Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Hunting Down Jesus

Today's gospel reading tells of Jesus getting up very early in the morning and going out to a deserted place to pray.  He must have slipped off before his disciples got up (there are only 4 at this point) because we next read, "And Simon and his companions hunted for him."

That sounds harmless enough, but I fear the Bible translators have let the disciples off easy here.  It sounds as though the disciples are simply looking for Jesus, but the Greek word Mark uses usually presumes hostile intent on the the part of those doing the looking.  This is a word used to speak of "pursuing" an enemy.  But why would these 4 disciples be chasing Jesus in such a manner?

I suspect that, like most of us, these guys have expectations of Jesus.  They've seen his charisma, seen his healing power, and they know they have winner on their hands.  But Jesus has up and disappeared on them.  They need to find him and bring him back.  Perhaps they can even set up a little center at Simon's house.  Jesus has already packed them in.  This has all the makings of a huge religious enterprise.

But Jesus is not going to cooperate.  Even when they find Jesus, he refuses to be captured.  The disciples plead, "Come on back, Jesus.  Everyone is searching for you."  But Jesus replies, "Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do."  Jesus has work, a mission, and it doesn't fit with his followers' religious ambitions.

An inherent problem with all religious endeavor is the desire to get God in a box so the divine becomes manageable.  We want God to assist us in our plans and schemes.  All too often, we want to capture Jesus and tell him, "Come with us."  But only a Jesus we imagine actually does.  God's Living Word will not follow us.  Instead he says, "Deny yourself, let go of your agenda, stop trying to drag me where you want to go, and take up the cross and follow me."

We resist.  We say, "No, Jesus, come with us.  We know the way."  But I'm not sure even we believe that.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Spiritual Hiccups - Pelvic Issues and Immature Faith

Richard Rohr's meditation this morning opened with this observation.  "In recent elections one would have thought that homosexuality and abortion were the new litmus tests of Christianity."  I should add that Rohr is a Catholic priest who I presume does not like the idea of abortion.  But he also recognizes that focus on sexual purity and morality tends to distract us from the bulk of Jesus' teaching (Rohr says 95%).  Jesus is much less worried about personal purity and more concerned with "issues of pride, injustice, hypocrisy, blindness, and what I have often called 'The Three Ps' of power, prestige, and possessions,"  says Rohr.

I read today's lectionary texts after reading Rohr, and the absence of sexual morality or purity issues was striking.  I'm not suggesting that the Bible has no interest in such issues, but they are hardly primary, although  one might think they are after hearing political candidates talk about their faith-based stances.  But today's texts included more typical biblical concerns.  The psalm talked about the prisoner, the blind, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan.  And Jesus proclaims nearness of God's kingdom, which is then demonstrated by calling some fisherman to follow him, teaching, and restoring a tormented soul to wholeness. 

If you dropped open your Bible anywhere in one of the gospels, there's a very good chance Jesus would be healing, or talking about how greed and money causes us huge problems, or telling us to love enemies, or reaching out to those that religious folks found repulsive.  So how is that Christianity often ends up looking so little like Jesus?  How is it that a casual observer of American culture could easily conclude that Christian faith is obsessed with what happens in people's bedrooms?

I'm not sure why this is, but people's religious views often seem to get stuck in a very childish state.  In many traditional churches, religious education is almost entirely for children, and it seems that our faith often does not advance much beyond those rudimentary Sunday School lessons.  Much of Jesus' teaching does not translate easily into a third grade Sunday School class, and so all too often, Jesus' message gets distorted into, "Be good little boys and girls." 

I can't seem to stop mentioning Rohr today, but he has an interesting observation about immature faith.  Speaking of the aforementioned focus on sexual purity he says that "early-stage religion has never gotten much beyond these 'pelvic' issues."  I kind of like that one.  And I think it is a helpful measuring stick as well.  If your faith spends a great deal of time on "pelvic issues," that's a pretty sure bet that it is ignoring the core of faith, that it is rarely following Jesus where he calls us to go.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Sermon video - A Glimpse of God's Heart

Spiritual Hiccups - I Don't Understand

It's curious how a line of Scripture will sometimes strike me.  I only got one verse into this morning's psalm before I found myself wondering what understanding had to do with learning God's commandments.  The line in question, from Psalm 119:73 reads, "give me understanding that I may learn your commandments."

