Thursday, September 30, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Literalism, Relativism, and Being Nice

Today's gospel reading is an easy text with which to attack biblical literalism.  Jesus' disciples harvest grain (albeit a tiny amount), and then they do a quick threshing operation to separate wheat from chaff.  Both actions appear to be violations of working on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees call them on it.  Jesus' primary defense is not all that compelling.  "Don't you remember that David broke the rules, too?"  Clearly this business of following biblical rules is complicated, and requires interpretation.

But as easy as it is to dismiss biblical literalism, we mainline Christians often fall into a kind of relativism that reduces the faith to something along the lines of "Believe in God and be nice."  Nothing terribly wrong with either of these, but neither is there anything terribly significant.  It's a little hard to imagine the risen Jesus commissioning his followers, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations by teaching them to be nice."

The problem with biblical literalism is that it tends to substitute a text, or some portion of a text ,for the living, dynamic God.  And it presumes that a relationship with this God can somehow be reduced to a one-size-fits-all set of instructions. 

But if relationship with God is too complicated for an easy, neat, fit-every-situation set of instructions, that does not reduce the remaining choices to "Be nice."  Consider the task of living in relationship with a spouse.  There might not be an absolute set of rules that fit every situation, but long term, committed relationships require agreed upon standards of behavior if the relationship is to survive. 

I come out of a stream of the Christian faith that has not tended toward literalism, and I personally find it overly simplistic, intellectually dishonest, and ultimately deadening to mature faith.  But literalism is not the threat to my stream of Christianity.  Thinking that following Jesus involves little more than believing a few things and "being nice" is.

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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Parental Love and Fairness

Over the years I had a few encounters with parents who cared for a special needs child.  In a couple of instances the disabilities of the child were profound, and it required tremendous amounts of time and energy from the parents.  Sometimes the sibling of this special needs child felt a bit left out.  I can only imagine what this must be like, with so much of their parents' attention focused on a brother or sister.  It would be easy to be resentful, but those I've met have generally not seemed so.  The sometimes lament their situation and are frustrated by it, but they recognize their parents are doing what they must do, what love requires.

I thought about this when I read Jesus' words in today's gospel.  The religious folks are offended - as religious folks tend to be - that Jesus is hanging out with sinners.  But Jesus insists that they need him more, saying, "I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance." 

Many Christians like to think of God in parental terms, and some are insistent about referring to God exclusively as Father.  (That this is a problem for a Trinitarian view of God is a topic for another day.)  And yet some of these same Christians seem to conceive of God in the most un-parent like way, lavishing love and blessings on those who are "right" while preparing the most dastardly punishments for those who are not.

If God is in some way a loving Father, then is stands to reason that God might be a bit like the parent of a special needs child, lavishing special love and care on those who need it more.  It isn't a matter of God loving the "good children" any less.  It's a matter of some children needing more from God if they are to live full lives. 

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Wellness and Other Strange Things

We Presbyterians don't have confessionals, and it is rare that someone comes to me to confess anything.  But we do have confession as an integral part of our worship services.  Each week, in some form or fashion, thousands of Presbyterian congregations (and other denominations) pray a prayer of confession together, have a time for silent personal confession, hear a prayer of confession offered on their behalf, or some combination thereof.  And then, we're forgiven.  "Believe the good news! In Jesus Christ you are forgiven," or something similar is said, and then we move on in the service.

I occurs to me that I've never discussed with very many people how they experience that moment.  I have heard complaints over the years that prayers of confession are "downers" accompanied by a request to drop them.  I've had people tell me they didn't think the prayer in the bulletin applied to them.  But I've never heard much about what it means or how it feels to be forgiven.

Jesus finds himself in hot water over his "Your sins are forgiven you," in our gospel reading today.  We toss around forgiveness as freely and easily as a "Hi, how are you," on Sunday morning.  But to some of the religious folks in the synagogue with Jesus, his offer of forgiveness was a huge deal, something they couldn't believe he had the authority to do.

And so Jesus heals a paralyzed man as proof of his authority.  Makes me glad no one ever challenges my authority to forgive.  Faith healings have never been my forte.  Not much likelihood of me causing a stir in the sanctuary one Sunday morning with people in awe, glorifying God, and saying, "We have seen strange things today."

I wonder what things they thought were the strangest.  Healing a paralyzed man is no small feat, but the original issue is the authority to forgive.  And for that matter, did Jesus think this paralyzed man needed forgiveness more than he needed healing?  Strange things indeed.

I think one of my own troubles with this passage is a tendency to think of God's forgiveness in terms of a category, something I have or don't.  This is often linked to notions of salvation, and so forgiveness becomes about categories of in and out.  But I'm gradually coming to see forgiveness as a wellness issue, as something that addresses addresses what ails us both individually and corporately.

When I look at my own life and the relationships I have; when I look at our society and the current state of partisan rancor, it seems that I and many others carry around with us lots of hurts and wounds, lots of grudges and enmity, and significant difficulty trusting others.  We need to protect ourselves against the other.  Sometimes this other is our enemy or opponent, and sometimes this other is someone we love.  And all these relationship problems get carried over into our relationship with God.  When we are angry at God, we often won't admit it.  We feel the need to hide parts of ourselves from God for self protection. 

And so all of us desperately need forgiveness.  Not the "You're forgiven and now on God's good side" sort of forgiveness, but the restored relationship with God and others sort of forgiveness.  We all desperately need this sort of healing forgiveness that frees us to be more fully alive, that frees us to discover deep joy in loving God, self, and others.

Jesus said to those questioning his authority to forgive, "Which is easier, to say, 'Your sins are  forgiven you,' or to say, 'Stand up and walk'?"  Strange things indeed.

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Monday, September 27, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - God as Wounded Lover

How does God feel about the state of human affairs?  What does God think about a world that is filled with war, where some are fabulously wealthy while others starve, where even in a rich country such as America, thousands of children live in poverty and receive a substandard education that will leave them trapped in poverty?  How does God feel about a world that sees less and less need for God, that "believes" in God without that impacting people's behavior one whit?

One might expect God to be angry.  Indeed many religious traditions speak of an angry God who stands ready to punish, who doesn't blink an eye over sending people into eternal torment.

Certainly God is angry in today's Old Testament reading from Hosea.  It is the anger of a lover who has been betrayed.  God is the faithful husband who has lavished gifts on a beloved, yet that beloved has sought other lovers.  In pain and anguish, God threatens to lash out at this unfaithful spouse.

