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.

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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

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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.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Gratitude and Praise

O sing to the LORD a new song;
     sing to the LORD, all the earth. 

Sing to the LORD, bless his name;
     tell of his salvation from day to day.

Declare his glory among the nations,
     his marvelous works among all the peoples.

For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised;
     he is to be revered above all gods. 

For all the gods of the peoples are idols,
     but the LORD made the heavens. 

There was an interesting article in The New York Times yesterday on gratitude.  It referenced research on gratitude that demonstrates how practicing gratitude actually has health benefits that are scientifically measurable.  People who made weekly entries in a "gratitude journal," listing five things they were grateful for, reported being happier and more optimistic than a control group who kept no such journal.  They also reported less physical ailments and exercised more.  In addition, the fell asleep easier, slept longer, and awoke more refreshed.

Gratitude and praise are closely related.  Genuinely praising God comes out of a gratitude for the goodness and blessing of God.  Gratitude and praise are not about getting something from God.  They are responses to what God has already done.  Very often, religious practice gets this mixed up.  It becomes something done to get a benefit, whether it be salvation, blessings, answered prayer, or some other desire.  This sort of religion worships one of the "gods of the peoples" noted in the psalm, idols that can be managed for out benefit.

But true praise and gratitude have no such utilitarian purposes.  Rather they acknowledge the reality of God's goodness and providence.  And as the research in that NY Times article pointed out, gratitude is a practice that can be picked up and learned.  When we take time to look around at all the gifts we have received, we can become more grateful people and, it turns out, much happier people.

Tomorrow many of us will pause between the food, football, and start of Christmas shopping to give thanks.  But perhaps we should also begin a more regular practice of giving thanks.  What are you thankful for?

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Fully Alive

When I read and savor Scripture, not planning to write a sermon or teach a class, I frequently find myself drawn to something that I had not noticed before.  That happened today with the reading from Matthew.  A rich young man asks Jesus, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”  I already knew how Jesus would answer, but for some reason it had never occurred to me how this answer seems at odds with some basic Christian assumptions.  "If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”Nothing about believing in Jesus.  Nothing about faith.  Simply, "keep the commandments." 

Of course the story doesn't end there.  The young man says that he has kept the commandments, and considering that Jesus doesn't dispute this, I'm inclined to take it as a statement of fact.  (It is worth noting that keeping the commandments doesn't necessarily mean never making a mistake or slipping up.  It means being committed to keeping them, confessing when you fail, and continually striving to follow them.  It's likely this understanding that allows the Apostle Paul to say of himself, "as to the law, blameless.")

And so it seems this young man has kept the commandments Jesus says will let him "enter into life," but for some reason he feels this is insufficient.  "What do I still lack?"  Despite his initial question being about eternal life, he is unsatisfied with being told he is doing what is required.  For some reason, he feels there must be something more.

"If you wish to be perfect..."  I'm not sure the translators do us any favors with the word perfect.  The word conjures up notions of impossible flawlessness, complete purity without defect.  We all know that "No one is perfect."  But the Greek word translated perfect has to do with attaining an end or purpose.  The word could be translated complete, whole, or even mature.  In essence, Jesus seems to being saying to this fellow, "If you truly wish to be fully human, to become what you were created to be, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

A lot of us who are religious strike me as being a bit like this young man.  We meet our religious obligations and presume we are included on the heavenly guest list.  But quite often, we get the feeling that we are missing something.  We are not quite complete, fulfilled, and whole.  We are looking for something more, but like this rich young man, we struggle to trust that Jesus knows the way.  We simply cannot imagine that loving our enemy, losing our lives for the sake of the kingdom, or giving up very much of what we have will make us fully alive.  Our culture has done too good a job of teaching us that to be complete and fully alive, we need more, lots more.

Our world is full of spiritually hungry people who realize they are missing something.  But conditioned by our consumerist culture, they presume this longing they feel can only be satisfied with something more.  Thus they imagine religion to be just another consumer item.  And all too often, we in the Church present faith to them as such. 

On the week of Thanksgiving, when many of us will revel in an unbelievable abundance of food, then head for the malls in a consumerist frenzy, it is perhaps a counter-cultural act of faith to contemplate what we need to give up in order to be whole and complete.  Lord, what do I still lack?

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Monday, November 21, 2011

Sermon video - Vision Problems

Spiritual Hiccups - Anxious and Busy

For God alone my soul waits in silence;
     from God comes my salvation.
God alone is my rock and my salvation,
     my fortress; I shall never be shaken.

For better or worse, pastors in Protestant Churches are often viewed as the CEO of the congregation.  People look to the pastor for direction and leadership.  And while pastors do have a critical leadership role to play, the CEO model sometimes builds congregations too much in the pastor's image and undermines the notion that Christ alone is Head of the Church.

