Sunday, December 30, 2012

Preaching Thoughts on a Non-Preaching Sunday

It is somewhat rare that I preach on the Sunday following Christmas.  Pastors often travel to visit family after Christmas day, and substitute preachers are in big demand on this first Sunday following the celebration of Jesus' birth.  And so I'm not sure if I've ever dealt with today's gospel in a sermon, and I'm not at all sure what I would say.

The first thing that comes to mind when I read these verses is the terror that Jesus' parents must have experienced. I once "lost" one of my daughters.  She was still preschool age and decided she would head on to the grocery store, our next stop, on her own.  I looked up from the shelves in the drug store to find she was no longer beside me. I looked on the adjacent aisle, and then the next, and then ran back and forth all through that store as a feeling of total panic began to rise up inside me.  For a brief moment I think I experienced the most terror I have ever felt. (In desperation I rushed over to the grocery store and found her getting the free cookie the bakery there gave to small children.) Jesus' parents must have felt what I did many times over. Rather than a few minutes, they could not locate Jesus for days. 

This is the only childhood story the Bible has about Jesus.  And while it does highlight the exceptional nature of Jesus, it also puts his parents through great agony. It's nowhere near so terrifying as Matthew's story of Jesus' family fleeing the slaughter of all the young boys in Bethlehem, but like it, Luke's account of Jesus' arrival quickly takes a troubling turn.  Maybe that is why our culture and our congregations, for all the attention we lavish on Christmas, turn away from it almost the moment the day arrives.  The Christmas story is not the saccharine sweet thing we want it to be. The story immediately encounters the world's enmity along with hints that following Jesus will demand loyalty exceeding that given to family, country, etc.

Our gospel says that Jesus' mother, Mary "treasured all these things in her heart."  I wonder what she found to treasure about this episode. I also wonder if this is the best translation.  Another possibility is that Mary "carefully remembered" all these things, and that seems more likely to me. She knew they were important, but I wonder if she would not have gladly given them up in order to prevent what would happen to her son.

I suspect that this sort of "treasuring" is an unavoidable part of faith. In a world that is out of step with God's ways, it is inevitable that taking up those ways will cause us pain and struggles over loyalties.  And if we do not realize this, we may have misunderstood the whole Jesus business. Maybe that is why Matthew and Luke (the only gospel writers who mention Jesus' birth) immediately attach dark and foreboding episodes to the story of Jesus' arrival.

It makes me wonder about the careful remembering that I need to be doing, the reflecting on things troubling and disturbing that I need to hold close if I am to understand what Jesus is asking of me.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Monday, December 24, 2012

On Lighting Candles

I've never preached on Christmas Eve, but these were the "instructions" for the candle lighting at our service tonight.

"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." In the darkness... On Christmas Eve we gather in the darkness. Some of us do so every year, but the darkness seems to press in a bit more this year.  Whether it is a dysfunctional Congress more bent on partisan bickering than actually helping the American people, or the terrible shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, or the horrible violence in places like Syria and the Congo, it is hard to deny the awful reality of the darkness.

If you were here last week for our Service of the Longest Night, you heard Diane remind us that the Christmas story is a dark story.  That sometimes gets lost in all the sentimentality and nostalgia and celebration, but it is still there. A couple forced by imperial power to travel, even though a birth is imminent. A birth far from home in a dirty and smelly place meant for farm animals. And as the story continues, this new family becomes refugees, fleeing those who would kill a newborn Messiah.

To say the light shines in the darkness is no act of sentimentality. Rather it is a bold assertion that the light that comes as a vulnerable baby, the love of God that comes in vulnerability and weakness, is somehow stronger than all that darkness.

And so as we light our candles and bask in their glow, it is much more than an ooh-and-aah moment. It is an act of defiance in the face of the darkness, an act that says we trust and hope in the power of God's weakness and vulnerability over all the terrors of the darkness.

The light, the vulnerable light of a newborn baby, shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. Let us embrace that light, and carry it with us, that we might share it with a broken and hurting world that desperately needs it.

A Vulnerable God

We in the Church make far too much of Christmas, and far too little at the same time. We expend too much energy on Christmas extravaganzas and pageants that mirror the secular frenzy surrounding Christmas. Many seem to feel that Christmas-themed religious hoopla needs to keep up with the ever expanding secular hoopla.  I'm not sure why. Perhaps to hold on to some notion that all this energy is related to faith in some way.

But at the very same time, we sometimes get numbed to how remarkable the Christmas story is. The baby Jesus makes the briefest of appearances in the Bible, actually seen only in Luke's gospel. But the implications of that moment manifest themselves throughout the New Testament. God's love and power comes, not with earthquake and thunderbolts, but vulnerable and at risk.

What is more at risk than an infant? At Christmas God incarnate is totally dependent on others, just like all babies. Some Christians have always struggled with such notions, imagining that the baby Jesus wasn't like real babies. But nothing in Scripture would seem to support such a notion. A truly human baby, totally dependent on his parents, would grow to be a truly human adult who suffered and bled and died like other human beings.  He was, as the Apostle Paul wrote, God's power made perfect in weakness.

The notion of a vulnerable God seems to run counter to basic assumptions about God. God should be powerful, not vulnerable. So it's not surprising that the first big theological fight among early Christians was over the nature of Jesus' humanity.  Surely he only appeared human. God cannot be vulnerable or experience mortal jeopardy. And many modern Christians, living long after such debates were "settled," still struggle, picturing the biblical Jesus as some sort of aberration, a historical blip necessary to fulfill a salvation formula. But Jesus isn't like that anymore. And, they point out, when Jesus returns he will be just what you'd expect a god to be like, all powerful, no more meek and mild and vulnerable.

