Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sunday Sermon audio - Assaulted by God

Sunday Sermon text - Assaulted by God

Genesis 32:22-31
Assaulted by God
James Sledge                                                   July 31, 2011

When I was a child, my father would often read Bible stories to me prior to bedtime.  I can still see the big Bible Story book that he used.  Certainly there were many stories about Jesus, but I think that as a child, the Old Testament stories stood out more.  There were a lot of “hero” type stories in the Old Testament’ David fighting the giant Goliath with only his sling, Samson, the Hebrew version of Hercules.  And then there were all those stories about Abraham and Sarah, and their offspring; Isaac, Esau and Jacob, and then all of Jacob’s sons, including Joseph.
The characters in those Bible stories didn’t seem much like real people to me.  Perhaps that was just how far removed from me they were historically and culturally.  Or perhaps it was because the Bible stories themselves had a kind of comic book mentality to them.  These were larger than life heroes, not people much like me or other members of my family.
Whatever the reasons, I was well into adulthood before it dawned on me what a messed up, dysfunctional family the Abraham and Sarah clan was.  It starts with the half-brothers Ishmael and Isaac, and only gets worse from there.

Rebekah and Isaac have twin boys, Esau and Jacob.  Esau is the first born by a few seconds, and the sibling rivalry is off and running.  Jacob is born holding onto Esau’s heel, their struggle already begun.
Not that the parents do much to help matters.  Daddy likes Esau, and Momma likes Jacob.   Esau is an outdoorsy, hunting and fishing sort of fellow.  He’s the first born, a man of action, a manly man, and Dad plans to pass on the family business to Esau.  Jacob, by contrast, is a Momma’s boy who likes hanging out in the tent.  He’s also sneaky and manipulative, a cheat and a scoundrel who takes advantage of Esau’s tendency to act first and think later.  And his mother is happy to assist.
Jacob and Esau are born when Isaac is quite old.  By the time his boys are full grown, he is getting feeble and has become blind.  Sensing that his time is short, Isaac calls in Esau and asks him to go out hunting and bring back some savory game they can enjoy together.  And after the meal, Isaac will formally sign over the family business.  In the language of the Bible, he will bless Esau.
But Momma overhears.  She goes to Jacob and they, literally, cook up a scheme to deceive the old, blind father.  She prepares a meal and helps Jacob disguise himself as Esau.  He puts on some of Esau’s clothing, and Momma uses some goat skins to make arm hair wigs so the smooth-skinned Jacob has the hairy arms of his brother.
I know it’s a crazy story, but that’s what is says in the Bible.  Jacob goes to his father, pretending to be Esau.  Isaac recognizes Jacob’s voice, but the smell of Esau’s clothes, those arm hair wigs, (and maybe a little dementia?) are enough to fool the old man. 
And so Isaac blesses Jacob moments before Esau returns to discover that he has been robbed of his blessing.  I don’t know why there is no undoing this contract signed under false pretenses, but it seems that the blessing cannot be taken back. It is Jacob’s now, and Esau, its rightful owner, is left out, cheated out of his inheritance by his own brother.
No wonder Esau begins thinking about killing his brother.  Jacob flees for his life, going back to Momma’s homeland to live with her family.  By the time he gets the nerve to come back, he has a couple of wives, eleven sons, a twelfth on the way, and one daughter.  He is still a con-man and a trickster, and he will repeat the mistakes of his own parents by favoring one of his children over the others.  That child, Joseph, will become a spoiled brat whose own brothers plot to kill him, but that is another story.  In our story today, Jacob heads back to his birthplace, not knowing if Esau still wants to kill him? 
Now I have known my share of dysfunctional families, but I’m not sure I’ve ever met any so thoroughly messed up as this one.  And perhaps that would not matter much except that for some inexplicable reason, God has hitched the hopes of blessing and restoration for all humanity to this dysfunctional family.  What was God thinking?
I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but church congregations can be dysfunctional families themselves.  There are manipulative folk who to get their way by complaining or threatening to leave and people who rarely lift a finger to help out yet perpetually think they deserve more from the church.  There are parking lot meetings that circumvent the official meeting.  There is gossiping and anonymous criticism where “lots of people” without names are upset or angry.  Yet for some inexplicable reason, God has hitched the hopes of humanity’s blessing and restoration to this dysfunctional family.  What was God thinking?
For much of Jacob’s dysfunctional story, God has seemed uninvolved   But as Jacob returns to his birthplace, God makes an unexpected, uninvited entrance.  A man wrestled with (Jacob) until daybreak.  I wonder if Jacob first thought it was Esau. It’s a strange story with no reason is given for the attack.  It is a story with religious sensibilities quite different from our own, depicting the encounter with God in earthy, dramatic fashion.  This is not about belief.  This is about struggle and blessing.  Jacob seeks to deal with God as he does with everything else, to grab what he wants.  But the attempt does not work out quite like he plans.  God does not best him, and he gets a blessing.  But in the process he is renamed, and he goes away limping.   God’s blessing is still hitched to Jacob, now Israel, and his dysfunctional family, but Jacob, and those who follow him, will be changed and marked by this blessing, and bound in an ongoing struggle with God.
I’ve spoken with you before about the mammoth, three-year-ong National Study of Youth and Religion that examined the beliefs and faith practices of teenage Americans.  They looked at a huge spectrum of religious tradition, and it turns out that most young people don’t dislike religion or church.  They have a mostly positive view of them, however, their religious notions are so benign and inconsequential that they have almost no bearing on how these young people live their lives.  The study named their faith, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” and its hallmarks are: believing God created the world, God wants people to be good and nice, the central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself, God is not really involved in life except in moments of crisis, and good folks go to heaven. 
There’s nothing terribly offensive about any of this, but neither is there anything terribly substantive either.  Professor and Christian Educator Kenda Dean uses terms like “Christian-ish” and “cult of nice” to describe it.  It bears little resemblance to the faith the Church has proclaimed for centuries, but this is not, according to the study, because young people misunderstood the faith or perverted it.  Rather it is the faith that was transmitted to them by their parents and their congregations.[1]
Now Jacob lived a long way from 21st Century America and “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” yet I can see some points of connection, at least prior to Jacob’s wrestling match.  Aside from a few moments of crisis, God seems uninvolved in Jacob’s life.  Jacob is all about using his own wits and cunning, grasping for all that he can, so that he can be happy.  But then God, for all practical purposes, assaults him.  Strangely, the encounter is something of a draw.  God’s blesses Jacob, but he is permanently changed and marked.  He has a new identity, and a limp. 
Now here we are, the dysfunctional descendants of Jacob, still seeking God’s blessing.  One of our current dysfunctions is to imagine a safe, benign God who is not much involved in our lives, who wants only to give us a spiritual lift.  We can scarcely imagine a God who assaults us, grapples with us in a strange encounter that does not defeat us yet transforms and marks us, sends us out with new identities, carrying God’s blessing with us limping as we go.  Such a thing seems preposterous… until the wrestling starts.