Pastors seeing themselves as corporate CEOs can also be a great anxiety producer.  If the congregation rises or falls on my skills as a CEO, then it all depends on me.  I had better do the right things, say the right things, give the correct instructions, run the institution efficiently and effectively, organize the structures for optimum performance, and so on, or things could go badly.  And I suspect that this sort of thinking is one of the reasons that pastors report significantly higher levels of stress in their work than they did a generation ago.

One of the things I have learned as a pastor is that stress and anxiety make me a much worse leader.  When I am anxious, I tend to be more reactive.  Under the right (wrong?) conditions, anxiety can morph into upset and even anger.  Anxiety also leads to a kind of frantic busyness.  There is never enough time to get it all done; never enough hours in the day.  A common lament among pastors is how this busyness squeezes out time for prayer, time for quietness and silence, time for stillness and Sabbath. 

Congregations sometimes encourage pastoral busyness.  I recently heard a story about a church member who came to see the pastor during the week and was told that the pastor was in time of prayer not to be disturbed unless it was a dire emergency.  The member insisted on seeing the pastor, and informed him that he should pray on his own time.

Of course such pastoral busyness cuts us off from God and makes leadership more about us and less about Jesus.  If prayer is not part of a pastor's work, how on earth will that work be attuned to Christ's call?  And how will our leadership call others to a deeper, fuller relationship with Jesus?  How will congregations be places people come to learn a deep faith and spirituality, if the pastors are too busy to wait silently for God?

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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sermon audio - Vision Problems

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Sermon text - Vision Problems

Matthew 25:31-46
Vision Problems
James Sledge                             November 20, 2011 – Christ the King

There are a number of fairy tales and fables where a king, a wizard, or someone of great wealth travels about incognito in order to mingle among the common people.  In many of these the clothing of a beggar is the disguise of choice.  So dressed, the king asks some subject, “Could you spare a morsel of food for a poor beggar?” 
The hero of such fables is invariably a good and kind-hearted peasant who has almost nothing, but who willingly shares what little he has with this person he thinks to be a destitute beggar.  Only later does the peasant discover the truth when he is richly rewarded for his kindness.
Such tales sometimes include another person who treats the supposed beggar badly.  When the beggar’s true identity is later revealed, it is too late.  Any kindness now shown is clearly motivated by the possibility of reward.
There is an old Jewish folk tale where a young rabbi wanted more than anything else to meet Elijah the prophet.  (Elijah, unlike other people in the Old Testament, had not died but had been taken up to heaven in a whirlwind.)  The father of this young rabbi told him that if he diligently studied the Torah with his whole heart, he would indeed meet Elijah.
The young rabbi studied diligently for a month, but did not meet Elijah.  He complained to his father, but the father only scolded his impatience and told him to keep studying.  One evening as the rabbi was hard at his studies, a tramp came to his door. 
The fellow was disgusting to look at; the young rabbi had never seen an uglier man in all his life.  Annoyed at having been interrupted by such an unsavory character, the rabbi shooed the man away and returned to his studying.
The next day his father came and asked if he had seem Elijah yet.  “No,” replied the son. 
“Did no one come here last night,” asked  the father. 
“Yes,” replied the rabbi.  “An old tramp.” 
“Did you wish him ‘shalom aleikhem’?” asked the father, referring to the traditional greeting meaning “Peace be upon you.”
“No,” said the rabbi.
“You fool,” cried his father.  “Didn’t you know that that was Elijah the Prophet? But now it’s too late.”  The tale goes on to say that for the rest of his life, the rabbi always greeted strangers with “Shalom aleikhem,” and treated them with great kindness.[1]
The parable of final judgment that Jesus tells us this morning is a bit like such folk tales, and like such tales, Jesus’ parable has long been used to encourage people to act with kindness and charity to those in need, to “the least of these.”  Used this way, the parable is a powerful reminder of how we should live and act, a reminder of Jesus’ call to love our neighbor as ourselves.
But I wonder if there is not more than moral encouragement here, more than a Christian ethic.  For starters, those judged in the parable are “the nations,” the ethnos in Greek.  Most other places in Matthew’s gospel this word refers to Gentiles, and at the very end of Matthew, Jesus will command his disciples and the Church to make disciples of all these nations or Gentiles.  And so one way to read this parable is that it speaks of the judgment of outsiders, non-believers who unwittingly minister to Jesus.  If this is so, then it makes sense that these Gentiles would be surprised to be counted among those who inherit the kingdom. 
But we Christians should not be caught off guard by this.  After all, Jesus lets us in on the secret right here.  And indeed as followers of Jesus we are privy to much information that outsiders may not know.  After all, we are joined to Christ.  We have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit.  We have been transformed so that we can see things from a different point of view, a spiritual point of view.  When the Spirit dwells in us we become something new.  We are made new in Christ as we experience the incarnation within us, as we live in and through Christ.
Last week we kicked off our annual food and toy drive as part of the Deacons’ Community Christmas Packages that will deliver food and gift certificates and presents for children’s to hundreds of needy families in our area.  This effort will be supported by many who are not part of this congregation, who see a need and want to help.  Perhaps some of them are among those Jesus will say to, “I was hungry, and you gave me food.”
But we need not wait until then to see Jesus face to face, to minister to Jesus and be ministered to by Jesus.  That face that you see at the apartment door when you deliver one of the Deacons’ baskets is the face of Jesus.  For that matter, the face next to you right now is the face of Jesus, as is the person next to you at work or at school, the person you see on the street or meet at the store.
“Whoa,” someone is no doubt thinking.  “Jesus is telling a parable.  It’s a metaphor, for goodness sake.”  But I don’t think so.  At the very core of our faith is God in the flesh.  We know God most fully as a human being, as a person who ate and drank and slept and sweated and burped and had body odor.  And when we say that we can’t possibly meet God in a single mom on food stamps, it seems to me we have the exact same vision problem that many religious folks in Jesus’ day had.  They couldn’t see God in Jesus because of who he was and how he acted.  He came from that God forsaken town of Nazareth, for heaven’s sake.  He went to parties and drank with riff raff and sinners.  No way he was the face of God.
I’m not sure we can actually see God’s face in unless the Holy Spirit gives us eyes that can see such things.  And I don’t think we can really see Jesus in the face of others unless the Spirit heals our vision problems. 
I suspect that most of us have known someone whose spiritual vision is better than ours.  We tend to think that such folk are just kinder than us, more sensitive and caring than us, and I guess there is some truth to that.  But I’m pretty sure that the folks like this that I know see better than I do.  They see someone hurting or in need, and they really see Jesus.  And in the strange ways of God, those people can actually meet Jesus in them.
In just a few minutes, we will ordain and install ruling elders and deacons to help guide us in living as the body of Christ.  The nominating committee, in identifying these people, carefully considered the gifts and abilities that  God would surely give to those called to such ministry.  As these elders and deacons answer Christ’s call today, I hope you will join me in holding them in prayer, asking the Spirit to equip and strengthen them for that calling.  But I think that most of all, my prayer will be that the Spirit gives them the eyes they need to see Jesus.