Learning the commandments seems more a matter of memorization than understanding, but the psalm doesn't ask for a better memory.  It asks for understanding.

People often want faith to be a simple matter, and I regularly hear people say that things would be much better if we just did what it says in the Bible, if were returned to being a Christian nation, if we "got right with God."  It couldn't be more simple, at least not until you get into the details.  What's that saying about the devil being in the details?

I've always felt that if faith were a simple thing, if living as God's people were a simple thing, the Bible would be a pamphlet or brochure.  As it is, the Bible sitting on my desk is over 2000 pages long.  (The Catholic Bible is even lengthier than mine.)  But even when you consider only a brief section of Scripture, the simple versus complex and nuanced issue can arise.

There have been a number of court cases in recent years regarding public display of the 10 Commandments.  Those who support such displays argue that they are the basis for our civil laws and that we are a "Christian nation."  But such arguments quickly founder when we actually examine the commandments.  How does Sabbath keeping fit into a 24/7 culture, and what does idolatry have to do with civil law?  Wrongful use of God's name is particularly problematic, and perhaps that is why people often trivialize this one into a prohibition against swearing.  But if God is serious about us not invoking the Divine to further our own agendas, a lot of Christian political candidates are in deep trouble. 

Even the second half of the commandments, those that correspond more easily to civil law, can create problems.  The support of Newt Gingrich by some Christian Right pastors comes to mind here.  And the one about not coveting anything that belongs to your neighbor would seem to undermine a basic motivation for the American consumerist culture. 

But I don't mean to speak only against simplistic, conservative takes on faith.  In my experience, most all of us tend to think that the articles of faith we hold dear are simple.  Liberal, progressive, social justice Christians sometimes act as though there is nothing in the Bible but social justice.  The disturbing fact is that Christians of all stripes like to simplify what being faithful means so that it fits neatly within the issues that motivate us.

Life is complicated.  Relationships are complicated.  Anyone who tells you they have life and relationships all figured out is likely delusional.  Surely living in relationship with God is no different.  Understand?

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sermon audio - A Glimpse of God's Heart

Download mp3 of sermon

Sermon - A Glimpse of God's Heart

Genesis 9:8-17
A Glimpse of God’s Heart
James Sledge                                 Lent 1 - February 26, 2012

I saw in the paper the other day where the friendly folks from Westboro Baptist Church planned to protest at Whitney Houston’s funeral.  These are the same people who protest at the funerals of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, who parade around with signs that read “God Hates Fags.”  They reason that since “God hates fags” and American tolerates them, then God hates America, too.  Hence the protests at military funerals.
Now to be honest, I’m not sure why the news media even cover these folks anymore.  There are a tiny group, with less the 50 members, and the attention they garner is way out of proportion to any influence or following that they have.  But even though they are a tiny, fringe group, they do share something in common with quite few people of faith.  They believe that God hates some folks and that God has it out for these folk.
When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans a few years back, it wasn’t just the Westboro whackos who were talking about whom God hates.  Quite a few Christian preachers suggested that New Orleans was a particularly appropriate target for God’s wrath.  With its drunkenness and revelry, no wonder God decided to punish them.
And even Christians who have a hard time imagining that God singled out New Orleans sometimes shake their heads at the state of the world and wonder how long God will tolerate it all.  “Surely someday God will say, ‘That’s enough.’ ”
The Noah epic, despite is popularity as children’s story and nursery decoration motif, is a story about a someday when God has had enough. 

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Spiritual Hiccups - Giving Up the Bible for Lent

A line in today's epistle reading says, "But our citizenship is in heaven..."  I can't say for sure, but I suspect that large numbers of Christians think this refers to our going to heaven when we die.  To be honest, I'm not really sure where this idea comes from.  There is very little in the Bible that speaks of us going to heaven.  There's a lot in the New Testament about resurrection, but that is something altogether different.  Yet somehow we have made resurrection a synonym for "going to heaven when we die."

Brian McLaren and others have pointed out that many Christians, especially Protestant and Evangelical Christians, have preached a "gospel of evacuation."  In other words, have faith and believe the right things, and you will get evacuated to a better place when you die.  (For those who believe in a Rapture, evacuation might come even earlier.)  But Jesus proclaims the "kingdom of God" or the reign of God.  And as his very popular prayer points out, this kingdom is when God's will is done here on earth as it currently is in heaven.  In other words, the kingdom is when earth becomes like heaven.  No evacuation required.

