Monday, April 30, 2012

God on Our Terms

Today's story in Exodus, where the Israelites make a golden calf and Moses shatters the two tablets written by God's own hand, might be considered a "primitive" story.  God's behavior is very human-like, and Yahweh threatens to wipe out the Israelites in a fit of anger.  Fortunately Moses begs for God to remember the promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. "And Yahweh changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people."

But if the story contains some "primitive" notions of God, it also speaks directly to issues that impact faith communities in our day, although people often seem to miss this.  They read the story as an account of fickle Israelites turning from God the moment God isn't there for them.  In the standard telling, the Israelites trade Yahweh, the living God, for a golden calf.  But I think this misunderstands the events.

After Aaron has created the calf and an altar to go with it, he declares, "Tomorrow shall be a festival to Yahweh."  To Yahweh.  Not to some invented god, but to Yahweh.  The Israelites seem less interested in replacing Yahweh than in making God more reliable and available.  This unpictureable Yahweh is a bit too slippery.  They want a god who is available on demand.  They need manageable access to God.  Moses has been their only source of access, and he's gone missing.  They need something that can't run off on them.

It is the perennial religious problem.  We want God on our terms, available on demand, amenable to our requests, sympathetic to our agendas.  We aren't "primitive" enough to cast golden calves, but we have more "sophisticated" methods for creating a god who does as we wish.  And so our idols are more sophisticated, but they are idols nonetheless.

What methods do you use to get God on your side, to make sure God agrees with you, to keep God in your camp?  And more importantly, what methods do you have for letting God shatter your idols?  How are we to open ourselves to God's transforming presence that breaks through our idolatries and recreates us more and more in the image of Jesus?

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Sermon audio - Following Along Behind

Download mp3 of sermon

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sermon - Following Along Behind

John 10:11-18
Following Along Behind
James Sledge                                                                          April 29, 2012

When I was in seminary, I had the opportunity to take a three week trip to the Middle East and Greece.  It was a remarkable experience, and I got to see all sorts of wonderful historical, archeological, and religious sites.  There was much on the trip that was memorable, but one of the more vivid memories for me was not one of these sites but something I saw along the way.
I'm not sure which site we were headed to or coming from.  I think maybe it was the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  Our group was on a charter bus, and we were driving along a winding road through the undulating hills of the region. 
As I looked out my window, I spotted something moving across the rocky terrain, headed down into a valley.  Focusing on it, I realized that it was a young Palestinian boy.  He looked to be around twelve years old, and he was walking along a well-worn path.  And right behind him, in a single fill line, followed twelve or fifteen sheep.  He was not even looking back at them.  He simply walked along the path, and the sheep walked right along behind.  It looked a little like a teacher leading a group of elementary students to the cafeteria.
I've since learned that this is fairly typical of Middle Eastern shepherding practices, both nowadays and in biblical times.  I suppose that my notions of herding were shaped by cowboy scenes with huge numbers of cattle being driven.  But with sheep, in biblical lands at least, it is a more relational activity.  The sheep learn to trust the shepherd, and so they will follow where he or she leads.  I could not hear anything as I gazed out the bus window that day, but I suppose that the young boy must have called his little flock and then headed down that trail with them following along behind.                       
"I am the good shepherd.  I know my own and my own know me."  This is one of a number of I AM sayings in the gospel of John.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

What Does God Do?

If I sit down beside a stranger on an airline, and if we decide to introduce ourselves to each other, invariably one of us will ask, "So what do you do?"  It's a standard get-to-know-someone question.  It's relatively safe and non-controversial.  And it also a good question because what people "do" says a great deal about who they are.  We acknowledge as much when we ask young children, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"  Even though we may say "be" we aren't asking about their existential status.  We expect them to answer with a vocation or occupation.  "I'm going to be a firefighter."

We tend to draw a significant part of our self-identity from what we do: our work, our hobbies, our studies, our volunteer activities, etc.  However, in my own perception of growing up Christian, that identity had more to do with what I believed than anything I did.

In today's reading from Exodus, God shows up to give the Israelites the "10 Commandments."  This isn't the tablets that many associate with these commandments.  This is simply God speaking directly to the people.  God does not generally speak directly to people in the Bible, and so an introduction is necessary.  "I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery."  Who are you and what do you do?  "I'm Yahweh, and I free people from bondage."

