Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Meditation video: Another King?

Christmas Meditation: Another King?

Angels are part of our Christmas celebration, but like bows on packages, are mostly decorative. In his sermon, "Gosh, Some Angels," Walter Brueggemann says we need to take another look at angels. Perhaps this may help us rethink our understanding of Christmas. (from Luke 2:1-20)

Christmas meditation - 12-25-12.mp3

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - My Dad Can Beat Up Your Dad

As we draw close to Christmas, this morning's psalms seem jarring next to images of a babe in a manger, of shepherds, angels, and nativity scenes. Psalm 18 speaks of being in danger from enemies and crying out to God.  And God responded to that cry.

Then the earth reeled and rocked;
   the foundations also of the mountains trembled 
   and quaked, because he was angry. 
Smoke went up from his nostrils, 
   and devouring fire from his mouth; 
   glowing coals flamed forth from him.

It is easy for some to dismiss such images of God as something archaic, a violent God of the Old Testament unlike the God of love we meet in Jesus.  But I've noticed that most children who come from homes with loving parents where they feel safe and secure assume that their mother or father would whip all comers in order to protect them.  And I wonder if that isn't what we see in this psalm.  The childish boast that "My Dad can beat up your Dad" grows out of the sense of security children experience, and the psalmist seems to know something similar.

If one has experienced a security in the love of God, in God's parental care, it is pretty easy to think along such lines.  In an ancient world inhabited by many gods, it is hardly surprising that some Old Testament passages sound a bit like, "My Dad can beat up your Dad."

Jesus does nothing to undermine the idea of God's parental-like love.  Jesus repeatedly calls his followers to trust themselves to God's care.  But Jesus does redefine what God's power looks like.  The Apostle Paul calls this "power made perfect in weakness."  And Jesus made clear what Israel (and the Church in our day) often forgot.  God's parental love was not restricted to them.  Indeed the call of Abraham was so that "all the families of the earth shall be blessed."

I felt very safe and secure as a child, and I probably thought my Dad could beat up some others.  But to my knowledge, he never did.  The safety and security of parental love is generally not experienced in such things.

As we celebrate the birth of one born to "save," we would do well not to reject an image of God as one who can and does protect and provide.  The child born in a manger is not just a nice philosopher who teaches a good way to live.  He is God's power unleashed for us.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Seeing the Future

There's a car commercial running on television where the wife excitedly tells the husband that they are having a baby.  As they celebrate this announcement, a strange look comes over the husband.  He has just thought of something, and it quickly becomes apparent just what.  He has a sleek, two-door sports car, and they are about to have a baby.  (If you've not seen the ad, its for a "four-door sports car.")

There is a sense in which the father in this commercial sees the future.  Nothing particularly dramatic about it, but he knows that a baby means a different life than the one he now has.  And he must begin planning for that new day.

I think that biblical prophets are more like this father than they are psychics who promise to tell you your future.  True, they've been given a bit deeper sense of what is coming than this dad, but they are not really predicting the future in the sense most people mean by that phrase.  Rather they know God intimately enough that they know where things will end up when God acts.  They know the character of God and so they know what will happen when God shakes things up.

That's what is going on in Mary's song in today's gospel.  Mary's going to have a baby, and she knows that this baby will have a much bigger impact than the typical one.  This baby is part of God's plans, and so she can sing her prophetic song just as surely as that father can see the need for a four-door car. 
  "(God) has brought down 
         the powerful from their thrones,
     and Lifted up the lowly;  
  he has filled the hungry with good things,
     and sent the rich away empty.
  He has helped his servant Israel,
     in remembrance of his mercy,
  according to the promise he made 
         to our ancestors,
     to Abraham and to his 
         descendants forever."

God has; not God will, but God has.  This is not so much a prediction of the future as it is a realization of what God's future looks like, a realizations that is so  real for Mary that it seems already accomplished.  As many have noted, prophets' sense of what God is up to is so vivid that they often get their tense wrong.

I think that people of deep faith always have a bit of this vision of the future within them.  It is why they can actually love their enemies and work for a better world even when that work costs them dearly and does not show the sort of results our culture validates.  

We're about the celebrate the birth of Mary's baby, as we most certainly should.  But for that celebration to mean much, we also need to see a bit of the future that Mary sees.  

Can you see the future?  God's future?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - A New Song?

The Daily Lectionary sometimes seems to use the same Psalms over and over.  And so I don't always read them as closely as I should.  Being the product of Western culture and education, I tend to read for information, and if I know a psalm fairly well, what new information will I get?

There is certainly nothing wrong with reading the Bible for information, but that is hardly the only way to read it.  In fact, Scripture often speaks powerfully when we listen in a very different mode.  That happened to me today, though I can't say it was because I was being particularly attentive, doing lectio divina, or engaged in any other spiritual practice.  I was rushing through the morning psalms, but nonetheless, a phrase struck me: "a new song."

I've heard and read that phrase countless times, but I'm not sure that it ever impacted me the way it did this morning.  Perhaps the time of year helped, along with reading Hannah's song in the Old Testament reading.  That song seems to be a model for Mary's song which follows on the heels of today's gospel reading.  Those are both new songs, at least in the sense that they describe something new.

A new song.  New songs are not a big part of this time of year.  Even in contemporary worship services where people rarely sing any song more that 20 years old, worshipers want traditional carols at Christmas.  That's fine with me.  I love singing Silent Night, Joy to the World, and O Little Town of Bethlehem.  But I wonder if our celebration of Christmas sometimes fails to leave much room for something new.  It looks back and remembers.  But does it look forward to the new thing that Jesus' birth heralds? 