[1] See Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010)

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - I Assume I'm Right

In the current partisan bickering in Washington over raising America's debt ceiling, there seem to be different sets of assumptions at work.  One side assumes, with near certainty, than any new tax or even eliminating any tax break is anathema.  The other side assumes that we have a debt problem only because we cut taxes during George W. Bush's presidency, and if we put those revenues back, there would be no problem.  And both side assume, with absolute certainty, that the other side is not only wrong, but delusional.  In such a climate, compromise is virtually impossible because it involves caving in on your "principles."

All of us walk around with a significant number of assumptions.  It would be hard to live normal lives if we didn't, if every day was a completely blank slate and we had no template to work from, no notions of how we should respond, no framework with which to categorize and make sense of what was going on around us.  Trouble is, as necessary as assumptions and templates for living are, they are always provisional, often need adjusting, and are sometimes totally wrong.  Yet in today's political climate, my assumptions often take on the aura of religious convictions.  And with the total triumph of individualism in our culture, my own tastes and personal assumptions often take on this same aura.

In today's gospel reading, Jesus calls Philip to follow him.  Philip in turn tells Nathaniel about Jesus, but Nathaniel's response is, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Everyone "knew" that the Messiah wouldn't come from there. 

And in Paul's words to the Roman Christians, he warns them about passing judgment on their fellow believers.  That seems to me another way of saying that our assumptions, including our religious ones, are provisional, that they are never The Truth.  And Paul writes in another famous letter that "We know only in part."  Our truths are always incomplete, and in the meantime, we are to rely on faith, hope and love, with love trumping all else.  (And the love Paul speaks of is not romantic love but the love most clearly modeled in the self-giving life of Jesus.)

Huge numbers of those doing the bickering over the debt ceiling want to claim the label "Christian," and even to apply that label to our nation.  Yet surely no one would characterize their bickering as marked primarily by faith, hope, and love, with love being the greatest. 

I wonder what our life together would look like in church congregations, in communities, in business, and in politics if the only assumption we were certain of was love?

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - More Miracles!

Yesterday Jesus was feeding thousands from a handful of bread and fish, a miracle sometimes "explained" as an episode of mass sharing.  But if you like your miracles to come with natural explanations, today's gospel poses more of a challenge.  Jesus comes to the disciples as they struggled in their boat against an adverse wind, walking on the sea.  And for good measure, when he gets in the boat the wind stops.  This one is a little harder to "explain."

