Monday, October 31, 2011

Sermon video - Becoming Saints

Spiritual Hiccups - What Sort of God?

For you are not a God who delights in wickedness;
    evil will not sojourn with you.
The boastful will not stand before your eyes;
    you hate all evildoers. 
You destroy those who speak lies;
    the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful.
from Psalm 5

Most of us have some sort of God image, a mental picture or conceptual framework that is our notion of what God is like.  I suspect there is no figuring out the ultimate source of such God images.  Many Protestants will point to the Bible, and that will certainly be true to some extent, but that is not the whole story.  All of us who read the Bible read it selectively to some degree.  And our God image usually guides us in this selection process.

Our God image often emerges from what one of my favorite spiritual writers, Fr. Richard Rohr, calls "dualistic thinking."  We tend to see the world as a series of either or choices, and our God images tend to reflect such choices.  Some people gravitate more toward a God of judgment who punishes the guilty. Others embrace a God of love who will redeem and embrace the guilty.  Much rarer is the person whose God image somehow holds both as true. 

And so most of us struggle with those parts of Scripture that challenge our God image.  We tend to diminish them and elevate those that confirm our image.  Those of us who cherish a God of love squirm a bit when reading today's Psalm or gospel passage where Jesus speaks of evildoers "thrown in the furnace of fire." 

But despite my own dualistic tendencies, I am convinced that a true God image requires dropping the either/or choices that help produce my God image.  A true God image requires answering the question of whether God is a God of love and forgiveness or a God of judgment with a "Yes."  To borrow a Walter Brueggemann quote I used recently in a sermon, "This tension of mercy that forgives and sovereignty that will not be mocked is an endless adjudication for the God of the Bible, who permits no final or systematic resolve.  It is a tension that we all know in our most intimate and treasured relations."  

What sort of God is your God image?   And in what way does your image reduce God to something easier to understand and incorporate into dualistic modes of thought?  Or, as a classical Calvinist might put it, what sort of idol have you created with your God image?

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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sermon audio - Becoming Saints

Download mp3 of sermon.

Sermon text - Becoming Saints - Stewardship III

Matthew 5:1-12
Becoming Saints - Stewardship III
James Sledge                                                               October 30, 2011 – All Saints

