Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sermon video - Beyond the Now

A bit late, but here is the video of my final sermon at Boulevard Presbyterian on March 18, 2012.

Videos also available on YouTube.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Gifted Congregations

I mentioned in my previous blog how congregations often have an inflated sense of the pastor's importance (as do pastors themselves).  This situation is very much on my mind as I conclude my time at one congregation and transition to another.  In this congregation I have ego driven worries about "what they'll do without me," and I imagine that some members have similar worries. 

Looking forward to a new congregation, I have worries about whether I have all the gifts needed for that particular place and community.  And no doubt there are worries about, or at least expectations about, what I will do to lead that congregation when I arrive. 

There is a reason people refer to the first year or so in a congregation as a "honeymoon period."  It takes a while for people to observe your flaws and less desirable traits, things that didn't get noticed during a whirlwind courtship.  And these "disappointments" are often the discovery that the pastor is not perfectly gifted to make the congregation great and wonderful.

When it comes to gifts and talents, you don't need to look very hard to realize that we value some gifts over others.  Look at the relative salaries of CEOs compared to workers at most any company.  For that matter, look at the salaries of senior pastors compared to other staff in most congregations.  But in his letter to the Corinthian Christians, the Apostle Paul works very hard to challenge such notions.  The Corinthians seem to have valued certain spiritual gifts over others, to the point of denigrating certain members.  They saw gifts as a way of rating and valuing (or devaluing) fellow believers, but Paul insists that these gifts are not a matter of better and worse.  They are the work of the Spirit for the good of the whole. 

This in no way denigrates the position of the pastor or minimizes her importance to a congregation, but it does undermine the hierarchies of gifts that too often exist in churches, not to mention society.  As Paul makes so clear in other parts of his letter, all the people and all their gifts are essential, and without all of them, the body is broken. 

If you go with Paul on this, there is no such thing as congregation that isn't sufficiently gifted, and if some seem that way, it is only because they resist the work of the Spirit in their midst.

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Monday, March 19, 2012

No Longer Your Pastor

The title of this post is not quite true.  I am in the office today, will conduct a funeral tomorrow, and do some visits on Wednesday.  But then I will no longer be pastor at Boulevard Presbyterian Church.  Yesterday was my final Sunday, and the congregation held a fabulous goodbye dinner following worship.  And so for most of this church's members, I finished yesterday.

It is strange to think about such things as I read Paul's letter to the church at Corinth.  Paul was in Corinth for a time, but of course he is elsewhere when he writes.  But he still acts like their pastor.  He still gives them advice, still tells them what they should do.  My denomination expressly forbids me from doing the same because when I leave, I am no longer their pastor, and they need to let go of me and get ready for someone new.

Not that I want to be like Paul, writing letters and offering advice and criticism.  My position as pastor here is not much like Paul's apostleship, where he helped begin the Corinthian congregation and, in a day before seminaries and paid church pastors, continued to pastor and encourage them from afar.  Paul's letter try to keep the congregation focused on Jesus, on the new life they are called to in Christ.  Interestingly, my not writing letters and giving advice serves much the same purpose.

One of the hazards of professional pastors is that congregations often become extensions of their pastor's personalities.  Pastors can become the center of things, sometimes to such a degree that even Jesus can get pushed aside.  (I'm familiar with a church in Columbus where the name of the pastor was painted on the side of their bus in considerably larger letters than the name of the church.)  And even when pastors work hard to avoid such issues, the pastor's prominence in weekly worship, at governing board meetings, and so on, makes it easy for people to think of this as James' church rather than Christ's.

Whether intentional or otherwise, there exists an inflated sense of the pastor's importance in many congregations, and I think this demands we stopping playing the role when we retire or move on to another congregation.  It is a good thing for congregations to discover that they are the body of Christ regardless of who is in the pulpit.  It is good to separate their sense of call and mission in the community from the individual who served as their pastor.

I love the congregation I am leaving, and so I want things to go well for it.  I will keep them in my prayers.  I want to encourage the people here and, if I hear of some problem, my instinct will be to "help."  But helping might well hurt the process of the congregation discovering who it is "in Christ" and without me.  There could well be a moment when I may need to bite my own tongue when someone asks my thoughts. If so, please understand that is because I care deeply for Boulevard that I may have to say,  "I'm sorry, but I'm no longer your pastor."