I was reading Richard Rohr's Daily Meditation this morning, and he wrote than in the Lenten season of conversion and repentance, both Catholics and Protestants might want to think about their relationship to Scripture.  He said that Catholics need to be converted in order to give Scripture some actual authority in their lives.  And he said that Protestants need to repent of how our "sola Scriptura" (Scripture alone) has often ignored the ways we read the Bible from our own biases, prejudices and preconceived notions, how we have insisted on scriptural authority for "slavery, racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia" (not to mention going to heaven when we die).

As a Protestant, I think this critique from a Franciscan priest is particularly helpful.  And I wonder if we Protestants wouldn't do well to follow Rohr's advice and give up something more than chocolate for Lent.  What if we gave up the conceit that our faith, our practices, our theology, our church rules, and so on, really come from Scripture, much less Scripture alone.

What if we gave up the Bible for Lent?  I don't really mean that we should toss out our Bibles, but what if we gave up our certainties about what it says?  What if we confessed that we have more often used the Bible to support what we want than we've allowed it to transform us and make us more Christ-like?  What if we gave up the notion that our faith is biblically based because we own a Bible and know a few verses from it?  I wonder what might happen if we gave up our Bibles for Lent.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Ash Wednesday Meditation audio

Download mp3 of the audio

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Spiritual Hiccups - Hi, My Name Is James, and I'm a Sinner

If you've ever seen an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, you likely know that people who speak will often introduce themselves by saying, "Hi, my name is ____, and I'm an alcoholic."  To outsiders this may seem a bit odd, but for alcoholics, it is a big part of their recovery.  It is a core acknowledgement of who they are, an acknowledgement that keeps them in recovery.  The entire 12 step program of AA is predicated on this claiming this identity as an alcoholic, a person who cannot remain sober and lead a full life without help in dealing with their alcoholism.

Christians have a parallel acknowledgement, an admission that our core identity is a problem for us.  In this case the issue is not a tendency to drink, but a tendency to act in ways contrary to God's will and contrary to who we are meant to be as humans.  There is a selfishness and self-centeredness about us that leads us to act in ways that hurt others, undo community, and cut us off from God.  Christians call this basic problem sin.  Hi, my name is James, and I'm a sinner."

But curiously, Christians are often much more resistant to such acknowledgments than alcoholics are.  I long ago lost count of the times people have said to me, "Why do we do a prayer of confession every Sunday?  It's such a downer." 

Today's parable in Luke would seem to be a warning to us religious folks who sometimes think our religiousness means we aren't sinners.  In fact, you sometimes hear church people use the term "sinners" to speak of people outside the church.  Sinners are those folks, not me.  But in today's parable, Jesus speaks of two men, one a good, religious person who keeps all the rules, and the other a tax collector.  (It's worth remembering that in Jesus' day, tax collectors were not civil service employees but people who colluded with the occupying Romans in order to make lots of money.  They collected what ever they could.  Anything beyond what was owed to the Romans, they got to keep for themselves.)  This tax collector simply cries out, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" and Jesus says that he rather than the religious fellow went home justified before God.

Hi, my name is James, and I'm a sinner.  I battle against it constantly, and at times I feel captive to it.  I do things that I wish I hadn't, things that hurt others and end up hurting me, too.  But it is wonderful to know that not only does God not hold this against me, but the Spirit is with me, helping me.  The community of faith is with me too, helping me and each other as we struggle to be fully human, to love as Jesus loved.  Hi, my name is James, and I'm a sinner.  Thank God Jesus came to help folks like me.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Spiritual Hiccups - Becoming God-bearers

There is a striking line in today's reading from Philippians. "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus..."  It's from a popular bit of the Bible, and so I've seen it many times.  But today I must have been looking from a different angle.  I can have the same mind as Jesus?

Of course this question raises another.  What does it mean to have the same mind as Jesus?  Being "of the same mind" is sometimes synonymous for agreeing with someone, but I don't thing this verse calls us to agree with Jesus.  I speaks of something much deeper, more along the lines of Christ dwelling in us.  And this seems to be confirmed at the end of today's reading where we are told to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you..."