[1] From “The Tramp” in Ellen Frankel, The Classic Tales: 4000 Years of Jewish Lore (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc. 1993) pp. 604-605.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - O Lord, It's Hard To Be Humble

"Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven."

Over the years, there have been countless suggestions concerning what it means to "become like children," as Jesus says we must do.  The innocence of children is sometimes suggested, although anyone who has ever raised a child might say that the illusion of such innocence is hard to maintain past infancy.  It seems likely that childhood in Jesus' day was understood far differently than in ours, and this likely makes for additional difficulty in understanding what Jesus asks of us.

Jesus does offer us a clue when he adds, "humble like this child."  But of course humility is not much admired in our world, in children or adults.  We learn at an early age that we must draw attention to ourselves if we're going to get ahead.  There are books and seminars that tell you how to make your résumé stand out or how to make sure your college application gets noticed amidst all the others.

But Jesus seems to think that children are humble, and I suspect they were much more so in that day.  Children in First Century Palestine had no power.  They were totally dependent on parents.  They had no disposable income.  Very often their worth was understood more in terms of potential than intrinsic. Such a status might make me humble, too.

The English word "humble" comes from the same Latin root as humus, referring to earth or soil.  I suppose this has connotations of lowliness, but it also speaks of the earthiness that is part of our created nature.  We don't need the Bible to tell us that we are dust and we shall return to dust.  But for the gift of life, we are simply organic material, humus.

But God has made us but a little lower than angels, says Psalm 8.  God has given us amazing gifts and abilities, and those who realize how dependent they are on God for these understand something about humility.  And they tend to deflect attention from self and toward God.  Who we are "in Christ" becomes more important than who we are on our own, and our lives point beyond ourselves to Jesus.

This requires a fundamental shift for many of us.  We are so used to saying, "Look at me; look at me!"  It is so difficult to speak as John the Baptist does of Jesus when he says, "He must increase, but I must decrease."

Humility is not about being a doormat for others.  Jesus speaks of himself as humble, and his power and authority are obvious, even to his opponents.  But in his ministry, Jesus always points people beyond himself to the Father.  The earthly, human Jesus is totally focused on God's will rather than his own.

