Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Spiritual Hiccups - No Heaven When We Die?

It is interesting how Christian thought on life after death gradually diverged from the thinking of biblical writers.  Many, if not most, Christians think in terms of going to heaven when they die.  In fact, this has become the normative understanding of resurrection for many.  But that is not the thinking of the Apostle Paul, nor does it fit well with what Jesus speaks in today's gospel when he says that "the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out — those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation."

Jesus here follows typical Jewish thinking on the resurrection.  It was something that happened at the end of the age when all the dead would be raised.  Paul speaks in the same manner when he talks about what happens at "the coming of the Lord."  When that day arrives Christ will come from heaven "and the dead in Christ will rise first."  Presumably they have simply been dead until this point.

Jesus' own resurrection was understood as a sign that the new age was arriving.  What had happened to him was a foreshadowing of what would happen to those who had died.  His was the pattern: dead and in the grave, then resurrection.  Jesus' soul did not float off to heaven when he died.  (A wonderful discussion on resurrection and heaven can be found in N. T. Wright's book, Surprised by Hope.)

But as I think about the gospel lesson this morning, I'm less concerned at the moment with getting a doctrine of resurrection correctly formulated and more interested in how beliefs with scant biblical evidence can become so central, so beloved, and so impervious to any challenge.  Indeed suggesting that people don't go to heaven when they die will get you labeled a heretic by many.

Where do our most cherished articles of faith come from?  How did we acquire them and what is it that confirms them for us?  If we somehow experience Jesus in our life, does that mean everything we think about Jesus and faith is true?  In 1 John it says, "We know that (Jesus) abides in us by the spirit that he has given us."  But the letter immediately adds, "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see which are from God."  It seems that experiencing a spiritual presence is no guarantee.

One need only look at the incredible number of Christian denominations, most of them the product of disagreements over belief and practice, to recognize that people of deep faith can't seem to agree on lots of important issues.  How to use the Bible, how salvation works, the role of women, when and how to baptize, who gets "saved," works versus faith, and what happens during the Lord's Supper; these are but a fraction of the issues that divide us.  And either one of the many denominations has gotten it figured out just right (meaning the rest of us are all wrong), or all of us are wrong about some things.

I want to suggest two seemingly contradictory things.  What we believe is important, and we should work very hard to understand and refine our beliefs and theology.  This is our guard against beliefs and practices that are little more than habits that suit us and feel comfortable.  I'm not sure there is any such thing as a generic Christian, at least not one of much substance.  But at the same time, we must recognize that our very best efforts at theology and practice fall short.  Any arrogance that too quickly dismisses others because they don't agree with us has forgotten how we see "dimly" and "know only in part," to borrow from Paul.

Are you planning on heaven when you die?  Is that a primary concern of Christian faith, or a secondary one?  Where did you get your answers to such questions?  And would you consider rethinking such answers if doing so drew you deeper into life with Christ? 

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Spiritual Hiccups - Don't Worry, Be Happy

Happy are those whose help 
    is the God of Jacob,
  whose hope is in the LORD their God,
who made heaven and earth,
  the sea, and all that is in them; 

who keeps faith forever;  
    who executes justice for the oppressed;
  who gives food to the hungry.

Psalm 146:5-7

If I'm not as happy as I'd wish, I may have just found the problem.  I like to think that I'm in good with God, that I'm attuned to Jesus' call, but the fact is that my help and my hope are often elsewhere.  I may not put my "trust in princes" as Psalm 146 warns against, but I have a laundry list of things that get in line ahead of God.

I have to admit that I've bought into the consumerist gospel and think I'll be happy if I have a few more nice things.  But "enough" is always just a bit beyond my reach which leads to typical "If only..." statements about winning the lottery or experiencing some other sort of financial windfall.

And like a lot of Americans, I long for political leadership that will fix things and make them better. Maybe this is our version of "trust in princes."  We imagine there is someone who will do the trick.  But things rarely work out as well as we hope, and so the political pendulum can swing quickly.  We're often ready to fire our princes in the manner of football coaches who don't turn a losing team around fast enough.

Speaking of football coaches, Urban Meyer, the new coach here in Columbus, has sparked a few letters to the editor around his plans to offer optional Bible studies and chapel services for his players.  I'm not really interested in the actual debate over this.  I'm more interested in an understanding of Christian faith that I saw in one of those letters to the editor.  The writer defended Myer's classes by saying, in part, "What's wrong with teaching young men not to steal, covet or lie, and to treat others as you would want to be treated?... Again, I ask, what is the progressives' problem with a dynamic role model, a coach, teaching moral principles based on the Bible?"