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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sermon audio - Beyond the Now

Download mp3 of sermon.

Beyond the Now - My final sermon at Boulevard Presbyterian

John 3:14-21
Beyond the Now
James Sledge                                                                           Lent 4 – March 18, 2012

The words Jesus speaks to us this morning actually begin as a conversation.  Nicodemus, a Pharisee and leader in his religious community comes to see Jesus, at night.  He was quite sure that Jesus could not do the things he was doing apart from God, but he came to Jesus in the dark.  In John’s gospel, darkness is not a good thing.
Nick remains “in the dark.”  As he speaks with Jesus he grows more and more confused, and by the time we get to the part of the conversation we heard this morning, befuddled Nick seems to have disappeared from the scene.  Jesus talks past Nicodemus as though he were no longer there.  He even shifts from saying “you,” singular, to saying “y’all,” plural.
To be honest, I was not all that happy that this Scripture readings showed up on my last Sunday here, but none of the readings really excited me.  So I settled on the John verses.  At least they did talk of God so loving the world, of eternal life.  But of course then they go on to say how many are condemned already and that people are evil, preferring darkness to light.  A lot to unpack in a “goodbye” sermon.  I was tempted simply to ignore all that about judgment and condemnation, but that would be ignoring a lot that Jesus said.  So here goes.
When I was young and single, I found it difficult to tell a young woman that I was attracted to her.  For me there was nothing quite so terrifying as putting myself and my feelings out there where I might get shot down.  I assume that many of you have at some point in your life wanted to tell another person that you were interested in them, that you wanted to go out with them.  But once you blurt out, “Would you go out with me?” or, when in a relationship, “I love you,” you have precipitated a crisis moment.  There is no going back.  Things might go well or they might not, but things will not be the same.
If you’ve ever been shot down when you asked someone out, or if you’ve ever loved someone who would not or could not return that love, you may have some small sense of what Jesus is talking about when he speaks of judgment and of people being condemned already. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Impressed by Compassion

When I read today's gospel account, I was unsure whether to focus on the miracle of feeding all those people with 5 loaves and two fish or on the fact that Jesus had compassion for the crowd in the first place.  After all, Jesus and his disciples had traveled to a deserted place for a little R and R, to get away from the crowds, a move prompted because "many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat."

The miracle itself is impressive enough, feeding 5000 men, presumably meaning that there were thousands more women and children.  But for those Christians who are thoroughly convinced that Jesus is divine, the miracle does not necessarily say much.  Of course God can whip up a meal for the crowds.  That's the kind of thing gods do.  But to me, the more illuminating piece of information is the way Jesus reacts after being thwarted in his attempt to escape the crowds.  "And he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things."

Pastors often borrow this sort of language, speaking of shepherding a church, with the congregation referred to as the flock.  But the analogy can break down pretty quickly, and not necessarily because the pastor isn't a miracle worker.

Pastors tend to invest a great deal of time and energy in their congregations, often for smaller salaries than might be available to them in other professions.  But we pastors usually expect something in return.  We expect those congregations to respond to our leadership in ways that reflect well on us.  They're supposed to embrace what we tell them and do great things so everyone will know that we are good and effective pastors.  And sometimes when "the flock" doesn't do as we hope or expect, we get frustrated. 

Sometimes when pastors get together, they end up complaining to each other about their congregations.  A lot of this is perfectly harmless, a way to let off steam.  But at times we start to sound more like a boss complaining about his sorry employees than a shepherd who has a deep compassion for her sheep.

Among the many and varied images of Jesus available to 21st Century Americans, there is one referred to as "Jesus CEO."  There are even business models that claim to draw their inspiration from the CEO practices that Jesus models.  But I have some difficulty imagining Jesus as a CEO, at least one in charge of anything like most modern corporations.  The Jesus we meet in today's gospel reading would never make it in such a position because he would be forever stopping what he was doing to care for someone. 

So Jesus fed thousands from one lunchbox.  Sure, that's a big deal, but gods are forever performing miracles.  But this Jesus is filled with tender compassion for the very folks who are frustrating his plans.  Now that's a strange sort of God.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Faith, Love, and Restraint

A realize that the people on reality shows such as The Real Housewives of Orange County or Keeping Up With the Kardashians are hardly representative of most Americans.  Still, the success and attraction of such shows suggest that, for all their over-the-top excesses, they connect in some way to the American cultural ethos.  They may be gross exaggeration and even parody, but that only works by exaggerating or parodying existing patterns of American life.