That is often very difficult for me, just as it is difficult for me to trust Jesus when he says, "Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life more my sake will find it."  Can that really be true?  Can losing my life in Christ truly heal me and make me whole?  Jesus, give me the confidence and faith to know it is so, and live in ways that reveal you to the world.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Getting It Right

This Sunday in worship, we will celebrate Christ the King, and we will also ordain and install elders and deacons to lead the ministry, mission, and spiritual life of our congregation.  As we do so, they will respond to a number of "constitutional questions," including one that asks, "Do you promise to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church?"

Over the years I have had prospective elders or deacons express concern about some of the other questions they will answer.  But I've never heard anyone express any reservations about this question.  Who wouldn't want the church to be more peaceful, unified, and pure?  Who wouldn't want a congregation to look less like the broken world we live in and more like the community God calls us to be?

But in practice, this question may be the most difficult one to live into.  This difficulty arises because seeking peace often sacrifices purity, seeking purity often throws out unity, and so on.

In today's reading from Ezra, the focus is very much on purity.  Ezra has condemned Israel for marrying foreign wives, for incurring guilt before God by marrying those whose religious practices are "abominations" and so polluting the purity of the faith.  Ezra has the commandments on his side as he chastises the people, leading them to "send away all these wives and their children."  In a day when women were totally dependent on men for protection and provision, this may well have been a death sentence to many of these mothers and children.  But in the name of purity...

Interestingly, the Old Testament contains another book where one of these foreign wives is lifted up as a paragon of virtue and faith.  Ruth, who like Ezra has a short biblical book named for her, is a foreign wife who is celebrated and who is great-grandmother to King David.  Even more interesting, some scholars think the book of Ruth was written in the same period when Ezra was encouraging the sending away of such women.

We people of faith often worry a great deal about getting the rules correct.  My own denomination's decades long wrangling over whether or not to ordain gays and lesbians is a good case in point.  For people on both sides, this issue became the purity line in the sand, a line of such importance that it justified sacrificing peace and unity.

I sometimes wonder about my denomination's (and my own) desire to read Scripture carefully in order to construct a clear theology that covers all the bases.  Don't get me wrong, I do think that deducing some sort of theology is necessary and even unavoidable.  All people have some sort of theology, some notion of what God is like and what difference that makes for their lives.  But it seems to me that any biblical theology has to leave room for a fair amount of ambiguity and tension.  "Getting it right" cannot become the god we serve.  Even Jesus, speaking in today's gospel reading, tells Peter that he does not owe the temple tax, that he is free of its requirement.  Yet he also tells Peter to procure the coin for the tax and pay it, "so that we do not give offense to them."

It very often seems to me that the Presbyterian passion for theology tends to squeeze out the Spirit. We prefer clear conclusions and guidelines, well crafted order, over the wind of the Spirit "that blows where it chooses."

And so I really like that ordination question which insists that getting it right means furthering "the peace, unity, and purity of the church."  Not one of them, but all of them.  Seems that getting it right often means balancing somewhat contradictory calls and living faithfully within that tension and ambiguity. 

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Save Us!

It has been interesting - sometimes even comical - watching the ever changing polls on the Republican presidential front runner.  Romney, to many the presumed, eventual winner, tends to stay near the top, but others take their turn surging to favorite status and then falling into disfavor.  Newt Gingrich is now on his second ride toward the top, having previously crashed, burned, and been given up for dead by many.

I suppose that much of this is simply the normal political process.  A fresh face catches people's attention and generates excitement, but then the person's flaws and liabilities become more evident, and he or she falls from grace.  But I also think something else is at work.  We want someone to save us.  We want someone to fix things and make them right.  We're looking for a savior, but of course no one can live up to such expectations.

Whether the savior we embrace promises to take back America or restore hope, whether they are Republican, Democratic, or Libertarian, they end up disappointing us to some degree.  President Obama's campaign has already acknowledged that they do not expect to energize students they way they did in 2008.  Too many have become disenchanted with their savior.

Do not put your trust in princes,
     in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
     on that very day their plans perish.

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
     whose hope is in the LORD their God. 

We live in difficult times, and we want someone to save us.   Very often it seems we want someone to save us from ourselves.  We want someone who promises to fix things without it costing us anything, goring our ox, or requiring hard work and sacrifice from us.  Others need to provide that.

Sometimes I think that we put our trust in candidates because putting our trust in God means following Jesus.  It means becoming different from what we are now, being transformed so that we look and act more and more like Jesus.  That looks too much like work.  Surely there is another solution.  Surely there is an ideology that will solve everything.  Surely enough money and things will make life good.  Surely making sure all of my needs are met will make me feel complete.  Surely there is some answer that doesn't ask me to change.