But then comes a most surprising turn.  Out of God's woundedness comes an improbable therefore.  "Therefore, I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. From there I will give her  her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. There she  shall respond as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she  came out of the land of Egypt."  Though God is the injured party, though God is the one who has been wronged, God woos Israel.  God seeks to fan the flames of love and restore the passion that has been lost.

This is what God does in Jesus.  God's anger, God's upset at human folly and waywardness, at our continual chasing after things more alluring than God, issues forth in the surprising "therefore" of the cross.  It is heard in Jesus' longing as he weeps over Jerusalem.

God as wounded lover is an image that needs to be claimed especially by the Church.  For it is in the Church that God is most especially wounded.  Those who have never known any sort of relationship with God cannot wound God in quite the same manner we can.  For we are those who profess our love, but then sneak off to cavort with other lovers.  Yet even for us, God says, "I will allure you.  I will speak tenderly to you, so that we may once again know that love where each of us had eyes only for the other."

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Preaching Thoughts on a Non-Preaching Sunday

On those Sundays when I am not preaching and hear rather than speak a sermon, I often find myself wondering what I would have done with the same scripture verses.  One hazard of being a pastor is the difficulty of listening to another's sermon without critiquing.  But besides that, I often make judgments about the scripture itself.  Sometimes it is, "Boy, I wish those verses had showed up when I was preaching."  Other times it is, "I'm glad someone else had to wrestle with that."

Today is somewhere in between.  On the one had, Luke 16's parable of the rich man and Lazarus 16 is rich with sermon possibilities.  But on the other hand, the text speaks a message that may not be all that palatable.  And so this is also a text that often gets domesticated.

Like Mary's Magnificat earlier in Luke's gospel, this parable speaks of a radical reversal, of the poor lifted up and the rich pulled down.  Such language is unpopular.  We prefer that all be lifted up, but Luke says in several places that good news for the poor is coupled with bad news for the rich.  Because of our discomfort, sermons on this text often turn the parable into a lesson on helping the poor.  We take a little food to homeless shelter and feel good about ourselves even though we remain heavily invested in a world where our suburban lives are sustained by migrant workers, children in third world factories, and our nation consuming unfathomable and unsustainable quantities of the world's resources. 

How do you preach from a text where good news for some means bad news for others, and you're among the others?  How are the rich and comfortable to find some good word in Jesus' Kingdom parable of reversal?  To be honest, I am not entirely sure.  But I suspect that good news for us starts when, like members of AA, we admit who we are, when we admit that our things and our personal comforts often blind us to those who are first in the Kingdom of God.  I'm not sure we can hear much good news in these verses until we take that step.

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Friday, September 24, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Spiritual Presence

What must it have been like to encounter the earthly Jesus, to meet him as he went about his ministry?  When the gospels attempt to share something of this with us, they are no doubt hindered by the impossibility of rendering such an experience in words.  But a common refrain in the gospels describes Jesus as "speaking with authority."  This is in our gospel for today along with another common refrain, demons recognizing Jesus.

I think that both of these refrains are attempts to describe Jesus' spiritual presence.  Jesus taught just as many other rabbis did.  He read from the same scriptures and his teachings sometimes had much in common with others.  But even when he said the very same thing as others it sounded different, and people could sense it.  "They were astounded at his teaching, because  he spoke with authority." 

In the same way, demons recognizing Jesus speaks of this same spiritual presence.  We don't live in the world of the gospel writers, a world that was filled with demons that caused all sorts of things we would attribute to other causes.  But the fear expressed by these semi-divine agents of the First Century speaks to an incredible spiritual presence in Jesus, a vivid sense of God at work that could bend events toward God's will.

I think the Church would do well to focus more on this issue of presence.  We need to realize that authority is less about facts and ideas well marshaled, presented, and argued, and more about God's presence.  The hunger for spirituality in our day is in many ways a hunger for just such an authority. 

The presence and authority that Jesus manifested was all out of proportion to the number of followers he had, the financial resources at his disposal, or his connections to people in power.  It was the power of spiritual presence, of God actively at work in him.  And as the body of Christ, the Church also must seek this sort of power and authority, one derived from God's presence palpably moving in our midst.  Even in a day when congregations face shrinking numbers and financial resources, when we draw nearer to God, when we become more open to the Spirit, our authority grows, and we become truer to our call of being Christ to the world.

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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Ticking Off the Congregation

Jesus' visit to his hometown of Nazareth is narrated somewhat differently in the different gospels.  And for my money, Luke's account is the most striking.  Not only does Jesus explicitly identify himself with prophecies of a new age, of good news for the poor, captive, oppressed, and the coming of God's Jubilee, but he seems to go out of his way to upset and alienate the hometown folks.

In other gospel accounts, the good people of Nazareth are at first impressed but then remember that Jesus comes from no special background and has exhibited no remarkable qualities to date, and so they "took offense."  But in Luke, while everyone is speaking well of him, Jesus gives offense.  He starts talking about prophets not being accepted in their hometowns and then reminds everyone of times when God's saving power was offered to Gentiles and not to those in Israel.  If Jesus wanted to be run out of town, he could not have done any better.

I don't know for certain why Luke chooses to tell this story so differently, but I suspect that his understanding of Jesus fulfilling Isaiah's prophecy, bringing good news to the poor and release to the captives, carries with it an inherently offensive message for many.  This is perhaps even more so for "religious folks."

Religious people often anticipate and expect some sort of blessing from God for their religiousness.  But the Kingdom that Jesus proclaims often seems to offer blessings to those outside the mainstream.  Isaiah's prophecy speaks of the poor, the captive, the blind, the oppressed, and (in the Jubilee year) all those in debt and who have lost the family land over the years.  According to Luke and Jesus, God's new day is about blessings showered on those in need, whom the world has not blessed, and this carries with it an inevitable offense to those who assumed they'd figured out the formula for God's blessing.  And Jesus doesn't wait for the Jerusalem congregation to figure this out on their own.  He goes ahead and smacks them over the head with it.  (Jesus would have made a terrible pastor.)

Years ago, my wife wrote something she heard Bono (of U2 fame) say at a Washington, DC prayer breakfast.  Bono quoted someone, but I don't know who.  All it says on my refrigerator is, "Don't ask God to bless what you are doing.  Get involved in what God is doing.  It is already blessed." 

Sometimes I think that many church folks, much like the good people of Nazareth, presume that we, as well as what we are doing, are somehow already blessed by God.  Maybe that's why Jesus launches a preemptive strike that day in Nazareth.  And I wonder what he would say if he stopped by one of our congregations and read a little Isaiah to us one Sunday.