Amidst all the warmth and nostalgia of Christmas, I wonder if we don't need to add another tradition, a tradition of a new song.  Perhaps we could write some new verses to an old favorite and add call to discipleship in our Christmas services.  Regardless, what if every Christmas Eve Service included something that asked us to turn our gaze forward, to look for God's new heaven and new earth, and to join in the work of that coming reign of God?  What if one of our special Christmas traditions was a renewal of hope, a hope rooted in a vision of God's future? 

Sing to the LORD a new song, one like Hannah and Mary sang. 

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Sermon video - Saying "Yes" to the Impossible

An Advent Monologue by "Mary"

Mary is played by Stefanie Osborne.

Spiritual Hiccups - Remaking a Classic

Every now and then I hear someone complain about Hollywood doing too many remakes and sequels.  Right now the theaters feature Sherlock Holmes, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and the Mission Impossible team.  And all of these are sequels of films that were based on previous shows, films, and books.

But I'm not going to complain about this because I've noticed a bit of the same in the Bible.  In today's gospel, Luke tells a story that looks like a lot of stories from the Old Testament.  God is going to do something wonderful, and this will involve a previously "barren" woman giving birth.  Sarah, Hannah, and now Elizabeth.  Over and over God goes back to a tried and true story: life where it seemed there was none, hope where it had not existed, a future where one was not expected.

I take some solace from the fact that God sticks to a plot that we've seen before.  Strangely though, it still seems to surprise us.  We imagine that the story is all played out, that hope is gone, that this time there will be no happy ending.  God has seemed too absent from our lives.  The brokenness and cynicism of our world has the upper hand.  The darkness has overcome the light.

And then an old, old story breaks through once more.  Life in the face of barrenness.  Hope where there had been none.  Light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. 

Sometimes, when we have a hard time seeing God, when we've relegated the power of God to some time after we die, it's good to remember that God keeps working from an old script.  And we know how the story ends.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sermon audio - Saying "Yes" to the Impossible

Sermon text - Saying "Yes" to the Impossible

Luke 1:26-38 (47-55)
Saying “Yes” to the Impossible
James Sledge                                   December 18, 2011 – Advent 4

There is a scene in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass where Alice is speaking with the white queen.  Alice has just learned that the queen lives backwards, remembering things before they happen.  In the course of this conversation Alice becomes a bit bewildered and begins to cry.  During the queen’s efforts to cheer her up, she asks Alice how old she is.
“I'm seven and a half, exactly.”
“You needn't say "exactly",” the Queen remarked. “I can believe it without that. Now I'll give you something to believe. I'm just one hundred and one, five months and a day.”
“I can't believe that!” said Alice.
“Can't you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. “There's no use trying,” she said.  “One can't believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven't had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Christians should surely know about believing impossible things.  After all we speak casually of Jesus turning water into wine, and we say that he died and rose again on the third day.  And of course there is that line in “The Apostle’s Creed” that says Jesus “was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary.”

Even though not much is made of this virgin birth in the Bible, it became a big deal for the Church.  The Roman Catholic Church expanded it, saying that Mary’s own birth was miraculous – Immaculate according to the doctrine, and that she remained a virgin her entire life, never mind that the Bible speaks of Jesus’ brothers and sisters, and one of those brothers, James, becomes leader of the fledgling Church following Pentecost.
When the Protestant Reformation came along, the Reformers insisted that we should only believe those impossible things that were actually in the Bible.  And so we tossed out Mary’s perpetual virginity and Immaculate Conception, but we kept the virgin birth.  Protestants like believing impossible things as much as Catholics.  We just have a different list.
All this is a long way of saying that while we Christians may disagree and even argue about which impossible things we must believe, it generally goes without saying that we expect people to believe impossible things, perhaps even six before breakfast.
However, there is not necessarily much impact from believing these impossible things.  Think about it.  How much difference does it make in the way you live that Mary was or wasn’t a virgin?  I know Christians of deep faith, who live exemplary lives, some who believe in a historical virgin birth, and some who don’t.  Believing or not believing this particular impossible thing doesn’t seem to make all that much difference.
But in our gospel this morning, Mary hears of an impossible thing that will not happen without her cooperation, without her “Yes.”
We Protestants have tended to diminish Mary, at times overreacting to what we have seen as unsupportable doctrines of the Catholic Church.  But Luke presents Mary to us a both disciple and prophet.  Confronted with God’s impossible plans, she scarcely objects, exhibiting a faith more trusting than that of Moses and many other heroes of the Old Testament.  “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
And having said “Yes” to the impossible, the prophet Mary begins to see the impossible unfold.  When she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, she sings of how God has “brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.  (God) has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.  Not God will, but God has.  Mary has said yes to the impossible, and it is now a part of her.  She experiences it as present in her life.
As Christmas draws near, we bring out some of those other impossible things that Christians proclaim.  We remember a baby in a manger, shepherd in the fields, and we join with the angels in their impossible song of “Peace on earth.”
Of course we don’t believe that impossible thing, at least not in a way that makes any real difference in our lives.  We sing of peace on earth, of a prince of peace, but we know that peace can be maintained only by the best military money can buy.  And so even as our nation staggers under huge debt, talk of significant cuts in military spending is, well, impossible.
Meister Eckhart, a German priest and mystic who live in the 14th century once spoke of how, like Mary, we are all called to become part of the impossible thing that God is doing.  He said, “We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.”  And it requires our “Yes” for that to happen.  Mary must say “Yes” to the impossible, and so must we.
Christmas celebrates the results of Mary’s “Yes,” but all too often it stops there.  It forgets that when we say our “Yes,” and the Spirit comes upon us, we become part of God’s impossible plan as well.  We begin to see and live out that new, impossible thing, the reign of God that Jesus says has drawn near.
Back in 1998, a six year old boy named Ryan learned from his First Grade teacher that many children in Africa had to walk incredible distances just to get clean water.  Stunned by this, he decided that he should build a well for a village.  He began raising money by doing household chores.  After four months he had raised only $70 toward a $2000 well, but he kept at it, and in 1999, seven year old Ryan’s first well was completed in a Ugandan village.  Since then, the foundation begun by Ryan, now a 20 year old college student, has completed 667 water and sanitation projects in 16 countries.[1]
Perhaps if Ryan had been older and “wiser,” he would have known better, known that this was an impossible task for a little boy with no money.  But being a child, he was more open to the impossible that many of us are.  And maybe that’s why God’s impossible plan begins with a 15 year old girl named Mary, who wasn’t old enough to know better.
What impossible thing of God is just waiting for your “Yes?”