Expecting a returning Jesus who won't be such a disappointment in the godly power department seems to echo expectations of a conquering Messiah from 2000 years ago. But I think Christmas and the Incarnation reflect God's deepest nature. I see that nature on display in today's reading from the book of Revelation. Many presume Revelation to be violent predictions of God's coming wrath. But not only does Jesus still appear in it as one who is slain, but the closing of the book sounds much like the gospel Jesus.
"It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star." The Spirit and the bride say, "Come." And let everyone who hears say, "Come." And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
"Water of life as a gift" seems totally consistent with the vulnerable love we meet in the gospel Jesus, that story whose beginning we rehearse tonight. The story of a manger is the story of a God who enters fully into our vulnerabilities, who confronts the pain and brokenness of our world with a remarkably vulnerable love. We've still not fully embraced this love or this God. In many ways, we still prefer coercive power to vulnerable love.

Maybe it's just me, but sometimes the flash and pomp and magnificent displays of Christmas seem the sort of things that should accompany celebrations of worldly power such as coronations or inaugurations. There's a kind of dissonance between them and the story of a baby in a manger that reminds me of how I feel when I see the Pope, in all his royal finery, engaging in ritual foot-washing on Good Friday.

But even if the vulnerable baby gets lost amidst the bright lights and pageantry, he is still there. We just need to look beyond the pageantry and attend to the story itself. In the context of Rome's imperial might, a most vulnerable human act occurs, a birth. And this most vulnerable act occurs away from the safe confines of home, dependent on the hospitality of strangers who are able to provide only marginal accommodations. And there, God is.  There, with this act of remarkable vulnerability, God beckons us to become vulnerable ourselves, and to become bearers of God's love.

May you encounter the vulnerable God of Christmas as we remember and celebrate our Savior's birth.

Click to learn more about the Lectionary.

Sermon audio: A Strange Day in Zechariah's House

More worship and sermon audios on Falls Church Presbyterian website.

Sermon video: A Strange Day in Zechariah's House

More sermon videos available on YouTube.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sermon: A Strange Day in Zechariah's House

Luke 1:39-55
A Strange Day in Zechariah’s House
James Sledge                                                                                       December 23, 2012

It was a strange day in the house of Zechariah as two women, both pregnant, greet one another.  They are relatives of some sort.  I’d always heard that they were cousins.  The old King James translation says as much, but in fact, Luke doesn’t specify how they are related, only that they are.
They are a study in contrasts.  One is six months pregnant; the other hasn’t even begun to show.  One is old, too old to have children, so old that her pregnancy can only be described as a miracle.  The other is young, so young that she is not yet married in a culture where girls were often married by 14. 
As the door opens, the very pregnant, very old woman greets her very young, barely pregnant, barely out of childhood, niece or cousin or whatever she is. It must have been quite an encounter. They’ve not seen one another in a long time. Mary had just learned of Elizabeth’s pregnancy from the angel Gabriel.  Elizabeth has no way of knowing that Mary is pregnant, yet she knows.  Imagine the greeting, the screaming, the joy, the tears. 
Imagine poor Zechariah.  Two pregnant women in the house and he can’t even talk, struck mute by the angel Gabriel for not believing that he and Elizabeth would have a son so late in life.  I wonder if Zechariah headed out to the local tavern to escape the screaming and yelling and singing of these two pregnant women.
I also wonder why Mary went to see Elizabeth.  Is she seeking reassurance, going to confirm what Gabriel told her about Elizabeth and so confirm what Gabriel said about her own pregnancy?  Is Elizabeth is the one person who can understand, who she can talk with about these strange goings on?  Is Mary just scared, wondering why she ever said “Yes” to Gabriel, wondering what she will do when she starts to show?  Is she wondering how to tell Joseph?  Did she come to sort all of this out, or perhaps to borrow some maternity clothes.
As I said, it was a strange day in Zechariah’s house.  All these things going on.  All these unanswered questions, not to mention the more run of the mill questions about morning sickness and mood swings and midwives.  So much to discuss and talk about, yet we hear none of that.
Mary walks in, and Elizabeth’s baby jumps in her womb.  I still remember putting my hand on my wife’s abdomen and feeling a kick.  It’s an amazing thing, to feel that life moving.  You might even call it miraculous, but it’s a fairly routine miracle.  It happens all the time.  I’ve heard people try to interpret these fits of activity.  Some say that a loud noise can trigger it.  Some try to predict a child’s gender based on how vigorous the activity is.  Some claim that spicy food can send their child into all sorts of flip and flops. 
Elizabeth has a different take on her baby’s movement.  It’s a rather novel interpretation , but Luke tells us that she is filled with the Holy Spirit, so I suppose it is to be trusted.  Elizabeth fairly screams out to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”   And she calls Mary “the mother of my Lord,” all because her baby jumped or kicked.  As I said, it was a strange day in Zechariah’s house.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Curses and Blessings

Finally the Daily Lectionary starts to talk about Christmas, or at least giving us the preliminaries.  Zechariah the priest and his wife Elizabeth are getting on in years, but they have no children.  This can be extremely difficult for couples in our day, but in Elizabeth's time, a woman's worth was measured by children. She was, in ancient biblical parlance, cursed.

But as so often happens when God acts to bless or save, the story moves through those one would least expect. The messenger who prepares the way for a Messiah will come from this cursed one, this one who has endured disgrace because of her childlessness.  Strange that the Bible sometimes speaks of barrenness as a curse where God has closed a woman's womb, but then those "cursed" wombs become instruments of blessing.