There's been a great deal of talk in recent years about the "practices" that form individuals and communities into people of faith.  In some congregations, what had been called "Christian Education" is starting to be referred to as "Christian Formation."  The shift, in part, speaks of a move beyond what I know or believe, a move that also speaks of what I do.

Jesus certainly did plenty of teaching, but he also did lots of healing and feeding and such.  And he told his followers lots of things the were to do.  Jesus talked a great deal about the Kingdom drawing near, and this Kingdom was not a hope for heaven.  It is a transformed world that operates by different rules, a place where things get done for the sake of the neighbor, the weak and oppressed, rather than self or for those with influence and power.  It is a new sort of world where life has been completely reorganized around the practice of neighborliness.

So what do you do?  I think Jesus is God's fullest answer to that question.  And if we are going to slap the label "Christian" on ourselves or our society or our country, then surely our answer to "What do you do?" needs to look a bit like God's answer.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Surprised by God

In today's gospel, Jesus comes out to the Jordan to be baptized by John.  John, who has been telling people to get ready, to change their ways in anticipation of the new thing that is coming, is caught off guard by the manner in which this new thing arrives.  He does not want to baptize Jesus.  It does not make sense to him.

Given how surprised John is by the situation, how at odds it is with what he expects, he comes around quite easily.  Jesus says one sentence to John.  "Then he consented."  John sure seemed open to the unexpected, to being surprised by God.

In his devotion for today, Fr. Richard Rohr writes,
The truth comes from the edges of society. Jesus’ reality is affirmed and announced on the margins, where people are ready to understand and to ask new questions. The establishment at the center is seldom ready for the truth because it's got too much to protect; it has bought into the system. As Walter Brueggeman says, “the home of hope is hurt.”
 As I am learning the ropes in a new, larger congregation (Are pastors ever "called" to smaller congregations?), a church with more programs, activities, and resources, I am acutely aware of how difficult it can be to be surprised by God.  Surely God is already located in all those things we've been doing all this time.  Surely God would not act in ways that threaten any of those ways we're so invested in. 

If "the truth comes from the edges," how do we who are heavily invested in the center hear its voice?

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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Leadership, the Spirit, and Permission

A strange mix of voices has combined to speak to me this day.  In today's staff meeting we did a lectio divina exercise where I was drawn to this phrase from today's Colossians reading, "worthy of the Lord."  As I transition into my new role as pastor here, this seemed to be reminding me that my work is for God.  The tasks of ministry must be in service to Christ's call to follow him.

At the very same time I found myself reflecting on a blog from Diana Butler Bass in light of an Exodus reading from earlier this week. In that passage, Jethro advises his son-in-law Moses to select elders to help him in his work guiding and leading the people of Israel.  The conclusion of that blog, "Granting Permission: an Act of Trust" read,
   Permission-granting trust is a very biblical thing, and is the heart of a church awakened to being God’s presence in the world. In the Gospels, Jesus awakened his followers to God’s mission of compassion and spiritual transformation when he sent the Twelve into Galilee’s villages and towns. When Jesus sent the disciples on that first mission, he did not give them a list of rules. Instead, he instructed them in some practices, and gave the disciples “power and authority” to enact the good news themselves. He gave them permission to heal, teach, and preach. There were no rules and many risks. Jesus trusted his friends to do the work of God’s reign.
   The Great Awakening for which we long begins with the sort of radical trust that grants permission go beyond the rules and to do the works of the Kingdom. We can fully expect that not everything we do will succeed, but we can be sure that we will have embarked on an adventure of faith into the world. And we will come to discover, as the disciples did, that being sent to the do the Spirit’s work is much more rewarding than staying at home hoping religious rules will save us.
As a pastor, someone with specialized training in theology, Bible, and worship, I often find it difficult to turn loose.  Some of this may simply be my being a control freak, but some is a worry about things being done correctly.  In many congregations the pastor may be the only person with any theological training, and those learnings need to be considered.  But at the very same time, it cannot possibly be that the Spirit works only through the pastor.   How much of my clinging to control is a failure to trust the work of the Spirit?