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Almost Christian

I've always found today's reading in Acts somewhat curious.  Paul comes across some fellows who are called simply "disciples" and "believers."  There is no disciples of whom or believers in what, just disciples and believers.  So these fellows must in some way be attempting to follow Jesus.  But then we discover that these fellows didn't receive the Holy Spirit at their baptisms.  In fact, their baptism apparently wasn't Christian but one connected with John the Baptist.  (This doesn't necessarily mean that they had gone to be baptized by John in the wilderness.  John's disciples were still active long after his death.) 

So it would seem that these folks received a baptism of repentance from a disciple of John, and they also had heard and embraced the gospel of Jesus.  But because they have not received the Holy Spirit, the story in Acts views them as not yet full Christians.  They are almost Christian, but without the Holy Spirit, without being gifted by the Spirit in ways that would help build up the Church, they don't quite meet the minimum standards.

I once preached a sermon from this story that got one member terribly upset.  She insisted that as long as she had faith she was "saved" (her word), and that was that.  Everything else was icing on the cake.  But these verses in Acts seem to disagree.  They insist that if the Spirit is not present and at work in someone's life, they are not quite Christians, almost Christians.  (I'm not talking here about the status of such folks when they die.  I'm talking about whether or not they are part of the Jesus movement the Acts story calls "the Way.")

We Presbyterians have tended to be suspicious of things too associated with the Holy Spirit.  We like things "decently and in order," and the Spirit is too unpredictable, too messy.  Does that mean that we are almost Christians?

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - This Is Good News?

Today's reading from Luke continues the story of John the Baptist's ministry.  Yesterday we heard John call those who came to be baptized "a brood of vipers."  He warned them that the ax was poised to chop down trees that don't bear good fruit, and he said that whoever had two coats must share with anyone who has none; the same with food. 

Today John says he is not the Messiah, but the Messiah is coming who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.  Also, "His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his  threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the  chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."  And after all these uplifting words about vipers, axes, winnowing forks, and unquenchable fire comes this, "So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people."

This is good news?  The Messiah is coming, and he's ready to separate wheat from chaff, to chop down every tree that doesn't bear good fruit.  This is something to get excited about?

Now one possibility is that Jesus is not exactly who John expected.  He was hoping Jesus would give everyone their due but Jesus did a lot more forgiving than John foresaw.  That's possible.  But I think the reason Luke calls John's message good news is because it is the language of the coming day of the Lord, of God's Kingdom arriving. 

The good news here is that God is about to inaugurate the new age.  God is beginning the process of setting creation right, of lifting up the poor and freeing the oppressed.  God has begun the work of transforming creation into what it was meant to be.  Mary has already told us in her Magnificat that this will involve a leveling, a lifting up of some and pulling down of others.  And John now uses traditional prophetic language to say this moment has arrived.

But still, I wonder how many of us with a lot more than two coats find this good news.  When the inequalities of this world are in our favor, does a leveling sound like good news?  I don't know about you, but I would prefer that people get lifted up to where I am rather than my being pulled down.

I wonder if welcoming the Kingdom doesn't require a radical sort of trust, trust that the things we count on for security are illusions, trust that letting go of what we have opens us to life that cannot be found in clinging to it, trust that I do not need to rise above others but need to move toward them.  None of this is prosperity gospel type good news.  But it seems to be good news in the eyes of God. 

Now if I can just see it that way.

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Monday, September 20, 2010

Sunday Sermon Video - God's Desire; Salvation; and Us

Spiritual Hiccups - Faith and Politics

The governing board of the church I previously served once had a discussion about whether to sign a "commitment to peacemaking" from our denomination. Not a great deal is required of congregations that sign on, and it would seem a no-brainer given the Jesus says, "Blessed are the peacemakers." As a relatively new pastor, I had received something from our presbytery (that's our regional governing body) that indicated our church had never signed this commitment, and apparently presbyteries like to brag about having high percentages of congregations who have.

Assuming this had simply never come up before, I brought it to the next Session meeting and was stunned by the furor that ensued. Only a few board members were for signing the commitment, and the others thought this a blatant example of the church sticking its nose into politics, something it clearly shouldn't do. A couple of elders were offended and upset that this would somehow connect us to the Vietnam anti-war protests. By the way, this happened in 1997.

Today's gospel reading from Luke rattles off a long list of the politically powerful, beginning with the Roman emperor. Luke locates the ministry of John the Baptist squarely within the political structures of the day. And John tells the people of that day to get ready for something new. Interestingly, Luke specifically mentions tax collectors and soldiers, parts of the political structure of the day, among those who come to John for baptism. And what John tells them to do is contrary to the way the system worked. Tax collectors made their money by collecting "more than the amount prescribed," and it was expected that soldiers would use their power to supplement their meager salaries.

The verses that precede and that follow our reading also speak to the the political situation. The very fact that Jesus is a king and that he proclaims the kingdom of God speaks of politics. We modern Christians seem to forget that king and kingdom are political terms, and to proclaim an alternative kingdom to that of the Romans could get one killed. (Oh, that's what happened to Jesus, isn't it?)

The opening chapters of Luke are filled with political language. The poor are lifted up and the rich and powerful are pulled down. Jesus says he is the fulfillment of prophecies to release the captive and let the oppressed go free, that proclaim the year of God's jubilee, which by the way required the forgiveness of debts and the return of land to its original owners. What messy politics that would make.

There are certainly ways in which some Christians mix their faith and their politics badly, and this is the case for Christians on the right and the left politically. But there is simply no denying that John the Baptist calls people to get ready for a new day that is at odds with politics as usual. And Jesus calls people to become citizens of a coming Kingdom, a shift in loyalties that will, at the very least, call into question loyalties to current political structures and systems.

I don't think you can "spiritualize" the Kingdom Jesus proclaims. When it becomes divorced from how things are on earth, the status of the poor and oppressed; when it no longer calls the faithful to live in ways that conform to God's new day even if that causes conflict with this age, then the kingdom we proclaim is something quite different from what Jesus says has come near.

John the Baptist asks us all the question, What are we doing to get ready for a new regime, a new order, the one God is bringing? Are we living in ways that demonstrate our loyalty to the politics of our day, or are we living in ways that proclaim our loyalty to the promise, hope, and vision Jesus insists is drawing near?