The same mind as Jesus; God at work in us.  Both of these seem to speak of something more than belief, something more than agreeing with certain faith statements.  They speak of a God who not only desires a close and intimate relationship with us, but who literally becomes a part of us, present within us so that we become true reflections of Jesus.  If God is at work in us, if we have the same mind in us that was in Jesus, then in a very real sense we become God bearers.  We become part of the Incarnation, God in the flesh.  

This isn't something we accomplish.  It is something we open ourselves to when we "let" the mind of Jesus dwell in us, when we "let" God be present in us.   O God, be at work in me, and let me show you to the world.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Sermon audio - Are You Listening?

Download mp3 of sermon

Find an archive of all sermon audios in the box to the right.

Sermon - Are You Listening?

Mark 9:2-9
Are You Listening?
James Sledge                   Transfiguration Sunday - February 19, 2012

I recently saw an article in USA Today entitled “Churches Go Less Formal to Make People Comfortable.”   Nothing really earth shattering in that concept.  Our early service is called “informal,” and it doesn’t have much liturgy and most folks don’t dress up.  But the USA Today article was talking about taking this to another level.  It mentioned one Baptist congregation in Florida named “Church at the GYM” which, as the name implies, meets in a gym.  The pastor wears jeans and lots of folks wear shorts.  There’s no organ or stained glass, nothing that looks much like “church.”
Another less formal church is an interdenominational congregation called “The Bridge.”  This one meets in a strip mall, and like Church at the GYM, it seeks to connect with the under 40 crowd that is underrepresented in typical church congregations.  The Bridge sounds quite edgy.  Along with using video clips to illustrate the Sunday message, it recently opened its own tattoo parlor.
Now I feel confident that this doesn’t appeal to a lot of you, but that doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with it.  Some of us grew up with the idea that “real” worship had to have a pipe organ, but of course such instruments were unknown to the church for centuries.  Church pipe organs have only been around a little over 500 years. 
The fact is that Christian churches have been adapting to the culture around them from the beginning.  Early Christian worship was virtually indistinguishable from Jewish worship, but that began to change as more and more Gentiles came on board.  Martin Luther is said to have used popular music of his day, perhaps even borrowing from tavern drinking songs in order to make the hymns he wrote accessible. 
African American spirituals are another example of worship and music that developed for a particular cultural setting.  And the contemporary worship songs of our day are but one more attempt to make worship accessible to the prevailing culture.  Church at the GYM and The Bridge may be somewhat more extreme examples, but they exist within a long history of interpreting the faith into new settings and contexts.
But in all attempts to connect faith to the world we live in, both those with tattoo parlors and those with pipe organs, there is almost always a temptation to domesticate God, to make God user-friendly, if you will.
  I’m not sure that any religious group or institution exists, or has ever existed, that does not, on some level, seek to get God on our side, insure that God supports our activities, make sure that God is favorably disposed toward us.
Even religious rituals originally designed for no purpose other than to open people to God’s presence eventually get twisted into tools for managing God.  And I think that is why anytime God actually shows up, it scares the bejeebers out of people, no matter how religious they are.  They hit the dirt, they cower in fear, they shout, “Woe is me.”
You can see that in today’s reading.  The disciples have been hanging out with Jesus for a while, and though he has done some things that frightened them before, when Jesus is “transfigured” before three of them on the mountaintop, they are terrified.  Moses and Elijah, Jesus’ clothes whiter than earthly possible… This was God’s doing, and when God actually shows up, it’s not manageable or user-friendly.