Every culture has its wisdom literature, its wise sayings and proverbs.  Our culture is no exception.  American proverbs go back to colonial times.  “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” said Benjamin Franklin.  He also supposedly said, “The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.”  A lot of American proverbial wisdom encourages behaviors thought to lead to success, well-being, or happiness.  Thomas Edison’s quote, “Genius is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration” is a case in point.
Such proverbial wisdom is generally meant to be self-evident.  By that I mean that once you hear it, even if it’s not something that had occurred to you before, its truth will strike you.  You will agree that while some people are smarter and more creative than others, hard work makes a great deal of difference.  Either that or you will reject it as wisdom entirely.
People have sometimes approached the Sermon on the Mount, and especially its Beatitudes, as though they were something similar, pearls of wisdom meant to guide us on the path of success or well-being.  Robert Schuller, of Crystal Cathedral fame, wrote a book back in the 1980s entitled, The Be (Happy) Attitudes: 8 Positive Attitudes That Can Transform Your Life.  In it he says, “As we look upon the Beatitudes – The Be-Happy Attitudes – of Jesus Christ, you will discover our Lord’s key to joyful living.”[1]
Schuller sees each of the Beatitudes as a proverb, a wise saying that, if followed, will lead to happiness.  Now while it is true that the word translated “blessed” in our scripture this morning sometimes means “happy,” it is quite a stretch to speak of happiness being found in mourning, in poverty of spirit, or in being persecuted or derided.  And in fact, Schuller has to get very creative in explaining what each blessing means.  For example, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” becomes “I’m really hurting—but I’m going to bounce back!”  And “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake” becomes, “I can choose to be happy—anyway!”[2]
But I think that Schuller makes a bigger mistake than just playing fast and loose with the words of Jesus.  He clearly does not realize that the blessings Jesus speaks are not advice, not proverbs. 
Rather they are categorical statements about how things are, descriptions of reality, although it is a reality not evident to a worldly observer.  It is instead the shape of the new world that God is creating, of the Kingdom that Jesus says has “come near.” 
This reality is not self-evident, and it says more about the character of God than about us.  This reality is dependent on the trustworthiness of the one who speaks it.  Jesus is describing something new, something at odds with the world as we experience it.  No one listens to Jesus and nods in agreement saying, “O yes, yes, it is quite good and enjoyable to be persecuted or to weep and mourn.”  Rather, Jesus’ words create something new, a new reality that we are invited to become a part of.
As a pastor, I do my share of weddings.  People who have no connection to this church, or to any church for that matter, come here wanting to be married.  They come because an authority has been vested in me.  When I speak the words, “Therefore, I proclaim that you are now husband and wife,” they in fact are.  If the couple walked up to someone on the street and asked, “Will you marry us?”  That person could go along and say the exact same words that I do.  Jesus’ words change something.  They would not be married.
Jesus is doing something similar with the Beatitudes.  He has the authority to say to us, “You have lived in a world that presumes blessedness, God’s favor, happiness, is to be found in riches, in doing what is necessary to get ahead, in being successful and well regarded, in standing up for yourself and triumphing over others.  But I tell you that this is not so, at least not in God’s new creation.”
The blessedness Jesus speaks into being is a future blessedness, the blessedness of the kingdom that will come.  It is not advice to make our lives better.  But, for those who are in Christ, it is a reality that can already be seen and felt.  It is a promise of future blessing to us and a reality that is embodied, that becomes visible, when we are the Church, the living body of Christ in the world.
It is a couple of days early, but we are marking All Saints today.  On the same day when we pledge ourselves to live as Jesus’ disciples, pledge to give generously from our resources of time, talents, gifts, and finances, we remember those saints among us who have died in the past year.  It seems to me entirely appropriate to combine these, to remember saints as we pledge to live as saints ourselves.
It’s too bad that the word “saint” has been robbed of its biblical meaning.  Now we tend to use the word either as a disparaging term for some goody two-shoes, or as a technical term for those declared saints by the Catholic Church: St. Paul, St. Francis, and so on.  But when Saint Paul writes to the congregations he shepherds, he uses the word very differently.  “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints…” or, “To the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi…” 
The term really means “sanctified ones,” or “set-apart ones.”  The idea is that when we are joined to Christ in baptism, when the Holy Spirit dwells within us, we become something different; we become something sanctified, holy.  We are joined to Christ and to his holiness.  And we become a part of the living body of Christ, each of us gifted in some way so that together we can show God’s love, and God’s coming new day, to the world.
I occasionally listen to NPR as I drive.  Recently a local station was having one of its regular fundraisers.  The announcer stated the $5000 goal for the next 3 hours and how some company promised to match it if they got to $5000.  I understand why these fundraisers are needed.  I might even send them some money, but I find the constant campaigns annoying.
I suspect that some people find church stewardship campaigns similarly annoying, even if they do decide that they should give a little money.  But if church giving feels like an NPR fundraiser, we are doing something terribly wrong.  Stewardship is not about making sure the church has enough money to pay the bills and keep the lights turned on, as real as such needs may be.  Stewardship is about our call to be saints, to live as those sanctified and set apart so that the world can catch a glimpse of a new reality in us, that reality Jesus speaks into being as he declares God’s favor and blessing on ways that are out of step with our world.
As the body of Christ, as saints, let us live in this new reality that Jesus proclaims.

[1] Robert B. Schuller, The Be (Happy) Attitudes (New York: Bantam Books, 1987) , 20.
[2] Ibid., Table of Contents.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Are You There, God?

I love the LORD, because he has heard
    my voice and my supplications.
Because he inclined his ear to me,
    therefore I will call on him as long as I live.  

from Psalm 116

If you are a person of faith, I assume that you have had moments where God's presence was very real to you, when it seemed that God's ear was inclined to you.  But I also assume that there surely are or have been times when it does not seem so, that God seems absent or uninterested in you.  And when such moments drag on, they can make for a profound faith crisis.