There is no avoiding a congregation taking on some of the personality of its pastor, but it always bears remembering that it is Christ's Church, not mine.  No trying to keep the wind of the Spirit boxed up in the pastor's study.  Doors and windows open; let the Spirit blow through the congregation.

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Monday, April 23, 2012

O Lord, It's Hard To Be Humble

Humility is not much valued in our culture.  We do appreciate it if a sports star or a CEO isn't too pretentious, but we know that they didn't get where they are simply by slogging away at their jobs.  Rarely do people achieve such status without some degree of self promotion, without getting people to "Look at me!"

"Look at me" is modeled for us all the time.  Watch the six o'clock news and you're likely to hear, "Only on News Channel 10..."  The entire advertising industry is about "Look at me!"  Voices all around us clamor constantly for our attention shouting, "Look at me, look at me!"

Churches get involved as well.  I just set up a Facebook page and Facebook group for this congregation.  Social media is an important way for churches to get their message out.  But in the process we may simply add our voice to that cacophony screaming, "Look at me!"

Today's epistle reading says, "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble."  I wonder if I really believe that.  I suppose I could just ignore this message.  After all is comes from a seldom read letter, one that sometimes seems out of touch with Jesus' core message.  ("Wives, submit to your husbands" is in here.)  Problem is,  "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble," resonates perfectly with Jesus' message.  It's not very different from Jesus' own, "So the last will be first, and the first will be last."  And Jesus also says, "For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

It seems to me that part of the difficulty embracing Jesus' way of thinking comes from the way we've pigeon-holed Christian faith into our way of doing things.  We've failed to recognize what a radical idea Jesus' "kingdom of God" is.  Or perhaps we have realized how radical it is and simply rejected it.  After all, we're reasonably convinced that success, power, privilege, prestige, wealth, and so on are things that we achieve by hard work, that we earn in some way.  But the Kingdom has all this socialist sounding talk of lifting up the lowly and dragging down the powerful.  Consider Mary's song in Luke.  "He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and set the rich away empty."  Sounds like "class warfare" to me.

The problem with grace is that you can't deserve it and you can't earn it.  It pays no attention to status and does not respond to "Look at me!"  Grace does not fit well into the rules that govern the world we live in, which is probably why Christian faith so often gets reduced to the issue of one's status after death.  I'll get into heaven by grace.  Everything else is up to me, except maybe God will bail me out of jam now and then if I'm a good little boy.

Today's gospel features John the Baptist saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."(Employing typical Jewish deference, Matthew's gospel says "kingdom of heaven" rather than "of God.")  Jesus quotes John exactly when he begins his ministry.  Both the Baptist and Jesus insist that God's reign is coming, and we need to change our ways to fit its.  Nothing about going to heaven here.  It's about God's will being done on earth.  It's about our world starting to mirror heaven. 

But our world doesn't dare trust grace.  We know that "God helps those who help themselves." (Not from the Bible, by the way.)  And we don't really want our world to look like heaven.  Then we wouldn't get to run it anymore.

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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Sermon audio - Concrete Faith

Sermon - Concrete Faith

Luke 24:36b-48; 1 John 3:1-7
Concrete Faith
April 22, 2012                                                                               James Sledge

I don’t know about here in Northern Virginia, but in the Carolinas where I grew up, it was common for church congregations to hold “homecomings.”  That’s the church version of a family reunion.  Invitations are sent out to old members who have moved away and a big picnic is held after the service.  The congregation in Raleigh, NC that I served right out of seminary had not done homecomings.  But when we celebrated our 50th anniversary during my time there, people enjoyed the festivities so much that they decided to hold annual homecomings. 
Homecomings often feature former pastors coming back to preach, and so a few years after leaving the Raleigh congregation I was invited back to be the quest preacher.  I would like to think it an honor to receive such an invitation.  But in fact, all the pastors who served before me except one were dead.  And he was elderly and in poor health.  And so I got the job mostly by default.
It’s something of a peculiar thing to preach for a congregation you used to serve, especially on a day when they are celebrating their heritage.  There is no avoiding a certain amount of reminiscing.  You can’t help speaking about the things that give a congregation its unique character, its personality.  And when I began thinking of the things that made that church in Raleigh the particular church that it was, I realized that most of the things that came to my mind were tangible, concrete things.  Some of those things were really concrete, the buildings and structures.  But they were also the concrete things that had been done by members over the years, the programs that were started, the special services that were held, the mission activities that were planned and implemented, and so on.
It’s the same for this congregation.  When I first learned that Falls Church was looking for a pastor, I went online and read a document your PNC (pastor nominating committee) had written.  It described some of the concrete things that give this congregation its identity.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

