Thursday, May 31, 2012

Sermon video - Pregnant with God's Nevertheless

Dealing with Weeds

There is an unfortunate tendency among us liberal Christians to act as though sin and evil are not real problems. There are only environmental factors, lack of education, poverty and desperation, etc. This tendency is not as strong as it was a century ago when many liberal Christians expected "progress" to bring the kingdom, but it is still one of our biases.  And so we sometimes think it quite easy to follow the lesson of today's parable.  We have no difficulty leaving the field a mix of wheat and weeds.  After all, weeds are just disadvantaged and misunderstood.

Now I don't mean to make light of the very real impact that social forces have in shaping our world and in shaping individual's lives. There are countless human problems that can and have been addressed via education, increased opportunities, social reforms, and so on. But these cannot address a more fundamental problem with the human condition. There is something inherently tragic and self-destructive about us. We are quite proficient at doing the wrong thing even when we know full well what the right thing is and know it is in our self interest to do that right thing. We have a tendency toward greed and covetousness that only seems to get worse the more that we have.

I don't understand acknowledging the basic problem to lead to a pessimistic outlook. Instead is like an alcoholic or addict admitting his fundamental problem as the first step inrecovery. It is acknowledging that I need help, that I need "saving." I cannot be who I am meant to be without help from God and others.

Jesus' parable presumes that when we are transformed and made new in him, we will no longer feel quite at home in the the world as it currently operates. We will be fundamentally out of sync with many of the forces that drive society, politics, economics, and so on.  And I think that it is only when we experience this strong dissonance with the world that Jesus' parable begins to resonate. Only when we recognize that the way of Jesus is in deep conflict with the ways of the world do we face the dilemma of the slaves in the parable who want to do something about the weeds. Only then do we recognize that parable is not about tolerance or those who are simply different, it is about a tolerance of those who are our enemies.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Church as "Family"

The term "Church Family" is very familiar to many of us who grew up in church.  This was likely the most common way the congregations where I learned church self-identified. Ask church members to describe the congregation and the word family was sure to be used.

I assume that this metaphor of family drew on positive aspects of family life, people who loved you and cared for you, etc. But of course there were negative pieces to the metaphor as well. And these probably are more problematic for churches than they are for real families. Families are rather closed systems. One does not join a family. You are either born into it or marry into it. And while things are changing today with more blended families and interracial families, on the whole, families tend to all look the same.

Churches often amplify some problematic aspects of family. In some congregations, you can be a member for years and still get treated like an outsider, not fully a member of the family. Church congregations are often made up of folks who all look very much the same. And not only is racial diversity a real problem for many congregations, but class diversity, income diversity, cultural diversity, and so on are problems as well.

I have recently become pastor at a vibrant congregation that, thankfully, has more diversity than I've typically experienced in Presbyterian congregations. But if you don't like classical music and you aren't at a certain income level and you don't lean a little toward the "progressive" side of politics, you may not feel that you really fit here.

Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”  But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”   Matthew 12:47-50
I suppose the Jesus sanctions the use of the family metaphor for the church, but it is a significantly redefined picture of family. The likeness of this family is not about race, ethnicity, culture, income, etc. It is about discipleship, about doing God's will. Now I imagine that just about any church would embrace the idea that doing God's will is integral to being a Christian. But I suspect that more often than not, doing God's will is not what binds congregations together as families.

If we're going to sing songs in worship, I suppose there is no avoiding that worship at one place may appeal to someone more than worship somewhere else. But I still wonder. What is it that really defines us as a congregation? What notion of family, or some other metaphor, creates and shapes us? And where does God's will fit in all that?

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Where Did This Come From?

One of the difficult things about being a new pastor in a congregation is figuring out what changes to make. I take it as a given that changes must be made. This is a continual, ongoing process. The kingdom, God's reign, has not yet arrived, and we must be continually open to where the Spirit is leading us.

However, it is often quite different to differentiate between the Spirit's leading and personal preferences and inclinations.  Incoming pastors arrive with notions of what works well and presumptions of what is needed. Likewise, congregations have notions of what works well and presumptions of how things should be.  And it can be very easy for pastors and congregations each to assume they know best what is appropriate for their particular congregations. But such "knowledge" doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the Spirit's guidance.

In today's gospel, Jesus shows up at his hometown, and people are astounded. He makes a big impression, but then they start thinking about who he is and what they already "know" about him.
"Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?" And they took offense at him.
Most church folks have notions and expectations about how to do and be church. The more serious we are about church, the more rigid such expectations and notions often become. Pastors and other dedicated leaders in congregations are perhaps most prone to such problems. So how are we to sense the guidance of the Spirit who - like the wind - "blows where it chooses," who - like Jesus - often shows little respect for how we've always done it or how we're sure it should be.