When people have a personal encounter with God, when they touch divine mystery in some way, it is an experience that produces a desire for more and deeper experiences of God.  In this it is not unlike meeting someone with whom we feel an intimate connection.  We want to spend time with them, to explore and go deeper in that relationship.  We experience a longing for this person.  And in a similar way, people who have felt God's presence often experience a longing for God.

Of course relationships can go awry.  If those difficulties in connecting last very long, they can intensify the longing for the other, but they can also begin to produce a widening gulf between two people.  And when that happens, very often the disciplines and rituals of the relationship began to break down.  At the moment the relationship most needs help and support, couples can abandon the simple, sometimes mundane regimens of togetherness that allow for a closeness where more intimate connection is possible.

In similar fashion, I sometimes find that when I am struggling to connect with God, I can begin to abandon the simple rituals of togetherness that help maintain a closeness where deeper connection is possible.  At the times I most need to draw near to God, I sometimes quit spiritual disciplines of prayer, silence, contemplation, and Sabbath.  At such times I must look a little like a husband hanging out late at the bar, night after night, complaining to those around him that his wife - who will be asleep by the time he gets home - won't talk to him.

Are you there, God?  My heart longs for you.  I am here, waiting and listening for you.  Draw near to me.  I am here.  I will be here.  Be here with me.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Worthy Is the Lamb: The Triumph of Love

I don't really recall ever delving into the book of Revelation during my church life prior to seminary.  Still, I somehow "learned" that Revelation was an exotic book about the end of the world.  I do remember an adult study on Revelation where my family worshiped, but I was still a teen at the time.  For me, Revelation was simply about weird images and Armageddon and not worth much attention.

But now it troubles me deeply that Revelation has been so ignored because in so doing, we have effectively ceded the book to those who irresponsibly misuse it.  Everyone "knows" that Revelation is about God destroying the world in some final, cataclysmic battle, even though no such battle is depicted in the book.  Nor is any rapture to be found there.  Revelation is a difficult book, but it is a book meant to give hope.

I have actually heard people say that the kind and forgiving Jesus of the gospels will be replaced by a warrior Jesus at his return, and they claim Revelation as their proof.  But just look at today's reading from the book.  We are well into John's vision, and he has become distraught that no one is worthy to open the scroll.  But he is told, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”

The lion of Judah who has conquered - surely this suggests just the sort of warrior Jesus some Rapture folks anticipate.  But when this lion appears we read, "Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered."  If we had hoped for Jesus the lamb to be transformed into marauding lion, we are disappointed.  For instead, the lion has been transformed into slaughtered lamb.  And here is a recurring theme from Revelation, the idea that "conquer" means to patiently endure, even to die for the faith, just that the lamb has done and so conquered.

Some may say that this is all well and good but not terribly significant.  What difference does it make how one obscure book in the New Testament is understood.  But because Revelation is popularly understood (incorrectly, I would add) as describing the end of the world and how God brings that about, its picture of God can become the dominant one.  Yes, Jesus came all meek and mild, forgiving folks right and left, but you've had your chance.  That was only a temporary reprieve.  Forgiveness is over.  Time to settle scores.

But when we realize that the fierce lion we thought was in Revelation turns out to be a lamb who conquers through being slain, then a God of love and forgiveness can no longer be a temporary reprieve.  The God of love Jesus reveals in the gospels is the same God found in Revelation, a work of hope that insists, no matter how bad things may appear, the Lamb and Love will triumph.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Thorns and Other Distractions

Those who study religious trends say that some of the dissatisfaction with traditional churches has to do with issues of authenticity and integrity.  Many people long for a faith community where these are paramount, but they don't sense them in traditional, mainline congregations.

Perhaps this was on my mind when I read today's gospel where Jesus tells the parable of the sower.  Seed is scattered with varying results because it ends up on the path, in rocky soil, among thorns, or in good soil.  As I read, I was drawn to the picture of the seed springing up but then choked by thorns.  (Jesus will later explain to his disciples that the thorns are "the cares of the world and the lure of wealth.) 