The American dream is a dream of more.  For generations we have expected that our children would be better off than we are.  The first home we purchase is a "starter home" because we plan to have bigger and better ones as the years go by.  Such desires provide a great deal of motivation for hard work and innovation, but unchecked, they undergird a culture of excess.  They consume us, turning us into miniature versions of Orange County housewives or Kardashians, people who exist to consume.

The reason so many Americans have gotten themselves into trouble living beyond their means is that we are so convinced that we need more.  The idea that less could be good, that restraint is to be desired, is foreign to many of us.

Writing to the Corinthian Christians, Paul speaks about restraint born of love.  His concern is that these "enlightened" Corinthians addressed in his letter, having realized that there are no other gods and that meat sacrificed to those gods in not demonically tainted, are happily eating such meat, splurging in their new-found freedom.  But Paul is worried that neophyte Christians who are less "enlightened" may join in eating this meat and then be wracked with guilt to the point of damaging their faith.  Paul acknowledges the freedom to eat meat sacrificed to idols, but insists that if doing so could possibly harm another, he will gladly "never eat meat."  (It helps to realize that most meat in Corinthian butcher shops had come from some temple where it started out as a sacrifice.)

Paul understands his own freedom to be constrained by love.  Love is the greatest gift that that the Spirit gives.  It trumps all else, and so Paul cannot enjoy any excess that does not uplift the others of the community.  All those soaring lines about love being patient and kind, not insisting on its own way, bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things - lines perhaps most familiar from weddings - are from Paul when he tells the Corinthians about the one excess they should pursue, love.

The only problem with what Paul says is that it doesn't quite compute without faith.  There is a logic to it, but it's a logic that breaks down if life isn't organized around something other than self.  For Christians, it is the spiritual presence of Jesus, the Spirit dwelling in us, that makes possible love as the highest goal and ideal.  To willingly do without for the sake of the neighbor begins to makes sense when faith draws us close to the truth Jesus proclaims.  "Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it."

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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Sermon video - God's Daring Imagination


I'm going through a bit of an identity crisis.  That is because I am about to end my time as pastor of Boulevard Presbyterian Church in Columbus, OH.  In just under a month I will become pastor at Falls Church Presbyterian, but at the moment, my identity is in flux, and it can be disconcerting at times.

I've found preparing sermons much more difficult of late.  The actual process I use hasn't changed, but the change of status from lame duck pastor to (in a matter of days) former pastor seems to have impacted it.  It's a strange experience, and preparing my final sermon for this Sunday has been the worst. 

What people do for a living is often a big part of their identity.  One of the first questions people often ask on meeting someone is, "So, what do you do?"  But I think pastor is one of those vocations that gets quite deep into one's identity.  Other jobs that people consider a calling can do the same, and it can be very dislocating for the situation of that calling to change.

Today's gospel reading raises the issue of identity, Jesus' identity.  "Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?"  In this story, it is the residents of Jesus' hometown who get thrown off balance by an identity question.  They think they know who Jesus is.  They have both an occupation and a family lineage for him.  Apparently neither of these suggest anything remarkable about him.  "And they took offense at him."

Mark's gospel says something rather remarkable about how these residents' identity issues impact Jesus.  "And (Jesus) could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them."  Amazing that their identity confusion hamstrung Jesus.  It's one thing for my own identity changes to throw me off my game, but another when the same thing happens because others get confused about someone's identity.

One of my all-time favorite quotes is the opening line of John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion.  "Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves."  And when either of these is confused, it has real ramifications. 

"Who am I?" is a huge existential question.  And for Jesus, who we say that he is is an equally big question.  In fact, you could argue that the gospel of Mark is primarily an answer to the question, "Who is Jesus?" 

Who are you?  Who is Jesus?  The answers have remarkable consequences.

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Monday, March 12, 2012

What Ails Us

If you've ever read from the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), you surely have noticed how much of Jesus' ministry is healing.  He heals people on a regular basis.  Other times he performs exorcisms that I suspect most of us would consider healings nowadays.  After today's healing of a woman with a hemorrhage, Jesus says to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well."  But in other places the same word is translated "saved."  In fact, the word "save" that so many associate with Jesus means to rescue, to make whole, to heal, and such.