Even though God routinely works this way, Zechariah (and we?) has trouble believing it, leading to his being rendered mute.  It seems a fit of pique by Gabriel.  People in the Bible routinely ask for a sign when they have a divine epiphany.  Moses asks for several.  Perhaps we shouldn't consider it entirely as punishment.  It would be a daily reminder to Zechariah of God's blessing on him and Elizabeth. Even before his wife began to show, he would not be able to forget or question God's promise. Sometimes I wish God would give me such an unavoidable and unambiguous sign as this.

Zechariah is an interesting case.  He is a priest, an important person in important circles.  But his wife is "cursed." And as this new chapter in salvation history unfolds, the angel Gabriel will go through even more unexpected channels - a not yet married teenager from a backwater town. 

In a few days, we will celebrate another Christmas in our decorated sanctuaries with all the musical fanfare we can muster.  Television will broadcast Mass and services from huge cathedrals with magnificent choirs and ornate finery.  And we'll hear these old stories of a God who goes through back channels and brings blessing and hope in unexpected ways, through unexpected people, even those who are "cursed." And we'll rejoice as we remember the birth of one who became cursed for our sakes.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Frightened of Atheists

I confess that when I read the Daily Lectionary passages (I'm subscribed so that they are emailed to me each day.), I almost never make it to the Evening Psalm.  I read the morning psalms and other passages on most days, but stop at the gospel. I almost never make it back in the evening and didn't mean to do any differently today, but as I finished the gospel, my eyes caught the beginning of Psalm 53. "Fools say in their heart, 'There is no God.'"

I've heard a lot of Christians who seem terrified of atheists. I've never understood this, but some of them seem to think there is no bigger threat to faith than atheists. It's as though the fact of some not believing is contagious.  I'm a little suspicious that the mere fact of atheists opens a window they would rather not acknowledge, poses a question that they are afraid to consider for themselves.

There certainly are many things that work against a meaningful and deep Christian faith, but I'm not sure atheists are a significant one. I could perhaps understand feeling sorry for an atheist, hoping he might come to realize what he's missing out on, but even the more obnoxious and militant sort, those who try to convert others to their view and belittle people of faith, pose little threat to faith that has any substance.

I've heard Psalm 53 quoted as proof that God is as repulsed by atheists as some Christians are, but the psalm doesn't seem to speak of atheists at all. The fools of this psalm say there is no God "in their hearts." Nothing here about public professions of non-faith.  The psalm's ire is directed at those whose actions betray an inner disposition that doesn't acknowledges God. It does not address the sort of atheists some Christians seem to fear so much. Rather it addresses the sort who belong to churches and perhaps even attend them with some regularity but whose lives produce little evidence of being shaped by God's priorities.

The prophets and Jesus, not to mention a few psalms, regularly chastise religious folks, and almost never for failing to do worship correctly or for believing the wrong doctrines. They save their ire for those who faithfully maintain worship and religious observance but do not live in ways that demonstrate God's concern for the lost and least, the vulnerable and oppressed, the outsider and the lowly.

Most of us have likely known some atheists or agnostics whose lives seemed to reveal hearts that are canted toward God, or at least toward the desires of God.  I wonder what the psalmist would say about such folks. If they are not fools, are they in some ways wise?

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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Beginning to Dream Again

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.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
     their young shall lie down together;
     and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
     and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.
They will not hurt or destroy
     on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
                                                                    as the waters cover the sea.    
Isaiah 11:6-9

They will not hurt or destroy...  What a wonderful vision. What a wonderful dream. But is that all it is, a vision, a dream?

A world without violence certainly seems like a dream. Most of us don't dare imagine such a thing. We'd be happy with less violence, with only occasional hurting or destroying on a small scale. Not hurting or destroying at all, even in just one city? That seems impossible.

I wonder if only prophets can see such things.  I don't restrict prophets to the Bible. I'm certain Martin Luther King, Jr. was a prophet.  He dreamed things that many could never imagine happening.  It hasn't happened all the way to what he dreamed, but even non prophets like most of us can see it partially now.  I suppose that's a bit like the first Christians beginning to glimpse what Isaiah had dreamed.  In Jesus they saw enough to join with Isaiah saying, "Yeah, I see it now, too."

Jesus was certainly a dreamer and a prophet.  He read a passage from Isaiah, "(The Lord) has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And when he'd finished reading he said, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

All the oppressed weren't freed, and the year of God's jubilee didn't really take hold in full, but Jesus could apparently see it, the way that only prophets can.  And those who drew near him began to glimpse it, too.

But somewhere along the line, Christianity lost sight of its dreams. Maybe it was when it became "Christianity," and institutional religion rather than simply followers of the dreamer, Jesus. Regardless, we traded in Jesus' dream of a new day, what he called the kingdom of God, for a ticket to heaven if we believed the right things. We relocated Jesus' dream to another place even though Jesus clearly was able to dream it and see it right here on earth.

The Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians that no one can say Jesus is Lord without the Holy Spirit. (I assume he talking about actually meaning it and not just saying the words.)  And he insists that all members of the body of Christ are given gifts of the Spirit, including some who are given the gift of prophecy.  I think we would do well to discover who they are in our churches, and see if they can't help us begin dreaming again.

Even within church congregations, we often seem unable to imagine anything but the possible, the things we can manage on our own, the things that seem reasonably doable. No visions and dreams, just doable action plans, the same sort of things devised in company offices and corporate boardrooms.