I know nothing about this fellow's religious beliefs, but I feel comfortable saying that many "Christians"understand faith along the lines of his letter.  Faith means believing in God/Jesus and being more or less moral.  And it doesn't necessarily have anything to do with totally trusting your life to God/Jesus.  Believing and being good is not at all what the psalm says leads to happiness or what Jesus says it means to follow him (self denial and taking up the cross for instance).

But while I go in for a little more serious version of faith than "believe and be good," we're talking a matter of degrees here.  And when I find myself worrying about happiness, or success, or why a new initiative at the church hasn't turned out like we hoped, Jesus often isn't really involved in the conversation.  It's all a matter of plans, strategy, abilities, technique, leadership, etc.  Things work when such things are good, but fail when they are poor.  And God doesn't seem to have a big role one way or another.

Jesus calls us to the difficult work of discipleship.  He commands us to teach people to do all that he has commanded, so obviously it matters what we do.  But he also promises to be with us, and to send the Spirit to strengthen and guide us.  So why are a great many of us working and trying so hard yet feeling so anxious?

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Monday, January 23, 2012

Sermon video - Leaving Where We Are

Videos also available on YouTube.

Spiritual Hiccups - Not Convinced

Sometimes when I'm reading the passages from the Daily Lectionary, I find my mind wandering and I feel a bit zoned out.  This can be especially the case when a passage is very familiar to me, such as the passage from John this morning.  With passages such as this one, I can finish the reading and feel a bit like I sometimes do when I make the coffee in the morning.  I'll be sitting at the table reading the paper and have to get up to see if I turned the coffee pot on.  I usually have, but I don't remember doing it.

I'm suspicious that reading the Bible and not remembering what I just read is rooted partly in how I read it.  Thanks to my training as a pastor, it's difficult to read Scripture without at least thinking about how to preach it.  Is there an unusual twist or some theme that speaks to the congregation I serve?  Does something jump out at me I can use to motivate, call, or inspire the congregation?

Preaching is often used in an attempt to convince, and herein lies one of its great limitations.  Not that preaching shouldn't try to teach or convince, but I'm not sure anyone was ever convinced into faith.  Most of us would find it foolish for someone to marshal a good, convincing argument about why another person should fall in love with him. Love isn't necessarily irrational, but it is surely something other than rational... perhaps transrational?

Stories that lovers remember and tell, are not usually about convincing, though they may be helpful at times in evoking feelings that seem to have gone dormant.  Such stories often seem foolish or boring to others, and they may groan "Not again!" if one of these lovers starts to tell the story once more.  But that same story may be the two lovers' most prized possession.

Scripture is many things, but I think it works much better as lovers' cherished possession than it does as evidence for an argument.  Now how to get that in a sermon.

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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sermon - Leaving Where We Are

Mark 1:14-20 (Jonah 3:1-5, 10)
Leaving Where We Are
James Sledge                                                               January 22, 2012

How many of you here have ever gone fishing?  How many of you enjoy fishing, at least on occasion?  Fishing is like a lot of other things.  Some people like it, and some others don’t, but as a general rule, most people don’t think of fishing as something inherently evil.  I’m not aware of any Christian denomination that forbids its members from fishing.  I know that I’ve never written a prayer of confession for a worship service that said, “Lord forgive us for catching fish.” 
I raise this because, if I understand today’s gospel reading correctly, Simon, Andrew, James, and John all repent of fishing.  Now granted they were fishing for a living rather than as a hobby, but I’m not sure that makes much difference.  I don’t think that makes them any more sinful than a recreational fisherman.
And yet our gospel this morning depicts Jesus telling people, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”  And the very first action associated with this call to repent and believe is his calling some fisherman to follow him.  And immediately they repented and followed him.  It doesn’t actually say they repented, but that’s what happened.  They turned away from what they had been doing – fishing – left their nets, their boat, their father, and went with Jesus.  There might not be anything evil or sinful about fishing, but they walked away from it, something that may well have been the only way of life they had ever known.

Sermon audio - Leaving Where We Are

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Spiritual Hiccups - Banned in the Bible

Today's psalm asks who may come into God's presence, and the answer contains things we might expect, people who do what is right, who fear the LORD, who keep their word, who hate evil, and so on.  But the final attributes may surprise some.  They are those "who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent."

In Hebrew poetry, ideas are rhymed rather than words, and so in the Psalms you see verses that describe pairs, parallelisms.  And so the 23rd Psalm ends, "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long." 

In this morning's psalm, the final pair links lending money at interest with taking bribes against the innocent.  Bankers have certainly taken a big public relations hit in recent years, but I don't think many of us associate making loans with bribery.  We may distrust big banks, but many of us know local bankers we consider pillars of the community.  But our psalm says those who lend money at interest may not enter God's presence, and it pairs them with those who take bribes to pervert justice.