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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sunday Sermon - God's Desire; Salvation; and Us

Text of Sunday Sermon - God's Desire; Salvation; and Us

1 Timothy 2:1-7
God’s Desire, Salvation, and Us
James Sledge                                                      September 19, 2010

For me and many of my seminary classmates, one of the most intimidating things about becoming a pastor was taking something called ordination exams.  These were separate from seminary itself, given by the denomination.  And they were really scary because until you passed them all, you could not be ordained, and generally were not allowed to look for a job in a congregation. 
And so, most Presbyterian seminaries offer help with these exams.  Just prior to my last year of seminary, we had a seminar on how to take and pass these exams.  They walked us through the process, talked about how the exams were structured, and shared wisdom gleaned from exams in previous years.  One time honored piece of wisdom went, “If you are struggling with a theological question, you can never go wrong talking about the sovereignty of God.”
The absolute sovereignty of God, the idea that nothing operates outside of God’s ultimate control, is a centerpiece of John Calvin’s work, and Calvin is the founder of our theological tradition.  And this focus on God’s sovereignty lies behind a doctrine often associated with Presbyterians: Predestination.
Now the fact is that predestination was not dreamed up by Calvin nor is it restricted to Presbyterians.  Augustine came up with the idea that God’s salvation is a gift given to whomever God chooses some 1600 years ago.  And so predestination found its way into Roman Catholic theology.  When Martin Luther broke off from the Catholic Church about 500 years ago, he emphasized Augustine’s teachings on grace and salvation as a gift, and so he kept predestination as a Lutheran doctrine.
So how did we Presbyterians get stuck with the predestination label?  Well, it seems Calvin got a bit carried away talking about God’s sovereignty.  Calvin reasoned that if God was totally sovereign, if nothing could happen without God’s okay, then not only did God choose those who are saved, the members of the elect, but God must have also chosen not to save the others.  This is a little something that became known as double predestination.  Some are predestined for salvation and some for damnation.
Even Calvin found this a bit uncomfortable and said it was a difficult doctrine.  And Presbyterians essentially called the doctrine off a century ago.  But I’ve always wondered how Calvin could have come up with the doctrine in the first place considering today’s verses from 1 Timothy.  Is says right there that God desires everyone to be saved.  And if God is totally sovereign, if everything God wills will be, then that sounds more like universal salvation than double predestination.
God desires everyone to be saved.  Jesus is the mediator between God and all humanity, and he died for everyone.  You’d have a hard time coming to that conclusion listening to some Christians.  In their version of the faith, God seems almost gleeful at the prospect of sending folks who won’t believe the right things into eternal punishment.  But according to 1 Timothy, God would surely be distraught and weeping at the prospect.
God desires everyone to be saved.  Jesus died for everyone.  Of course that begs the question of just what it means to be saved, of just what Jesus’ death accomplished.
I have become more and more convinced over the years that the Church went badly astray when it began to speak of salvation, of being saved, in terms of an either/or, in or out category.  In this view, saved has to do with us believing certain things and so getting our tickets punched for eternity.  Jesus’ death is a part of the magic formula that makes all this work.  And we’ve been talking this way for so many centuries that we hear Jesus and we hear the Bible with salvation already defined this way.  But I’m pretty sure Jesus didn’t understand saved or salvation this way.
Not everyone seems to realize this, but Jesus was never a Christian.  He was a Jew.  And as a Jew, his preeminent picture of salvation, of God’s saving activity, was the Exodus story.  Passover is the biggest Jewish festival and holiday because of this.  It celebrates God saving Israel, which of course has nothing to do with going to heaven.  It is about being freed from slavery, about safety and security, about being rescued from oppression.
And not only was Jesus a Jew, he also identified himself as a prophet.  Israel’s prophets had taken the salvation story of Exodus and envisioned a salvation extended to all creation, perhaps best known in Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom.  This prophetic view sees God’s saving acts in the Exodus as prefiguring a bigger act that will rescue all, that will bring all creation to freedom, safety, and security, that will rescue all from oppression.  And these prophets speak of this as a new day, as a new age, something Jesus calls the Kingdom of God.
Of course, just as freeing the Israelite slaves was a threat to Egypt’s Pharaoh, the Kingdom of God is a threat to all worldly kingdoms and governments and systems.  All such systems depend on certain inequalities.  Some must be poor so others can be rich.  Some must lose for others to win.  Some must work hard so others can enjoy leisure.  Some must be at the bottom so others can be at the top.  Some must die so others can live.
But Jesus says that the Kingdom, God’s new day, the end of all such inequalities, has drawn near.  No wonder they had to kill Jesus.  Speaking of a new way to heaven wouldn’t have been a problem.  But declaring an end to Rome’s empire, to all empires, and calling his followers to become citizens of that coming community rather than this current one, well that’s something that will get you in serious trouble.
But Jesus stays true to God’s vision.  He will not adopt the ways of this age, and he will not fight the powers of this age on their terms.  He will not engage in hatred and violence.  His Kingdom is one of love and peace and acceptance, and it does not come by force.  And so Jesus dies.
His death makes clear how far our ways are from God’s.  It shows clearly how far the powers of this age will go to preserve their power.  His death condemns us all, for all of us, to varying degrees, are willing participants in and self-proclaimed citizens of this age.
But Jesus’ death also makes clear that the lengths God goes to draw us toward that new age, that new day that has come near.  Jesus is willing to bear the brunt of human foolishness, of our commitment to systems that are passing away.  God loves everyone, desires for everyone to become a part of a renewed and redeemed creation, and so God will not lash out.  Instead, in Jesus, God will weep, suffer, and die.  God will gently beckon, and God will wait.
But God does not just wait.  Jesus also calls those who will follow him to be witnesses to the hope of God’s new day, to show by their lives the living Jesus, God’s love in the flesh, God’s desire for all people everywhere.  And so we heard a letter to the followers of Jesus urging that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, including kings and those in high positions, the very people who sometimes persecuted and oppressed those early Christians.
God desires everyone to be saved.  Jesus is the mediator between God and all humanity, and he died for everyone.  And when we get caught up in this remarkable love and desire of God, when it takes root in our hearts, how can we help but see everyone with new eyes, with the eyes of Jesus.  And when we do, how can we keep from sharing God’s love and embrace, with every single one of them?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Afraid to Speak Up

In today's reading from John, Jesus' arrest is drawing near.  In the midst of these deteriorating conditions, we hear this, "Nevertheless many, even of the authorities, believed in him. But  because of the Pharisees they did not confess it, for fear that they  would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God."

Pharisees tossing folks out of the synagogue was not really an issue during the lifetime of Jesus, but it was a very pressing issue at the time John's gospel is written.  After Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, Priestly Judaism basically disappeared.  In the struggle to control Judaism that ensued, the followers of Jesus (who considered themselves Jews) found themselves in competition with the Pharisees.  The Pharisees (forerunners of modern rabbinical Judaism) were the much larger group, and in the manner typical of internal religious disputes, they insisted the Jesus followers drop their messianic claims for Jesus or risk expulsion.  Apparently many Christians decided to keep their faith private so they would not be kicked out.  And John's gospel is written, in part, to address these Christians and call them to bold, public faith.