There is also a grammatical construction in the passage that can't really be carried over into the English.  When Jesus says "It is I," the actual Greek reads, "I am."  That would be the Greek way of saying, "It is I," but it is also a way Greek speaking Jews of the First Century spoke of God.  (Think of the "I AM" speech of God to Moses at the burning bush in Exodus.)  But regardless of whether or not we are supposed to hear an echo of "I AM" in Jesus' words to his disciples, the gospel writer clearly wants us to recognize that all the power of God is present here in Jesus.  His ability to provide food in the wilderness (think manna) and now to walk on the water and cause the wind to cease clearly speak of God's presence, even if the "hardened hearts" of the disciples don't yet perceive it.

Now this may all sound like Christianity 101, but in fact the notion of God fully present in Jesus does not fit all that well with way lots of Christians practice their faith.  If what Jesus says and does carries the full weight of God, then his teachings are not some philosophy to consider, to evaluate and adopt whatever parts sound reasonable to us.  And if God is really present in Jesus, getting mixed up in all the messiness of human life, illness and meals and money and relationships, then faith cannot be only about what I believe, or how I'm feeling spiritually. 

You know, Christian faith would be a whole lot easier if we just used the Thomas Jefferson Bible, Jefferson's attempt to distill the ethics and morals of Jesus' teachings while removing all the supernatural elements that caused so much trouble.  But many of us treasure the Bible too much to actually edit it the way Jefferson did.  Besides, it's even easier just to ignore most of it.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - What To Do with Miracles

People who grew up in the church have heard miracle stories all their lives, virgin birth, healing miracles, storms stilled, the walls of Jericho toppled, and people raised from the dead to name a few.  As people of faith we are supposed to believe in such miracles, but as modern people this poses real problems.  We are much more "sophisticated" than biblical people.  We understand the mechanics of storms and diseases, and we often try to fit the Bible's miracles into our modern worldview. 

I've seen an earthquake blamed for Jericho's tumbling fortifications, and a variety of naturally occurring events have "explained" the plagues God and Moses visit on Egypt to rescue Israel from slavery.  Likewise, I have heard more than one sermon preached on today's gospel, the feeding of the 5000, where this feeding miracle becomes a miracle of sharing.  It goes something like this.  Many people in the crowd had a little food tucked under their robes, but they dared not reveal it in the midst of a vast sea of hungry people.  They would save it and eat on the way home.  But Jesus takes the meager bits of food he and his little group have and begins to distribute them.  As he begins to share, others add their items to the mix, and before you know it there is more than enough for everyone.  If you know the fable about "Stone Soup," it is a similar idea.

Now this explanation makes perfectly good sense, I suppose.  And it could have happened that way.  But I'm reasonably certain that the gospel writers didn't think it happened that way.  And it seems to me that there is a kind of arrogance that insists that biblical accounts must be revised so that they fit our worldview. 

In 16 years as a pastor, I have discovered that congregations, even if they believe in biblical miracles, doubt the miraculous can impact them.  We struggle with the notion that God can do something with us and through us that is more than the sum of our parts.  In the Feasting on the Word preaching commentary material for two Sundays out, I read a quote from Earnest Campbell, former pastor of Riverside Church in NYC, saying that "the reason that we seem to lack faith in our time is that we are not doing anything that requires it."  And not only do I think him correct, but I think this problem emerges from our certainty that nothing can happen that we can't do on our own.  We imagine that we could be better congregations if everyone did their share, if we had better leaders, or if we had better pastors who could motivate the members.  But we consider our abilities, talents, resources, etc. as the determining limits of what can be done and what can happen.  The most Jesus can do is give us a model of sharing that might jump start our own miracle of sharing.

But what if there was no sharing going on when Jesus broke the five loaves of bread and divided two fish to serve thousands? 

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sunday Sermon text - Dare We Be Christians?

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Dare We Be Christians?
James Sledge                                                  July 24, 2011