No Time for Love

It's a perpetual problem for married couples.  The intensity and passion they felt for each other early in the relationship gradually wanes.  As time goes on, the routines of daily life often push the relationship further and further to the side.  The demands of work, children, and more come to dominate, and it is not unusual for couples to live with one another without actually doing much loving.  They may get along fine and be reasonably content, but things undertaken or done in order to love the other may become fewer and fewer.

"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you."  So says Jesus to his disciples shortly before his arrest and execution.  In John's gospel, Jesus speaks of this a great deal.  He clearly expects that loving one another will dominate the activity of his followers.  And so it seems safe to presume it should dominate the activity of the Church.  But there are so many other things that need to be taken care of, that have to be managed to keep congregations running.

I have to confess that after a little over a week as the new pastor at Falls Church Presbyterian, I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed by the tasks of running the church.  Nothing alarming about this.  It is to be expected when there is so much to learn: programs and activities, lots of names, office procedures and equipment, ways of doing things, and so on.  But just as with couples, where the routines of life sometimes push the relationship to the side, the routines of church can do the same.

"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you."  Jesus gave us other commands, but I sometimes think that if we really were serious about loving, most of those would take care of themselves.  So... how do I make sure that the busyness of church doesn't draw me away from the main business of loving?

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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Little Pruning

I cannot read today's gospel passage without thinking of my grandfather.  That's because some years ago a preached a sermon from this text that related a story about my grandfather and grapevines.  Until I left for seminary at age 35, I lived quite close to my grandfather.  After he suffered a stroke that left him mostly blind, I began growing my own garden in the huge plot he had on his 6 or 7 acre property.  And I would often take my older daughter with me when I went to work in the garden.

On one visit, we somehow began talking about all the grapevines that used to be on the property, and how I remembered my grandmother making muscadine and scuppernog jelly.  Most of the vines had been taken by a road widening, but there was one small grapevine near the house.  However it had not had grapes on it in years.  When I mentioned this my grandfather said that was because no one had been pruning it.

And thus began a project to produce grapes and make jelly again.  As Spring arrived my grandfather directed me in pruning the old grapevines.  He could not see well, but he could see well enough to encourage me to prune more and more.  I thought I was being pretty drastic in my whacking off huge sections, but he insisted more had to go.  By the time we were done, I had butchered the poor thing thoroughly.  I might even have wondered if I had damaged it.

Turns out my grandfather knew something about grapevines.  It wasn't long before new vines were traveling down the wires he had long ago strung between what looked like clothesline poles.  Then tiny bunches of grapes began to appear which eventually loaded the vines down with a bumper crop.  Later my grandmother helped me and four-year-old Kendrick make jelly with some of them.

It seems somewhat strange to me that those grapevines had stopped producing fruit because no one had pruned them.  They appeared healthy and were covered in new leaves and growth each year.  But no grapes. 

Jesus speaks of us as branches on the vine that need pruning.  Obviously Jesus knew something about grapevines because he speaks of pruning the branches that bear fruit so they will bear more.  And it makes me wonder about what needs pruning with me.  What needs to be pared back so that new and productive growth can emerge? 

And what about our congregations?  Congregations often can't bear to let go of anything no matter how long it's been since it was productive.  But if we let Jesus direct the pruning efforts, I wonder where would he say to us, "No, you need to cut off a good bit more." 

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Monday, April 16, 2012

Exclusive Claims

In today's gospel, Jesus utters one of those line-in-the-sand phrases.  "No one comes to the Father except through me."  It is a line sometimes drawn as a weapon in religious debates.  And those who wield it as such often assume that Jesus is making universal, absolute claims about can be saved, know God, etc.

It sure would be nice if we could ask the author of John's gospel his thoughts on what Jesus means, but of course we cannot.  But that doesn't mean we have no interpretive window where we might look for insights.  For example, it is typical for people in our day to think of Scripture as a way of communicating Christian faith to non-believers, and there are any number of organizations committed to getting Bibles to people as an evangelical strategy. But the first readers of John's gospel would not of have thought this way at all.