[1] See

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Lamps Trimmed and Burning

There's an old African-American spiritual that is one of my favorite Advent anthems.  It's called "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning," and you can find it on YouTube performed by choirs, The White Stripes, and 1920s gospel/blues icon Blind Willie Johnson.  The piece comes from the parable Jesus tells in today's gospel.  He begins, "Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps."

Jesus' parable is about the pose of the faithful between the time of his resurrection and his return, but most times I've heard this passage preached or taught the readiness Jesus speaks of has been disconnected from the Kingdom.  It is no longer about Jesus or God's reign coming, but about our going.  "You never know when you might die, so you'd better be ready."

It seems somewhat odd to me that even though many Christians pray the Lord's Prayer on a regular basis (When I was growing up the sports teams I played on prayed it before every game.), the first petition of that prayer seems almost forgotten.  Our faith is not much about "Your kingdom come on earth" but rather, "God take us to heaven when we die."

Christmas is growing close, and soon we will be singing "Glory to the newborn King."  But king of what?  Ruler of what?  We will sing "Let earth receive her king," but we have done a pretty good job of locking Jesus up in heaven.  Lord's Prayer or not, we'd rather not have Jesus running our world, or even our lives.  He might tell us to give our wealth to the poor.  He might say that the prostitutes and sinners are in line ahead of us.  No thanks, Jesus.  We'll catch you later, after we die.

I wonder what all our preparation and getting ready for Christmas might look like if we actually entertained the possibility that Jesus could show up and take his place on the throne; if we thought he might suddenly become head of the banks and armies and governments... maybe even the Church.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - At the Edge of the Picture

Given America's history with slavery and race, it can sometimes be difficult to hear Jesus speak of masters and slaves as he does in today's gospel. Perhaps it helps if we change "slave" to "servant," and there is some warrant for doing that because the Greek word can mean either.

Regardless, I gained some new insight into this passage when I read Fr. Richard Rohr's meditation for today.  He was speaking of a different passage Matthew when he wrote,  
As Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters, he will always love one and ignore the other” (Matthew 6:24). Our first and final loyalty is to one kingdom: God’s or our own. We can’t really fake it. The Big Picture is apparent when God’s work and will are central, and we are happy to take our place in the corner of the frame.
Because I am a part of the Big Picture, I do matter, and substantially so. Because I am only a part, however, I am rightly situated off to stage right—and happily so. What freedom there is in such truth! We are inherently important and included, yet not burdened with manufacturing or sustaining that private importance. Our dignity is given by God, and we are freed from ourselves!
Many of us do not like to play supporting roles.  We want to be center stage, not off at the edge.  (Pastors can be particularly prone to this.)  Yet, as Fr. Rohr so well points out, finding our proper place in the picture is freeing.  Conversely, confusion about our place creates a life that is constantly at odds with what it is meant to be.

I think that one of the joys of Christmas is getting lost in the story, the painting if you will.  We are happy to stand off to the side with the shepherds and play a supporting role.  For that moment, God's story is front and center, and we are content with the role of faithful servants.

But soon Christmas is over, and the baby Jesus is grown and calling us to follow him and embrace the life he teaches.  But we do not always care for the role Jesus gives us.  We object to our place in the Big Picture, and so we push him to the side and claim the center for ourselves.

Gracious Savior, help us to keep you at the center when the decorations are all gone.  Pour out the Holy Spirit on us, that we may discover the freedom and joy of living out our place in the wonderful work of art that is your coming reign.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Magnificat - Antonio Vivaldi

On the Third Sunday in Advent, the members of Boulevard's Chancel Choir were accompanied by chamber orchestra as they performed Magnificat, by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741).

Spiritual Hiccups - God's Troubled Heart

The Lord is good to all,
   and his compassion is over all that he has made...

The Lord watches over all who love him,
   but all the wicked he will destroy. 

                                from Psalm 145

So which is it?  God loves all people and has compassion on everyone, or God's blessings are reserved for the faithful, and the wicked are going to get it?  This morning's psalm seems to say both.  And this is not the only place in the Bible where this tension is on display.  The famous John 3:16 passage speaks of how "God so loved the world," and the following verses speak of Jesus coming not to condemn but to save.  But then we immediately hear that "those who do not believe are condemned already."

There is another famous passage, this one in Hosea, that presents the tension very differently.  In it God speaks of judgment against Israel for their unfaithfulness and how the Most High will not listen when the people cry out.  But then, God seems to have a change of heart.  "How can I give you up, Ephraim?  How can I hand you over, O Israel?..  My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.  I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath."

We Westerners have had our understanding of God shaped very much by Greek philosophy, and so the notion of God experiencing some sort of internal crisis is hard to fathom.  Yet the Bible has no qualms about speaking of a crisis within God's interior life, a crisis that emerges over what to do about us, God's wayward human creatures. 