Have you ever done a load of white laundry, and something dark got mixed in?  A single, red item somehow went unnoticed, and you open the washer to discover that everything has turned pink.  It’s amazing the way one, unseen thing can give you a new wardrobe.
Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven, the coming rule of God, is a little like that.  Jesus actually speaks of yeast and mustard seeds.  But mustard plants were generally not grown as a crop in Palestine, although the tiny seeds did find their way into the other seeds that a farmer would sow.  It was easy to miss such a tiny, dust-like seed mixed in with the larger grain.  Only later would the farmer realize that a fast growing mustard plant was now transforming his field into something quite other than he had intended.
And yeast or, perhaps more properly, leaven, is not the same product we buy at the store to use in baking.  Leaven is dough that has soured, that has begun to go bad.  Used carefully, it could intentionally be added to a new mix of dough to make it rise in baking.  But it could also make you sick if it was too far gone. 
In the Bible, leaven is almost always a symbol of corruption.  Leavened bread could never be used as an offering to God.  During Passover, not only was leavened bread forbidden, but no trace of leaven was allowed in people’s homes.  And Jesus himself speaks of the teachings of the Pharisees as leaven, something that corrupts and distorts the good gift of God’s Law.
But in the parables we just heard, Jesus speaks of God’s hoped-for new day as like a mustard seed that unexpectedly sprang up in the field, like leaven that has transformed the bread into something that is no longer fit to be offered to God, like a red sock that has turned the entire load of white dress shirts pink.
Perhaps it is a bit unsettling to think of the kingdom, the dream of God’s new day, as something that subverts and corrupts the order of things, especially for us Presbyterians.  We Presbyterians love things “decently and in order,” so much so that we sometimes seem to worship order and fear anything new.  An old joke asks, “How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb?”  And the punch line goes, “Change?”
But today Jesus says the kingdom that has come near is like something subversive and corrupting that insidiously and almost imperceptibly works to change things.  And Jesus continues his surprising imagery in describing the Kingdom’s great worth.  Merchants, like the one who finds the pearl, were the used car salesmen of Jesus’ day, and the fellow who finds a treasure in someone else’s field either commits fraud or theft to acquire it.  I suppose Jesus is saying that the Kingdom is so desirable that we should risk anything to be part of it.
Unfortunately the Church has often marginalized this Kingdom.  We’ve not seen it at work in our everyday lives.  Jesus says the Kingdom, God’s rule, has come near, but we’ve hidden the Kingdom inside the Church walls or, more often, exiled God’s rule to heaven, and so exempted the world, and our daily lives, from its subversive, life altering impact.
Back in the 1980s, our denomination  began a formal peacemaking program.  We affirmed peacemaking as every believer’s calling, and  the General Assembly urged congregations to integrate peacemaking into their life and mission.  There is an annual Peacemaking Offering.  Resources were developed to study and discuss peacemaking, including a pledge that church sessions could approve and sign to declare they were a Peacemaking congregation.   Many presbyteries encouraged the congregations in their area to sign this “commitment to peacemaking”  occasionally announcing the percentage of congregations who had.
Now when you recall that Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” you might think that everyone would want to sign a “commitment to peacemaking.”  But in fact, peacemaking proved to be a contentious subject.  Might such a commitment put us in the same camp with anti-war demonstrators?  Might it be seen as unpatriotic or liberal?  Many sessions steadfastly refused to sign the commitment, and some argued forcefully that churches had no business doing anything that seemed to question defense policy or even hint at being unpatriotic.  After all, Christian faith is about personal salvation and going to heaven when you die, isn’t it?  It’s not about civil or governmental affairs.
Yet when Jesus shows up, his first words are about the Kingdom coming near.  Jesus uses a political image, and he says that the arrival of God’s rule , God’s new government, requires us to change, to repent, to begin living different sorts of lives now.
We Americans have little experience with kings and kingdoms.  And though we are sometimes fascinated by British royalty, we know them as mere figureheads.  But when Jesus speaks of  the Kingdom, he does so in a world where kings make the rules.  And proclaiming God’s kingdom is an explicit claim that God governs.  God is the central character in the life of the world and is at work in surprising, even subversive ways to bend history and the world toward God’s purposes.  But the world, and many of us, do not believe it.
It turns out that it is quite easy to believe in God without believing that God rules.  We can believe in God but still act as though the real rulers of the world are money, military might, political clout, etc.  We even speak of “the invisible hand of the market” and “the almighty dollar,” and these often exert more influence on our daily lives than God’s rule.
But not so with Jesus.  Jesus is so certain that God rules, his life is so saturated by God’s rule, that he lives and acts in surprising, subversive ways, casting his lot with the poor, the oppressed, and the sinner; undermining the powers-that-be as surely as leaven changes the dough.  Jesus is so certain that God rules and that the world is being aligned to that governance, that he is willing to give his life for it.
How absurd to believe that God is really in charge of history, that we cannot secure our future via military might or economic power.  How foolish to believe that God is on the side of the weak and the vulnerable, and that God’s will – not ours nor Wall Street’s nor some political party’s nor anyone else’s – is going to be done here on earth.  How ridiculous to believe that I become fully human only as I fully acknowledge God’s rule, and my life begins to be shaped by that rule in the way that Jesus’ life was.  And what an idealistic delusion to think that we as the Church could live together in ways that demonstrate and embody God’s rule for all the world to see.
When I graduated from seminary, a professor I was close to gave me a gift, a little book by Walter Rauschenbusch entitled, Dare We Be Christians?  It was written in 1914, another time when the Church was filled with confidence.  But Rauschenbusch, who had worked in a poor and destitute part of New York City known as “Hell’s Kitchen,” thought that the Church’s focus on personal salvation had undermined Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom, and about our call to embody it.  And he asks if we dare believe the absurdity and foolishness Jesus declares to us and calls us to live out?
Dare we?  Dare we trust that the power of resurrection has be set loose in the world?  Dare we trust that God will provide and equip us to live in ways that transform others and the world?  Dare we become agents (red socks?) of the Kingdom Jesus says has come near?