That stereotyped evangelism question, "Have you been saved?" seems to define salvation quite narrowly.  At least in my encounters, it refers to getting into heaven.  That certainly could be a meaning of salvation, being rescued from some other fate.  But given how often saving in the New Testament is associated with healing, I wonder if most of us don't need to broaden our notion of salvation.  I wonder if we don't also need to ask, "Have you been healed?  Have you been made whole?"  And as with the question of being saved, this raises the question of saved from what, healed from what, made whole from what sort of brokenness?

What is it that ails us?  What healing do we need?  Because Christianity is so often understood as right beliefs that get you on the heavenly invitation list, people sometimes don't ask such questions.  Southern comedian and devout Southern Baptist Jerry Clower once said, "Some people are so heavenly minded, they ain't no earthly good."  And I think this narrow view on salvation is largely to blame.

Jesus came healing and teaching, calling people to a new way of life in anticipation of God' coming reign, and this Kingdom is not the same thing as heaven.  Rather it is the transforming of life on earth.  And so it seems to me the big question for Christians shouldn't be have you believed correctly, but have you been cured of what ails you so that you start experiencing the Kingdom and living in it/for it now?

My tradition has long spoken of sin as the problem that ails us.  Sin here means an inherent predisposition as opposed to bad things we do.  It is a human nature turned in on itself, self centered and constricted in such a way that I matter more than God or neighbor.  In this understanding of sin, part of what ails me is that I am highly individualistic, measuring the worth of all things based on how they impact me.  Notice how at odds this is with Jesus' call to deny oneself and willing suffer loss for his sake.

In his devotion for today, Richard Rohr talks about true spirituality being more about subtraction that addition, about letting go of things rather than acquiring more.  But in our consumerist culture, we often approach faith and spirituality as something we add, that we acquire.  And so our spirituality ends up suffering from the same basic problem that ails us to begin with.  Maybe this is what Jesus needs to heal in us.  Maybe this is where we need to be rescued and saved.

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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sermon audio - God's Daring Imagination

Click to download mp3.

Sermon - God's Daring Imagination

Exodus 20:1-17
God’s Daring Imagination
James Sledge                                                                           Lent 3 – March 11 2012

The Ohio House of Representatives is considering a bill to raise to the maximum speed limit on Interstate highways from 65 to 70 miles an hour, a bill that apparently has the somewhat rare distinction nowadays of enjoying bipartisan support.  Not that everyone thinks this is a good idea.  I’ve seen a number of letters to the editor complaining that such a move will reduce highway safety and lead to an increase in accidents and fatalities. 
This is certainly true, but of course speed limits are always an attempt to strike a balance between safety and convenience.  We could eliminate all traffic fatalities if we set the speed limit at 5 miles an hour.  But then what would be the point of driving?
But while there are tradeoffs in setting speed limits, we all know that some limits are too dangerous to cross.  We may bristle at the long, straight, four-lane  roadway with a 35 mile an hour limit and wonder whose idea that was.  But when we hear about the tragic accident where someone lost control of the car while trying to navigate a curve at over 100 miles an hour, we just shake our heads at the foolishness of it.  There are some things you just don’t do without the real likelihood that you’ll suffer the consequences.
We often think of laws as arbitrary restraints on our freedom.  Some folks of a more libertarian nature think we would do well with almost none.  In this election year we regularly hear from candidates who promise to reduce rules and regulations on business.  Most all of us have encountered regulations that seemed ridiculous, but few of us would want to live without any.  If our food makes us sick or our brand of car catches fire, we want to know how this happened, why it wasn’t caught.  We understand that for a society to function, there must be some sort of agreed upon patterns and customs that shape and insure a viable community.
That’s what the founding fathers of this nation tried to do when they wrote the constitution.  After America won its independence from Great Britain, the first attempt at a US government did not go so well.  Just a few years after the Revolutionary War ended, things were so bad and chaotic that they decided to start all over.  A constitutional convention was called, a convention that produced our current US Constitution.
The constitution was an attempt to give shape and form to the ideals that had led to the creation of the United States.  It is less a set of rules and regulations and more a framework, a foundation meant to create, support, and sustain a good and just society.  People don’t generally get emotional talking about how much they love laws and regulation, but they do about the Constitution, although sometimes without knowing what it actually says.
In a very real sense, what we call the 10 Commandments function similarly. 