 I'm more than a little suspicious that if we've never had our religious certainties upended; if we've never felt threatened and dislocated regarding our religious habits, we're doing a remarkably good job of hiding from the Holy Spirit.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Sermon - Pregnant with God's Nevertheless

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 1:1-14
Pregnant with God’s Nevertheless
James Sledge                                                                           May 27, 2012 – Pentecost

I suspect there are very few pastors who have not had a conversation like this one.  “Pastor, we raised our children in the church.  We tried very hard to bring them up in the faith.  But now that they’re grown and have children of their own, they want nothing to do with the church.”
Or this one.  “Pastor, how are we supposed to keep our teenager engaged at church?  He doesn’t like Sunday School.  He hates worship.  And he thinks youth group is a waste of time.”
Such conversations sometimes lead to reminiscing about those days, not so long ago, when stores were closed and the sports teams didn’t play on Sunday.  When I was growing up the schools didn’t schedule games on Wednesday nights because of Wednesday night prayer services.  It sure was nice when the culture cleared the table of everything else and said, “The only sanctioned activity right now is church, and we expect you to participate.”
But that’s not our world, and in a very real sense, the church finds itself in exile.  Church has been unceremoniously cast out from the center of culture.  Church is increasingly pushed to the margins and, all too often, to the margins of our own lives.  Some even proclaim that Church is dying. 
The prophet Ezekiel has a vision where he is brought out and set down in the midst of a valley, a valley filled with bones.  If we’re familiar with the bouncy, “Dem Bones” song, we may miss the horror of the scene.  It is a battlefield, perhaps even the scene of a massacre.  There was a slaughter so complete that no one was left to bury the victims.  The bodies were stripped of valuables by those who killed them, then left for buzzards and other scavengers.  Finally, the sun baked and bleached the bones.  There were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.
“Can these bones live?”  What a strange question.  Of course they cannot.  But at least the prophet has the good sense not to say so to God.  “O Lord Yahweh, you know.”
Last year a group of conservative, Presbyterian pastors wrote an open letter to our denomination expressing their fears about where we were headed.  The phrase in the letter that caught the most attention, that became a shorthand term for the letter, said that the PC(USA) is “deathly ill.”
A local pastor, Maryann McKibben Dana of Idylwood Presbyterian, recorded a video responds to this letter. (You can view it at her blog, The Blue Room.) 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

What I Really Need

Today's gospel is one of those passages that has always made me a bit uncomfortable. People bring a paralyzed man to Jesus, presumably for healing. Jesus is impressed by this act of faith on their parts and responds, not by healing the man, but by saying, "Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven." Only after some biblical experts complain that Jesus is doing what only God can do does Jesus actually heal the man.  And so the healing seems motivated less by compassion and more as a proof.

Now I suppose that Jesus' compassion is more than evident in numerous other passages, and Matthew may simply be making a point that has little to do with Jesus' actual motivations. Nonetheless, I can't help wondering what Jesus thought this man most needed. Did he need forgiveness, restoration and peace with God, more than he needed to walk?

I also wonder about myself.  What is it that I most need from Jesus?  There are certainly times when I feel an acute need for restoration and forgiveness, but more often these are quite a ways down my needs list - or at least my wants list. 

When our children were very small, we often did not give them what they wanted because we knew it was not what they really needed. Recalling this reminds me of a time when Jesus told a rich man exactly what he most needed.  "Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, 'You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.' "

I know that's not what I want.  I hope that's not what I really need.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Hi, My Name Is ____, and I'll Be Your Host

At my first meeting in my new presbytery, there was a time before the actual meeting for break-out groups on different topics. I went to one on hospitality led by Henry Brinton, pastor at Fairfax Presbyterian. He has a new book entitled The Welcoming Congregation: Roots and Fruits of Christian Hospitality.  During his presentation he said something along these lines. "Members must start to think of themselves as hosts rather than guests."

I have yet to meet the church congregation that did not describe itself as "warm and friendly," but that warmth and friendliness is often difficult for an "outsider" to encounter.  In every church I've been a member or served I've heard people share their experience of attending worship and standing around in a fellowship time afterwards while nary a soul speaks to or even acknowledges them. In a day when it was somewhat safe to assume that most people were church goers, this may have had little impact other than to turn away a potential member. But in a day when larger and larger percentages of our population have little or no church experience, such a lack of hospitality may well be how that person meets Christ. And even though our congregation may speak of a Christ who embraces the outsider, the outcast, and the marginalized, a guest in our worship may find scant evidence of that.

Brinton's comment about church members understanding themselves as hosts rather than guests, goes to the heart of what Christian hospitality is.  It is less about warmth and friendliness and more about realizing that each of us is called to be Christ to others. But all too often, the consumerist mindset of our culture has transformed the church. We go to get something, to be served. Staff and leaders are hosts who are supposed to wait on and care for those who come.

Today's reading from the letter to the Ephesian church has a famous line where the writer says the Jesus gifts each of us "to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ." ("Saints" refers to all believers, not a select few.) The work of ministry is a communal task. Some of this work requires special gifts, but Christian hospitality is not one of them. Some of us are more outgoing than others, some of us can strike up a conversation with a stranger easier than others, but I dare say there is hardly a one of us who does not understand how to be a good host.