As a pastor who to some extent functions as CEO of a religious organization, I have my share of cares and concerns, and many of them have to do with money. And I wonder how often these tend to choke out the word.  I may preach diligently about loving neighbor and helping the poor, about love and gratitude leading us to give ourselves extravagantly to God, but my own life may not show much evidence of this.  Other things have my attention.  I am no model of authenticity and integrity.

We live in an era of multitasking with a myriad of distractions.  Our culture is of little help if we would become the saints all Christians are called to be -- certainly not if we use Kierkegaard's definition of a saint, "Someone who can will the one thing." 

I wonder if traditional church looks to many as just one more thing to add to a life already filled with many other things.  And I wonder what distractions I need to let go of if faith is to be not just one more thing but the one thing.

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Monday, October 24, 2011

Sermon video - The Passion That Gives Life - Stewardship II

Spiritual Hiccups - The Tie That Binds

I vaguely recall a debate in a seminary class that had something to do with parental rights and the welfare of a child.  I've forgotten the particulars, but what I remember vividly is the very different stances of classmates.  Some saw parental rights as almost sacrosanct, something that could not be violated without overwhelming cause.  Others saw the needs of the child in a similar light with those needs easily trumping any notion of parental rights.

What are the bonds that matter most?  When I was a boy, every time new members joined out church they would be recognized, and then the pastor would call us to sing a verse of "Blest Be the Tie That Binds."  The words were never printed.  People were just supposed to know it.  Though it does not say so explicitly, I imagine that this "tie that binds" speaks of our being one in Christ.

Jesus raises this issue of the bonds between us directly in today's gospel.  Jesus' family wants to speak with him but cannot seem to make their way through the crowds into the house where Jesus is.  But when Jesus is told that his mother and brothers are outside, wanting to talk to him, he replies, " 'Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?' And pointing to his disciples, he said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.' "  So much for family privilege.

All of us have bonds that shape us.  I'm a Southerner from Charlotte, North Carolina, and I have certain loyalties associated with that.  I'm a Presbyterian.  I'm a male.  I'm a UNC Tarheel.  I'm an American.  I'm a Christian.  I'm a transplanted Ohioan, and so on.  But which bonds and loyalties take precedence?

I wonder what Jesus' mother and siblings thought when he left them outside and said that his disciples were his family, that others who followed him also became his family.  Surely I would have been hurt and offended if I had been Jesus' younger brother.

I have occasionally heard people say, "We shouldn't be sending aid overseas when there are people in need right here in the US."  I don't know if they mean it the way I hear it, but it sounds like the needs of Americans count more than the needs of others.  But before I criticize that, I have to acknowledge that I act this way regarding the needs of my own family.  

So... what does it mean to be a Christian, to have been baptized and joined to Christ, made part of his family?  What are the real ties that bind for me?  And for you?

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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sermon audio - The Passion That Gives Life - Stewardship II

Sermon text - The Passion That Gives Life - Stewardship II

Matthew 22:34-40
The Passion That Gives Life – Stewardship II
James Sledge                                              October 23, 2011