Sunday Sermon audio - Dare We Be Christians?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Saturated with God

Because I am a "second career" pastor, I had an normal life until I was in my mid 30s.  I had regular jobs and I was a regular church member who listened to sermons, served on a committee or two, and slept in on Sunday morning if I felt like it.  I was probably as religious as the average church person, which is to say that God did not really saturate my life all that much.  God did not have a great deal to do with my work life, or even with how my wife and I were raising our young children. 

But when God started to become more important in my life, when God started to occupy my thoughts on a more regular basis (why and how this happened is another story and not entirely certain to me), it wasn't all that long before I began to think about seminary and ordained ministry.  If God was going to be around all the time then obviously you need to be doing a job that was about God.

I am quite convinced that God did call me to go to seminary and become a Presbyterian pastor, but over the years I have come to understand a piece of advice that as given to me when I first announced I was thinking of attending seminary.  "Don't confuse God's call to an active life of faith with a call to become a pastor."

I think there is a tendency to assume that church and God's presence are close to the same thing.  And it is easy for pastors to consider church involvement as an accurate faith indicator.  After all, the way we responded to God's presence was to spend all our time at church.  Pastors and seminary students will even talk about our "call stories" as though we are the only ones who have them.  As a result we don't always recognize that some churchy things don't necessarily help folks live in God's presence.

Many of the Psalms are saturated with God's presence.  God's steadfast love is everywhere, and God's activity can be seen in everything from a wheat field to frost on a winter's morning (something that sounds quite refreshing during this heatwave).  For Israel and for Jesus, God is mixed into every facet of life, which is why Jesus cannot turn away from anyone in need.

There is an adage in the church business that when new members join they need to become involved in something more than worship or they are very likely not to stay members for long.  In many of the churches I have known the first thought in addressing this problem is, "Let's see if they'll serve on a committee."  Now I'm not badmouthing committees.  They do a lot of important work and some of them are very spiritual places, but this inclination to put folks on committees seems to me an echo of that trap we pastors fall into: thinking that lots of church activity is a sign of deep faith.

I wonder how churches might to a better job of helping members live lives that are saturated with God.  Obviously congregations would need programs (and likely committees) to organize such learnings and practices, but what if we focused less on our congregations and more on how we could help each other live out our faith beyond the church walls?  And perhaps this starts with pastors realizing that being saturated with Church and being saturated with God are not necessarily the same thing.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Christ Shaped Lives

 O LORD, who may abide in your tent?
          Who may dwell on your holy hill?

 Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
          and speak the truth from their heart;
 who do not slander with their tongue,
          and do no evil to their friends,
          nor take up a reproach against their neighbors; 

The opening of Psalm 15 strikes a common biblical theme, that Yahweh desires "righteousness" or right living from those who would claim relationship with this God.  We Christians are sometimes prone to think that our belief or faith negates this need for righteousness.  But although Jesus brings God's love and forgiveness to sinners, he also calls them to new life.

Jesus models that new life for his followers, and it is much more than "being moral" or "being good citizens."  Jesus calls us to life with God at its center, a life animated by the love of neighbor, even when that neighbor is an enemy.  This is much more than adherence to basic community standards.  It is the radical reorientation of every facet of life.

Some wonderful theological discussions can be had around how God's love, grace, and forgiveness offered freely to all coexist with Jesus saying things such as, "Not everyone who calls me 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven."  Is it possible to fully experience God's love and grace without being transformed so as to live differently?  Can one truly love God and not live in ways that seek to please God?

Regardless, the life of faith cannot be lived entirely in one's mind.  It must be fleshed out in Christ-like action.  And that suggests that the label "Christian" should not be used with too much ease.  I frequently hear someone labeled a "good Christian fellow" when all that is meant is the person wasn't a scoundrel.  And when we say that America is a "Christian nation," do we really mean that our country embodies the radical reorientation of all life that Jesus models? 