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, who have discovered new life by letting go of the old life and becoming new beings in Christ.

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Monday, November 14, 2011

Sermon video - Hearts on Fire

Spiritual Hiccups - Mountaintop Experience

If you're the religious or spiritual sort, you likely cherish mountaintop experiences.  I know I do.  Those moments when God's presence is vivid and God's will for me clear are touchstones in my faith walk.  Recalling them sometimes can keep me going in those all too frequent times when God's presence is less vivid and God's will less clear.  And sometimes I would like to reconnect to such moments, especially if I'm in something of a spiritual dry spell.

Such a desire is natural, but it can have its pitfalls.  It can long for religious/spiritual experience for the sake of that experience.  I take it that Peter's desire to memorialize the mountaintop experience reported in today's gospel is something along those lines, plans for a physical connection to that moment that would allow him to reconnect with the unbelievable vision he has just seen.  But his plans are interrupted by the divine voice which commands Peter (and us?), "Listen to him!" that is to Jesus.

And so I find myself reflecting on the place of religious experience this morning.  I cannot imagine a faith of much consequence without some such experience.  But I also have met a few people who seem to be addicted to such experiences, who spend much of their time cultivating them.  (Some of the more negative stereotypes about "spirituality" are related to such folks.

In his devotion for today, Father Richard Rohr says this.  "When you see people going to church and becoming smaller instead of larger, you have every reason to question whether the practices, sermons, sacraments, or liturgies are opening them to an authentic God experience."  I suspect the same can be said of attempts to cultivate religious experience simply for its own sake.  Such experience is meant to enlarge us so that we go deeper into relationship with God as well as with those around us.

Sometimes I just want my "God fix."  Thankfully, Jesus usually finds a way to draw me out of such self centered spirituality.  Jesus, help me listen for your voice, calling me to my vocation in the valley.

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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sermon audio - Hearts on Fire

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Sermon text - Hearts on Fire

Matthew 25:14-30
Hearts on Fire
James Sledge                                     November 13, 2011