Peter doesn’t know what to say or do, but it seems that his religious sensibilities kick in.  Let’s build some shrines, some memorials.  Let’s turn this into Transfiguration Day and celebrate it.  But Peter’s babbling is cut off by a cloud and a heavenly voice.  “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”  And then it’s all over.  No religious mumbo jumbo, no new religious rituals or celebrations; just a simple command.  “Listen to him!”
Then it’s down from the mountaintop, back to the run of the mill, the day to day, the mundane.  Listen to him!” still echoes as the disciples head back down to the regular world,  but it won’t take long for the disciples, or for us, to put the emphasis elsewhere.  We’ll focus on believing the right things, on doing baptism or the Lord’s Supper correctly, or argue endlessly about who can be ordained, and we’ll push “Listen to him!” off to the side.
I don’t mean to pick on church or religion.  Unlike some people, I don’t think it’s really possible to be “spiritual but not religious.”  Any faith or spirituality that is going to impact your life in a meaningful way is going to require some practices, some method of doing things, some ways of interpreting it to others, some expectations of those who want to be a part of it.  When I complain about religion it is not because I would like to be rid of it.  I do not want that, nor do I think it possible. 
It’s perhaps worth remembering that Jesus was a faithful practitioner of his Jewish religion.  He kept the Sabbath, went to the synagogue, was well versed in the Jewish Scriptures, and quoted them frequently.  I don’t think Jesus had any plans to abolish his religion or to start a new one.  But he saw clearly how religious structures and habits get twisted so that they don’t help us as they should.  Religion easily get focused on the packaging rather than the core.  It easily substitutes reverence or attendance or rituals for faith and obedience.  It often gets perverted into ways of managing God for our purposes, and so it needs reforming on a regular basis.  It needs what happens in our gospel today, an awesome encounter with the unmanageable, not user-friendly God.  And it needs to hear, “Listen to him!”
I’m going to guess that most of us heard the command to listen when we were growing up.  Parents or teachers or coaches said to us, “Listen to me when I’m talking!” or asked us, “Are you listening to me?!”  And we learned that there was a difference between hearing and listening.  We knew that when listening was invoked, we were supposed to pay attention.  We were supposed to do what was said.  We understood that listen meant serious business.
“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 
I’ve shared with you before a quote from Mohandas Gandhi who said, “I like your Christ.  I do not like your Christians.  They are so unlike your Christ.”  I suppose that, to varying degrees, Gandhi’s critique fits most of us. And this problem exists not because we don’t believe in Jesus, aren’t devout, or don’t come to church enough.   No, the problem is that we don’t do the one thing God explicitly commands followers of Jesus to do, “Listen to Him!”
We each have our own reasons, but a lot of us are afraid of what he might say, afraid of what he might ask of us.  And so we do the same thing I did as a kid when my parents called, we hear but we don’t listen.  We hear Jesus speaking, but we remain oblivious; an “in one ear and out the other” sort of thing. 
I suppose on some level, this is faith and belief issue.  We’re not sure we can trust what Jesus tells us, not sure the call to follow him leads us where we want to go.  So we don’t listen.  We want to keep Jesus close, but ignore what he says.  We’re a lot like Peter, wanting to build shrines and have rituals.  But then comes that heavenly voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 
I imagine that most of you have heard the phrase leap of faith, as in, “Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith.”  It sounds like a religious phrase, but I don’t often hear it used with regards to Christian faith, and least not the believe-in-Jesus kind.  It’s usually reserved for something that seems a bit more risky, for when you take a chance that things will end well if you, get married, quit your job and go back to school, or start a non-profit ministry of some sort.  There’s a chance for a big payoff, for a fuller and more rewarding life, but it does require taking that chance, that risk, that leap into the unknown.
“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”  Can we do that?  Are we listening?