Fast forward to our day, and I'm not in any danger from Pharisees for being too public about my faith.  Nevertheless, there are other sorts of pressures that encourage me not to be too obvious about following Jesus.  I suspect that many pastors feel a significant amount of pressure not to emphasize teachings of Jesus that make people uncomfortable or that challenge the prevailing cultural norms.  And we've somehow managed to make following Jesus fully compatible with acquiring wealth and possessions no matter the cost to the environment or to those who labor under horrible conditions to produce our inexpensive food and clothes.

As a pastor, I'm as captive as the next person to our culture of success and consumerism.  We pastors almost always receive "calls" to bigger churches with larger salaries.  And our salaries are often the biggest single items in our church's budgets, budgets that often struggle to dedicate significant percentages of our monies to mission. 

Many have noted that serving as a pastor is a difficult job that enjoys little of the status it once did.  And certainly it does not pay at the same levels of many other similarly educated professionals.  Yet despite these real difficulties, it strikes me that I want to serve as a pastor without it being really costly, without it including a cross.  And it is very easy to hear John's gospel speaking of me when it says, "for they loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God."

If you happen to be a member of my congregation, don't worry that something dramatic is going to happen on Sunday.  To be honest, I'm not at all sure how to address this captivity of Church and pastors to the prevailing culture, this fear we have of faithfully articulating what Jesus says and, even more, actually doing what he says.  But we surely need to have some serious conversations in our congregations about what it actually means to be a follower of Jesus.

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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Save Me!

In today's verses from Acts, Paul and Silas are in prison when a violent earthquake throws open the doors and frees them.  The jailer presumes that everyone has escaped and so pulls his sword to kill himself.  (Apparently this was preferable to what would happen to him for letting prisoners escape.)  But Paul shouted for him not to kill himself, that none of them had fled.  The jailer rushes in to Paul, falls on his face, and cries out, "What must I do to be saved?"

This passage was used by Brian McLaren at the Church Unbound Conference I recently attended.  And as Brian pointed out, seeing that the jailer was just about to kill himself, it seems highly unlikely that his desire to be saved has anything to do with the disposition of his eternal soul.  His life has just been spared - for the moment - and he would probably like to make that a long term proposition. 

This jailer is a part of the Roman empire, a small cog in that massive kingdom.  His allegiance is to the emperor, but Paul suggests that he will be saved if he switches allegiance to a different king, Jesus.

We are so used to thinking that "saved" has to do with our approved or disapproved status in God's little black book that we presume a Roman jailer who moments earlier was more than ready to kill himself has somehow suddenly become concerned about the fate of his soul.  Surely "saved" has a much more concrete meaning for him.  Of course if we hear "saved" in the manner the jailer likely meant it, then that may require us to rethink what save means for us.

I think that the Church desperately needs this sort of saving.  I think that our society and culture desperately need this sort of saving.  Like the jailer, we need to turn away from our loyalty to Caesar, to the Almighty dollar, to a particular political view or ideology, to status and power, even to Church institutions and transfer that loyalty to Jesus.  Two traditional titles for Jesus make this clear, Lord and Master.  Both were ways to address someone who has power over you, who can tell you what to do.  Caesar was supreme Lord in the First Century, Mediterranean world, but those who followed Jesus defected from Caesar and became obedient to Jesus.

This sort of thinking sometimes gets labeled heretical, but I would go so far as to say that if someone did all that Jesus commanded, but didn't believe in him, she would be closer to the Kingdom than lots of people who profess Jesus as their Savior but seem to have forgotten the Lord part.  And Jesus himself says as much in a number of places, notably in the parable of the Judgment of Gentiles in Matthew 25:31-46.

And when I think of it this way, I need saving as much as anyone.  Lord, save me!

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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - I Don't Care if You Believe in God

A number of my Facebook friends have said they like a page called,  "Let's see if there are 5 million people on FB who believe in God!  Press Like if you do!"  If they need me to make it to 5 million, they're going to come up short.  Not that I don't believe in God.  But all sorts of people believe in God.  In fact, the vast majority of people believe in God.  But for many of those it just doesn't make a great deal of difference in how they live their lives.  And for another sizable group, it makes a great deal of difference, but in ways that are harmful and destructive.

A couple of today's readings speak to this.  Job's three friends believe in God.  In fact, they haves spent much of the book defending God to Job, insisting that Job accept his fate as just punishment from God.  But God says to Eliphaz, one of these friends, "My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has."  So according to God, Job, who has shaken his fist at God and demanded God give account for his unjust suffering, has spoken "what is right."  But those who have spouted the conventional rhetoric of religious belief earn God's anger.

To my ear, a great many religious folks sound a lot like Job's friends.  And so it seems their religious belief may not be all that pleasing to God.

In the gospel reading today Jesus says, "Those who love their life lose it."  Nearly everyone we meet in the New Testament gospels believes in God, many of them fervently.  But this matters little to Jesus.  Jesus wants to know if their lives conform to God's ways, if they would choose to suffer and even die for God's cause. 

I saw a bumper sticker on a car yesterday that said simply, "Trust Jesus."  I have no idea what the driver meant by this.  But I know a lot of people who mean, "I believe in Jesus so I get to go to heaven."  But it seems to me that trusting Jesus should mean trusting in and doing what he tells us. That includes things such as loving your enemy, giving to all who ask from you, taking up the cross, teaching others to do everything Jesus commands, and a great many other things many of us like to ignore.

If you believe in God (and you probably wouldn't be reading this if you didn't), that's great.  But if that's the extent of your "faith," I'm not sure it matters very much.  The world doesn't need more believers.  It needs more disciples, people who follow Jesus and do as he says.  But I'm not sure you can really cover that with a Facebook page.

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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - As It Is Written

"As it is written" is a common phrase in the New Testament (along with several variations meaning the same thing).  It's there in today's gospel reading about "Palm Sunday."  This is an effort by the writers to make clear how Jesus is in perfect continuity with what God has been doing all along through the people of Israel.  In fact, the first several generations of Christians were quite content to have what we call the Old Testament as their only Scripture.  When 2 Timothy 3:16 says, "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness..." the scripture being referred to is, of course, our Old Testament.