It’s a stock image in comic strips, editorial cartoons, and such; the solitary guru sitting cross legged on some mountain peak.  There people seek him out to discover the secrets of life that he has discerned, the special wisdom that only he can dispense.  “O great sage, what is the meaning of life?”  The question expects some profound piece of wisdom that might be put on a motivational poster or spoken at a college graduation.  But what if the sage simply said, “Follow the rules.”
Follow the rules?  How boring is that?  Special wisdom on the meaning of life should be more profound.  It should be a secret, something hard to figure out, not “Follow the rules.”
I suspect that rules are not well loved anywhere, but Americans seem to have a libertarian streak that makes them especially distasteful to us.  Perhaps it came from this country’s largely Protestant origins.  Protestants, after all, split with the Roman Catholics in part over the issue of rules.  It’s not following the rules that saves us, we said.  It’s the gift of grace that we experience by faith.  Faith, not works, we proclaimed.
Regardless of where it comes from, we Americans often regard laws and rules as a necessary evil.  And as such, we prefer as few rules and laws as we can get by with. 
But even though we Protestant Christians sometimes act like Jesus is our guru who shows us a secret wisdom that gets us around the rules, I’m not sure Jesus shares our reservations about laws and rules. 
I say this because in Jesus’ day, many saw him as a wise teacher and came to him wanting to know the meaning of life.  On one such occasion, Jesus says, “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 
And Jesus makes very clear in the Sermon on the Mount that he is not providing an alternative to the rules.  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law...”
In our gospel reading today, people again come to the wise sage, Jesus.  But it is Jesus’ opponents, and they hope to catch him in some mistake, to find some way of trapping him as they  pretend to seek his wisdom.  “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
It is a pretty straight forward question and Jesus gives them a straight forward answer.  Both he and his opponents agree that the law is a good thing, not a necessary evil but a blessing that shows the way to life.  And so Jesus does not need to employ any tricks or sleight of hand as he sometimes does with his opponents.  Here Jesus simply quotes from Scripture, from what we call the Old Testament.  “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. and a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ”
I suppose Jesus’ opponents hoped that he would quote some commandment, saying “Do this,” and they could then say, “But what about that?”  But Jesus says that his commandments encompass all the law and the prophets.  He does have to quote two commandments, however.  Strict grammarians might object that there cannot be two greatests, but Jesus says otherwise.  In fact, I found a translation where Jesus introduces his second commandment this way, “And a second, just as great as this one…”
According to Jesus, these two greatest commandments, loving God with all your being and loving your neighbor as yourself, cover everything.  Nothing is left out.  But what exactly does it look like to love, to love with all your being?
What do you truly love?  Someone?  Something?  I know people who love their children, who love their spouse or significant other, who love chocolate, going to the beach, or reading a good book.  I know others who love sports or, often around here, love the Buckeyes.  And people who really love the Buckeyes don’t usually have to tell you.  It’s obvious.  They may have one of those OSU flags hooked to their car window, flapping the breeze.  They probably have more than one OSU sweatshirt and football jersey.  In fact they probably could go for days dressed in nothing but scarlet and gray without wearing the same thing twice. 
The local newspaper knows that lots of people love the Buckeyes.  That’s why they print special sections on game day.  A local TV station sometimes preempts network programs to air “Buckeye Blitz” on Friday nights because they know that those people who love the Buckeyes will watch.  And I imagine that a lot of travel agents are in deep depression over the state of OSU football this year because many of those who love the Buckeyes are willing to shell out big bucks to travel to bowl games.
Not being from Ohio, I don’t fully get the passion many people here have for the Buckeyes.  But I do think that this passion, this love for the school and the team, gives us a picture of what loving something with all your being looks like. 
We human beings were created in the image of God, a God the Bible tells us is love.  And so it makes sense that we are meant to love.  It is in our nature to love, to give ourselves passionately to other people and things.   We need to feel passion to be fully alive.  However, this need can get off track.  Our need to love and to feel passion can become distorted and misdirected.  It sometimes turns inward into a narcissism that demands the entire world be about me.  Gangs and cults take this need to give ourselves, to feel passion, and twist it into something frightening.  And sometimes love of community, school, or country gets twisted into a passion against the other, against my neighbor.
Being truly and fully alive requires loving passionately.  People who feel no passion or love toward anything or anyone seem lifeless and dead.  But all loves and passions are not equal, and some are even destructive. 
“O great sage, what is the meaning of life?  What is the secret that will let me be truly alive?”  And Jesus answers, “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments…”  The greatest is, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment, and a second, just as great as this one: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
As we gather for worship today, once more it is Autumn, and once more it is stewardship season.  Stewardship, where more often than not, the big questions are, “Will there be enough pledges to fund the budget?  Will there be enough volunteers to run the programs?”  But I think Jesus would ask very different questions.  What love animates your life?  What passion orients and makes sense of all the other parts of your life?  What do you give yourselves to with abandon and extravagance?  Do you want to be fully alive, the person you were created to be?
His answer: Fall in love with God, with every fiber of your being, with all that you are and all that you have.  And have the same care and concern for every other human being that you have for yourself.  Do this, and everything else will fall into place.  Do this, and you will be truly alive.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Where's the Spirit?