We say "It's only a dream" to dismiss something, to write off an idea as impossible. But prophets, including the prophet Jesus, dream dreams.  And they call us to catch their dreams, their visions.

God, we need some dreams.  Help us to dream again.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Monday, December 17, 2012

What To Do?

I'm still not sure about what I preached yesterday.  I don't mean I thought it was a bad sermon (at least no worse than the norm). Rather, I'm not sure if it was the correct response to the horrific events of Friday.  Should I have spoken more directly to the events? I really don't know.

I had already written a sermon on John the Baptist, and perhaps I didn't want to "waste" it.  But I did think it fit is some ways. It talked about the "What then should we do?" question asked by those who came out to John in the wilderness, those John called snakes. Maybe I wasn't specific enough, but I think that question is an appropriate one in light of the Sandy Hook shootings.

John says, "Bear fruit worthy of repentance." And some of the specific actions he recommends begin to equalize society. Those with two give to those with none. It has a rather socialist feel to it, as does a great deal of Luke/Acts.  And this is the repentance, the change John calls for to get ready for the one is who coming.

Today's gospel lection describes Jesus' arrest. It ends with Jesus saying to the authorities, "But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!" Darkness still seems to be exercising a great deal of power.  So what does it mean to stand for the light at such a time?

Perhaps yesterday's sermon only hinted at it, but I do think the question, "What then should we do?" is about how to stand for the light. It is about bearing witness to the light, to a new day, a redeemed society, a different world. And contrary to many religious voices, this new thing does not involve a going back. It is not a nostalgia for bygone days.  It is a hope for days that have  never been, at least not fully.

"Putting God back in the schools," whatever that actually means, does not get ready for the light in any significant way. That is so much religious window dressing, the very sort of thing that prompted John to say, "Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor.'" John wants to see something much more substantial, much more concrete.

Exactly what needs to happen with regard to better gun regulations or better access to mental health care will require serious discussion and debate, but there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that an essential move toward the light is less concern about me and my rights and more concern about the needs of the other, including the safety of young children. 

In the Apostle Paul's famous words on love (not romantic love by the way), he says love is at the top of the list, above faith and hope. And love "does not insist on its own way." At some fundamental level, rights are about protecting people and not running roughshod over them. But at the level they often operate in our society, they are about "I want it my way, and I don't care what impact that has on anyone else."

I don't have well formed answers for how events like those of last Friday could happen or why God didn't intervene in some way. That we are about to celebrate the birth of a Messiah born into a hostile world, nearly killed himself as a child, and finally executed by the state with assistance from his own religion, surely says something about God's way of entering into our world.  But yesterday, I wanted to hear from, John who yells at people, "Do something!"

We may never be able to fully answer the "Why?" questions, but we can surely set about making such events less likely.  We can surely create a world where it would be much more difficult to shoot scores of people, and we can surely create a world where it is easier to get effective mental health treatments for those who need them. Just as we could create a world with less poverty and hunger if we truly wanted to.  And that sounds to me just like what John the Baptist says we need to be doing if we are to "get ready."  We cannot bring the kingdom, that hoped for new realm of God, but we can point toward it. We can aim in its direction.

There is still darkness, and its time is not fully run out. But it did its best against Jesus and failed. And so we who follow him must surely be about the work, the doing, of that which reveals light.

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Sermon video: Of Snakes and Imperatives

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Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sermon: Of Snakes and Imperatives

Luke 3:7-18
Of Snakes and Imperatives
James Sledge                                                                               December 16, 2012

I’ve never been very big on poetry and never much cared for the practice of pastors quoting poems in their sermons, something I heard a bit of growing up. But I am drawn to song lyrics, my version of poetry I suppose. And a song from my favorite group, The Mountain Goats, immediately came to mind when I first read today’s gospel.
I’m not about to attempt singing it, so I realize that, for all practical purposes, I am going to subject you to the sort of poetry reading I never much cared for growing  up.  Sorry about that.  An even bigger concern; I’m not at all sure what the song means.  It has a connection to our gospel reading, but I’m not really clear about its message.  That might argue against using it, but I’m also somewhat puzzled by our gospel reading today.  So I’ll go ahead and recite some puzzling song lyrics.
Sun just clearing the tree line when my day begins.
Slippery ice on the bridges, Northeastern wind coming in.
You will bruise my head, I will strike your heel.
Drive past woods of northern pine, try not to let go of the wheel.
Dream at night, girl with the cobra tattoo
on her arm, its head flaring out like a parachute.
Prisms in the dewdrops in the underbrush.
skate case sailors' purses floating down in the black needle rush.
Higher than the stars I will set my throne.
God does not need Abraham, God can raise children from stones.
Dream at night, girl with the cobra tattoo
And try to hear the garbled transmissions come through.[1]
Along with haunting music you didn’t hear, there’s a lot going on in these verses. A tattoo of a snake, a viper.  A line borrowed from the Garden of Eden story.  A line from Isaiah’s taunt of those who foolishly imagine themselves equals to God, right next to an echo of John the baptizer’s warning to “children of Abraham.”  Not to mention the line about garbled transmissions, which could sometimes describe my prayer life. 
I’m not at all sure what to make of it. Is it about someone drawn to the devil, to evil? Is this someone who finds himself fated to enmity with another, even with God. Is it a lament over patterns in which he is trapped? I don’t know, but nevertheless I feel myself drawn to it.
At times I feel much the same about Luke’s picture of John the Baptist.  Last week Luke told us that John was proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  And today we hear that crowds came out, drawn to that message.  Now if I were holding a tent revival in the wilderness and huge crowds showed up, I’d think that a good thing. But John calls them snakes; not some of them, but all of them; a brood of vipers, children of serpents.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Beginning to Live

Today's meditation from Fr. Richard Rohr contains this quote from C. K. Chesterton. "When a person has found something that he (she) prefers to life itself, he (she) for the first time has begun to live." This is little more than a paraphrase of Jesus insisting that we find our life only when we are willing to lose it for the kingdom.