Still, we like a God without such tensions.  And so went tend to resolve them in one direction of the other.  Some tend more toward the judgment side with pretty clear standards regarding heaven or hell, while others tend toward the compassion side, with God's mercy trumping judgment. 

This morning I was reading in the paper about one of the local "Craigslist Killers."  Two people, one a 16 year old, lured people to a rural property with the promise of a job managing a small cattle farm.  But when an individual arrived, they killed him.  (Three bodies have been found after one victim escaped and tipped off authorities.)  This morning's article was about a letter the 16 year old had sent to his father.  In it it spoke of his fear over a long prison sentence and how all his family might be dead by the time he got out, perhaps in his early 40s.  But then he wrote how he couldn't believe God would let that happen to him.

I had visceral reaction to his remarks.  He thinks that God will not allow him the personal trauma of being separated from his family for too long, but apparently he has no remorse for killing and robbing people who were simply looking for a job?  And I quickly found myself in caught in that tension between judgment and mercy.

Sometimes I think that our fascination with Christmas is related to this tension, perhaps more precisely, with eliminating it.  A baby in a manger doesn't really have much to say about mercy or judgment.  A baby is sweet and innocent, evoking wonder and hope.  Oohing and Ahhing over the Christ child, we can get lost in the moment and forget about such questions.  Not so with the adult Jesus, who speaks of sinners entering the Kingdom and asks forgiveness for those who execute him, yet speaks of people cast into the out darkness where there is "weeping and gnashing of teeth."

Perhaps this is wishful thinking, but I like to credit spiritual maturity for giving me an increased willingness to live with a certain amount of uncertainty when it comes to the heart of God.  I'm willing to leave some things hidden within the mystery of God while I do my best to share the God I have encountered in Jesus, a God of unfathomable steadfast love and mercy, but also a God whose holiness is nothing to trifle with.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - "Happy Holidays" and Weightier Matters

Given all the attention lavished on this subject, I'm not sure I need to weigh in, but while reading this morning's gospel, I could not help thinking about "Happy Holidays," Holiday Trees, and the "War on Christmas."  Jesus is blessing out the scribes and Pharisees.  He drops a bunch of "Woe" on them.  Woe is not a big word in our world.  Perhaps it would be better if we heard Jesus say, "Shame" or "Cursed" to those who sought to instruct others in matters of faith.

Jesus says to them, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!  Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean."

I don't know much about tithing mint, dill, or cummin, but I have a strong suspicion that getting upset if they don't say "Merry Christmas" at Target falls into that category.  Worrying about whether or not a mostly secular holiday wears a bit of Christmas window dressing strikes me as the epitome of worrying about the outside of the cup.

Sometimes I think those Puritans who settled in Massachusetts centuries ago had it right.  They banned Christmas celebrations altogether.  You could be arrested for not working on Christmas Day, unless it happened to fall on the Sabbath that year.  I realize that this may have been an overreaction to the drunken celebrations of Christmas the Puritans knew from England, but if we'd followed their lead, we might not have the orgy of consumerism we now call Christmas.  

Seems to me that people who are serious about following Jesus might be happy to divorce Christ from that consumer orgy.  Leave it to Santa Claus and the shopping malls.  Let us get back to the "weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith."

But I suppose that all of us at times prefer to deal with the outside of the cup, to make sure it is shiny and clean without worrying too much about the inside.  Jesus accuses the Pharisees of being "full of greed and self-indulgence" on the inside.  But isn't that what Christmas, at least the one at the Mall, is all about?

Before we get too distracted by mint, dill, and cummin, or by "Happy Holidays" on the banners at the local department store, maybe we ought to think for a moment about the "weightier matters" Jesus warns us not to neglect.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - What Does God Want from Us?

If you explore the historical origins of religious sacrifices -- burnt offerings and such -- you will discover how ancient people thought of the gods as needing such sacrifices to survive.  These offerings somehow provided sustenance to gods who would die without them.  In fact there is a Near Eastern flood myth with strong resemblances to the Noah story in which the gods have to end the flood because they are wasting away without these sacrifices.

Contrast that with God's speech from today's psalm.
   If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
       for the world and all that is in it is mine.
   Do I eat the flesh of bulls,
       or drink the blood of goats?

Israel came to realize that Yahweh did not "need" people in the manner of many, ancient gods.  Yahweh was no local deity who depended on the region's inhabitants.  God was Lord of all, without need in any conventional sense.  And that raises an interesting question.  If God does not need anything from us, just what does God want from us?

One thing that becomes clear about God from the Bible is how Yahweh is an expansive God, a God who goes out from godself in love and creative energy.  The first of the Creation stories in Genesis depicts a God who simply creates.  God is not building something with a utilitarian purpose.  Rather this is about beauty and joy and goodness.  God says, "Let's create this," and God does.  And it is "good," our translation of a much thicker Hebrew word meaning pleasing, excellent, enjoyable to look at, etc.  

This God who seems to revel in creating, who is pleased with how it all turns out, nonetheless does not hover over that creation.  God allows creation much freedom, but longs for it to be filled with the joy, and love and goodness that is a part of its beginnings.  And so when creation goes awry, when the human creature goes awry, what God seems to want most is for things to be set right, for it to all be good once more.

In that sort of goodness, the powerful do not exploit the weak, people are not exploited and oppressed, no one need be poor so others can be rich, and all people recognize their dependence as creatures, beings who are remarkably made with incredible gifts and abilities, but who are still creatures dependent on their Creator for life itself.  