None of the New Testament was written for the general public.  These were in-house documents, used by insiders only.  By itself, this raises the question of whether Jesus' statement about "No one" refers to no one in all creation or to no one of you, the community of faith. 

I also wonder if it makes any difference that Jesus says "the Father" rather than God.  Clearly the  people of John's community had encountered God's love through Jesus in way that transformed their understanding of God.  This new thing was totally dependent on Jesus, but that is not the same thing as saying, "All other religious experience is invalid."

Another question is the status of John's community as tiny, endangered minority compared to the powerful and often privileged situation of the Church in the Western World.  How well do the bold, even defiant claims of one small community translate into universal truths?  And what about the fact that John's Jewish community is locked in a struggle with fellow Jews who have not embraced Jesus?  Do these intrafaith debates translate into larger interfaith dialogues?

I am not meaning to suggest a religious relativism that says all experiences of God are equally valid.  Like John's community, I too know God through Jesus, and I experience God in my life as Jesus "abides" in me via the Spirit.  I have no other way to know the God that I do, and I feel quite free to reject any religious claim that presents a god who is contrary to this loving God I know in Christ.  But does that mean that having the correct Christological labels is the key?

There's an oft quoted statement from Gandhi that goes, "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.  Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."  I can't help but think this comment might encourage Christians to read Jesus' words from today's gospel more as a tool for internal critique than for external judgments.  If we Christians don't look like Christ, it seems that we are the ones who don't know the way to the Father.

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Sunday, April 15, 2012

First Sermon at Falls Church - Sent

John 20:19-31
April 15, 2012                                                                                     James Sledge

I’ve long been a Doonesbury fan, and I recall a Sunday comic from many years ago marking college graduation.  It took place at Walden College and featured Zonker, that perpetual slacker.  In this strip Zonker stumbles across an unnamed student leaning against a wall with a forlorn look on his face.  Zonker asks what the problem is, and the student offers how he can’t understand what happened.  “It must have been some sort of scheduling mix up, some confusion about my hours,” he says.  “You don’t mean…” Zonker begins, only to be interrupted as the student says, “Yes, I’m afraid it’s true.  I graduated.”
Most of us have known a few professional students.  Some of us may even have been one.  For such folks there is always another major, another degree, more grad school.  With true professional students, they are never quite ready to go out into the world.  There is always a bit more preparation to do.
On my first Sunday as pastor here at Falls Church, we are celebrating what sometimes has the feel of a graduation.  Members of the confirmation class will publicly profess their faith, responding to God’s love that claimed them in baptism.  I suppose it is okay to think of this as a kind of graduation, at least in the sense that they now move on to something new, to a deeper calling, to a fuller life of discipleship.  But in practice, confirmation has often served as a kind of graduation from church.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

What to Tell the Children

"You shall tell your child..."  This is a line from today's Old Testament reading as Moses tells the people to commemorate their rescue from slavery in Egypt.  It is critical that the next generation know what God has done for them.  This is not the only place this concern for passing on the faith is found.  In Deuteronomy the passage known as the Shema (a portion of which becomes a part of Jesus' Great Commandment) is also directed toward the next generation.  "Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise." 

Parents often agonize about what to tell the children.  When do we tell them (or do we) the truth about Santa?  What do we say to them about a loved one's grave illness?  What things must they learn to be happy, successful, good citizens, etc?

I once heard a father say that he and his wife had decided not to tell their children any sort of faith stories.  They wanted their children to be truly free to choose or reject a faith as adults without any baggage.  I can certainly appreciate their motivations, but I also know that they did not follow this same tack with regard other issues.  They had no hesitation about insisting on the value of a good education or signing them up for piano lessons or sports teams.

What we tell our children, what we teach our children, says a great deal about what we think important.  (It's worth remembering that we teach a great deal by our actions and by the things we don't do or say.)  And for some reason, faith often feels like an option for many of us.  It's an add-on item rather than an essential.  In our consumer culture, faith has become one more consumer item that we can acquire in the hopes that it will enhance our lives in some way.