Thursday, March 8, 2012


Americans love freedom, even worship it.  We celebrate free speech, our right to bear arms, our freedom to worship as we see fit, our freedom to go where we want and become what we want.  We can get upset if we think someone is trying to restrict our freedom or our choice.  We know our rights and freedoms and we exercise them.

"'All things are lawful for me,' but not all things are beneficial. 'All things are lawful for me,' but I will not be dominated by anything."  So writes Paul to the church at Corinth.  Paul has been freed from the law in Christ, he insists.  But Paul will not exercise that freedom if it does not aid the spread of the gospel.  He will never use his freedom if it might harm himself or anyone else.

For Paul, freedom is never about "I can do whatever I want."  Instead he has been freed for a new life pleases God and aids others.  In this new freedom, Paul can face suffering joyfully if it helps others know Jesus.

Paul views freedom very differently than many of us because Paul understands life and the world very differently than many of us.  Paul is not the center of the universe.  He does not view all events and happenings with regard to how they impact him.  Jesus is the center of Paul's world.  And "in Christ," he views everything anew.  As he says in another letter to the Corinthians, "From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view." 

Paul is radically free, but his freedom is not about him.  He feels no need to exercise his rights or insist on his own way.  Made a new creation in Christ, he has been freed from such petty notions of freedom.

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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Us and Them

For some strange reason, despite most voters saying their big issue is the economy, the Republican presidential campaign has been spending a lot of time on social issues such as abortion and who should pay for birth control.  And sometimes the conversation takes on an all too familiar tone of faithful us versus godless them.  This reached a something of a beyond the pale apex when Rush Limbaugh called a woman who disagreed with him a prostitute and a slut, and suggested she should post sex videos online in return for getting free birth control.

Even most Republicans thought this went way too far (thought strangely, none of the presidential candidates), and Mr. Limbaugh gave an apology of sorts.  I don't feel any need to comment on Limbaugh's remarks in particular, but I think they fit within a pattern often seen among religious folks. We often presume that we occupy a religious high ground from which we may disparage the morality of others.

Conservative Christians tend to do this on issues of sex, abortion, and a few other law and order type items.  But we more "progressive" Christians can get just as holier-than-thou over social justice issues that are near and dear to us.

And so I was struck by Paul's words on sexual and other forms of immorality in today's reading from 1 Corinthians.  The Corinthians have obviously misunderstood something Paul has said to them earlier about shunning immoral persons, and Paul wants to clear things up.  The faithful are not to judge those outside the church on their immorality.  And his earlier command not to associate with immoral people does not apply to outsiders, but only to immoral church members.

Now it is difficult to make an easy application of Paul's words in our day.  The Christians at Corinth were outside the mainstream of society, and Paul was not so concerned with politics and such as he presumed that Jesus' return was imminent.  Still, it seems to me that we in the church are often prone to do exactly the opposite of what Paul recommends.  We are loathe to say anything about the morality of those in our group, be they members or our church or our political party.  But we are quick to pass judgment on those outside our faith, our church, or our political group.

Seems to me that Jesus warned us about wanting to remove the speck in our neighbor's eye while ignoring the log in our own.  And our reputation (sometimes deserved) as hypocrites arises largely from our ignoring Paul and Jesus on this.

There's a chapter in Donald Miller's book Blue Like Jazz (now a motion picture - hope Miller appreciates the plug) where he and a few other students at liberal and godless Reed College decided to set up a confession booth at an annual festival.  Given the Hedonistic nature of the festival and the rarity of openly Christian students on campus, this seemed an odd idea.  But this confession booth took Paul and Jesus' words to heart.  It wasn't for the godless, liberal students of Reed to admit the errors of their ways.  Rather it was for Miller and his companions to confess the Church's sins to the world, to the other students at Reed.

It was a huge success as a steady stream of people came to hear their confessions.  And afterwards, the students at Reed were a lot more interested in hearing about Jesus and helping with mission projects.  Who'd have thought that the best way to reach out to the "godless" is for the "godly" to say they're sorry.

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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The End of Plans

When politicians come to the end of their term in office, it is common to hear that they are concerned with their "legacy."  What mark have they made that history will remember.  Sometimes the public can detect a real shift in the manner of a president or governor when their focus turns from getting elected to how they will be remembered.