This is the sort of world Jesus is talking about when he comes proclaiming God's Kingdom, the rule of God where creation is set right.  And that brings me back around to that question of what God wants from us.  It seems it is more a matter of what God wants for us.  God wants us to be part of true goodness, life that is beautiful, pleasing, excellent, a joy to behold, right, and driven by love.  The real question is whether or not we will trust Jesus to show us the way to such goodness.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Blame the Messenger

It has not happened all that often, but on occasions someone has been upset enough with a sermon I've preached to call me up and complain.  Now I've certainly preached my share of bad sermons, and no doubt I've interpreted a passage of Scripture in a manner that was not justified.  But on those occasions when someone has been really agitated, their upset seemed not to be about such things.

I once preached a sermon on the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector from Luke 18.  That parable contrasts a Pharisee who tries very hard to do all the God expects of him (and seems rather proud of it) with a tax collector who cannot even bring himself to raise his eyes toward heaven.  He simply beats his breast and pleads, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!"  Jesus says it is the tax collector who left the Temple in good stead with God.  My sermon simply retold the parable with the characters updated to our time: a good, faithful (and proud) church goer compared with examples of people who might be considered reprobates in our day.

The next day I had a member call me, and he was irate.  "Don't you realize that it is good church people who pay their pledges that keep the church going?"  He caught me quite off guard, and to be honest, I don't really recall how I responded to him. 

In retrospect, and following a couple of similar episodes over 15 years, I've concluded that these people were not really upset with me -- although I doubt they would admit as much.  They were upset with what Jesus or Paul or some prophet had said, but directing their anger at me was much less problematic than being angry with Jesus, Paul, or the prophets.

At least I have a biblical text to shield me.  The prophet Amos is on his own.  Only his call from Yahweh legitimizes his words of judgment against the northern kingdom of Israel and its rulers.  And so it is no surprise that those in power blame the messenger.  The priest of the Temple orders Amos to leave.  He may not speak at Bethel, "for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom."

In a time when many people do not read their Bibles with much regularity, preaching becomes the context in which the Bible is most often heard.  And I fear this leads to the message being too tied to that messenger in the pulpit.  And since it's only the preacher, we are free to agree or disagree , even to be angry and upset with her or him.  But if the only valid message is the one we already agree with, what power does the Word have to transform us and create us into something new?

O God, speak to us.  Help us look beyond the messenger, and hear your Word.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Sermon video - The Grass Withers... BUT

Spiritual Hiccups - Hearing God

For the past several years, members of the congregation I serve have produced an Advent Devotional.  People sign up to write devotions for each day in Advent, and these are bound in booklets.  This year the devotions were tied to the Daily Lectionary, and the writers chose which of the scripture readings they would use.

This morning, as I was reading the lectionary passages as part of my own devotions, I got the strong sense that I needed to read the Advent devotion for today.  I went and got the booklet, and what I read spoke directly to me in a very powerful way, and this got me thinking about how we encounter and hear God.

One of the hazards of having a profession that is intertwined with your faith is a difficulty listening to Scripture without thinking about how you might interpret a passage for teaching, preaching, or even blogging.  But how am I to hear God speaking to me if I am always trying to figure out what God is saying to someone else?

One of the spiritual practices I try to engage in is something called examen.  At the end of the day I reflect back, and I ask myself where I met God during the day, as well as where I may have missed God.  And it is a bit disconcerting to think that being a "professional Christian" can sometimes obscure God for me.

Thank God that the voice of my faith community broke through to me.  Turns out that the faith community is essential to me (and not just to pay my salary).  I need the voice of others to open me to the presence of God, especially as a Christian who understands God to be incarnate in Jesus, to be "in the flesh" both in Christ and in the living body of Christ, the Church.

Presbyterians are part of a tradition that not only speaks of incarnation, but also of the "priesthood of all believers," the notion that all Christians have direct access to God and so do not need a priest to mediate that presence.  But this access also means that each of us are part of the work of mediating God's presence.  But as resident religious expert, it can be easy to forget this, and so to miss God in the other.  But thankfully, God (with an assist from Amy) broke through my barriers of expertise. 

What barriers make it hard for you to hear God?  May the Spirit make all of us more open to God's presence in our midst.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sermon audio - The Grass Withers... BUT

Sermon text - The Grass Withers... BUT

Isaiah 40:1-11
The Grass Withers… BUT
James Sledge                                   December 4, 2011 – Advent 2