For most of my life I have thought of banks as some of the more conservative institutions around.  By conservative I don’t mean politically conservative.  Rather I’m using a more basic definition of preserving and conserving what exists.  This sort of conservatism makes changes only after very careful consideration.  The default decision is the tried and true, what has worked well in the past.  This sort of conservatism has little use for the novel, and it does not take unnecessary risk.
To me, banks and bankers epitomized this sort of thinking.  At least they did until the financial collapse of 2008.  When the financial markets tumbled a few years ago, we discovered that those staid bankers had abandoned their traditional conservatism.  Far from fearing the novel, they had embraced all sorts of creative and innovative investment vehicles.  There seemed to be no worries that some of the more exotic, mortgage-based investments could fail.  People acted as though big profits were simply guaranteed.  But then it all came tumbling down.
But if the image of bankers as cautious, prudent, careful, and risk-averse folks disappeared in that 2008 economic collapse, another group still has its cautious, conservative, careful image fully intact; the typical Mainline church congregation. 
We don’t reject all innovation and novelty.  We have a somewhat contemporary worship service here, after all.  But of course traditional Presbyterian congregations generally didn’t adopt such services until they had been a huge success for many years in other, non-traditional congregations.
I let The Presbyterian Hymnal plop open in my lap.  I flipped through a few pages, seeing more dates from the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s than from 1900s, the century in which that hymnal was published.  And the couple of hymns I saw from the 1900’s were set to hymn tunes from earlier centuries.  This is not necessarily a criticism or a complaint.  There were some wonderful hymns on those pages.  And our economy would probably be in much better shape right now if bankers had retained a bit more of this sort of conservatism seen reflected in our hymnal, the conserving of what exists, changing it only after careful consideration.
Issues of caution, prudence, careful and risk-averse investing are on display in our gospel reading this morning as well.  A master is about to leave for an extended time, and so he turns over his investments to several of his slaves.  Perhaps this spreading around of his portfolio was his idea of diversification. 
There is a tendency to flatten parables and miss their many facets, reducing them to fables with a simple message.  In the case of this parable, that often becomes, “Use your talents wisely.”  But such a “moral of the story” ignores much in the parable.  For example, the third slave is called “wicked and lazy” by his master, an assessment often accepted without question.  But that master does not refute the slave’s assessment that he is “a harsh man, reaping where (he) did not sow.”
Other, perhaps more illuminating facets of the parable relate to the wealth entrusted to each slave and the huge returns earned by the first two compared with the simple preserving of the principle by the third slave.  Here, the term talent sometimes gets in the way, as does our unfamiliarity with the financial options available in Jesus’s day.
For the first hearers of the parable, a talent was a large sum of money, and nothing more.  In fact it was equal to fifteen or twenty years wages for a laborer.  And those first hearers had never seen a local Savings and Loans or bank as we know them.  There were money changers where you could invest money, but there were no regulations or government guarantees.  The only really safe thing to do with money in those days was to hide it.
Perhaps it would help if we updated a few elements in the parable.  We could change it so that the CEO of a large investment firm has decided to take an extended vacation.  And so he summoned several of his money managers and told them to take care of his portfolio.  To one he gave 10 million dollars, to another he gave 5 million, and to a third, 1 million.  The first manager wheeled and dealed and made another 10 million.  The second did much the same, doubling his portion.  But the third manager didn’t have all that much to play with, and so he opted to put it into a very secure, interest-bearing money market account. 
Or look at it another way.  Think about what you would do if it was your money.  Would you have taken the more risky investments, or would you have played it safe?
This parable has so many facets, I’m not always sure where to focus my attention.  On the one hand, the freedom and abandon that allowed those first two slaves to make risky investments and double what was entrusted to them has a powerful attraction.  What was it that let them act as they did?
But the parable itself spends much of its time with the third slave, the one who did the prudent and cautious thing.  Since the parable focuses so much on him, I suppose I should at least wonder what it was about him that makes him the bad guy in the story, even though he did exactly what many prudent people of Jesus’ day likely would have done.
“Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your money in the ground.”
“So I was afraid.”  Seems to me that religion often has a great deal of fear in it.  “Do you want to burn in hell?”  Even the much friendlier, “Do you want to be saved?” carries with it implied fear.  What happens if you’re not?  And denominations’ and churches’ hard fought efforts and battles to get our theology just right seems to have more than a little fear involved.  What might happen if we got it wrong?
The Bible says that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” but in this parable the fear of the master is the downfall of this slave.  By contrast, his two fellow slaves seem to have no fear at all.  They took some pretty serious risks, acting as though they could not fail.
Where in your life have you thrown caution to the wind and acted as if risk did not matter?  Where have you broken free from caution and prudence and risked it all?  Perhaps you once fell in love, or are in love now, and you did things or are doing things that would have seemed crazy and foolish before.  Maybe some passion once caught you and swept you up, and you threw yourself into it in a way you cannot imagine doing now.  Or perhaps you’re caught up in just such a passion right now.
Is it possible to fall in love with God, to be swept off your feet by Jesus so that you act with wild abandon, dance like no one is watching, and look foolish to those who do not understand such passion?  Is it possible for the pull of Jesus to grab you and overpower you, draw you in so that you act in ways you never knew were possible?
Is that possible, Jesus?  We are here, Jesus.  We are waiting.  Will you come into our hearts and set them on fire?  We are here, Jesus.  We are waiting.  Come to us. 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - Signs of the Times

Jesus clearly upset a lot of people during his earthly ministry.  If Jesus had just sat around and taught a handful of followers some timeless spiritual truths, no one would have felt the need to get rid of him, to kill him.  But Jesus troubled people.  His talk of a coming kingdom could not help but catch the attention of the Romans.  Alternate kings and kingdoms were not tolerated by Rome.  And Jesus' words of good new to the poor and oppressed also threatened the economic system on which Rome rested.

But Jesus also seems to have been a religious threat to some of his fellow Jews.  Jesus remained a faithful Jew his entire life.  He went to synagogue and made a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem.  Yet the established religious institutions were bothered by him.  Whether it was priestly Judaism that had closely aligned itself with Roman power, or synagogue Judaism, Jesus posed a problem.

It is interesting to speculate on whether or not Jesus had any intention of starting a new religion.  I think not.  In a manner not completely different from Martin Luther unintentionally starting the Reformation, Jesus came to call his people into a fuller experience of God's presence, and into a life shaped by God's coming dominion.  But established religious institutions found that a threat to patterns of life that had become treasured, deeply ingrained, and presumed to be integral parts of a life of faith.

A fundamental problem with religion is that, over time, it is inclined to replace faith in God with faith in its teachings about and methods connected to God.  Its traditions and habits become holy, and they are worshiped.  This holiness makes it difficult, even impossible, to toss habits and traditions even when they no longer are appropriate, when they no longer fit the times.

Jesus accuses the Pharisees of being unable to "interpret the signs of the times," perhaps words somewhat akin to Bob Dylan's once insisting that "the times they are a changing."  And I wonder if we are any better at reading the signs of the times now that religious folks were in Jesus' day.