If I were to employ Scripture the way people so often do, I would need to start a campaign to stamp out lending as we know it.  Perhaps I and any followers I could garner would make signs and protest outside of banks the way people protest against same-sex marriage.  After all, my group would be able to quote the Bible in the same fashion.

The fact is that Christians were generally forbidden to engage in banking for the first 1500 years of the faith.  (Jewish stereotypes related to finance and banking grew, in part, out of their doing this "despised" work that Christians could not.)  But 500 years ago, John Calvin argue persuasively for lending money at interest despite a biblical prohibition.  In a creative, innovative move that many may have trouble associating with their image of Calvin, he argued that borrowed money used to build factories that employed people and improved their lives was in keeping with the intent of the prohibition on lending.  That prohibition, he said, was there to protect the poor from being trapped by debt.  But if lending actually ended up helping the poor, then it produced the good that the ban on lending intended.

Just as an aside, it should be clear that lending which did trap people in poverty, or which did not seem to produce the sort of "good" the ban on lending intended, would not fit within Calvin's exception to the biblical ban.  But of course, once Calvin opened the door to lending, people soon forgot that it was an exception that had conditions.  And then they, and we, forgot that the Bible banned the practice in the first place.

All this is a long way of getting at how often we use the Bible to get the results we wish.  We find those verses that give ammunition to our causes, often employing them in a context totally different from the one is Scripture.  Much more rarely, if at all, do we read the Bible as a whole, listening to its overall witness.  That was what Calvin was trying to do when who came up with his exception to the ban on lending, but he was also influenced by the growing business need for capital in Geneva at that time.

I think that every Christian occasionally needs to assess his or her relationship with the Bible.  Is it a witness that points us to Jesus, revealing to us things we could never know otherwise?  Or do we simply believe what we believe - wherever that may have come from - and then cling to those Bible passages that fit with what we already hold dear? 

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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Sermon video - When God Speaks

Videos also available on YouTube.

Spiritual Hiccups - Unequal Partners

To you I lift up my eyes,
   O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
As the eyes of servants
   look to the hand of their master,

as the eyes of a maid
   to the hand of her mistress,

so our eyes look to the LORD our God,
   until he has mercy upon us.

Psalm 123:1-2

I was in an interesting discussion the other day about how Presbyterians are related to Scripture and to our tradition's faith statements.  I said something about entering into a conversation with both the Bible and our Book of Confessions, and spoke of being enriched by the give and take of this conversation.  But someone wondered about this image of a conversation with Scripture and tradition.  If I am a conversation partner, do my opinions carry the same weight as Scripture and tradition?  Do they speak to me with any "authority?"

That thought had not occurred to me.  In fact, I presumed that this "conversation" was not one among equals.  It is more like a student in conversation with a learned professor or novice speaking with a master craftsman.  It is akin to the relationship in today's psalm of servant to master.

But the person who wondered about my "conversation" imagery had good reason for concern.  It is quite typical for us to come to denominational teachings, and even to the Bible, as equals in the ensuing conversation.  We will listen, but we will also measure what we hear with what we think, and then we will dismiss what we don't agree with or do not like.  We all do this to some extent, cherry picking from the Bible - putting those passages we like in one basket and those passages we don't in another.  And then we store that second basked somewhere we seldom go.

But if God agrees with all my political stances and all my plans, that seems to me an almost certain indication that this is not God at all.  The God I meet in Jesus loves me where he finds me and embraces me even when others will not.  But he always calls me from that place to somewhere new.  And he calls me to become something new and different and more like him.  And while Jesus is happy to engage me in conversation over this, I do not think that conversation ever ends with Jesus saying, "You know, you're right.  Worry about yourself and let everyone else worry about themselves.  I did come so that you would be successful and happy, and if you accomplish that, I don't really care about any of that other stuff."