In the soul searching that is going on following yesterday's tragic shooting in Connecticut, perhaps we would do well to think about what it is that gives us life, life in any real sense.  What are those things that matter to us more than life itself?

The unbelievable horrors of yesterday have spurred many to say we must talk seriously about guns in our culture. Why is it that you are so much more likely to be killed by a gun in American than in any other developed nation? But inevitably this conversation raises the issue of "rights," the right to bear arms, the freedom to do as we choose.

Perhaps the concept of personal rights and liberties is that thing some prefer to life itself. But so many of the voices I hear are concerned primarily with "my rights."  That stance is by no means restricted to the issue of guns. The insistence on "my rights" permeates our society in a way that is corrosive. It often has little interest beyond the self. It is not about building a better world, a truer community, or anything in the least bit resembling the new realm Jesus proclaims.  It is about protecting what's mine. And if Chesterton and Jesus are correct, such as stance is not life giving, but life draining.

Some religious sorts have responded to yesterday's shootings with, "Well this is what happens when you take God out of the school." But besides the problematic logic of such statements, there is something terribly formulaic about them. They reduce God to a cosmic Santa Claus who either rewards us when we are good or leaves us an awful lump of coal when we are not.  (And "good" here is rarely defined as Jesus defined it, loving neighbor and caring for the neediest.)

But it seems to me that a commitment to building a better world, one that is more just, safer, more caring of the needy, more focused on the good of all - a commitment to something that sounds like Jesus' kingdom, even if it is a secular enterprise - is much more life giving than any call to put prayer back in the schools.

For many, perhaps most people, yesterday's horror yanked us out of ourselves; out of our small preoccupations and petty concerns.  Most of us were confronted with something so much more terrible than anything we face. And if there is any chance to bring something resembling life out of such a tragedy, perhaps it would be simply not to turn back inward. Can we find something that is bigger than us to work for and serve, something that can begin to give life?

Friday, December 14, 2012

A Borrowed Prayer

It's difficult to find any meaningful or helpful words in the wake of the terrible shooting in Connecticut. For this moment, perhaps prayers are the best thing.  I found a prayer by Walter Brueggemann that had been edited for today's tragedy and posted by a friend on Facebook.  Here it is

Had we the chance,
we would have rushed to Bethlehem
to see this thing that had come to pass.

We would have paused at that barn and pondered that baby.

We still pause at that barn--
and ponder that all our babies are under threat,
all the vulnerable who stand at risk before predators,
our babies who face the slow erosion of consumerism,

our babies who face the reach of sexual exploitation,
our babies who face the call to war, placed in harm's way,
our babies, elsewhere in the world,
who know of cold steel against soft arms
and distended bellies from lack of food;
our babies everywhere who are caught
in the fearful display of ruthless adult power.

We ponder how peculiar this baby at Bethlehem is,
summoned to save the world,
and yet also, like every child, also at risk.

Our world is so at risk,
and yet we seek
and wait
for this child named "Emmanuel."
Come be with us, you who are called "God with us."

-- W. Brueggeman, shortened and edited, in light of the elementary school shooting

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Advent and Christmas Crosses

At a gathering of pastors this afternoon, the question of whether we were singing Christmas carols yet in our congregation came up. Answers varied, but the general consensus seemed to be that carols began to sneak in on the 3rd Sunday in Advent, and generally arrived by the 4th.  But the Daily Lectionary hasn't yet gotten the memo. Today the gospel reading tells of preparation for Jesus' last supper, and the lectionary will not take a decisive turn toward Christmas until the end of next week.

For many people it seems odd to be reading about Jesus' arrest only days prior to Christmas Eve services. But of course, the heart of the Christian story is in Holy Week. Neither John nor Mark feels any need to mention Jesus' birth in their gospels. And the "Christmas story" is only in Luke.  That in no way diminishes the Christmas story, but it reminds us that Christmas is only an opening scene in a story whose plot revolves around the cross.

Many people would rather not have crosses at Christmas, unless they are pretty, decorative ones. I think I've written here before about how I once took the rough cross we used during Lent and leaned it against the empty manger that sat in our sanctuary during Advent. A lot of people were very offended and told me so.  I didn't do it again in the years that followed, but I wondered if perhaps I should have, at least occasionally. 

Many are familiar with the term "Christmas and Easter Christians."  These are folks generally not seen at church except for these celebrations. They, understandably, want to participate in the joy of Jesus' Incarnation and his Resurrection, but they would rather skip over the road he walks and the cross that stands at the end of that road. And even a lot of us year round Christians prefer to do the same, even if we do so in a less literal manner. We prefer the "cheap grace" that Bonhoeffer wrote about 75 years ago, "grace without discipleship, grace without the cross."

I don't want to dampen the celebration of Christmas. That Jesus enters into human history demands that we celebrate and give thanks, but we can never detach that celebration from the call of Christ to follow him. To do so is to deny ourselves the newness we are promised in Christ. It is for God to leave us right we are, doing nothing more than patting us on the head and saying, "There, there. It's alright."

But the birth of a Messiah heralds a wonderful and new thing, a whole new realm that is breaking into the world as we know it.  And only in following Jesus do we begin to experience and live in that new realm, that kingdom of God, now.