All praise and glory to the God who comes to us in Jesus, who speaks to us and calls us to follow him.  Thanks be to God!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Spiritual Hiccups - Making Sense of Jesus

Reading the gospels it's pretty clear that lots of people didn't know what to make of Jesus.  I'm not sure things have changed all that much, except perhaps that people now have to contend with lots of Christian versions of Jesus that don't necessarily look all that much like the Jesus of the Bible.

Today's reading in John tells us that people were arguing about Jesus, some saying he was crazy and others wanting to know how a crazy person could heal a blind man.  Finally, they ask Jesus to help them. "If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly."  But Jesus' answer is a bit indirect.  He says that he has already told them, but they haven't believed him, adding, "The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me."  I guess he means that healing a blind man is a pretty straightforward answer.

In our day trying to figure out who Jesus is can be even more difficult because of all us Christians who say so many contradictory things about him.  Depending on who you're listening to, Jesus hates gays, wants women to be subject to men, and thinks tax policies should favor "job creators," or he favors the poor, prefers the company of sinners, and won't allow his followers to use force or violence.

Maybe we'd do well to take Jesus' advice in today's gospel, to look at what he does and says letting these things testify to who he is.  This is sort of how we Protestants got started half a millennium ago.  Luther and Calvin and others looked at the Jesus they saw in the Bible and thought, "Hey, this isn't the same Jesus we've heard about from Christians, from the Church."

There's a chapter in Donald Miller's book Blue Like Jazz where he's talking about an atheist friend who has struggled with the idea of God and faith.  Apparently God has been pursuing her anyway, and after much wrestling with her emotions, this friend has spent the evening reading Matthew. Then, unable to stop, she read Mark's gospel, too.  Early in the morning, she emailed Miller, telling him about all this.  She concludes, "This Jesus of yours is either a madman or the Son of God.  Somewhere in the middle of Mark I realized he was the Son of God. I suppose this makes me a Christian.  I feel much better now.  Come to campus tonight and let's get coffee."

Either madman or Son of God; that sounds about right.  And I wonder if we don't all need to come to a moment like that.  If this Jesus business has never seemed a little bit crazy, I wonder if we've really met him.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Spiritual Hiccups - Hating the World

From time to time an article appears in the news discussing how come Christians don't care about environmental issues because they're sure God will soon destroy the earth anyway.  I hope that's a small minority of Christians, but I know that such views exist.  In fact, a number of Christians cling to ideas that share much in common with the "Gnostic heresies" of the Church's early centuries.  For those not up on early Church history, Gnostics (from the Greek word for "knowledge") thought that we humans had been imprisoned by an evil deity on this earth in awful, fleshy bodies.  But secret gnosis or knowledge would allow us to escape and resume our natural, spiritual existence. 

These ideas saw everything that was bodily or carnal as part of our imprisonment, and therefore bad.  Some Gnostic ideas were easily incorporated into some Christians ones.  But Gnostic Christians rejected the idea that the God of Jesus was involved in the Creation stories of Genesis.  There was nothing good about earth or our bodies. 

The early Church repudiated Gnosticism, but many of its ideas persist.  Some Christians' discomfort with sexuality and bodily functions reflects this.  And the notion that God is just itching to destroy the earth feels more Gnostic than biblical.  After all the Bible speaks of a "new heaven and new earth," and Paul says that "creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay... that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now."  Hardly sounds like something evil God is bent on destroying.

So what to do with today's verses in 1 John which tell us, "Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world."  Is this telling us we should hate the world?  No tree-hugging allowed? 

Of course 1 John also tells us that "God is love," and it is associated with the same faith community that produced the Gospel of John with its famous line, "For God so loved the world..."  So should we hate the world or not?

One of the great difficulties of the Bible is that it is written by people at home with myth, story, parable, and metaphor.  We, on the other hand, are a very literal people.  To us, myths are, by definition, untrue.  And while we know how to use metaphors, they are not our default we or speaking, thinking or hearing.  We are from a scientific age, and truth for us is literal.  Debates about biblical literalism could only arise in the modern, scientific era, and even fundamentalist Christians approach the Bible from a scientific worldview.

But in John's gospel and in 1 John, "the world" is not the same thing as "the planet."  We know how to think this way.  We can say that someone is "worldly" and not mean to describe all people who live in the world.  Yet many people hear 1 John say, "the world and its desire are passing away," and assume that speaks of the end of the world.

I think that a great gift to the Church from post-modern and emergent Christians is the rediscovery of the mystical, the recovery of truth that is located somewhere other than in "the facts," systematic theologies, or the correct meaning of a Bible passage.  This post-modern faith is more comfortable with paradox, uncertainty, and ambiguity.  And so it can hear that "God so loved the world" right next to "Do not love the world" and not lapse into the mental equivalent of some sci-fi computer repeating, "That does not compute!" over and over.

The world is part of God's Creation, that wonderful enterprise of love that God declares "very good."  The world is a garden that the human creature is told to tend and care for.  The world is an arena filled with activity very much at odds with God's hopes for Creation and humanity.  The world (even the part that calls itself the Church) more often than not rejects the way of Jesus as too impractical and naive.  And the world is the recipient of God's fullest expression of love, the Incarnation.

Hate the world?  Love the world?  Transform the world?  Care for the World?..  Yes!