Pastors are not politicians, but that doesn't mean there isn't a political aspect to being a pastor.  Most pastors want to be liked by their congregations, which is not so different from a politician wanting your vote.  And most pastors want to make their mark in some way.

Do not put your trust in princes,
     in mortals, in whom there is no help. 

When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
     on that very day their plans perish.

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
     whose hope is in Yahweh their God
         Psalm 146:3-5

I'm a "lame duck" pastor.  I'll be leaving this congregation in a few weeks.  I hope my legacy is mostly good.  I hope that whatever mark I've made has been helpful for this congregation and for its future.  But I have no doubt that some of things I started or that I wanted to start - my plans - were more about me than about God.  They were my plans and they will perish with my departure.

While I love my work most of the time, and while I consider it a great privilege to be paid to wrestle with Scripture, seeking to hear God speak, I wonder sometimes about the role of educated, professional pastor.  I wonder if we don't sometimes end up acting a lot like those princes in the psalm.  And in the process we may very well draw people away from leaning on God, on placing their hope and trust in Yahweh.

The Apostle Paul already sees this problem developing back in his day with the congregation in Corinth.  Some like Apollos, some prefer Paul, some follow Peter.  It infuriates Paul that this focus on Christ's workers is deflecting the Corinthians from being one in Christ.

And so as I prepare to leave one congregation for another, I'm trying not to think much about legacy.  But I am trying to think a lot about how I might serve a new congregation in a manner that points away from me and toward Jesus.  After all, I assume that he has plans for his Church.

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Monday, March 5, 2012

Sermon video - Bringing Up the Rear

Cutting God to Pieces

Sometimes the process of working up a sermon can be frustrating.  (To a much lesser degree, writing these little reflections can be so as well.)  By that I mean that some passages of Scripture do not seem to inspire.  I look over them and find them pedestrian or, worse, threatening.  As one who usually preaches from the lectionary (a set of readings for each Sunday), my nightmare is when all 4 selections leave me cold. 

When you think about it, this process of chopping up the Bible into tiny little snippets is quite odd.  No one would read a novel the way we often approach the Bible, taking in a few paragraphs or perhaps a page or two at a time.  But if I ask a Bible study group to read the entire Gospel of Mark before next week's class, you would think I had just asked them to read War and Peace.  (For the record, Mark is 21 pages long in a large print Bible I pulled off my shelf.)

Perhaps you've heard some version of an old Indian parable about the blind men and the elephant.  It exists in many different versions, but all involve blind men who attempt to discover what an elephant looks like by touch.  One feels a tusk, another a leg, another the tail, and so on.  And they separately conclude that an elephant is like a pipe, a pillar, a rope, and so on. 

These blind men surely could have moved around a bit and expanded on their encounter beyond one particular part of the elephant, but in the parable they do not.  And sometimes I wonder if we don't handle the Bible in similar fashion.  We seize upon a passage or two, then proclaim, "The Bible says so!"

Reading the Bible a page at a time doesn't necessarily cause this.  Presumably we can eventually combine all those little snippets into a whole of some sort, like blind men or women who eventually made their way all around the elephant.  But in my experience, this rarely happens.  Many of us spend so little time with the Bible that a bigger picture never emerges.  And so when we do encounter Scripture, our impressions may be as unhelpful as those of a blind man who thinks the elephant is only the tail.  And I suspect that almost all of us have a picture of God that suffers from this deficiency. 

Back in the 1950s, J.B. Phillips wrote a book entitled, Your God Is Too Small.  I read it many years ago when I first became serious about faith.  Recalling it, I think the small gods he describes are products of this piecemeal and/or selective reading of Scripture.  We end up with petty, trivial, tribal gods that look more like what we want in a god than Jesus or the God of the Bible.

Where do you get your picture, your image of God?  Is it big enough?