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Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sermon audio - When God Speaks

Sunday sermon - When God Speaks

1 Samuel 3:1-10
When God Speaks
James Sledge                                                              January 15, 2012

I’ve read this passage from First Samuel many times, and I think that every time I do, I’m struck by the line that says, The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.  The biblical writer could easily have left this line out.  It doesn’t really advance the story at all.  If it wasn’t there we would still have heard a story about the young Samuel hearing God calling but not realizing that it was God.  It’s almost a throw-away line, and yet there it is, and it never fails to grab my attention. 
As a child I thought it would have been great to live in biblical times when God was showing up all the time, talking to people, giving them visions.  It must have been exciting to live when God actually appeared in burning bushes and carved commandments onto stone tablets.  Not like today when God can seem awfully quiet.
But our Scripture reading for this morning sounds a lot like today.  The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.  There it is, straight from the Bible.  God could be awfully quiet back then, too.
God was quiet, and visions were rare.  I sometimes wonder if I would get the message if God sent me a vision.  I’m one of those people who almost never remember their dreams.  I’ve read that whether I remember them or not, I do dream.  But most of the time, you couldn’t prove it by anything I recall.  Which makes me wonder; if visions are like dreams and God appeared to me in a vision, would I remember it?
Of course it isn’t as though God hasn’t spoken or given visions in my lifetime.  Many of us recall a prophet who heard God’s voice and shared the word of the Lord with us.  I was only six years old when he spoke some of his most famous words.  I think I may have heard them on the news, but I’ve seen the speech so many times since that I can’t really trust my memory.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a prophet if there ever was one, and God had called him and given him a vision to share.  Maybe it was because he was a prophet that he used the phrase, “I have a dream” over and over in that speech.  That part of the speech is pretty far in, near the end.  And if you lived in the South when Dr. King shared this vision, you know well that it was only a vision, a dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I know that there are some who may not have thought of Dr. King as a prophet.  Strangely enough, it doesn’t occur even to some who admire him.  You’re probably aware that a memorial to Dr. King opened last August in Washington, DC, located on the Tidal Basin between the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials.  Before the dedication ceremony was cancelled because of the approach of Hurricane Irene, it was scheduled for 11:00 a.m. on Sunday, August 28th.  I understand the desire to hold the dedication on the 48th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech, but the 11:00 a.m. times makes me wonder how many of the planners remembered that King heard God’s call as a church pastor.  Perhaps they’d forgotten the last line of the dream, which is a quote from another prophet, Isaiah.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
But just how was it that the prophet Martin heard the word of the Lord that called him into a struggle that would eventually get him killed?  How did he glimpse the vision that he shared in his I Have a Dream speech?  Perhaps he was better at remembering his dreams than I am, but how did he know which dream was from God?  How did he recognize God’s voice, especially considering how that voice called him to a task that would put his life in danger?
Samuel doesn’t recognize God’s voice in our reading today.  Our story depicts God repeatedly speaking to Samuel, but Sam didn’t know what God sounded like.  And so he assumed it was someone else, Eli.  Eli apparently did know what God sounded like, but even Eli took a while to figure out what was going on.  Who knows how the story might have turned out if Eli hadn’t been familiar with God.  What if Eli had just gotten upset and screamed, “Go to sleep and quit bothering me!”?
Have you ever heard God speaking to you?  Has God given you a vision, a dream that you are supposed to share with the world?  Most people I’ve asked such questions tell me, “No.”  Many of them think, like I did as a child, that the God who was forever speaking to biblical folks doesn’t really operate that way any longer.  We simply assume that God isn’t speaking now.  We think of biblical times as being different, like fairy tale times.  We imagine Bible stories opening with “Once upon a time when God was a lot more active.”  And we assume that the word of the Lord is rare, even nonexistent, to us.
But then here comes Samuel, who lived in those “Once upon a time” days, and yet the word of the Lord was rare then, too.  And he would not have recognized it at all had someone not told him how to do that.  And then there is Martin Luther King, Jr.  In a day when many assume God no longer speaks, he heard the Lord and saw a vision. 
I’m thinking that Samuel and Dr. King shared something in common.  Both of them had mentors who instructed them in how to hear the voice of God, how to be attuned to divine dreams.  Samuel had Eli.  Dr. King had many mentors, some whom we’ll never know.  There were Sunday School teachers, his parents, and wise elders in the church where he grew up.  These folks had tutored him in deep practices of prayer, time spent with God, time listening for God.  And of course there was Scripture itself.  Dr. King grew up listening to God in Scripture and was so deeply immersed in the Bible that the voice of God must have sounded almost familiar when it called him to be a prophet.
Who taught you to listen for God’s voice?  Did you recognize God’s voice when you first heard it?  Who taught you how a vision from God would look and feel?  And if you’ve not heard God, do you think that voice will sound familiar when God calls you?  God is still speaking, you know. 
There is a quote I share so often that many are likely sick of hearing it.  I can never recall who said it. It may have been Ed White or Roy Oswald from the Alban Institute.  One of them was talking about the difficulties facing Mainline congregations such as us Presbyterians, and he said, “People come to us seeking an experience of God, and we give them information about God.”  Perhaps I may paraphrase, “People come to us longing to hear God’s voice, and we give them information about God.” 
Even in a culture that seems more and more secular, people do long to hear God’s voice.  And who should be better at helping them than us.  After all, we say that we have been joined to Christ in baptism, that whenever two or three of us are gathered, Christ is here with us, and that each of us is given gifts from the Holy Spirit so that together, we become the living body of Christ.  Surely we should be able to help those who long to hear God.  And if not, then perhaps we need to be helping each other hone our own listening skills.
“Jeremy, Pat, Stephanie, Becky, Mary Ann, Bob, Adam, Carol, James…”  Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Spiritual Hiccups - Long Live the King!