If you ever come up to my office on a weekday, there’s a good chance you will hear music playing.  I have fairly eclectic musical tastes, but you’re more likely to hear some sort of rock, alternative, or indie music coming from the speakers of my computer.  But despite my love of such music, I can generally do without rock groups performing Christmas music.  There are exceptions, but some of my biggest musical disappointments are when a favorite group puts out a holiday song.  That includes covering traditional songs, but is especially the case with original ones.
A notable exception for me is rather different holiday offering from Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.  It was released way back in 1975, but it has been covered by many others, including U2 a few years back.  Some have said it is an anti-religious song, but Lake claims it was a protest over the commercialization of Christmas.  Regardless, the lyrics are hardly the typical cheery, holiday fare. 
 They said there'll be snow at Christmas.  They said there'll be peace on earth.
  But instead it just kept on raining;  A veil of tears for the virgin's birth.
 They sold me a dream of Christmas.  They sold me a silent night.
 And they told me a fairy story 'till I believed in the Israelite.
Like I said; not your typical holiday fare.  I’ve read that Lake was surprised when the song became something of a hit.  He thought people would think it anti-holiday and reject it, but it was a big seller. 
I don’t know why it was a hit, but I know why it touched me, why it still touches me.  It seems to strip away the manufactured cheer that has become such a big part of the Christmas season.  Perhaps it could even be called a rock and roll Advent song.
  Our culture’s celebration of Christmas works very hard to create warmth and good feelings, but these are usually quite fleeting.  We don’t expect them  to last.  They will be tossed to the curb with the dried up Christmas trees, boxes, and old wrapping paper.  Then we’ll have to wait until next Christmas to get that holiday spirit, that Christmas cheer, once more.
But Advent is different.  It doesn’t try to hide from the world’s pain or ugliness by covering it in colorful wrapping and holiday glitter or drowning it out in cheerful sounds of the holidays.  It takes full stock of how things really are, and with eyes of faith sees God moving in history.  Advent anticipates what God is doing to bring something truly new.
That is the word spoken through the voice of the prophet in our reading this morning.  Second Isaiah, as scholars generally refer to him, is a different prophet than the voice found in the first 39 chapters of the book we call Isaiah.  That earlier Isaiah spoke of God’s coming judgment on Israel, but the words we heard this morning come from 150 years later.  Babylon had crushed Judah, destroyed the city of Jerusalem including Solomon’s great Temple, and had carried off much of the population into exile.  Second Isaiah speaks to those who live in exile, those who are reminded on a daily basis that their god had not protected them from the Babylonians.  The Babylonians and their god Marduk, had triumphed.  In the religious thought of the ancient Middle East, Marduk had triumphed over Yahweh, and now the people of Yahweh were subjects of Marduk’s people. 
Into this seemingly hopeless situation, the prophet speaks.  “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.”  To a people caught up in suffering and hopelessness, the prophet speaks of God coming to comfort, heal, and restore.
Our reading seems to depict the divine council, a heavenly court of some sort.  There is a conversation going on that the prophet hears, and at one point he seems to be addressed.  A voice says, “Cry out!”  But the prophet is not sure such a cry will do much.  After all, he knows the suffering and hopelessness of his people.  So he says, “What shall I cry?” 
Why should the prophet, or the Church for that matter, cry out into the pain and brokenness of the world?  What good will it do?  After all, people are like grass.  They spring up and in a flash, they are gone.  The grass withers, the flower fades.  What’s the point?
One of the hard lessons I learned when I first became a pastor was that many people like Christmas a lot more than they like Advent.  That’s understandable when you consider all the beloved hymns, carols, and traditions connected to Christmas.  But during my first Advent as a pastor, the ink barely dry on my ordination certificate, I was too much the purist, wanting to do Advent just right and ignoring those who advised me to tread more lightly.  But I learned over the years that there is nothing wrong with a few Christmas carols before Christmas, that is, during Advent.
But still, I worry that our half-hearted attempts at Advent end up diminishing the true joy of Christmas.  When we refuse to engage in the reflection and repentance of Advent, viewing it as nothing more than the religious equivalent of  Christmas shopping season, the hope and promise of a Messiah gets reduced to pageantry, nostalgia, and seasonal cheer.  It becomes an escape from the world’s ugliness, cynicism, and hopelessness.  But that is pretty much used up by January, and it’s back to life as usual, to The grass withers, the flower fades.
However, the good news spoken in the Bible, whether it is today’s words of comfort to those in Babylon, or Jesus’ words when he begins his ministry, does not seek to create a brief happy moment, a season of cheeriness that makes everything look better for a bit.  The good news from God that is spoken to those in exile, to the poor and the oppressed, to those who have lost their way, calls them to new futures.  And so it does not ignore the hopelessness and brokenness but addresses them directly.  It insists that God will act to bring change, and it insists that we must change to be a part of it.   When Jesus begins his ministry, he says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent (turn, change), and believe the good news.”
To celebrate the birth of Jesus is to say that God has entered decisively into human history, into people’s daily lives.  For God to become human, for Jesus to declare a coming reign of God that so threatened the reign of the Roman empire that they killed him, is to insist that God is at work in Christ shaping human history.  And to follow this Jesus is to become part of that coming reign of God, to live by his teachings so that our lives declare that the real flow of history belongs to God.  It does not belong to nations or empires or multi-national corporations because Jesus is Lord, Lord of all creation, Lord even over history. 
But the grass withers, the flower fades.  And the world has too much pain and brokenness, too much cynicism, too much suffering.  But if Christ abides in us, we know that the healing touch of God has broken into history.  And while it may not happen on our timetable, God is transforming and renewing us and the world. 
The grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.   And when the Word made flesh lives in our hearts, we can join with the prophet in proclaiming good tidings to a broken and hurting world.  See, the Lord God comes with might… He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Do As I Say

One of the buzzwords among those who talk about congregational vitality and renewal is integrity.  In other words, make sure people who visit your congregation see you living out what you say you believe.  The charge that religious people are hypocrites has been around as long as I can remember, but in an age when religious participation is no longer expected of people, this notion that Christians are hypocrites becomes more of a burden for congregations.  Integrity casts off this burden by working diligently to have our actions match our words.

Jesus speaks of this in today's gospel. A father tells his two sons to go and work in the vineyard.  One says "Yes," but does not go, while the other says, "No," but later does go.  Jesus is addressing religious leaders, and he clearly casts them as those who get the words right but fail to do what they should.

It strikes me that pastors are often judged more on our words than on our actions.  In many congregations, members "know" the pastor primarily from her or his presence in worship.  And traditionally, much of seminary training is focused on getting the words right.  Do we know how to carefully study a passage of Scripture, including studying its words in their original Hebrew or Greek?  Do we know our theology and doctrines?  Can we piece together a compelling sermon?

Without minimizing the importance of any of these, it is entirely possible to talk the talk without walking the walk.  I recently read an article about a support group for atheist pastors.  These pastors at one point felt a call to ordained ministry, but somewhere along the way they lost their faith.  Yet not having other marketable skills, they have remained pastors out of "financial necessity."  That they are able to continue serving congregations with no one being the wiser says something about what those congregations expect of their pastors.