“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night… Now the festival of Unleavened Bread, which is called the Passover, was near. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to put Jesus to death.” These verses from different parts of Luke may jar and even upset us when set side by side. But perhaps that is nothing more than the jarring difference between the realm where we currently live and the realm that we begin to know in following the way of Jesus.

Sermon video: Searching for Wilderness

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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Darkness, Light, and "Merry Christmas"

I learned of a pastoral situation today that reminded me of the world's darkness, the ways in which terrible things that make no sense tear apart people's lives.  Such darkness defies easy explanation and shatters quaint platitudes such as, "God never gives us more than we can handle." (That's nowhere in the Bible, by the way.) Sometimes such darkness feels overwhelming.

Religious people sometimes have more trouble with darkness than agnostics or atheists. If there is no God then it's no one's fault. It's simply a matter of chance or fate or unfortunate chains of events. But we who proclaim a God must wrestle with why God lets things get this way.  And we who follow the Messiah must contend with why the world seems not much changed from the one prior to his arrival.

We religious sorts have devised all sorts of explanations and blame for the darkness. It's the devil's fault or the result of "The Fall."  The world is trapped in sin that propagates darkness. Sometimes such explanations help us make sense of things, but they sometimes provide small comfort when the darkness strikes us. 

Religion sometimes spends so much energy defending or arguing its explanations for darkness and the means of escaping it that it provides little help to those actually struggling with darkness.  That seems to happen in today's gospel where religious authorities are so loyal to their rules and explanations that they have no concern over the darkness that envelopes a woman caught in adultery. And they are frightened and threatened by Jesus, who is remarkably free of their conventions and explanations.

We religious folks often seem to think we can fight the darkness by getting all our explanations and rules and rituals just right. We fight amongst ourselves over doctrines and worship styles and ordination standards with a passion that suggests the kingdom will arrive the moment we get everything clarified. Meanwhile we ignore countless people who are swept up in darkness while we busily tend to our little religious institutions, too busy to offer much light.

I think the ridiculous battles over "Merry Christmas" are a trivial example of this. As foolish as I think this fight is, I can only imagine how it appears to a non-Christian. In the face the darkness of war and poverty and homelessness and disease and meaninglessness and more, some Christians only want to chastise those who utilize the wrong seasonal greeting.  What a ray of light in the midst of the darkness. Jesus must feel honored.

For the last 15 years or so, I have read these verses from John's gospel as a part of worship on Christmas Eve.  "What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."

Interesting that the darkness is entered into but not eliminated. It is presumed but not really explained, and no blame is assigned. And in the midst of all this, the light shines and persists, a hope that cannot be consumed by the darkness. It does not flail against the darkness or seek to beat it into submission. It simply shines, confident that this is enough.

At those Christmas Eve services, we dim the sanctuary lights as we pass the flame from candle to candle. In a darkened sanctuary, we lift our candles, their small lights punctuating the thick darkness. The candles and their flames are small, but the light is impressive, even more so aswe lift them high. The light shines in the darkness.

Unfortunately, we blow them out before we leave.

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Monday, December 10, 2012

On Doing

Ah, you who join house to house,
   who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you,
   and you are left to live alone
   in the midst of the land!

The LORD of hosts has sworn in my hearing:
Surely many houses shall be desolate,
   large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant.

Isaiah 5:8-9

The disparity between rich and poor in the US has grown significantly over the last few decades. The question of what, if anything, needs to be done about this may be a political one, but the situation itself is a matter of fact. So too is a widening gulf between CEOs, college presidents, and other executive types and the typical worker. It's not as though America has never had fabulously wealthy titans in the past (see names such as Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Vanderbilt), but there were reactions to their immense wealth and power that changed American business and politics. 

I thought of this situation while reading today's passage from Isaiah. The prophet blasts the rich who acquire more and more while leaving less and less for others, insisting that this has moved God to act. Not having lived in the time of Isaiah, I don't know closely our situation mirrors that of ancient Israel, but there are certainly some similarities.

I also saw this this morning in Richard Rohr's daily devotion. "The Scriptures very clearly teach what we call today a 'bias toward action.' It is not just belief systems or dogmas and doctrines, as we have often made it. The Word of God is telling us very clearly that if you do not do it, you, in fact, do not believe it and have not heard it."

As a pastor, it feels like I do a lot more talking than doing. Perhaps writing sermons, preparing worship, and preaching is a kind of doing. But where do I do the good news I proclaim? Where do I enact good news for the poor, release to the captive, and freedom to the oppressed? Where do I do Jubilee, the coming of God's favor?

Modern people don't much expect God to "do" anything over situations like that Isaiah describes. We have God safely sequestered in the spiritual realm, able to impact us only internally. God doesn't do anything in history, or so we imagine. And so our Advent expects only another Christmas, nothing new. And I talk and talk.  

But what is God calling me to do?