When I grew up, part of the Christian, cultural veneer was saying the "Lord's Prayer" before sporting events.  All the footballs teams I ever played on huddled up and said this prayer before taking the field.  We prayed that God's kingdom would arrive, that God's will would be done on earth.  But I never got much sense that anyone really thought this needed to happen, that things needed to change and God's will needed to be enacted. 

O Lord, who may abide in your presence?  Who may be a part of the new day you promise to bring?  Mold me and make me fit for your Kingdom.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - God Intrudes

Graham Standish wrote in one of his books about the typical church meeting.  The committee or governing board gathers.  Someone offers a prayer asking God to bless the work they are about to do.  And then God is asked to wait outside, perhaps go get a cup of coffee, while they do their work.  After they are done, they will invite God back in as they pray for God's blessing on what just transpired.

In our staff meetings here, we try to avoid this pattern by spending a good bit of our time in reflection and discussion of Scripture.  This is not a quick devotion, but an extended time of seeking to hear what a text says to us and how this calls us to act or change or respond.  We then try to let this discussion flow into the items we need to cover.  But we can still manage in subtle ways to invite God out of the meeting as we begin to discuss some event, program, or activity in the life of the congregation.  Thankfully, God does not always oblige.

Today we were discussing this Sunday's gospel reading.  We spent a great deal of time listening to and discussing the first two parables of the reading comparing the Kingdom to a mustard seed and to yeast or leaven.  But as we made the transition from talking about God's sometimes imperceptible and even subversive activity the bring about the kingdom to talking about program logistics, God did not leave.

Somehow our programmatic discussions turned back onto our gospel discussions, and we ended up talking about how often in the life of the church we operate without much sense that God is at work to bring about the Kingdom.  Often we act as if the congregation is simply the result of our combined efforts, talents, activities, plans and strategies, etc.  In the operation of the church, in its programs, even in its worship, God can be nearly as absent as God is from many of our meetings.

As God refused to be absent from this morning's meeting, I became acutely aware of how easy it is for us to operate as if God was at the margins of our lives, or perhaps better, how hard it is for us to live as though God was the central character of our life stories, the essential actor without whom the entire story falls apart.  And we as a staff recalled how important it is for us to live in ways that model a different worldview than the primary one in our culture, one where humans and market forces and money and power are not the primary agents moving history forward.  Rather, God is.

It is easy to miss the mustard seed, to fail to notice the yeast doing its work.  It is easy to imagine that we humans are totally free and autonomous, masters of our own destinies, the most important characters in our own personal narratives, and the narrative of history.  Thank goodness that God occasionally intrudes and shatters such illusions.

Click to learn more about the Lectionary.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Sunday Sermon video - How To Tell Them Apart

Sermon videos can also be found on YouTube.

Spiritual Hiccups - Messy Pictures of God

Regardless of whether we are religious fundamentalists or secular humanists, we all have a worldview that was shaped by Enlightenment notions of logic and rational thought.  We share notions of larger truths and concepts even if we disagree over what those larger truths are.  And we who are the religious sort tend to fit our religious beliefs into a framework of larger truths and concepts.  Yet the biblical picture of God is not nearly so neat.  Its picture of God refuses to be confined to our neat, theological constructs, or to early creeds written by those with a Greek philosophical worldview.

Today's psalm is a good case in point.  It celebrates the greatness of God
who struck down the firstborn of Egypt,
          both human beings and animals;
he sent signs and wonders
          into your midst, O Egypt,
          against Pharaoh and all his servants.
He struck down many nations
          and killed mighty kings —
Sihon, king of the Amorites,
          and Og, king of Bashan,
          and all the kingdoms of Canaan —
  and gave their land as a heritage,
          a heritage to his people Israel.

Describing a deity who strikes down - that is kills - infants, calves, lambs, foals, and so on, paints a deeply troubling picture of GodYet that is the picture of God found in the Bible's foundational salvation story, the Exodus.  The God of the Bible is known through this special commitment to this insignificant people, Israel.  And while we may manage to construct grander pictures of God that smooth off the rough edges, when we go back to the stories of the Bible itself, we are faced with a God who refuses to be bound by our constructs, a God who is wilder, more unpredictable, perhaps even more frightening than we would prefer.

And the person of Jesus does not solve this problem for us.  Jesus is a maddeningly particular, historical figure.  He is a First Century Palestinian Jew with First Century notions of how the world works.  Western Europeans have tried to make Jesus "one of them."  Blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus is familiar to most of us.  But of course Jesus is not some generic everyman who is all things to all people.  He is a dark-skinned, male Jew who gathers around him a band of working folks, outcasts, women, and sinners, managing to upset both the religious authorities of his own faith and the Roman imperial apparatus that controlled the region.  Yet still we insist that we meet God in this person who is born, who grows and learns, who remains Jewish for his entire life, and who causes enough trouble to get himself executed.