It has become the religious mantra of a generation.  "I'm spiritual but not religious."  Sometimes this is nothing but a cop out, a narcissism that acknowledges a desire for God but has no interest in dealing with the messiness inherent in all communities.  It wants God without neighbor.  It wants God divorced from bodies and the incarnation.

But this mantra can also be an indictment of a Church that has lost its way.  It can be the sincere statement of those who long for God, but are unable to find God at Church.  They find traditions and practices that are related to God.  They find lots of information about God.  But God seems to be missing.

I believe that when we in the Church dismiss all those who are spiritual but not religious, lumping them altogether in the camp of individualistic narcissists, we misread the signs of the times.  And we miss the Spirit speaking to us, calling us to refocus our faith life on Christ's living presence with us.  We ignore the Spirit seeking to transform us into new creations, those who have died to old lives and false selves, and have discovered new life in Christ.

Jesus says that for the new to be born the old must give way.  "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit."  Interpreting the signs of the times requires discerning what needs to die so that something more wonderful can be born.  And unless we think our congregations and our world have fully embodied God's coming Kingdom, there is still much to come, and so still much that must die. 

Jesus, help me be among those who can read the signs of the times.

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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Spiritual Hiccups - When They Cry

God gives to the animals their food,
   and to the young ravens when they cry.

Psalm 147:9
Both my church upbringing and my seminary training shaped me to look at Scripture in a certain way.  And while this way highly esteems the Bible, even treating it as God's self revelation, it often acts as though God's revelation were a fixed thing embedded in the text.  Handled this way, once you have figured out what a Scripture passage says and means, you "know" it.  I and other pastors sometimes lament when certain readings show up in the Sunday lectionary for preaching.  "What more is there to say on this?" we ask.

In more recent years, I have been introduced to different ways of approaching Scripture, things such as lectio divina.  This spiritual or holy reading of a Bible text is less interested in understanding what the text "means" and more focused on praying Scripture.  Part of this involves reading in a contemplative pose, paying attention to words or phrases in a text that stick out or claim your attention.  These words or phrases may or may not have much to do with "the meaning of the text," but they may be the way God speaks to you.

I won't claim to be terribly good at this practice.  (My long proficiency with the sort of reading practiced at seminary often gets in the way.)  But I still find that I often experience God much more directly in lectio divina than in more formal ways of reading Scripture.  

Reading Psalm 147 today, I found myself drawn to the last portion of the verse shown above, "when they cry."  For all I know the author of this psalm included this line simply to make the poetry work.  It may have had no particular significance beyond that, but still I found myself drawn to the line, captured by it in some way... when they cry.

I sometimes cry to God, but usually only when I've gotten pretty frustrated, only when things are going the way I think they should.  When I have done my best and not gotten the expected results, I will sometimes cry to God, but that seems to me totally different from what I envision those young ravens doing.

When young ravens cry, and for that matter when human infants cry, there is a profound dependence on those who hear the cry.  But as adults, we learn to take care of ourselves.  God is like the hammer for breaking the glass on some old fire alarms, to be used only in emergencies.  

Babies and young ravens seem to be born knowing that crying works.  Maybe that part of the reason Jesus says we must become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Sermon audio - The Kingdom Marathon

Download an mp3 file of the sermon.

Sermon Text: The Kingdom Marathon

TheKingdom Marathon
JamesSledge                                      November6, 2011