Given the great lengths the New Testament writers go to connect Jesus to Judaism, it is remarkable how disconnected Christianity has become from it.  Many Christians seem to think Jesus rejected the faith of his childhood and started a new one.  And this divorcing of Christian faith from its Jewish roots has made it much easier to distort Jesus into someone who came to punch our tickets to heaven, rather than someone who stood firmly in the prophetic tradition of a coming Messianic age when all creation would be drawn back into right relationship with God and each other.  Even though the prayer Jesus gives us broadcasts this clearly, "Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." People still think of Jesus saving them from earth for heaven.

It is an obvious fact, but many seem not to know it.  Jesus was never a Christian.  For his entire life, he was a Jew.  And most of his followers considered themselves Jews for generations afterward. There is no reversing history, so I won't advocate calling our churches synagogues and such.  But we Christians would do well always to remember that we follow a Jewish Messiah.

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Monday, September 13, 2010

Sunday Sermon Video - Just Do It

Spiritual Hiccups - I'm God, and You're Not

If you've been following the daily readings, you've heard Job complaining about how he has suffered unjustly, demanding a response from God.  You've heard Job's friends insist that Job must have done something to deserve all his misfortune, and he should repent of his misdeeds.  Now finally, God has answered Job, though to my mind, the answer is not terribly satisfactory. 

As today's reading begins, God has already pummeled Job with a barrage of questions.  "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without wisdom?.. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?"  And it has gone on like this for two chapters when we get to today's reading.  But God does not say that Job's friends were correct.  In fact, God will condemn them and their advice shortly. 

In short, God's answer to Job, even if it is a flight of fancy three chapters long, amounts to, "I am God, and you're not."

I wonder if most faith crises don't struggle right here.  In the face of so much suffering in the world, of so much that surely is at odds with any hoped for Kingdom of God, can we trust that God is indeed God, much less that God is good?  When we judge God's apparent willingness to tolerate evil and suffering, can we be satisfied with, "I am God and you're not," as Job was? 

In the end, Job's acceptance rests on the fact that God does indeed show Godself.  I think I could use a little of that about now.

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Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sunday Sermon - Just Do It

Text of Sunday Sermon - Just Do It

Luke 15:1-10
Just Do It
James Sledge                            --                September 12, 2010

In case you’ve missed it when I’ve said so before, I think the Pharisees get something of a bum rap.  The Pharisees were a reform movement in Judaism, a group that worried about a faith too focused on rituals, festivals, and Temple sacrifices.  They had read those verses by the prophet Amos where God says, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  And so the Pharisees were serious about doing more than professing their faith.  They tried to walk the walk.  And they encouraged other Jews to do the same.  And their movement was a rather successful one.  They were the forerunners of modern, rabbinical Judaism. 
Of course when you start to focus on how people live it gets fairly easy to tell those who are serious about faith from those who aren’t.  And the tax collectors and sinners we just heard about in our gospel reading certainly belong to the latter group.  These tax collectors had nothing in common with our IRS or local tax office.  They were Jews who secured, often bought, their position from the Romans.  It was essentially a license to steal, and corruption was an integral part of the system.  These tax collectors had a set amount to collect for the Romans, and everything they collected above that was theirs.  And they could used Roman soldiers to bully and strong-arm folks.  They were hated and regarded as traitors because they worked for a foreign power and grew wealthy by cheating their fellow Jews.
Similarly, the sinners in our gospel reading are not those who have had some small lapse and needed forgiveness.  These were clearly distinguishable folks who did not keep the moral law or follow the purity rules.  They lived outside the faith community, either by choice or because they engaged in unsavory occupations.  To eat with these folks was to become unclean and impure yourself.  Their status as sinners is not questioned, not even by Jesus.
And so the issue is not whether the Pharisees have judged these tax collectors and sinners too harshly.  The issue is why Jesus feels so at home with them.  To explain, Jesus tells a parable.  Which of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”
Jesus begins his parable with this question, but it isn’t really a question.  He presumes that every one of the scribes and Pharisees listening to him is nodding in agreement.  “Oh yes, of course we would drop everything, leave the ninety-nine, and run look for the one lost sheep.”
But I don’t know if I would.  It doesn’t seem to me a cost effective way to run a business.  That one sheep is a paltry one percent of the sheep farmer’s total investment.  It seems difficult to justify jeopardizing ninety-nine percent for the sake of one.  Better to safeguard the ninety-nine percent, forget the one, and take the tax write off.
But I suppose shepherds in Jesus’ day viewed it differently.  Their small flocks became like extensions of their family.  They knew each sheep individually, and they couldn’t leave the one out there alone.
The Pharisees seemed to get Jesus’ parable with no problem, but it isn’t quite the same no-brainer for me.  So what would be a no-brainer?  What would make me immediately nod my head yes, would justify dropping everything?
I know one thing that it isn’t, not for me or apparently for many others.  It isn’t the loss of scores of mainline church members.  Mainline, Protestant congregations have lost millions of members since 1960.  Some of those have joined non-denominational mega-churches, but most have simply left active church life.  Presbyterians alone have lost around 2 million members.  We’re about half the size we were 50 years ago.  We’re not talking about any one percent here.  Surely this would cause us to take notice, to drop everything.  But in fact we have mostly shrugged.  We wonder where they all went, but we’ve pretty much kept doing exactly what we’ve always done.  We’d love it if they all came back, but…
What sort of thing would cause you to drop everything you were doing?  What would cause you to set aside everything else and focus all your energy on that problem?  How about if you heard that someone you love dearly had just had a terrible accident and was on the way to the hospital?  I know that would do it for me.  If I learned right this moment that one of my daughters was in an ambulance headed to the hospital, I would not be staying with you for the rest of this worship service.  And if I found out she was going to be okay, I would be calling everyone to tell them the good news, to share my joy.
And Jesus says God feels that way about all those who are lost, about the tax collectors and sinners of that day, about the drug dealers and gang members of our day.  Jesus hangs out with such folks and God is ready to rejoice and throw a party when they repent. 
So where do we fit into all this?  How do we become a part of this thing that God is so passionate about?  How do we become a part of something that God wants to celebrate?  I think that we often have difficulties with this because we misunderstand what Jesus is talking about in today’s parables.  We misunderstand what it means to be lost, to be found, to repent. 
You can see this when people talk about evangelism.  Anytime I’ve been part of such a discussion, invariably someone says, “I don’t know enough to share my faith with someone.”  In this view of things, evangelism is about transmitting enough convincing information that someone decides to believe in Jesus.  Lost equals not believing in Jesus, found is what happens when that changes, and repenting is the move from lost to found.  Trouble is, the Jesus we meet in Luke’s gospel doesn’t talk this way. 
Jesus spends most of his time teaching about God’s kingdom, God’s new community, something Jesus insists has come near.  It is a new day that will lift up the poor and oppressed, that will bring justice to those who have been mistreated.  When Jesus sends out his followers he tells them to proclaim this kingdom and to cure the sick.  In the beginning, being a part of the Jesus movement was less about believing the right things and more about living in ways that conformed to the kingdom, that cared for neighbor even when it was costly, that reached out to those others found unclean and undesirable.  And I suspect that those tax collectors and sinners came to listen to Jesus because it sounded like they were welcome there, that God wanted them to be part of that new day every bit as much as the go-to-church-every-Sunday folks.
And that means that getting involved in what God is passionate about, getting involved in what makes God want to celebrate, doesn’t require an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible or a seminary understanding of Christian doctrine.  It merely requires a willingness to welcome and love people wherever you find them, just like God does.  It merely requires sharing the amazing love Jesus give us with others.
On most days, every single one of us encounters someone who is hurting, who is suffering, who has been made to feel inferior, who has been told she isn’t wanted or needed, who is lonely, who is frightened, who feels there is something wrong with him that makes him unacceptable, who has been shunned by others.  Almost every single day, we meet people who need us to drop what we’re doing and move toward them, to reach out to them, to help them, to let them know that they are not alone and not outside God’s embrace. 
And so, almost every single day, in ways large and small, each one of us has an opportunity to become a part of what God is passionate about, to become a part of what God is excited about and wants to celebrate.  Every day, we all have the chance to be the living body of Christ to others.  We don’t need to know more.  We just need to do it.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - The Time is Now