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Sunday, March 4, 2012

Sermon audio - Bringing Up the Rear

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Sermon - Bringing Up the Rear

Mark 8:31-38
Bringing Up the Rear
James Sledge                                                                     Lent 2  - March 4, 2012

Satan shows up in our gospel reading this morning.  And Satan has been in the news of late thanks to the Republican presidential campaign, specifically a speech given by Rick Santorum.  I’m not entirely sure how the speech became an issue.  It was given by Santorum back in 2008 at Ave Maria University, a conservative Catholic college, but once it started getting airplay on the internet, it was all over the news.
In it, Santorum pushes the rather odd notion that the United States has been about the only thing Satan worried about or attacked for the last 200 years or so.  And apparently the most fertile territory Satan has found for his work has been college campuses and the Mainline Protestant Church.  (Santorum isn’t really being anti-Protestant here.  He simply said that America was founded as a mostly Protestant country and so that’s what Satan went after.)
Now to my mind, if you want to argue for a personal “Father of lies” who is out creating horror and mischief in the world, things like the Holocaust, apartheid in South Africa, genocide in Rwanda, or the shelling of civilians in Syria should surely make any short list well ahead of OSU or Ohio Wesleyan.  So I imagine that my and Rick Santorum’s understanding of Satan are a bit different.
The Bible may not be all that much help clearing up these differences.  Satan appears in a number of different guises in the Bible.  In some of them he isn’t a bad guy at all but a kind of prosecuting attorney for God.  Sometimes he’s credited with things that don’t seem to be his fault. 
For example, lots of people talk about Satan tempting Adam and Eve in the Garden, but look up the story and you’ll find no mention of Satan at all.
By Jesus’ day, most Jews had come to see Satan as a bad guy, an opponent of God in some way.  And so it was common to speak of Satan as the cause of illness or misery.  But an actual being named Satan shows up rarely in the gospels.  In Mark’s gospel it happens just twice.  Satan’s first appearance is at Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, and it is quite brief. (Jesus) was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.  That’s it.  Our reading today contains the only words in Mark that Jesus actually speaks to Satan, and of course these words are directed at Peter.
I think Jesus’ words to Peter may be much more helpful to us than fanciful ideas about Satan invading college campuses.  According the Jesus, the Satan problem is much more personal and immediate. 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Who Speaks for God?

God makes the news on a fairly regular basis.  Well not so much God as God's surrogates, people who say they speak for God or who push agendas that they claim God wants.  More often than not these surrogates are connected to some religious group and the agendas that they say God wants are often connected to the teachings of their religious group.

Now it is very difficult to be serious about following God or Jesus without ending up in a religious group of some sort.  Whether you're focused on feeding the poor, racial reconciliation, or ending abortion, you are likely to link up with others who think about God in similar fashion to you.  We are social animals and we need the support of groups.  Religion often gets a well-deserved, bad reputation, but it's nearly impossible to practice any form of serious faith or spirituality without some sort of group or practices or methods.  And as soon as you do that, presto, it's a religion.

But having said that, it certainly seems that a lot of God's surrogates are obnoxious and shrill.  They sometimes seem more angry than loving, more arrogant than humble, more "it's my way or the highway" than "love your enemies."  If those claiming to be God's surrogates are supposed to represent God, to share some attributes with God, well no wonder some people get a bad impression of God, not to mention religion.

God doesn't seem to be real big on showing up in person that often, and so as someone who believes in God, I think it's a good thing that God at least put in a lengthy appearance in the person of Jesus.  For me, Jesus is the surrogate's surrogate, the one who fully embodies the character and disposition of God.  And Jesus rarely has the shrill, angry, arrogant, "my way or the highway" attitude of some who claim to represent him and God.

When Jesus does get all worked up, it's almost always at shrill, arrogant, holier-than-thou religious types.  It's not that Jesus is anti-religious.  In fact, he's a very religious person.  But he seems constantly to have troubles with his religious brethren, and he ends up spending a lot of time with folks the religious surrogates wag their fingers at.

My own denomination (Presbyterian Church, USA), like most denominations, has a mixed history as God's surrogate.  We've had our better moments, and we've had our colossal failures.  But as religious participation has waned in America, we, like many other denominations, have gotten worried about survival.  We talk a lot about evangelism and worry about how to attract new people to our congregations.  To the degree that all this helps us become a little more outwardly focused, a little more concerned about people outside the church, I'm all for it.

But I sometimes wonder if we wouldn't be better served simply to focus on being more accurate surrogates.  If we spent our time getting to know God better, and then modeling God in our lives - living in ways that look more like Jesus - then I suspect lots of folks might rethink some of their distaste for religion.  They might even be interested in following Jesus themselves.

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