"Rejoice, the Lord is King!" says the opening line of the hymn.  In The Presbyterian Hymnal, this hymn is in a section labeled "Christ the King/Ascension."  Psalm 97 begins, "The LORD is king!  Let the earth rejoice."  In the case of Christ being the king, we can speak of that happening.  Jesus takes his place on the throne.  Long live the king.  But the LORD (Yahweh) is different.  Does Yahweh become king?

Actually the Old Testaments contains many texts where God is enthroned.  There are ancient echoes here of a time when people thought of Yahweh as one of many divine beings, and within this divine council, Yahweh had been chosen as the ruler, the head of the gods.  "The LORD is king!  Let the earth rejoice."

We're not accustomed to kings in America, but we have some idea how they work.  British monarchs don't have very much real power, but there was time when that power was nearly absolute.  But such kings could die or be overthrown.  Some were better than others.  "Long live the king" carries with it some hope that this king will be a good one.  It also a voice of support for a new king and thus recognizes there were or may yet be other options.

"The LORD is king!  Let the earth rejoice."  Long live the king.  Be glad because this is a good one.  We could have gotten a different one.  But are there really other options?

My Presbyterian heritage (along with others in the Reformed/Calvinist family) like to speak of God's sovereignty.  The idea of predestination, a concept often distorted or misunderstood, grows out of this notion of sovereignty.  God is in charge.  God's purposes shall be worked out.  What God desires shall be.  But for all our claims of divine sovereignty, we often live as though there were other options, other candidates for ruler.

As a pastor, I am often tempted to think that my successes are simply a matter of my prowess or my hard work.  I make calculations about what to try or not try based on the same sort of measures any organization use, without much reference to any authority or power on God's part.  Successful congregations have good leaders and less successful ones less capable leaders.  Congregations often see what they can or can't do as a simple function of the resources brought by the members.  They can do what their energy, funds, and talents will allow.  We may talk about a king, but often that king has no real power, no authority to say to us, "Do this."

Those ordained in the Presbyterian Church take vows in which we proclaim Jesus Christ "Lord of all and Head of the Church."  In other words, he is our ruler, our king.  But of course our congregations are often better reflections of what we want than what Jesus wants.

"Rejoice, the Lord is King!"  But there are indeed other options. 

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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Spiritual Hiccups - That's Gonna Leave a Mark

Today's reading from Genesis is another of those texts that makes little sense if heard from a literal bent.  In the famous story of Cain killing Abel, things in God's creation seem to be going from bad to worse.  First their parents get kicked out of the garden, now fratricide among the children.  It's a story that's the subject of frequent misinterpretation.  Cain's question, "Am I my brother's keeper," is often inverted to say the we are called to be our brother's (and sister's) keeper, which may be true but has little to do with this story.  Cain's question is a rhetorical one with a presumed answer of "No."  He is seeking to lay the blame on God here.

But the mark of Cain comes in for even worse misunderstanding.  (It's worth noting that the issue that leads to the mark seems preposterous at face value.  Cain is worried that, as a wandering fugitive, he will be killed, but this seems a foolish concern.  To date there are only four humans in all of God's creation, and one of those now lies dead.)  The mark of Cain is often understood to be a mark of shame, a visible sign of the curse God places on him.  Yet God says quite clearly that the mark is to protect Cain from reprisals by those he may meet.

The rather remarkable thing about all this is that despite the heinous murder Cain has committed, despite God's insistence that Cain will suffer for his guilt, Yahweh is still concerned for Cain, and takes steps to insure his safety.  Despite Cain's role in Creation's continuing downward spiral, God is still committed to him. 

People sometimes speak of the "wrathful God of the Old Testament," and there are verses that might seem to support such a view.  But there are likewise many passages where God's nature as both a God of judgment and a God of graces, mercy, and steadfast love is clearly visible.  Religious folks often want to resolve this apparent paradox and opt for either a God of judgment or a God of grace.  We struggle to hold to two in tension.  Indeed, in the biblical stories, God at times seems to struggle with this tension.  (Check out Hosea 11:1-11 for one such example.)