I once got a church member very upset with me by preaching a sermon entitled "Not Quite a Christian."  It was based on today's reading from Acts where Paul encounters believers who have not been baptized into Jesus Christ and who do not know the Holy Spirit.  In the sermon, I wondered if we were fully Christian if we did not have the Holy Spirit at work in us helping us to do God's will.  This member, out of her understanding of that classic Protestant notion of "justification by grace through faith," insisted that if you believed in Jesus, nothing else mattered.

I discovered long ago that when people fuss about my sermons, sometimes their beef is genuinely with me, but other times they are upset with what the Bible says and direct that anger at me.  A think my "Not Quite a Christian" sermon was the latter sort.  This person had a personal theology (we all do) that was deeply ingrained in her, and it was so much a part of who she was that even the Bible, certainly not a single Bible episode, could override it.

But can we be Christian, in the biblical sense of disciples of Jesus, without the Spirit?  Might we be totally convinced that the Scriptures accurately point to Jesus as Messiah, but lacking the Spirit, still not fully appreciate what that means. 

The common refrain, "I'm spiritual but not religious," is often little more than a dodge that seems to have a very constricted understanding of what it means to be spiritual.  However, I think it also is a protest of sorts against a Church that all to often seems to be "not quite Christian" in the manner of those believers Paul encounters. 

If the Apostle Paul showed up in our congregations and asked us, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?" how would we answer him?  I know a lot of people who, at best, would answer, "We're not sure." 

Where is the Holy Spirit present and at work in your life and in the life of your congregation?

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - It's Hard, But It's Easy

A real faith liability for many modern Protestants is that we encounter the Bible in brief, little snippets.  Even thought the Protestant Reformation was, in part, about individual Christians having direct access to Scripture in their native tongue, many Protestants today hear the Bible primarily when it is read to them in worship.  This setting necessarily limits such readings to a few paragraphs at a time.  Thus the readings often have little or no context, and the individual pieces often don't come together into any sort of big picture.

Today's reading is a good case in point.  “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  Taken by itself, the passage suggest that following Jesus is easy, nothing like the difficult burden it is to follow the Law as the Pharisees teach.  Trouble is, this same Jesus in the same gospel of Matthew also says, "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."  Jesus also says we must take up the cross and that believing in him won't get us right with God.  We must do God's will to enter the kingdom.

So is it hard, or is it easy?  American Christianity has generally decided on the easy version.  But if we are serious about following Jesus, what are we to do with these contradictory statements from him?  To be honest, I don't know if they can be fully reconciled, but I am certain that, finally, our faith must somehow incorporate both.

Are there things that are hard and easy at the same time?  Or perhaps better, are there things that are difficult but don't seem like burdens?  I suspect that most of us have had something in our lives that requires a great deal of effort and energy, but that we undertake as though it were nothing.  Think of the lengths some people go to participate in a hobby or sport.  For that matter, think of the effort that some parents expend on their children, effort that seems not hard at all to them.

Most humans have things that they long for, that they want badly, and the effort required to get them - effort that would quickly dissuade others who do not share the same wants - seems as nothing.  Often what we chalk up to greater effort or dedication on someone's part is really the result of greater desire.

St. Augustine wrote of our hearts being restless until they find their rest in God.  He also spoke of our wills becoming willing.  That is our conversion converts our will into something that wills what God wills.  I wonder if this doesn't fit in with the gentle, easy way Jesus describes.  When following Jesus becomes what we truly want, when it becomes our deepest desire, can anything that moves us in that direction feel like drudgery or burden?