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Sunday, December 9, 2012

Sermon: Searching for Wilderness

Luke 3:1-6
Searching for Wilderness
James Sledge                                                       December 9, 2012

Recently the pastor at Lewinsville Presbyterian invited me to lunch, her way of welcoming a new colleague to the area.  We settled on a date that worked for both of us, and she asked where I’d like to eat.  “I don’t really have any favorite spots yet,” I said.  “You pick.”  And so she later sent me an email saying, “Let’s try Pie-Tanza . It’s at 1216 West Broad Street.”  But the email also added, “It’s in the Giant strip mall.”
1216 West Broad is pretty precise.  I can put that right into the GPS app on my phone, and it will take me right there.  But even though the street numbering system we have takes most of the guesswork out of giving directions, we still like to use landmarks to help. 
“You turn right just past the McDonalds.  You go past the elementary school and it’s the second street on your left.  We’re the house with blue shutters and the old VW in the driveway.”  Never mind that the address is displayed in big brass numbers on the door as well as painted on the curb.  We still like to locate things with prominent markers. 
At one time this was absolutely essential. There was a time when many roads did not have names, and there was no uniform method of assigning addresses.  I lived out in the country growing up, and our address was Route 3, Box 289-C, not much help in finding the place.
In ancient times, a similar problem existed in telling history.  The modern world is on a neat and logical calendar system, and so we could mark Pearl Harbor Day on Friday and say, “It happened on December 7, 1941.”  We don’t need to say, “It happened in FDR’s third term as president, two years after the Germans invaded Poland.”  But ancient writers did need to say something like that. 
When the Bible tells us about Isaiah’s call to become a prophet it begins, In the year that King Uzziah died…  When Luke writes his gospel, he has to do the same sort of thing.  He begins the story of John’s the Baptist’s birth with In the days of King Herod of Judea… When he reports the birth of Jesus he tells of a decree from Emperor Augustus,  at the registration taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 
And when he begins to tell the story of John’s ministry in our gospel today, he does something similar. In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
Wow! A little locational overkill, don’t you think?  Fifteenth year of Tiberius should have been enough.  Throwing in Pontius Pilate is okay, I guess.  But Herod and Philip and Lysanias and Annas and Caiaphas?  Is all of that necessary?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Trick Questions

Years ago George Carlin did a comedy routine about attending Catholic school.  In it he recalled trying to trip up priests with elaborate questions. Some were classics such as "If God is all powerful, can God make a rock so big God can't pick it up?"  Another involved being on ship at sea when the priest died on the day by which one had to receive communion or be guilty of a horrible sin.  But when it was too late, the ship then crossed the international date line. Carlin's questions has much in common with the one Sadducees ask Jesus in today's gospel.  Not that trick questions ever seem to bother Jesus. 

Employing trick questions or other linguistic gymnastics to question authority is commonplace. At times it is a great tool for puncturing pomposity, perhaps what Carlin was doing with priests' easy doctrinal certainties.  But playing with words is also employed by legal teams figuring out how a company or individual can violate the intent of a law or statute without actually breaking the law.

Whatever the rules are, what ever authority we find over us, people seem intent on devising ways to undermine or minimize it.  We're not far removed from Stewardship season at my church, and I once again heard that question regarding a tithe.  "Now is that 10% of pre-tax or after-tax income?" In other words, What are the loopholes?

We learn early on that we can play with words in ways that undermine rules and authority, as any parent of a young child will tell you. I'm not sure why we chafe so under rules or authority, but it's an old story; see Genesis and the Garden of Eden.  That story, along with many others, makes clear that we seek to get around rules and authority without much regards as to whether they are good rules or not. As we mature, we may come to appreciate the way our parents' rules and authority protected and nurtured us, but we still push against rules and authority.

This need to break free of constraints is surely a force that moves humanity forward. It is often a strength, but like all strengths, it has a dark side. And all too often we humans operate without much awareness of our dark, shadow sides.

We can laugh at Sadducess playing word games with Jesus.  We can enjoy how Jesus isn't fazed by their attempts to undermine his authority. But of course we play similar games ourselves, even if we are unaware of them.

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Tuesday, December 4, 2012


We worry a lot about labels. Often we define ourselves and others by labels, using them to figure out where we and others fit.  I'm a southern, progressive/liberal, middle-class, Christian, middle-aged, suburban, married male.  Other people may label me differently, and I may embrace or object to the ways they categorize me.  And I have my own labels for those who use unkind terms for me.

Labels are a big part of politics, and in recent years, labels have become a big part of Christmas.  Christian, secular, and politically correct are labels that jump to my mind when I think of Christmas, at least our culture's observance of Christmas.  My Facebook page is already awash in posts from people wanting to "put Christ back in Christmas" or angry at stores that say "Happy Holidays."

The phrase isn't new.  Irving Berlin wrote the popular song "Happy Holiday" back in 1942. It's been a Christmas standard for years, often changed to "Happy Holidays." I grew up hearing Perry Como sing it at Christmas, and I never heard anyone suggest it yanked Christ out of Christmas. But people have slapped the "politically correct" label on Happy Holidays, and for some folks those are fighting words now.

I'm not sure why this is so.  It seems we are a more partisan society these days, one where labels often form lines of demarcation between sides.  We do live in a time of change and uncertainty, a time with a fair amount of anxiety and fear, and we seldom behave our best at such times. Partisanship and labeling may be a way that we try to create clarity and simplicity out of the world's complexity. There's right and wrong.  Which side are you on?

A Christian Christmas presumably gets us on the "right" side, at least as far as God's concerned. But it seems downright remarkable that "Merry Christmas" versus "Happy Holidays" would become a litmus test determining right or wrong. Surely the words on seasonal banners at Target or Wal-Mart say almost nothing about whether or not anyone actually follows Jesus.  But admittedly, labels are a lot easier than actually following Jesus.

Today's reading from Isaiah contains these rather threatening words.
   Therefore says the Sovereign, 
      the LORD of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel:
   Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies,
     and avenge myself on my foes! 