This tension is within today's reading, and I see the gospel enacted in the story of Cain and Abel.  We humans seek to go our own way, to make our own way.  We grasp for what we want, often with no concern about who gets hurt by our grasping.  In so doing we reap a world filled with animosities and hostilities.  There are consequences to us, and to all of Creation for our arrogance and hubris.  But God will not abandon us to our own devices.  God still reaches out to claim us.  As Christians we say that we are sealed, marked in our baptisms.  People don't usually associate the sign and seal of baptism with the mark of Cain... But I wonder.

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Monday, January 9, 2012

Sermon video - Ketchup on Black-Eyed Peas

Spiritual Hiccups - The Truth of the Bible

One of the curses of living in the modern, scientific age is is the constriction of our notion of truth.  Truth has become synonymous with facts and figures.  Myth, by contrast, has become synonymous with falsehood.  Yet the writers of Scripture did not understand truth in our manner and did not recognize our distinction between truth and myth.

My Presbyterian tradition speaks of the Bible as a "unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ," but in our modern notion of truth, the validity of a witness is based on whether or not she gets her facts straight.  And so some who want to "preserve" the truth of the Bible insist that it is factually, historically, and scientifically correct.  But in what strikes me as a very strange twist, these protectors of Scripture (who often view science as the enemy of religion) have adopted science's definition of truth. 

Of course the problem with preserving the truth of the Bible in such a manner is that it creates insurmountable hurdles for anyone who pays much attention to what the Bible actually says.  Today's Genesis reading is a good case in point.  If we are to apply modern, scientific notions of truth to today's reading, we immediately must deal with God creating in quite a different order from what we read in chapter one of Genesis.  On top of that, we must take as historical, scientific fact that God created earthworms, blue jays, and alligators, thinking they might make a suitable partner for the man. 

We Presbyterians have tended to be less threatened by science than some other Christian groups, and we have tended to steer clear of the obvious problems with biblical literalism.  But we too have  found ourselves captive to a modern, scientific worldview.  And so at times we have used all the scholarly tools at our disposal to get to the truth behind the text.  We have searched for the "historical Jesus" and tried to understand the historical forces that caused biblical writers to say what they did.  But in the process, we sometimes acted as though the truth could not be found in the text itself.

Fortunately, much of biblical scholarship has recognized this and turned more of its focus back to the text itself.  Yet among rank and file Christians, I worry that there is a difficulty speaking of the "truth" of the Bible in other than modern, scientific, historical terms. 

I would never argue that the Bible is "fiction," but I do think we could learn something from great works of fiction that speak the "truth" to us.  Indeed art can sometimes speak to us at a much deeper level.  No one reads an encyclopedia in order to be touched or moved deeply.  No encyclopedia will every launch a movement.  And any good painter knows that his purpose is not to create something that looks exactly like a photograph.  A great painting shows you something that you likely would not have seen had you looked at the painter's subject.  It reveals a deeper truth, a truth that has a spiritual dimension to it.

If one amassed all the world's knowledge, she could still be far from the truth.  Strange that religious people would not know this well.  I sometimes wonder if the fascination with spirituality in our day isn't a longing for a deeper truth than can be found in either a literalist fundamentalism or a progressive, scholarly attempt to explain what the Bible means.  Perhaps it is a longing for a truth that cannot be known from any amount of correct information.

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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Sermon audio - Ketchup on Black-Eyed Peas

Sermon - Ketchup on Black-Eyed Peas

Mark 1:4-11
Ketchup on Black-Eyed Peas
James Sledge                                       January 8, 2012 – Baptism of the Lord

I grew up putting ketchup on my black-eyed peas.  In my home as a child, if we were having black-eyed peas, a bottle of ketchup went on the table.  I naturally assumed that most other people did the same.  Ketchup on black-eyed peas was just like ketchup on French fries.  If you could have gotten black-eyed peas at McDonalds, they would have asked, “Do you want ketchup with that?”
But when I got married, I discovered that this wasn’t the case.  My wife Shawn considered the practice downright odd.  She sometimes makes fun of me for it.  I’ve occasionally tried to explain to her what she’s missing, but to no avail.  In fact, I’ve even grow a bit self-conscious about it.  I still use ketchup in my own home, but I’m less likely to do so at a restaurant or a church dinner.
Sometimes our Christian faith is a bit like putting ketchup on black-eyed peas.   Not so many decades ago it was possible to be unaware of this.  We thought most everyone was Christian, that the culture was Christian, that everyone put ketchup on their black-eyed peas.  But such an assumption is becoming more and more difficult to maintain.  Some of us have even started to realize that there are some strange, odd elements to our Christian story that we had not noticed before. 
Today’s story of Jesus being baptized may be one of those oddities, although the oddity here is not just the story itself but also what is missing from the story.