When I think of the things I taught our daughters, I'm not sure I transmitted the idea of faith as an essential.  The Shema I mentioned above says, "You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might."  But it's hard to love an add-on with your entire being.  And I suspect my children picked up on that.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Unreliable Witnesses

Given that the gospel writers were nowhere as concerned with accurate, historical reporting as we moderns tend to be, it is rather remarkable that women play such prominent roles as witnesses to the resurrection.  In Matthew's account, the women are the only witnesses, and the eleven disciples travel to Galilee to meet Jesus based on what the women tell them. 

Yet women were not quite full-fledged persons in ancient society.  They did not have legal standing as witnesses, a status that seems to be supported in Old Testament Law.  And yet God chooses to tell the remarkable news of resurrection to women.  Jesus doesn't remain hidden until some men show up.  He meets the women and charges them to share the good news.  He entrusts the greatest news in history to these "unreliable witnesses."

The Church hasn't always followed Jesus' lead.  We've often been more than happy to shove women back off to the side, to say they aren't qualified.  My own "progressive" denomination has only been ordaining women for a handful of decades, and I never encountered a female pastor as a child.

What makes someone a reliable or unreliable witness?  The Church still struggles with such questions.  But one thing seems certain.  Jesus was something of a subversive on the subject.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Theology and Other Humor

I know lots of people, including many pastors, who openly disdain theology.  I had seminary classmates who made no secret of how much they disliked it and how they took theology classes only because they were  required.  And I frequently hear people say that we need to quit worrying so much about theology and just "do what Jesus says" or "what the Bible says."

Yet I have rarely met anyone who is the least bit religious who does not have a theology.  They may not call it that, but they have clear ideas on what God is like and what it means to relate in some way to God.  And these theologies are often as varied as the varied individuals who have them.

When I hear some of these theologies, I often chuckle and wonder where in the world they came from.  But the Church has its own odd theologies and deeply held beliefs that, upon close examination, don't seem to have much biblical basis.  But often these are so treasured that no one chuckles at the absurdities.

This is perhaps nowhere more evident than with Christian ideas about death and resurrection.  Death has become a gateway to heaven, and so it is common to hear people speak of a departed loved one being "in a better place."  The Apostle Paul clearly has a different theology.  As he tells the Corinthian Christians, "The last enemy to be destroyed is death."  For Paul, resurrection didn't take you to heaven.  Resurrection was a future even that would happen when Jesus returned.  Only then would the dead be raised.  Jesus was the "first fruits" of this future resurrection.  He has been raised, and we will be, someday.

Now perhaps Paul got his theology wrong.  But just suggesting that will upset those whose theology requires the Bible to be literally true.  I sometimes suspect that God must get a lot of laughs (and more than a few tears) from all our theologies.

Don't get me wrong.  I love the study of theology, and since it is virtually impossible not to have one, it makes sense to work hard to get ours as well ordered as we can.  But as I grow older I am increasingly convinced that a fair amount of uncertainty and openness is a good thing.  I am totally convinced of God's love evidenced in Jesus and of God's desire to redeem creation, to bring about something better. But I'm increasingly unwilling to draw theological lines in the sand, especially when I suspect that some of those line are a source of either great amusement (or great sorrow) for God.

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Monday, April 9, 2012

Unfinished Business

I'm now in Falls Church, VA, but with the church office closed for Easter Monday, I'll actually begin work tomorrow.  Most adults know about beginning a new job, about the process of learning the ropes and figuring out what the work really entails.  This process now begins for me, but there is another piece to figuring out my work.  And this involves knowing what the overall work of the Church is.  What is it we are called to do as Christians?

Today's gospel is Mark's Easter morning account.  Mark's version has provoked much debate over the years.  Most Bibles note that the best manuscripts of the gospel end at 16:8.  Then follow shorter and longer endings which seem to have been affixed later.  There is little debate regarding these additions.  The questions are about the original ending.

From a grammatical standpoint, the Greek text of 16:8 ends very awkwardly, leading many to insist that the original ending has been lost.  Others insist Mark does this intentionally to leave the gospel with an unfinished feel that calls the reader forward to continue the command first given to the women.  There is no way to totally resolve this debate, but regardless, we are left with this strange conclusion to Easter, where three witnesses to the empty tomb say nothing because they are afraid.