Very often when I lead a funeral service, I begin with these words.  "I am  the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though  they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me  will never die."  These words are from the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and a portion of that story is today's gospel reading.  They are a staple at funerals, but I wonder if they should be.

Jesus says these words in response to Martha, Lazarus' sister, who has just said that she knows Lazarus will be raised "in the resurrection on the last day."  Martha already believes in the resurrection.  And is doesn't seem to be some sort of faulty view of resurrection.  It is pretty much the same thing the Apostle Paul says many times.  On the last day, when the trumpet sounds, the dead will be raised.

So Jesus is apparently not correcting her view of resurrection.  Rather he seems to be correcting her view of the time.  If Jesus is the resurrection, then the last days have broken into the present.

But we Christians have had 2000 years to lose the urgency Jesus' words require.  We've lost a sense of the new age dawning, and have perverted resurrection to mean "going to heaven when we die."  For that matter, I'm not so sure I want this age to end and the new age to arrive.  I've got this age pretty well figured out, and I happen to be reasonably secure and comfortable.  Let's leave resurrection and the age to come to some future date.  That way I don't have to change the ways I live.  I just have to believe the right stuff.

I once had a Jewish friend ask me an old question.  "If Jesus is the Messiah, where is the Messianic age?"  Too bad we Christians have gotten so disconnected from our Jewish roots that we've forgotten the two go together.

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - Enemies

I'm not sure there is much need for me to jump into the fray over a the planned Qur'an burning by a few lunatics who call themselves Christians.  They have been repudiated by religious leaders of every stripe, and even by General Petraeus.  And while they have their supporters, the vast majority of Americans find these folks foolish, if not offensive.

However, I wonder if such folks are not engaged in a lunatic fringe version of behavior we all practice.  We all seem to need enemies, and the more frightened we are the greater this need.  Having an enemy is a great builder of unity and common purpose.  Many remember the unity America briefly experienced following the 9-11 attacks.  We were all one because we all had a common enemy. 

But that common enemy has proved illusive and hard to define.  So we find substitutes and stand-ins.  Saddam Hussein worked nicely for a while.  "Islamic Fascism" has a nice ring to it, even if no one knows exactly what that means.  If we can't agree on an external enemy, internal ones will do.  The bitterness of current partisan politics is a prime example of this. 

Because enemies are so helpful in building unity, people who are seen as "different" make great enemies.  If they don't fit into a particular vision of unity and oneness, then perhaps they are in league with the enemy.  Many Americans, who wouldn't think of burning a Qur'an, are nonetheless deeply suspicious of Muslims.  Their otherness makes them, if not an actual enemy, a group that bears watching.  But this is only a slightly subtler version of Terry Jones and his Burn a Qur'an day. 

The need for enemies seems to be a part of our human nature, and so labeling Muslims the enemy is hardly surprising.  But, as many have pointed out, it is behavior that seems terribly at odds with the teachings of Jesus.  He says we are to love our enemies and pray for them.  Paul writes that if our enemy is hungry, we are to feed them.  In other words, even if someone really is an enemy, the Christian response is to love them, to treat them as one of us and not as enemies.  And if this is how we are to treat genuine enemies, such as Osama bin Laden, how can declaring any group our enemy justify anything other than our love?

The Apostle Paul writes, "Do not be conformed to the world..." But the fact is we want to believe in Jesus while still living by the ways of the world.  We want to call him Lord, Lord, without actually doing as he says.  We want to react to our fears even though "perfect love casts out fear."

And so Terry Jones, the Florida pastor so much in the news of late, is a window into a darkness that lives in all of us.  And as such, he is a reminder of what a radically different way of living Jesus modeled and calls us to follow. 

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Sunday Sermon - Greater Than All Other Loves

Spiritual Hiccups - Doing God's Work

To my mind, one of the real problems of Christianity is the tendency of its adherents to see the world in terms of us and them.  There are those who believe in Jesus, who have affirmed him with the correct formula, and then there is everyone else.  This strikes me as not so very different from some Pharisees and other Jewish leaders who insisted on people vigorously keeping the Law.  This included the purity codes that made it impossible for Jews to share a meal with non-Jews, and it also included concerns about not using God's name in incorrect ways or ways that dishonored it.  This concern gets Jesus in trouble in today's reading from the Gospel of John.

When Jesus answers the charges of blasphemy leveled against him, his primary defense is rooted in the works that he does.  Even if you don't believe in me, Jesus asks, can't you see the works of God being done by me?

Over the centuries, it seems to me that the Church has gotten less concerned with the works of God, and more focused on believing the right things about Jesus.  Evangelism is generally considered convincing people to believe those right things about Jesus.  And not believing the right things about Jesus puts you in the "them" camp, period.  It matters not one whit whether such folks are doing the works of the Father.