I've never felt a pull to become an atheist, but I do know how to encourage people to be more faithful without necessarily listening to that message myself.  I know how to call people to trust their lives to God, all the while while acting like the congregation's successes or failures are purely a matter of my leadership and competence. 

I feel that I have grown deeper spiritually in recent years, yet I can still neglect the walk.  Those moments when things are going poorly, when I have way too much to do, or when I'm unsure what I should do, are often the very moments when I pray less (too busy) and rely on my own insights rather than seeking God's will.

I think that is why I am fond of Advent. (Advent understood as a waiting attentiveness to God's presence rather than a warmup for Christmas.)  The waiting, watchful, attentive pose of Advent helps me refocus and become open to the transforming work of the Spirit that shapes me more and more for a life of integrity that matches the words.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Praise the Lord, and Pass the Ammunition

I hope it isn't simply a "liberal bias" that makes me scratch my head in bewildered puzzlement when people who say that America's troubles arise from our failing to be a Christian nation also consider military spending to be something sacred.  Which is it, we trust in God to secure us, or we trust in military might?

Happy is the nation whose God is the LORD,
     the people whom he has chosen as his heritage...

A king is not saved by his great army; 
     a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.  
The war horse is a vain hope for victory,
          and by its great might it cannot save.

These words from Psalm 33 are echoed in other biblical passages that insist military might cannot save.  And when the prophet Amos speaks against Israel in today's Old Testament reading, it is clear that no amount of military power or might will be able to stave off the forces that will soon surround them.  "Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: An adversary shall surround the land, and strip you of your defense; and your strongholds shall be plundered."  No amount of human power will thwart God's will.

But the sort of faith that proclaims trust in God while insisting that spectacular military might is necessary to protect us is hardly restricted to one side of the political spectrum.  How easy it is to proclaim faith in Jesus, to speak of following the good shepherd, all the while anxiously seeking to secure happiness and fulfillment through the very things Jesus shuns.  Jesus says to us, "Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or your body, what you will wear... Instead, strive for God's kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well."  Yet I can worry with the best of them: about money, about success, about what people think of me, or what could go wrong.  

I suppose that I and many other people of faith are not too different from those first disciples of Jesus.  We are drawn to him.  We recognize something in him that we cannot find anywhere else.  But when following Jesus gets difficult, we often scatter, just as those disciples did when Jesus was arrested.  In our own ways, we deny him, just as Peter once did.

Of course the colossal failures of those first disciples did not stop Jesus from sending them out in his name after the Resurrection.  Those fearful, timid disciples were transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.  

Jesus, in this season of Advent, come to us in the power of the Spirit.  Transform and empower us to live as the body of Christ in the world.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Sermon video - Wide Awake

Spiritual Hiccups - I Am Not a Number!

In today's Old Testament reading, the prophet Amos speaks God's word of judgment against Israel saying, "I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals — they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way."  That line, "the needy for a pair of sandals," appears again later in Amos.  Amos is perhaps best know for his words that speak of God's hating Israel's festivals and worship, a condemnation that ends with the calls to "let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."  But for me, one of the more memorable lines in the Bible has always been, "the needy for a pair of sandals."

Amos clearly has little use for the wealthy and powerful who see the poor and needy as nothing more than assets to be used, items by which they can further enrich themselves.  But of course economics often wants to reduce individuals to assets, to view them not as human beings but as resources.  Whether it is the use of sweatshop labor or large scale corporate layoffs driven by short term profits, people often become simply numbers on a spreadsheet.  Even the use of the term "human resources" as a substitute for "personnel" locates people on a balance sheet along with other raw materials used in production.  

When I was growing up, there was a very strange TV show called "The Prisoner" which enjoyed a very brief run but attracted a loyal following.  In the show the lead character had somehow been captured and held in a secluded community where everyone had a number.  The plot line of the show consisted of his refusal to be absorbed into this culture and his continual efforts to escape.  I was only 10 or so when it was on, but I still remember a line this prisoner spoke.  "I am not a number!"

"Thus says the LORD, for three transgressions and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and see the needy as nothing more than a number."  Over and over the prophets of the Bible, along with that New Testament prophet named Jesus, insist that God does not see people as numbers, and that God has a special concern for the weak, the vulnerable, the poor, and the needy.  Jesus does not speak of bringing good news to the rich or powerful, but of good news to the poor and release to the captive.

The Church sometimes plays the numbers game, speaking of salvation as though it were another form of economics, with balance sheets where divine accounting takes place.  But Jesus views people as people, as those he reaches out to touch, heal, and make whole.  And like the prophets before him, he saves his ire for those who do not see others as the beloved of God, who do not extend a loving hand to those who are hurting, are broken, or have lost their way.

Jesus, thank you for not seeing me as a number, for loving me and calling me to a new and better life.  Help me to see others as you see me.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sermon audio - Wide Awake

Click to download mp3 file of sermon.

