rolled over.  Ten minutes later his mother again went up, opened the door, and said, “Dear, get up.  It’s time to go to church.”  He moaned and curled up tighter under the blankets, warding off the morning chill.  Five minutes later she yelled, “Son! Get up!”  His voice muffled by the blankets, he yelled back, “I don’t want to go to church!”  “You have to go to church!” she replied.  “Why?  Why do I have to go to church?” he protested.
The mother stepped back, paused, and said, “Three reasons.  First, it’s Sunday morning, and on Sunday mornings we go to church.  Second, you’re forty years old, and you’re too old be having this conversation with your mother.  Third, you’re the pastor of the church.”[1]
The book’s author tells this story to highlight the ambivalence many pastors feel about worship.  A lot of pastors enjoy preaching and enjoy teaching but find worship unsatisfying. 
When I did my seminary internship, the pastor of that church was getting fairly close to retirement.  And he told me one day that when he retired he would likely not attend worship anywhere for a year or so.
I was too surprised by this admission to ask him to explain exactly what he meant.  I presume that he still planned to pray, to read the Bible, to serve God in some way.  But for some reason he wasn’t going to attend any worship services.
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices, says Yahweh… Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile… I cannot endure your solemn assemblies with iniquity.  Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.  Seems God can be more than a little ambivalent about worship, too.
Now granted our worship is quite different from that of the ancient Hebrews.  No animals are slaughtered; we pay little attention to the cycles of the moon; nothing is burned.  Yet I think fundamentally, our worship has much in common with those Israelites.  For many of us, worship is something that we do to help maintain our standing with a distant, far-off God, a God who is not much involved in our daily lives.
I know that’s not true for everyone.  Some of you experience God as very active and present in your life.  But on the whole, I’m not sure Presbyterians act like this is so, and the Church’s worship has not acted like it either. 
Perhaps I can clarify by asking a few questions.  Who is Jesus?  What was his message?  Why did he travel about the Judean countryside healing, teaching, and gathering followers? 
Very often, people answer such questions in terms of Jesus as Savior, the one whose death somehow rescued us.  And more often than not, this rescue is understood in terms of going to heaven.  In other words, a far-off God in a far-off heaven rescues us from this messed up earth and our limited bodily existence for something better, somewhere else.
Yet Jesus speaks of God’s kingdom not as something far-off, but present.  Both Jesus and Isaiah speak of God as extremely concerned about the earthly plight of human beings, and Jesus speaks of a kingdom that has already begun to emerge in his ministry, and which we are called to be a part of now.
Unfortunately, the Church has too often lost sight of this, has thought in terms of a far-off God and so has confused the Kingdom of God with heaven.  When that happens, religious focus becomes other-worldly and more about beliefs and status than about God’s dream for a new earth.  It is about whether we believe the right things about this far-off God so we can get into that far-off heaven.
But over and over Jesus tells us to get ready for the coming kingdom here and now.  Jesus begins his ministry by calling people to repent, to turn around and change direction because the kingdom of God has come near.  Jesus does not come to rescue us from earth but to proclaim the good news that God will not abandon creation.  God wants to restore and redeem creation, and Jesus calls us to begin living in new ways, ways that conform to that new day.  And so when Jesus speaks of selling possessions to help others and having treasure in heaven, he’s not talking about reserving spots in a far-off heaven.  He’s talking about investing ourselves now in God’s dream for the world. 
When God is in some far-off heaven and Jesus comes to take us there, his parable about alert slaves ready for the master’s return is usually understood to speak of death.  You never know when you might die, so you’d better have things in order.  But Jesus is talking about the Kingdom, God’s new day. 
Early this year, we began the Appreciative Inquiry process here at Boulevard, which gave birth to our Dream Team which is now giving birth to the groups and activities described in the Dream Team material in your bulletin.  When the Dream Team first began to talk with members and to listen for how our strengths helped us hear where God is calling us, I was intrigued by what emerged.  There was interest in more small groups and more community involvement, but in concert with these was a desire to grow spiritually and to do mission.
Now spirituality and mission can be pretty vague terms and can mean lots of things to lots of different people.  But to my mind, spirituality is all about drawing closer to God.  Spirituality presumes that God is not far-off in some distant heaven, but that God is present to us, available to us.  And the Dream Team seems to have tapped into a hunger we have to connect better with God, with Jesus.  And this cannot help but connect us with what God wants and what God is doing.  Deep spirituality gives us eyes to see God’s coming new day.
And when we see it, we long for it, for things to be set right.  To use the biblical term, we hunger and thirst for righteousness.  And so we begin to work for things to be set right.  We begin to invest in God’s future, to give our money and time and energy to mission that reveals that coming new day to others.  Yes, poverty, hunger, violence, hatred, and oppression can seem intractable problems, and it is easy to become frustrated, to trade God’s new day for belief in a far-off God who rescues us for some far-off heaven.  But when we drawn near to the Master, as we experience his transforming love in our lives, we know he is at work here.  We know he is bringing that new day, that the Kingdom will break through when we least expect it.
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  Jesus is calling us to find our places in that Kingdom, to invest ourselves now in God’s dream for a new day.  Where is God calling you to be a part of it?

[1] N. Graham Standish, In God’s Presence: Encountering, Experiencing, and Embracing the Holy in Worship (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2010), 9.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Expectations

Many of us are familiar with the phrase "from the wrong side of the tracks."  In the South where I grew up, you could see this quite literally in some small towns.  A train track often bisected the town, and it was pretty obvious that there was a more desirable side and a side that was less so.  Jesus was from that side.

In today's gospel reading,  Jesus is gathering followers.  He calls Philip who in turn recruits Nathanael.  When he tells Nathanael that they have found the promised Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, Nathanael replies, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"  Fortunately Nathanael went with Philip to see for himself.

It is nearly impossible to go through life without developing ideas about how things are.  Such notions are necessary for organizing our lives, but they are also problematic at times.  These notions let us make quick judgments and respond quickly.  They allow us to look at an array of choices and quickly refine the list down to manageable size.  But as necessary as they are, they often mislead us, and when the become fixed and rigid, they form prejudices of all shapes and sizes.

Our notions of how things are lead to expectations.  When someone says she's a lawyer, people already have a set of expectations about what kind of person this is.  When I tell someone I'm a pastor, I can often see the wheels his head turning and those expectations registering.  Often I engage in a preemptive strike of sorts, quickly clarifying that I may not be the sort of pastor they expect.  And I when people find out I drive a motorcycle, some of them have great difficulty reconciling that with their expectations.

Most of us have expectations of lawyers or pastors that aren't really accurate for large numbers of either group.  And I suspect that most of us have notions and expectations about Jesus that aren't terribly accurate either.  Jesus is an extremely well known figure in our society, but people seem to know a lot of different Jesuses.  There is meek and mild Jesus, Jewish rabbi Jesus, kindly healing Jesus, sword wielding warrior Jesus, and more.  Often these different Jesuses have little in common with any pictures of Jesus we find in the Bible.  They are more the result of what different people are hoping for.  Very often Jesus becomes the embodiment of our expectations about God.  Jesus becomes the embodiment of our religious hopes, dreams, fears, and frustrations.

But if the Bible is clear about anything, it is clear that God is not like us, that God acts in ways that are not our ways.  And so it would seem impossible that God would not regularly defy our expectations, act contrary to those expectations, and seek to transform those expectations so that we become more like God.

Click here to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.