The Bible's picture of God is messy and particular, not generic and universal.  Yet in my own faith life, as I've noted here before, I have been inclined to understand God more as concept and premise than a messy, particular personality.  I wonder if I can let God out of the theological, doctrinal molds and constraints I have inherited and/or constructed.  I wonder if that God might not be a lot more real, a lot more alive.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sunday Sermon text - How To Tell Them Apart

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 (Jeremiah 29:1-7)
How To Tell Them Apart
James Sledge                                                       July 17, 2011

Most of you have seen the raised beds that we put in this spring, beds that are now filled with beans, tomatoes, peppers, squash, and just to humor my southern roots okra.  People show up faithfully each week to weed the beds, to water it, and to pick the produce.  Our small efforts are part of a growing army of community garden plots all over the city, and like us, many are taking their harvest to food pantries so they have some fresh produce.
Now imagine for a moment that some devious soul went around to all these community gardens sowing them with weeds.  And worse, imagine that these weeds somehow mimicked the good plants, appearing to be vegetables themselves until they reached maturity, only then becoming distinguishable from the genuine vegetables.  .
Thats the situation in the parable Jesus tells this morning.  Our Bible simply says that an enemy sowed weeds, and I understand why.  Most of us wouldnt know what zizanium was, though thats what the parable actually says.  And even if translators used its common name, bearded darnel, that wouldnt help much either.  But in fact, bearded darnel is a weed that looks very much like wheat and is difficult to distinguish from wheat until the grain heads form.  To make matters worse, darnel is mildly poisonous.  And so you can understand the desire to pull these weeds right away.  But the landowner says, No.  Wait for the harvest.

Over the years, this parable has often been used to say that the Church is a mixed bag, that we cant worry too much about purity, but should leave that problem to God.  This interpretation goes all the way back to St. Augustine himself, and Im perfectly fine with it to a point.  But when Jesus explains the parable, he doesnt say that the field is the Church.  He says it is the world.  Now clearly the world, like the Church, is a mixed bag.  There are good, not so good, and really horrible people, and there is enough hate, violence and war to convince most people that evil is real.  But is Jesus saying that we are simply to accept this fact, that we are simply to let God sort it all out in the end?
I think such questions become more and more important for the American church as we find ourselves increasingly pushed to the margins of culture.  The days when Mainline theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr advised presidents and helped shape public policy are long gone.  Nowadays, even though our denomination still makes statements that Congress should do this or do that, stop this or stop that, no one really listens.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has suggested that the metaphor of exile is appropriate to describe where the Church finds itself in America.[1]  We have been deported from our comfortable homeland of the mid-20th Century into a world that no longer works in ways we fully understand.  The stores stay open and the youth sports teams play games during our sacred worship times.  Public schools no longer serve as our agents or shape our children for Christian faith.  The landscape of America has changed dramatically since the 1950s.  And institutions such as the Presbyterian Church, which had their heyday in that time, find themselves aliens in a strange land.
When Israel is carried off into exile in Babylon, the people literally find themselves strangers in a strange land.  Exile produced a profound faith crisis.  How could this have happened.  Why had God abandoned them?  How would they survive? 
But into this anguish, the prophet Jeremiah writes to the exiles in Babylon.  “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”  And I wonder if there are not parallels between the prophets words and the parable Jesus tells.
The Hebrew exiles in Babylon had to figure out what it looked like to be faithful in a world where there was no longer a Temple, where the Ark of the Covenant and the promise of Gods presence had vanished.  And in ways less dramatic, we find ourselves needing to discover what it means to be faithful in a world that is much less "for us" than it once was. But Jeremiah says that the Israelites must be faithful within their new context.  Their future is bound to that world that is not for them.  And I think Jesus says something similar.  We must be faithful and bear fruit in a world not for us, amidst the weeds.
Exiles are always in danger of disappearing, of being absorbed into the culture in which they find themselves.  To keep this from happening, they must cultivate a distinctiveness, a peculiarity.  They must live in ways that set them apart, allowing them to maintain an identity the prevailing culture does not support.  For the Hebrews in Babylon, Sabbath keeping and the synagogue became crucial elements that marked them as different.  But what about us?
I think those ancient Hebrews may actually have had an advantage over us.  There was no denying they were in exile, no denying that they now lived in a world that was corrosive to their faith practices.  But we can deny our exile.  We can still speak of being a Christian nation, even if many of those people we count as Christian engage in no discernible activity, bear no fruit that would mark them as such.  We can say, If only they would put prayer back in school.  If only our denomination got serious about evangelism.  If only If only…”
But however much we might want to deny it, we no longer live in a Christian world; if by Christian we mean anything more than a little window dressing.  We now live in exile.  The people around us may not look all that different from ourselves, but fewer and fewer of them see any need to follow Jesus.  Im not making distinctions of good and bad but simply between disciples, people who try to follow Jesus, and those who dont.  And in this sense, we live in a field filled with a great variety of plants and flowers and weeds.
Fifty some years ago, before we found ourselves in exile, we looked at the American landscape and imagined it one vast sea of wheat.  We saw no need to be different or distinct or unique.  But if that was ever true, it surely is not now.  And in the very mixed bag of plants and flowers and weeds that we now find ourselves, the only thing that will distinguish us is the grain we produce, fruit that we bear.    
And that is what Jesus calls us to do.  He does not ask us to pull weeds.  Rather, he calls us to distinguish ourselves by the fruit we bear.  And that means seeking the good of all people, even the weeds.  We bear fruit by embodying Gods coming new day for the world to see, by loving our neighbor, by longing for and working for a better world.  We bear fruit by losing ourselves for the sake of that new world, and by taking up the cross, by not insisting on my own rights but instead being willing to give them up, even being willing to suffer, for the sake of others and for the hope of Gods new day.
In case youve somehow missed it, there is a huge fight in Washington over whether or not to raise the debt ceiling in time for the Federal government to borrow enough money to pay the debts we already owe.  As often happens, this deadline makes a great place to play a monumental game of chicken where each side waits to see who will flinch first.  And in this game, the question is whether Americas growing debt should be fixed entirely by reducing spending, or if there should be tax increases for the wealthiest or the end of some tax breaks.
Now almost no one wants his or her taxes raised.  But I'm suspicious that the Jesus who says he comes to bring good news to the poor, who tells a rich man to sell all his possessions and give to the poor, would say to someone like me who may not be really rich but can afford a home, cars, TVs, computers, a motorcycle, that I should be more than willing to give a bit more in taxes so that the poor would have healthcare and we would not pass down too much debt to future generations.  And considering that Jesus said, "From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required," I imagine that he would call those wealthy enough to live extravagantly to contribute extravagantly to help the poor, the community, and the future.
Im not saying spending shouldnt be cut.  Im not talking about any particular tax structure.  But I am saying that bearing fruit for the Kingdom, distinguishing ourselves from the weeds, means living in ways that are at odds with the prevailing culture, that does not ask first, Whats in it for me, but rather asks first, "How will this impact the other, the neighbor?  How will this make the world a tiny bit more like God's dream for the world?" 
Those who are serious about following Jesus, about living the life of disciples, increasingly find ourselves aliens in a strange land, exiles surrounded by ways that are contrary to Jesus' call to follow him.  We may rail against this culture, but it is easy, even tempting, simply to fade into the world around us, a world that thinks Sabbath, and worship, and self-sacrifice, and loving our enemies, and taking up crosses to be pure foolishness.
But we are supposed to know better.