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Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sermon audio - The Things That Are God's

Click to download mp3 file of sermon

Sermon text - The Things That Are God's - Stewardship I

Matthew 22:15-22
The Things That Are God’s – Stewardship 1
James Sledge                                            October 16, 2011

If you remember your Revolutionary War history –  Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and so on – you likely recall that one of the major complaints against British colonial rule was “taxation without representation.”  Many colonists insisted that because they had no seat in Parliament, taxes could not be duly levied on them.  A tax on tea sparked the famous Boston Tea Party, and eventually armed rebellion broke out.
Most of us have heard how fighting began at Lexington and Concord in the spring of 1775, leading to the Declaration of Independence the following year.  Most of us learned the highlights of the Revolution in school.  But that history generally didn’t say much about how divided the colonists were over the war. 
Best estimates suggest that the drive for independence was supported by less than half of American colonists.  Probably just under a quarter favored remaining part of Britain, while the rest mostly tried to remain neutral, hoping they would be able to get along with whichever side won.  Many loyalists actively fought alongside the British, and there were terrible atrocities committed by rebels against loyalist neighbors, and vice versa.
I mention this because there was a rough parallel in Jesus’ day.  Palestine was a colony under Roman rule. Rome did allow the locals a certain level of self-governance, but Rome retained ultimate power, and they levied taxes that were often quite onerous, especially on the poor.  Many Jews resented the Romans, their armies and taxes.  Open rebellion had broken out around the time of Jesus’ birth, and would break out again some 30 years after his death. 
But other Jews had found the relationship with Rome more to their liking. 
To them the stability and commerce that Rome brought more than outweighed the problems with Roman power.  Besides, with only brief exceptions, Jerusalem had been under the control of some foreign power for centuries.
In our gospel reading this morning, a group of people come to Jesus hoping to trap him.  This group is made up of both those who despise Roman rule, and those who find it beneficial.  You wouldn’t expect Pharisees and Herodians to have anything to do with one another.  But they think Jesus a big enough threat to put aside their differences, to cooperate in dealing with this dangerous, would-be Messiah.  They hope to force him to side with one group or the other, and in the process, turn either the crowds or the Romans against him.  “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
The question is more difficult and volatile than we may realize.  The Roman tax could only be paid with a Roman coin, a coin that not only had a likeness of the emperor on it, but on the reverse side had the Emperor Tiberius’ name with an inscription declaring him “divine son of Augustus.”  For Pharisees, who meticulously tried to keep the Commandments, the coin itself, with its divine pretensions, violated a couple of them.  Yet when Jesus asks to be shown such a coin, his opponents have one on them.  Maybe it was one of the Herodians, but curious that the Pharisees seem not to be bothered by this idolatrous coin. 
“Whose head is this, and whose title?” Jesus asks.  That is not in dispute.  It is the emperor’s.  “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  Or as some of us learned from an earlier Bible translation, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…”
Speaking of Bible translations, I’m not sure what the NRSV scholars were thinking when they translated Jesus’ question, “Whose head is this?”  The NIV is no better, with “portrait” rather than head.  But the word Matthew writes in his gospel is the same word he reads in his version of the Old Testament where God says, “Let us create humankind in our image.”
When the Emperor Tiberius puts his image on coins, it is an explicit statement about whose coins they are.  It was not unlike the branding that is still practiced today.  Companies emblazon their names and logos on the buildings and equipment they own. 
“Whose image is this?...  Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 
Of course Jesus does not say which things are the emperor’s and which are God’s.  Does Jesus agree that the emperor’s image on the coin makes it his?  And what about the image of God the Bible says is part of our created nature?  Does that mean that we, in some way, belong to God? 
The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it.  So begins Psalm 24, a psalm that Jesus no doubt knew well.  “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 
Not long after Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door and unintentionally sparked the Protestant Reformation, other Protestant movements sprang up in Europe.  Along with the Lutherans,  the Reformed tradition (of which we Presbyterians are a part) emerged around the teachings of John Calvin.  Reformed thought and Lutheran thought shared much in common, but they diverged significantly in their understandings of the Lord’s Supper.  As these two movements spread, they bumped into each other at the German town of Heidelberg.  Tensions between the two groups worried the ruler of that area, and so he asked two prominent Christians in Heidelberg to come up with a theological statement that would be acceptable to both sides.  The result was the Heidelberg Catechism, published in 1563 and now one of eleven statements in our Presbyterian Book of Confessions.
The very first question of that catechism reads, “What is your only comfort, in life and in death?”  The answer begins, “That I belong – body and soul, in life and in death – not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ…”  This is echoed in opening of the most recent addition to our Book of Confessions, “A Brief Statement of Faith.”  We use a portion of it as our profession of faith today and it begins, “In life and in death we belong to God.”
I wonder if we realize what counter-cultural statements these are.  We are much more like to hear the opposite.  Someone chastises a wealthy person for his opulence and ostentation and he responds, “What right do you have to tell me what to do with my money?”  Back when a smoking ban for restaurants and bars was being debated, it was common to hear, “What right does anyone else have telling me what I can or can’t do with my body?”  And if someone suggests to a bright college student that her career choice should not simply be about income potential and what she enjoys, but also about what would benefit others, we would not be terribly surprised to hear her respond, “It’s my life, and I’ll decide what I want to do with it!”
The correctness of smoking bans or certain career choices aside, what all of these statements have in common is the notion that I am my own.  My life belongs to me, to do with as I choose.  And how dare anyone tell me otherwise.
It is not uncommon in our day to hear complaints about how secular society has become.  In just a few weeks someone will surely be yelling about the “War on Christmas” because Target or Wal-Mart  have signs that say “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.”  But if our culture is corrosive to Christian faith, and I would agree that it often is, I don’t think “Happy Holidays” is a significant part of the problem.  What certainly is, however, is the notion, shared by very many Christians, that I am my own, that I, and I alone, know what is best for me. 
Whose image is this?  On a coin, on me?
“What is your only comfort (your only hope, assurance, and joy), in life and in death?  That I belong – body and soul, in life and in death – not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ…”  In gratitude and in love, let us give to God the things that are God’s.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Afraid To Speak the Truth