Sermon text - Wide Awake

Mark 13:24-37
Wide Awake
James Sledge                                  November 27, 2011 – Advent 1

When I was a young boy, I’m not sure if there was anything more exciting to me than the arrival of Christmas.  Way back then, Sears still mailed out a big Christmas catalogue.  And when it arrived at our house, my brother Ron and I grabbed it and began going through it, looking for items that we might want for Christmas.  I think that for us, the arrival of that catalogue signaled the real beginning of the Christmas season, a more important marker than decorations in the stores, Christmas music and so on.
We went through that Sears catalogue over and over, dreaming of all the wonderful gifts we might get.  Then we eventually settled on what seemed reasonable actually to ask for.  Then we had to wait.  But finally, after what seemed like forever, the house was decorated and presents were wrapped and put under the tree, and Christmas Eve would arrive.
My household was one of those “Nothing gets opened until Christmas morning” homes.  And so the evening of Christmas Eve was filled with more anticipation than any other time of year.  Before bedtime my Father would read The Night Before Christmas, along with the nativity story from Luke’s gospel.  And then we would go to bed.
We would go to bed, but we didn’t go to sleep.  Ron was just a year younger than me, and the two of us shared a bedroom.  And how could we possibly go to sleep knowing what was about to happen.  Somehow the living room was miraculously going to fill with many of those toys we had asked for.  And since we shared a room, each of us reinforced and amplified the other’s excitement and anticipation.  We thought every creak or sound might be reindeer on the roof or Santa coming down the chimney.  And our parents would have to stick their heads in the door repeatedly, urging us to be quiet and go to sleep if we wanted Santa to show up.  But it was so hard to settle down, so hard to fall asleep.
I still enjoy Christmas Eve, though it doesn’t hold quite the same level of excitement or anticipation that it did all those years ago.  And so I usually go to sleep without much trouble.  But other times when I am really excited about something, really anxious or worried, or really anticipating some big event, I can still find it very difficult to get to sleep.
“And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”  So Jesus says to us this morning.  Quite the opposite of my parents’ words to Ron and me, “Go to sleep!” Jesus urges his followers to stay awake.  If my parents had told us, “Keep awake,” we probably never would have gone to sleep.  Jesus clearly was dealing with a very different problem.
Modern day Christians don’t have much appreciation for this, but in Jesus’ day, most Jews assumed that the arrival of God’s Messiah would usher in a new age, something so wonderful it would be like Christmas morning every day.  The prophets had spoken of it, a day when people would beat their swords into plowshares… the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
But that had not happened quite as people expected.  Jesus had come, died, and been raised, but the world still looked the same.  The very first Christians assumed that this was a very short delay, a brief window where they could share the good news with the world.  But the window would close when Jesus returned.  And if you read the letters of Paul, it is clear he thought that would happen within his lifetime.
In our gospel today, Jesus warns against such assumptions.  The final closing of this age and the coming of a new one are known only to the Father.  And so we should not listen to those who claim to have figured it out.  When God’s day begins to arrive in full, no one will be able to miss it.  It will be as clear as the arrival of Spring.  Until then, we must simply stay alert and keep awake.
But while staying awake when you are giddy with excitement is easy, it is less so when you don’t know when the moment you are awaiting will arrive.  When one day looks a lot like the next, it can become more and more difficult. 
I suppose that is why some Christians are forever ignoring what Jesus says and trying to figure out the timing of his return.  Harold Camping’s rather spectacular failure earlier this year was only the latest in a long history of such failed predictions.  Camping’s prediction – at least the one back in May of this year – generated the sort of anticipation and excitement among his followers that my brother and I felt at Christmas.  People quit jobs, sold or gave away property and homes in expectation of the rapture Camping promised was coming.  But just as Jesus said, such predictions are inevitably wrong, for no one knows the day or hour.
Today, another season of Advent opens, and the anticipation of another Christmas begins.  As with Harold Camping’s predictions, we know exactly the date and time for Christmas.  We have a lot of stuff to do to get ready, and we may struggle to get it all done, but Christmas will not catch us off guard.  We will be ready when it arrives.  Perhaps that is why Advent had become almost entirely about getting ready for Christmas.  After all, how do we get ready for something we do not fully understand, that comes at an unknown day and hour?
I actually think that this question grapples with some fundamental issue about the nature of faith.  Think about that for a moment.  What is faith?  What does it mean when we say that we have faith? 
The fact that Protestant Christianity grew up alongside the Enlightenment and the Scientific Age probably contributed to the notion of faith as largely about information.  And our focus on faith rather than works seemed create a new sort of work, believing the right things, knowing the correct information. 
But as worked up as people can get about right beliefs; as hard as some may work to convince others of them, a growing number of people seem to have become disenchanted with such notions of faith.  Rather than wanting to know the right beliefs, they want to know, “What difference does faith make in how I live?  What difference does it make in how I experience life?”  And while an Advent that only gets ready for another Christmas may believe the right things what once happened long ago, I’m not sure it knows what to say to those who wonder what difference any of this is supposed to make.
Most all of us are familiar with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  But where did that dream come from?  For King it emerged from a deep life of faith and prayer.  His faith was not simply information he believed correct.  Rather it was a deep connection to God and the promises of God that looked forward to something new and wonderful.  You can have all the right information, and not dream the dream.  The dream is a transforming hope that is known and felt despite evidences to the contrary.  It drives people to live and act in ways that anticipate the dream’s fulfillment, to be wide awake with anticipation even though the day and the hour are unknown.
In his last speech, just one day before he was assassinated, King said, “I've looked over, and I've seen the promised land.  I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.  So I'm happy tonight.  I'm not worried about anything.  I'm not fearing any man.” 
That’s Advent faith.  That’s wide-awake faith that lives expectantly for a day with no announced arrival.  You could memorize the Bible and know every theological doctrine Presbyterians hold dear, and be no nearer to such a faith.  Such faith comes only when Jesus abides in us, when the Holy Spirit transforms us, when we become so connected to God that God’s hopes and dreams for a new day begin to become ours.
It’s Advent once more.  We light Advent candles and get ready for Christmas like we do every year.  Some of us have done it so many times we could do it in our sleep.  But Jesus says, “Keep awake.” 
Jesus, come and dwell with us.  Let us see the promised land of your new day, that we may get ready for it, work for it, and anticipate its coming like excited children on Christmas Eve.  Come, Lord Jesus.