[1] See Walter Brueggemann, Cadences of Home: Preaching Among Exiles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997)

Sunday Sermon audio - How To Tell Them Apart

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - For Me?

According to the gospels, Jesus frequently found himself in controversies over the Sabbath.  Sabbath had become critical for the Jews while they were in exile in Babylon.  It had been a mark that allowed them to maintain a distinctive identity when exile in a foreign land threatened to make them disappear.

Jesus is a Jew who clearly observes the Sabbath, but he heals on the Sabbath and says to those who accuse him and his followers of violating Sabbath regulations, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”  What strikes me most about this line is not Jesus' lordship over the Sabbath, but his insistence that the Sabbath was made for us.

When I was growing up in North and South Carolina, notions of Sabbath were still strong enough that it was extremely unusual to hear a lawn mower on a Sunday.  Such reluctance to "work" on Sunday has largely disappeared, but if the Sabbath was made for us, then it stands to reason that we still need Sabbath in some way. 

Sabbath keeping has often degenerated into petty rule keeping, both in Jesus' day and in the days of my youth.  But freedom from petty rules does not change our need for Sabbath, for rest, for acknowledging that the world will not fall apart if we cease our activities, for trusting that things are safe in God's hands, allowing us to stop.

I've told the story many times of a colleague who was at an ecumenical pastors' lunch.  At her table, a discussion ensued about what day the different pastors took off, with Friday and Monday being the favorites.  But one fellow got a little perturbed at the talk of days off and exclaimed, "I never take a day off.  The devil never takes a day off!"

To which my fried replied, "God does."

God surely has much more to worry about than we do.  But God is able to stop, to rest, to be free from anxiety and worry, to simply enjoy the wondrous Creation God has made.  And such rest was made for us as well.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.