Now perhaps this might seem an extra incentive to make clear our allegiances, to stamp "Christ" and "Christian" all over ourselves and our stores and malls.  Except these words are directed at those who have the right labels on all the banners at all the stores and malls.  The enemies of Yahweh are the ones who sing God's praises and celebrate the LORD's festivals with great fanfare, but who fail to do justice and righteousness, who do not take care of the widow and orphans, the weakest and most vulnerable of that society.

In Matthew's gospel, Jesus speaks of those who get the labels right not entering the kingdom while outsiders who inadvertently serve Jesus are deemed worthy.  (see Matthew 7:21-23; 25:31-46)  That would be something, Jesus saying to the agnostic store clerk who wished you "Happy Holidays" and who volunteers weekly at the homeless shelter, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world."  And Jesus then saying to the "Christian" who accosted the same clerk for taking Christ out of Christmas, but who never so much as noticed the suffering and injustice all around him, "I never knew you; go away from me you evildoer."

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Monday, December 3, 2012

Who Put You in Charge?

I noticed something I'd not seen before as I read this morning's psalms.  No remarkable revelation or insight accompanied this notice, but it made me wonder.  Psalm 122 speaks of Jerusalem. It prays for peace within her walls and ends with this line. "For the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I will seek your good." 

This refers to the Temple which is, of course, long gone. A later Temple built in its place is long gone as well.  And so I wondered, if the psalm calls for my prayers on account of a non existent Temple, is that psalm now invalid?

I found myself wondering about Scripture and its authority.  Historically we Protestants have invested a great deal of authority in Scripture.  Doctrinally that is still the case for Presbyterians although I know my share of church folks for whom this is far from true.  Authority is given on a case by case basis, and only after considering what the particular verses say. They'll allow a text to make its point, and then decide if it did so convincingly.

The question of authority comes up in today's gospel reading. Some of the Jewish authorities want to know by what authority Jesus says and does what he does.  Jesus refuses to answer after his opponents refuse his similar question about John the baptizer.  But I wonder what sort of answer from Jesus would have been acceptable.  Was there some paperwork that would have granted him such standing?  What if some prominent, well-to-do Jerusalem families had vouched for him?

Where does authority come from?  How about Scripture's authority?  What about Psalm 122? Can I cull it because it speaks to a non existent situation?

Do we recognize authority beyond ourselves? I think the persistence of religion points to an innate human need to connect to something bigger than self. We seem to need an authority beyond ourselves.  But at the very same time, we seem to be extremely suspicious of such authority. Much of America's celebration of liberty, freedom, and individualism arises from a distrust of authority.  Traditionally this was balanced by a certain allegiance to a greater community good and to faith, but these allegiances have seemed to have weakened while distrust has grown.

There is an old Bob Dylan song entitled "Gotta Serve Somebody."  I take the lyrics to be pretty good theology. We have to serve somebody. It's just a matter of whom.  However, as a reasonably good Calvinist, I also know that we most often prefer gods of our own design. Not surprisingly, liberals often serve a god who is remarkably in step with their liberalism while conservatives serve a god remarkably in step with their views.

That brings me to a final bit of wondering. If no authority outside ourselves brings us face to face with a God who challenges and transforms who we already are, can we really encounter God?

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Sermon Video: The Days Are Surely Coming

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Sunday, December 2, 2012

Sermon: The Days Are Surely Coming

Luke 21:25-36 (Jeremiah 33:14-16)
The Days Are Surely Coming
James Sledge                                                               December 2, 2012

The days are surely coming, says the Lord.  And indeed they are.  The day will come when school and college are over and you have to find a job.  The day will come when children grow up and move away.  The day will come when someone you trusted abandons you. The day will come when you retire or the job ends and the focus of much of your life disappears.  The day will come when the doctor calls with a terrible diagnosis, and if you avoid that day, the day will still come when your body simply fails you.
And very often, when those days come, people find themselves in crisis.  “Why didn’t I work harder in school and spend a little less time partying?”  “Why didn’t I spend more time with my children when they were young?”  “How do I fix this relationship I’ve neglected all those years?”  “What do I do now without a career?”  “Why didn’t I take better care of myself? “What are life and hope about now that I have cancer?”
The days are surely coming, says the Lord.  And when they do, we often have to reassess our lives and take stock of where we’ve been and where we’re headed.  When the days that come are really big things or really scary things, we sometimes discover that our lives are way out of kilter.  We’ve been focused on things that don’t matter so much, and we neglected the things that really do.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord.  We know those days come, but we are not all that attentive to the passage of time. We are too busy being busy, and we’re too much in a hurry.  People seem to have a perverse pride about that here in the DC area, but the situation is much the same everywhere. You can hear the “We’re too busy” refrain in every corner of this country, and very often, it takes the arrival of one of those days that are coming to free us from it.
Today we enter the season of Advent, a time of preparation, expectation, and waiting for a day that is surely coming.  And the first Sunday of Advent is always a stark reminder that this day, much like those other days that come and throw our lives into crisis, will reveal the ways that our lives have gotten out of kilter, how they’ve become overly focused on what doesn’t matter and neglectful of what does. 
Another Advent begins, reminding us that God will not simply abandon the world, that the conflict in the Middle East will not simply go on forever, that hate will not ultimately triumph over love, that the poor will be lifted up, the captives released, and the oppressed set free.  It all sounds so wonderful, but it also seems so far away and so hard to pay much attention to. 
Another Advent begins, and we’ll busy ourselves with shopping and decorating and cooking and wrapping and preparing special music and special services.  And then it will end in a frenzy of travel and family gatherings and warm feelings and nostalgia, and then it will get put away, packed up in the basement or drug to the curb with the dried out remains of the Christmas tree.