I wonder what would happen if we understood Christianity to be primarily about helping people to live in ways that revealed God's hopes and dreams for humanity and creation.  What if we worried less about whether or not people espoused the right creeds, and worried more about loving God and neighbor.  After all, Jesus, in Matthew 25:31-46, speaks of Gentiles, of others, of them being welcomed into the Kingdom because the lived Kingdom shaped lives, even though they didn't realize they were serving Jesus in the process.

Is your faith mostly about what you believe, or how you live?

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Sunday, September 5, 2010

Sunday Sermon - Greater Than All Other Loves

Text of Sunday Sermon

Luke 14:25-33
Greater Than All Other Loves
James Sledge                                                  September 5, 2010

Not being from Ohio, I sometimes find the obsession with all things Buckeye a bit much.  And so I don’t usually mention OSU in sermons.  But I think that the experience of having a favorite sports team may be of some help in understanding what Jesus says to us today.
When we have a favorite team, say the Buckeyes, we feel affection and loyalty for that team.  Perhaps it’s because we grew up in a family that always supported that team.  Maybe we went to school there.  Maybe we just liked the colors of their uniforms.  But whatever lies behind our affection and loyalty, we support and pull for our team.  We cheer when they are winning and we suffer when they lose, which accounts for why winning teams tend to have more fans that losing ones. Who wants to suffer all the time?
But there is a counterpart to the affection, love, and zeal we feel for our team.  There is a corresponding lack of affection and love for their opponents.  A few Buckeye fans take this to ridiculous and sometimes unhealthy levels, but even the most modest, polite fan knows that pulling for your own team means pulling against the other.  You don’t actually have to hate the other team, but you certainly have to like them less than you do your own.
Jesus says something similar when he talks about what it takes to follow him. 
When we decide that we want to be his disciples, that we will give our loyalty to him, Jesus insists that it has an impact on all our other loyalties. 
Now admittedly Jesus’ words about hating father and mother come across a little like the most rabid sort of Buckeye speaking about Michigan.  But that is mostly because something gets lost in rendering those words in English.  The word in Luke’s gospel can mean “hate,” but in the hyperbole filled style of Middle Eastern speech, this is actually an emphatic way of saying to love the other less.  Jesus does not say that we need to feel genuine hate for our families or our own lives.  Rather he says that following him requires all those other things to take a back seat to loving Jesus.  If there is any sort of conflict, any need to choose between the two, we have to pull for Jesus ahead of all others.
There may be a way to speak of this that doesn’t sound quite so negative.  When a person grows up, falls in love, and gets married, that demands some adjustments in relationships that may have previously been the center of someone’s life.  This usually happens so naturally that we scarcely take notice of it.  But leaving home and marrying means a certain severing of ties and loyalties to one’s parents.  For many of us this didn’t involve any conflict or anything resembling hate, but nonetheless, our primary loyalty shifted to our spouse. 
And if you never thought about how absolutely necessary this shift is for a marriage to work, simply recall that marriage most all of us have seen where this shift didn’t happen.  Such marriages sometimes produce letters to Dear Abby complaining about how his or her relationship with Momma is still number one.  When a person can never say “No” to a parent for the sake of a spouse, that marriage is destined for serious trouble.
As I said, most of us know this almost instinctively.  Only the most callous, maladjusted sort would get married and insist on still dating old girlfriends.  When you get married, when you fall in love, they are new ex-girlfriends, ex-boyfriends.  The new relationship demands the giving up of some things if it is to work.
And speaking of giving up some things, there’s no avoiding the topic of money.  Money is often cited as the number one factor in failed marriages.  Sometimes this is simply a matter of money trouble causing so much stress that the strain damaged the marriage.  But more often the issue is how money is spent.  Sometimes a spouse is unwilling to give up, or at least cut back on, an expensive hobby or expensive tastes for the sake of the marriage.  When spouses are unable to put the needs of the relationship or partner ahead of their own, that makes a long marriage very unlikely.
Jesus speaks in much the same way.  Money and things are a huge barrier to walking with him. No doubt many of you have heard that Jesus speaks more on the problem of money and possessions than he does any other topic.  But we Christians have had a very long time to massage Jesus’ words, to domesticate them and cage them in a religion that often seems to be more about morality and right beliefs than it is about what Jesus actually said. 
But the Bible tells us that before Jesus’ followers were ever called Christians, they were known as people of The Way.  In other words, their identity was shaped more by the manner in which they lived than by the set of beliefs they proclaimed.
Many of us in the Church desperately need to rediscover this.  We need to return to the roots of the faith, to reengage in The Way Jesus shows us, a life shaped and ordered by loving God and loving neighbor, a life than is drawn deeper and deeper into the life of God, a life that transforms all our other relationships and loyalties.
I was in my mid-thirties when I had the first stirrings of what might be termed a mature faith.  And only in the last few years have I begun to discover a deepening relationship with God that can, for brief moments, dwell in the embrace of divine love.  And all along the way, the need for my love of Jesus, my love of God to supersede other loves has been a challenge.  When I went to seminary at age 35, I had a career.  Shawn and I had a house payment and two little girls.  Questions about ultimate loyalties, about loving Jesus more and loving others less were not abstract theological questions.
As with all relationships, I still have to work at this.  Sometimes when I am wrestling with what God is calling me to do, I realize that my pleas to God for guidance, for direction, contain an unspoken “as long as it doesn’t cost me anything, as it includes a good salary and a nice location.”  Sometimes my own comfortable, familiar life and routines make it difficult to risk falling too in love with Jesus.
What about your walk with Jesus, your life in God?  Where does it fit in the various loves and loyalties of your life?  Does it look anything like what Jesus asks?  The love and loyalty Jesus demands is no petty jealousy.  It is nothing less than the desire that each of us discover the joy of the deepest, most wonderful love we have ever known.  Jesus is speaking the language of a lover, and so our own experiences of love may help us here.
When you give of your time doing what you think Jesus wants you to do, when you put your money in the offering plate, what lies behind that?  Are these obligations like community service hours now required by most high schools?  Are they your share of making sure we keep the lights turned on and salaries paid here at the church?  Or are they the joyful experience of one lover giving something precious to the other?
If you’ve ever fallen deeply and passionately in love, you already have a pretty good sense of what Jesus is talking about when he speaks of loving everything else less.  But if you’ve never experienced falling in love with Jesus, I don’t know that someone can preach you into that, anymore than they could preach you into falling in love with anyone.  It will help if you spend time each day reading and reflecting on Scripture.  It will help if you spend time in places where Jesus can be found, among the needy, the sick, those needing comfort, acceptance, hope, or a kind word.  It will help if you begin to shape your life to be more like his.  But in the end, it will only happen when you open yourself, risk yourself, to the passionate love Jesus already has for you.