Thenewscaster leads with a breaking local story. Jesus has announced plans to hold a “Kingdom of God Marathon.”  It will be a huge event for the community,something everyone can get behind, and a fundraiser for causes to end hungerand homelessness. 
Themayor and local celebrities were in attendance at the press conference whereJesus announced that the marathon was being planned for next year, exact dateyet to be determined.  The pressconference featured lots of cheering and excitement.  Everyone thought it was a wonderfulidea.  And as Jesus worked the crowdfollowing the official announcement, people told him so.  They pledged to help make it a big success,promising that they would run in it, publicize the event, or help set up aidstations along the route. 
Inthe days following the announcement, sales at sporting goods storessurged.  People were buying running shoesand other gear, books on how to train for a marathon, training calendars andsoftware programs, and just about anything connected to running.  The number of people running on the roads,sidewalks, and local trails skyrocketed. Local running clubs were overwhelmed with new members, and lots of newtraining groups formed. 
Butas days turned to weeks and weeks to months, the excitement and energywaned.  Those running clubs and traininggroups dwindled in number, and the trails and sidewalks had far fewer runnerson them.  Talk of the marathon faded aswell.  It’s difficult to publicizesomething when the exact date isn’t known, and it all but disappeared frompublic view.
Thensuddenly it was back in the news.  Jesusannounced that the first Kingdom of God Marathon would be held three weeks fromSaturday. 
A flurry of activityensued.  People dug out those runningshoes that had been gathering dust for months. But there simply is no way to get ready for a 26 mile run in threeweeks. 
Thebig day came and scores of runners gathered in the streets downtown.  When Jesus sounded the air horn the runnerssurged forward.  As the last of themcrossed the starting line, Jesus followed along in a golf cart. 
Itwasn’t long before runners began to fall by the wayside.  A mile or two was all some could manage.  As they began walking or stopped and sat onthe curb, Jesus cruised by in his golf cart. “Jesus, we so wanted to be a part of your big race,” they said as hepassed.  But Jesus just shrugged andsaid,  “You should have stayed in shape.”  And they watched as Jesus disappeared down the marathon course.
Afternearly five hours, the last of those who were actually running crossed thefinish line and went into a huge post-race celebration.  There was live music, massages for sore legs,the best food and drink to recharge after such a strenuous event, and awardsand trophies for all.  And the runnerswere soon feeling revived and having a wonderful time.
Asthe big post-race party went on, those who had tried to get ready in threeweeks trickled in to the finish line. Some couldn’t even walk the route and had found rides.  They were disappointed at not being able tofinish, but they didn’t want to miss out on the post-race festivities.  But they found the doors to the ConventionCenter where the party was going on locked tight.  People went around the building, checking allthe entrances, but there was no getting in. Finally, after banging loudly on the doors, they got the attention ofsomeone inside who went and found Jesus and brought him to the door.
“Jesus,let us into the party.  We were in therace.  See, we have our race numbers.  We paid our registration and everything.”
ButJesus simply said, “This a only for those who ran the race; not for those whoentered.”  And he turned and walked backto the party as security re-locked the door.
Nowdon’t take this story too seriously, certainly not literally.  After all, it’s a story, a parable if youwill.  I has rather obvious similaritiesto the parable Jesus tells in today’s gospel reading, but I felt moved to tellmy version because I think the Church has often encouraged us to misunderstandthe one Jesus tells.  When Jesus beginshis parable he makes clear what the parable is about.  “The kingdom of heaven will be likethis.”  As I’ve mentioned manytimes, this kingdom is not a synonym for heaven.  It is called the “kingdom of God” in thegospels of Luke and Mark, and it refers to a new day that God will bring, to aredeemed and transformed would where God’s will is done here on earth just asit is in heaven, as the prayer Jesus teaches us says. 
Butsomehow, Christianity seemed to forget this over the centuries.  This kingdom that will change the world hasbeen privatized and made a matter of personal piety.  I’ve even heard this parable preached as apressing reason for accepting Jesus as your Savior now rather than later.  “Yes, it’s true that a deathbed confessionwill get you into heaven,” the argument goes. “But you never know.  Things couldhappen so quickly that you wouldn’t have time. Then you would be like those bridesmaids with no oil for their lamps.”
Isuppose this could be true, but I’m pretty sure it’s not what Jesus is talkingabout.  Rather, this is a parable forbelievers, for insiders.  Jesus istalking about living a life that is oriented to God’s coming kingdom.  The wise bridesmaids are ready to participatein that kingdom.  They have preparedthemselves so that they do not have to change what they are doing, do not haveto make adjustments in order to be part of the banquet, the kingdom.
It’ssomething Jesus speaks of often.  He saysthe same thing in his Sermon on the Mount. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom ofheaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”  Jesus is not talking about whether ornot we believe in him, but whether or not we follow him, though I suppose notfollowing him does  seem to indicate thatwe don’t believe what he tells us to do.
Iread this recently on someone’s Facebook page. “A recent Gallup poll says that 81% of Americans are dissatisfied with howthe country is being governed; 57% have little or no confidence the federalgovernment can solve the nation's problems. So in 2012, will we still re-elect90+% of the incumbents as we normally seem to do?”
Aninteresting question.  I would not besurprised if we do.  We may bedissatisfied, but we’re not sure what new thing will help.  We want something better, but we’re notreally clear what that is or how to get it. And so we stick with what we know. 
We arecreatures of habit, and those habits define us. “We are,” as Aristotle said long ago, “what we repeatedly do.”  But Jesus calls us to new habits, transformedlives that are conformed to the habits of God’s new day, that new world hecalls the Kingdom.  But it is so different.  It sounds too hard, like getting ready for amarathon.  And so as much as we likeJesus, we struggle when it comes to actually getting up and following him onthis new way he shows us.  We “believe,”but we’re less certain about the habits of disciples.
ButJesus insists that the way he shows us is not too hard, that his yoke is easyand his burden is light.  He promisesthat the Spirit will more than equip us for the journey ahead. 
Butit is so easy just to stay where we are, and keep doing what we are doing,isn’t it?