Today's gospel is about bold proclamation.  Jesus commands his followers to shout from the rooftops the very sort of things that get him crucified.  Given this, you might think that Christian pastors would be some of the most feared truth-tellers in the world.  But alas...

I don't mean to say that Christian pastors are liars or that they don't do a lot of good and help a lot of people.  But pastors are very often also keepers of institutions, and their institutional roles often mitigate against bold, truth telling.  Pastors have to be politicians in a sense.  They have constituencies that they need to keep reasonably happy.  After all, they must convince members of these constituencies to volunteer and give money. 

I follow a lot of pastors on Twitter.  This may not be an accurate generalization, but I have noticed that those who sound the least like politicians are pastoring very small congregations or no congregation at all.  Some of them can be shrill, and a few might do well to develop a bit more political savy.  But by and large, they are refreshing.  Which is not to say that I feel compelled to emulate them.

The truth is that I'm frightened to be like them.  Regardless of how convinced I am of God's will, I worry what might people in my congregation think if I took an overly bold stand on some issue.  Perhaps I am short changing my congregation in the process, but my career worries, my fears, still constrain me.

Jesus said, "If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops."

Have no fear of them.  Jesus is of course speaking of those who might arrest and put to death his followers, just as they will do to him.  My fears are pretty tame ones by contrast.  But still they have a power over me.

In the opening of the biblical book of Revelation, each of the seven churches to whom the letter is written are addressed invidually.  (Revelation is largely misunderstood as fortelling the future if you can somehow break its code.  But in truth it is meant to urge churches under great stress to remain faithful.  Its "predictions" are of a general nature, the promise that faithfulness will, in the end, be rewarded, that evil will fall and righteousness will prevail.)  The writer tells each congregation of problems it needs to correct, and he seems to save his greatest disappointment for the last congregation mentioned, the one at Laodicea.  "I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold or hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth."

That sounds to me like we would be better off being bold, even if we sometimes got it wrong.  And those poitically unsavy, sometimes shrill, very bold pastors I follow on Twitter will certainly never be accused of being "lukewarm."

Lord, help me find my voice.  Help me speak the truth.

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