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Sermon video - Sharing What God Has Done

Spiritual Hiccups - The Blame Game

"Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"  A + B = C.  There is cause and effect.  When things go wrong, there must be someone or something to blame.  There is a certain logic to such thinking. But from a logical standpoint, Jesus' answer this question of blame is unsatisfying.  "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him."

Does that mean it's God's fault?  Did God cause this fellow to be blind his entire life just so Jesus could happen by and heal him one day.  If that were the case, why not render him blind in an accident a few days earlier?  At least he wouldn't have had to be blind all those years.

But I'm not sure Jesus is interested in the blame game, or in a logical coherent understanding of suffering.  The fact is, there is a tragic quality to all life.  Jesus himself cannot escape this, and he tells his followers that they cannot either.  They must take up their cross.  They must lose themselves.  If Jesus is our model, a willingness to suffer for the hope of a new day is required. It is how we discover our deepest and truest humanity.

This is not a call to suffer for the sake of suffering, nor is it meant to trivialize the suffering of others.  But Jesus does call us to enter into the tragic nature of life in ways that cost us.  Such a call does not always sit well with our culture.  After all, we want to "lose weight without exercise or diets" and to reduce deficits without raising my taxes or cutting any of my benefits.  Often it is easier to blame the poor for their own plight than it is to find ways to fight poverty, especially if those ways bring any cost or suffering to me.

Certainly there are many times when wrongs are done, people need to be held accountable, and situations rectified.  But very often, the blame game is about protecting me.  If the man is born blind because he or his parents sinned, then I don't have to feel bad for him.  His suffering doesn't necessarily demand a response from me.  The blame game is very often a way to insulate myself from the world and it's brokenness, to say that its suffering is not my concern.  But that is not the life Jesus lives, nor is it the life he wishes for us.  I think that's why Jesus says things like, "For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it."

It is tempting to turn away from the pain and suffering in the world, to say, "It's someone else's fault and not my problem."  But Jesus rejects such a move, instead seeing an opportunity to show God's hope, God's love, God's dream for a renewed creation.  And he enters fully into the brokenness of this world, reaching out in love even at the cost of his own life.  And he says to us, "Follow me."

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sermon audio - Sharing What God Has Done

Sunday sermon - Sharing What God Has Done

Mark 1:40-45
Sharing What God Has Done
James Sledge                                                   February 12, 2012