Have you ever wondered what Jesus did before he began his ministry?  We don’t know for sure how old Jesus was at the time of today’s gospel reading.  You hear 30 years old a lot, but that comes from a stray remark by some of Jesus’ opponents, so I don’t know how much stock we should put in it.  Nonetheless, when Jesus begins his ministry, he’s old enough that nothing is ever mentioned about him seeming too young to be a rabbi.  So perhaps 30 years old is not a bad guess.
And therein lies the oddity.  Where has Jesus been for nearly 30 years?  What has he been doing all that time?  How is it that the Son of God can go completely unnoticed for that long? 
In all of the New Testament, there is almost nothing about Jesus except as an adult thirty something.  None of the letters of Paul or others show any awareness of Jesus’ youth or the circumstances of his birth.  Of the four gospels, two, including Mark’s gospel that we read this morning, introduce us to a full grown Jesus with no mention of birth or childhood.  Only Matthew and Luke make any mention of his birth, and Luke alone includes a single story about a 12 year old Jesus.  In that story people are amazed at Jesus’ understanding, but even here, Luke insists that Jesus is still growing in wisdom.  He is no all-knowing, divine figure masquerading as a human.
One thing all the gospels agree on is that the beginning of Jesus’ ministry is somehow connected to John the Baptist.  Jesus, who has lived such an ordinary life that no one has taken any note of him, that not even friends and neighbors from his hometown expect him to be anything special; this Jesus shows up where John is baptizing.  John is a rather odd fellow who dresses funny and eats strange food.  But he seems to have touched a nerve among many people near Jerusalem.  John was talking about changing your life to be ready for something big God was going to do, and people responded to his message.
So, it seems, did Jesus.  For some reason, Jesus goes out with all those other people who were hoping for God to do something big.  Maybe Jesus was hoping the same thing.  Of course it turns out that Jesus is that big thing.
People have speculated as to Jesus’ own sense of who he was prior to his baptism.  Many of us are so accustomed to thinking in Trinitarian terms, where Jesus is God, that the idea of Jesus not being fully aware of this divinity seems strange.  But especially in Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ baptism seems to be a key moment for him.  Notice how the coming of the Holy Spirit is a private moment for Jesus rather than a demonstration for the crowds.  And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  These words seem spoken for Jesus’ benefit.  Did the Holy Spirit descending on him awaken something in him?  Did it open his eyes to who he truly was and what that was going to require of him?
When we were discussing this passage the other day in our staff meeting, Jeremy, our music director, recalled an episode from Donald Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz.  In it, a woman named Laura is having something of a spiritual crisis.  She is not a Christian and doesn’t really believe in God, yet she is speaking with Miller, looking for some sort of help from him.  And he encourages her to open up to God, to ask God for grace and forgiveness. But Laura finds such an idea odd, and she says:
“I can’t get there.  I can’t just say it without meaning it.”  She was getting very frustrated. “I can’t do it.  It would be like, say, trying to fall in love with somebody, or trying to convince yourself that your favorite food is pancakes.  You don’t decide those things, they just happen to you.  If God is real, He needs to happen to me.”[1]
John the baptizer announces that there is one coming after him who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.  I baptize with water so you will get ready, he says.  But the one who is coming will make God happen to you.
Has God happened to you?  We Presbyterians say that if you’ve been baptized, God has happened to you.  We don’t say God can’t happen to you if you haven’t been baptized, but we do insist that God happens to you in baptism.  Yet many of us seem blissfully unaware of any such happening.  We’ve missed it somehow, settling instead for a comfortable God of habits and assumptions, an unexamined picture of God we picked up somewhere, like me thinking everyone puts ketchup on black-eyed peas.
When Jesus is baptized, God happens to him, and he takes up his true identity as Son of God, going from anonymous unknown to someone causing so much trouble they have to execute him to shut him up. 
In our baptisms, God promises to happen to us as well, to pour out the Holy Spirit on us so that we discover our true identities and our calling as daughters and sons of God.  Has God happened to you?

[1] Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality(Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003), p. 53.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Spiritual Hiccups - Invaded by Heaven

If you go to a Christian funeral, there is a very good chance you will hear the following verse from John's gospel. "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die."  A few years ago, these verses were a part of the New Testament passage used for one of our denomination's "ordination exams." These are taken by those seeking to be ordained as pastors, mostly seminary students.  I served as one those grading the exams, and a question in the exam on the John passage asked whether or not this passage was actually appropriate for funerals. 