Very few of us don't have some experience in this area.  We have heard all sorts of commands from Jesus, commands to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek, to love God over wealth, but we don't do as we are told.  Like the women on that Easter morning, we aren't convinced it is in our best interest to act as we've been commanded.  And so we don't.

Of course we know that the women did not remain silent.  The command to tell must have overwhelmed their fear eventually.  But we present day Christians have had nearly 2000 years to develop a long list of excuses for not doing as Jesus says.  At times we've perverted Jesus' call to follow him into a trite formula where believing a few things is all that matters.

And so the Church needs to remember what Jesus said to us, hear him call us once more and then overcome the fears that keep us from following.  And I think the Spirit is spurring the Church to do just that.  As anxious as it makes many of us, some of the change and the turmoil in the Church of late is calling us back to our work, to our unfinished business of showing the world God's new day, the Kingdom Jesus insists has drawn near.

And so as I begin learning the ropes of a new job, I pray that I never lose sight of my true job: helping the people of this congregation hear what Jesus is calling us to do.

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Wednesday, April 4, 2012


Technically, this is my last day as pastor of Boulevard Presbyterian.  I've not been working there for a couple of weeks, but with vacation and such, I'm still on the payroll through today.  This afternoon, I will load up the items from my office and pack them in a U-haul trailer.  And then I will depart my old church one last time as I head out for my new church.

My church.  It's a phrase most of us connected to church have used.  Pastors speak of their church and members do, too.  Often it is simply a way of identifying the particular congregation where we work or worship, but it can mean more.  The grammatical possessive often becomes literal.  The church is mine and it should conform to me, cater to me, provide for me, etc.  In ways subtle, and not so subtle, most of us at times claim some ownership of our churches.

Jesus' parable today seems to address just this.  The tenants of the vineyard decide that it is theirs, and they insist on keeping it for themselves, even if they must resort to extreme measures.

As we move deeper into Holy Week, it may be worth contemplating what the actual owner of the Church expects of us, the tenants.  Where have we substituted our desires for the commands of Jesus?  Jesus says that we are to lose ourselves for the sake of the gospel, but when it comes to our churches, we seem to focus much of our energies on preserving. 

The owner expects the tenants to produce good fruit from the vineyard, a vineyard that does not belong to us.  Something to think about as I head out to my new church.

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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Caught Up in the Mundane

I've been off the grid lately in this time between leaving one congregation and starting at another.  My life has been preoccupied with getting ready to move from Columbus to Falls Church, VA, and I have discovered that the normal rhythms of my life have been thrown out of kilter.  Those rhythms revolved around my identity as pastor.  But for these last couple of weeks, I've not been one.

Without my old pastor rhythms, my life has begun to revolve around rhythms of home and car repair, planning and packing for a move, doing taxes, and tying up loose ends.  In a sense, my life feels like it has become captive to the mundane.

I don't mean to disparage the mundane.  The fact of God's Incarnation in Christ, that Jesus experiences hunger, hallows the mundane.  God is at work and is encountered within the mundane.  The spiritual is not outside the mundane.  But that does not mean the the mundane is inherently spiritual.  A discerning eye and awareness are required to encounter God in the mundane.

Though God is in the mundane, the mundane makes a very poor god.  And when the mundane totally dictates the patterns and rhythms of life, life gets out of kilter.

Monday's gospel reading is one of those places in Mark where one story exists within another, and the two need to talk with one another to understand fully what the author is trying to say.  Jesus cursing a fig tree (an odd event considering that "it was not the season for figs") and its withering bracket the cleansing of the Temple.  Mark seems to say that the Temple is not bearing the fruit is should, and, given the events of the cleansing, it might be correct to say that the Temple apparatus had gotten caught up in the mundane of religious enterprise. 

Church work and religion offer their own form of the mundane, rhythms and activities that can come to dominate the life of those who are a part of them.  And while God indeed inhabits and is at work in the the details of church administration, planning worship services, and setting budgets, those things make very poor gods.

A deep spiritual question that many ask is "Where is God in my life?"  In a sense, this asks where God is within the mundane.  The Church has often assumed that the mundane rhythms of its life were of God, but many no longer share such assumptions.  And so the burning spiritual question for both the individual and the Church becomes, where is God at work in the rhythms of my life?

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