When our Discipleship Ministry Team began to discuss having a “Bring a Friend Sunday” at Boulevard, I shared what happened when we did one in my previous congregation.  Some may have heard this story before; if so, please bear with me. 
Bring a Friend Sundays were dreamed up many years ago as a way to help congregations that weren’t very good at evangelism.  The idea is to designate a special Sunday to invite friends in the hopes that the idea of an event will make it easier to invite people.  With that in mind, Bring a Friend Sundays often include something such as a lunch after worship.
That’s what we did at the congregation in Raleigh, NC.  We only had one worship service, and so it was easy to have a lunch in the Fellowship Hall when the service ended.  And this lunch also made it easier for folks to say to their friend, “Hey, we’re having special Sunday at our church where all the members invite friends, and we’re having a big lunch afterward.  Would you join us?”
When we did the first of these, the turnout was amazing.  We may have had some Easter and Christmas Eve services with more people, but beyond those, I’d never seen that many people in the sanctuary.  And our Fellowship Hall was overflowing with people at the lunch.  Everyone involved in planning the day was all smiles.  It had exceeded our wildest expectations.
But our excitement began to fade a bit when we started going through the friendship pads from the pews. 
Not that people hadn’t signed them; by and large they had.  But along with their names, most of those friends had included another bit of information: the name of the church where they were members.
It soon became apparent that almost every single friend who joined us that Sunday was an active member of some other church.  It was a bit bewildering.  We had made clear in publicizing the event that it was for the purpose of evangelism, so why had it become simply a fellowship Sunday with people from other churches?  I really don’t know for sure.  I suspect that our members wanted to support the event.  We had talked it up for a couple of months in advance, and they wanted it to be a success.  And so the felt that they had to invite people.
Now here’s where I a bit unsure about what happened.  Perhaps most of our members didn’t have any good friends who weren’t church folks.  I imagine that could have been true for some.  But perhaps some of them did have friends who weren’t church members, but they just didn’t quite know how to invite them.  And so they only invited church friends.  Perhaps there was something else at work; I don’t really know.
However, there was clearly something going on that made it difficult for our members to invite non-church friends, even with a free lunch.  And this became abundantly clear when we held a second Bring a Friend Sunday the next year.  Remembering our previous experience, we asked people not to invite members of other churches to the event, but friends who weren’t active in a congregation.  Our members got the message.  They didn’t invite any church friends, and attendance that Sunday didn’t look any different from a typical Sunday.
Now if we did in fact have members with no non-Christian friends, that would fit with a misperception that some Christians have.  A number of Christians seem to have gotten the idea that they should not associate with non-church folks.  But when you think about the sort of folks Jesus hung out with, and when you remember that he told his followers to reach out to all people and help them become disciples, it’s a bit hard to reconcile being the body of Christ while avoiding those outside the church.
But I’m not convinced that this was the main reason no one invited a friend to the second Bring a Friend Sunday in Raleigh.  I think they were simply terrified at the idea of evangelism.  It wasn’t scary to invite a church friend to join them one Sunday, but sharing their faith with someone who didn’t do the church thing, that was another matter.
As a rule Presbyterians struggle with evangelism.  We worry about starting a conversation and getting in over our heads.  Perhaps you’ve heard people say, or even said yourself, “What if they ask me something I don’t know the answer to?  I don’t really understand my faith well enough to share it.  I can’t explain the Trinity.”  
I’m not sure where the idea came from that evangelism requires a firm grasp of Christian doctrine.  That’s certainly not the case with the leper in our gospel reading today.  He doesn’t know any Christian doctrine.  He doesn’t even know about the cross or resurrection since neither has yet happened.  But when Jesus heals him he began to proclaim it freely. Proclaim; that’s the same thing John the Baptist and Jesus have done, and the same thing Jesus will shortly charge the twelve disciples to do.  And this former leper proclaims even though Jesus has expressly told him not to do so.
If someone asks him exactly how Jesus healed him, he won’t be able to tell them.  If someone wants to know if Jesus is the only way you can be healed of leprosy, he won’t know that either.   If someone asks him what Jesus thinks about abortion or higher taxes on the rich, this former leper will likely have no idea.  But what he knows for sure is that Jesus has touched him and made him new, made him well, made him whole, saved him.  And he can’t stop telling folks what God has done for him through Jesus.
As part of the run-up to next week’s Bring a Friend Sunday, Discipleship Team members have been sharing experiences of when they were alone or afraid and someone reached out to connect with them.  A couple of weeks ago, Ginny Achtermann shared her story of how God’s love and care had touched her.  If you weren’t here, she spoke of a time when she had just come home from the hospital following surgery.  Her mother had come to help care for her, but shortly after arriving, her mother experienced such intense pain that she wanted to go to the hospital.  But Ginny was not feeling well enough to take her, and was not yet cleared to drive anyway. 
As Ginny wondered what she would do, the phone rang.  It was a woman from her church, someone Ginny barely knew.  The person said she had a feeling that Ginny could use some help, and this woman came to Ginny’s house, took her Mom to the ER, and waited several hours there as doctors attended to her.
Now certainly it doesn’t quite rise to the level of being cured of leprosy, but at that moment, the woman who called was a life-saver, a God-send.  And Ginny was able to share without hesitation this experience of God’s love that connected with her when she most needed it.  I don’t think Ginny mentioned any theological doctrines when she shared her story.  She did not weigh in on any hot button issues of the day.  She simply proclaimed what God had done for her through a disciple of Christ who ministered to her in a time of need.
Surely every one of us has a similar story to share, to proclaim.  Surely the love of God in Jesus has touched us in some way that has changed us, freed us for a better life, let us experience God’s love and compassion in some tangible way.  It seems to me that if we cannot proclaim a time that God’s love, care, or compassion touched us, then our Christianity is more philosophy than faith.  And if that is the case, no wonder the pews of America’s churches are less and less full.  Why would anyone want to come sing hymns to a philosophy?  Why would they want to offer prayers to an idea?
Has Jesus touched you in some way?  Has Jesus used you to share his touch with others?  Centuries ago, when a leper encountered Jesus’ healing touch, he couldn’t stop himself from letting others know.  Jesus says to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone…  But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word.