In the exams that I graded, most all the test takers struggled with this question, and I heard a similar report from other exam graders.  In nearly all cases, the problem arose from understanding resurrection and eternal life to mean nothing more than going to heaven when you die.  But biblically speaking, resurrection has nothing to do with souls winging their way to heaven.  Resurrection was something that was supposed to happen "on the last day," as Martha says quite clearly in today's gospel.  And so when Jesus says, "I AM the resurrection and the life," (The peculiar Greek grammar of Jesus' "I AM" is supposed to remind us of God's personal name.) he seems to be saying that the promise and hope and power of that last day has come into the present.  Those who are "in Christ" can began to experience a new quality of life, a new life born of the Spirit, here and now.

One of the exciting things going on in Christian faith right now is a recovery of a gospel of the Kingdom, of God's coming reign, a gospel that had been supplanted by what Brian McLaren has called a "gospel of evacuation."  This gospel says that if you have faith in Jesus, you will get evacuated from this earth (which is apparently beyond hope), and relocated to the paradise of heaven.  But of course Jesus never says any such thing.  He says the God's reign has "drawn near."  And the Apostle Paul speaks of creation itself longing and groaning in labor pains for the new thing that is coming. 

It seems rather odd to me that so many Christians, who know very well the creation story where on the sixth day God looks out and judges the whole shebang "very good," somehow conclude that this same creation has gotten so badly off track that it is beyond God's power to rescue and restore.

"I AM the resurrection and the life."  God's power to restore, redeem, and make new has burst into the present.  Heaven is not some distant evacuation zone for those who qualify.  Rather heaven has invaded creation, intent on conquering it through love.

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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Spiritual Hiccups - Where's Your Pride?

The local high school football team had a good season this past Fall, and so it was more common than in years past to see "Bobcat Pride" emblazoned on cars.  High School football is long over, but I saw one of those cars the other day, and it made me wonder a bit about the things that we are proud of, especially when I consider this morning's psalm.  Here's a verse from it.

  Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses,
     but our pride is in the name of the LORD our God.

 This verse struck me as a bit odd at first.  Why would one be proud of God, or of God's personal name?  (The "LORD" in the verse is a reverent, deferential rendering of the divine name, YHWH.)  The psalm obviously draws a contrast with those things that normally produce pride: successful football teams, children who get scholarships, or, in the case of the psalm, powerful military technology.  Pride is normally associated with our accomplishments or the accomplishments of those we love.  In the cases of football teams and military might, we often view those as extensions of ourselves.

So how does one experience pride in God?  Is it like pride in our team, being impressed because God did a great job?  Perhaps I'm obsessing over a single word in a psalm, but this is in part prompted by a line from St. John of the Cross I saw quoted in one of Richard Rohr's Daily devotions.  It says, "God refuses to be known; God can only be loved."

Pride most often seems to go with things we love, self, team, country, children, etc.  But the psalmist's pride is not in any of these things.  It is "in the name of the LORD our God."  Perhaps that is because the LORD is the one the psalmist loves more than all others.  So where's your greatest pride?

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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Spiritual Hiccups - Something New

This is my first blog post of a new year, and so it seems appropriate to think about newness.  Today's reading from Ephesians speaks of newness.  It says "to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness."  But is this newness something done to us or something we become by doing the right things.  The Ephesians passage is a bit vague on that.

I've never done them much myself, but the new year is a time when many make resolutions, promising to change in some way and therefore become something new.  The idea that we can start fresh is a compelling one and an idea at home in the Christian faith.  After all, God continually reaches out to us, beckoning us to new life and relationship.  But is this newness our doing or God's?  New Year's resolutions are clearly about our trying harder and becoming a new and better version of ourselves, a self who is lighter and leaner, healthier, nicer to one's spouse, no longer smokes, etc.  This is a newness that we do if we have the tenacity to stick to our resolutions.

I heard a Christian being interviewed on the news the other day with regards to her support of a certain presidential candidate. In explaining her position she said, "As a Christian, I believe that people can change."  Certainly Christian faith speaks a lot about people changing, but where does that come from?

If you've spent much time in a church congregation beyond coming on Sunday, you likely know how good churches and church members are at figuring out what they cannot do.  Be it the mission project we can't afford, the class a person knows she could never teach, or the new worship service we don't have the resources and talent to pull off, we are good at saying "No" to newness.  And it seems to me that very often an implied theological statement lies hidden in our "No."  It says, "Newness is dependent on us."  Of course quite often we seem to prefer the old, and even when we don't, we aren't sure we have what it takes to change things.

In Isaiah 43, God speaks through the prophet to exiles in Babylon saying, "I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?"  What an interesting question for the prophet to ask?  What newness of God is springing forth around us?  Do we not perceive it?  And if not, why?

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