The problem of hospitality - or the lack of it - in many churches is not a lack of skills, it is a problem of perspective. If you are a churchgoer, when you head to your local congregation on a Sunday, do you understand yourself as going, at least in part, to engage in the work of ministry?

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Sticking with Eliab

Have you ever spent time in prayer, hoping to figure out what God wanted you to do, came up with some sense of what that was, and then sometime later realized you were completely wrong? That certainly has happened to me, although I suspect it is more common that I come up with what seems a very good idea with no input for God, then simply assume that God approves. I may even have enough arrogance to blame God when the plan goes awry.

In today's Old Testament reading, Samuel takes neither of the approaches I often do. To begin with, he doesn't want the task that God gives him, so it's certainly not his idea. And when he finally concedes to do as God wants, he sees a great plan coming together. Eliab, Jesse's oldest son, looks like an ideal candidate for king. He has all the qualifications.  Samuel is all set to say, "This is the one." But...

"But Yahweh said..." How did Samuel hear that "But?" I think I would have been so thrilled that a clear answer had arisen for what God had called me to do that I would have latched on to Eliab and never let go. I'm busy. I have a lot of things to get done. Eliab is better than anything I could have hoped for. No way I'm going to listen for a "But."

"Successful" congregations are often filled with "successful" people and pastors. And in our culture, successful mean getting things done. So I wonder how often we stick with Eliab and never meet David.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Monday, May 21, 2012

What Is Faith?

In today's gospel reading, a Roman centurion comes to Jesus seeking healing for one of his servants.  When Jesus says he will come and heal him, the centurion insists that Jesus need only speak the word and not actually travel to the centurion's home.  Jesus is astounded and says, "Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith."

What is faith?  In American Christianity, faith has often come to mean believing the correct essentials about Jesus.  Certainly belief is part of being a Christian, but the faith of the Roman centurion is surely short in the belief department.  He may well believe nothing more than Jesus is a powerful healer.  This centurion may not have embraced any of Jesus' teachings, and he need not even be a monotheist in order to have faith that Jesus can heal.  Yet Jesus heaps praises on this man's faith.

What does faith mean to you.  Our "Christian nation" does not seem to have much faith in Jesus' call to turn the other cheek and seek the good of our enemy.  We clearly don't trust him when he calls us to non-violence and a willingness to suffer for others.

I don't think I've ever met anyone who fully trusted Jesus.  I certainly don't.  Jesus says plenty of things that I ignore or rationalize away because they just don't seem like a good idea to me.  They ask for greater faith than I seem able to muster.

Just how far do I trust Jesus? How about you?  What assessment would Jesus make about your or my faith?

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Preaching Thoughts on a Non-Preaching Sunday: Whatever Happened to Matthias?

Preaching may be my favorite activity as a pastor, but it is nice to have Sundays when I don't preach.  To have a week where I'm not concerned with sermon or service liturgy or bulletin allows a focus on other things.  But I am too much the preacher not to think about the Sunday texts, and so today I am wondering.  Whatever happened to Matthias?

Matthias is the person chosen to take Judas' place as twelfth disciple.  He is chosen by lot (in our day we would say be chance) from two candidates.  This practice of rolling dice was done in faith that God was making the final choice.

This is Matthias' one and only appearance in the Bible.  I once heard a preacher use this as evidence that churches should be slow and deliberate in filling positions.  Clearly there was someone that would have made more of a splash than Matthias.

But as Diane so aptly pointed out in her sermon today, almost none of the other apostles are mentioned again following the choice of Matthias.  He joins seven other apostles who disappear from the story at this point.  Following the logic of that preacher I once heard, Jesus probably needed to be more careful in whom he called to follow him.

The fact is that the work of the Church is done mostly be anonymous individuals.  The fact that Matthias doesn't get a certificate of recognition anywhere in the New Testament has little bearing on whether or not he was a good choice.  And remembering that Jesus said, "Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave," the Church would probably have a lot more anonymous greats if we took Jesus seriously.

But I still sometimes wonder what happened to Matthias.  I guess I'll never know.  But given the improbable way that the Christian movement spread like wildfire across the Mediterranean world, I can only assume that his faithful witness played a significant role in the vitality and vigor of the early Church.  And I can't help but think that the Church today could use a lot more folks like Matthias.

Click to learn more about the Lectionary.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

No Earthly Good

Today is The Ascension of the Lord, a feast day I was totally unaware of for much of my life.  (I barely knew about Advent and Lent as a child in a small, Southern, Presbyterian church.)  The reading from Acts for this day naturally features Jesus' ascension into heaven.  This occurs after he has instructed the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit.  When that happened, they would be his witnesses to all the earth.

And then Jesus elevators up into the clouds, leaving the disciples standing there, staring up at the sky.  I can only imagine that their mouths were hanging open and they looked incredibly stunned and confused.  In my imagination this must have gone on for a long time.  That explains the appearance of "two men in white robes."  These men or angels presumably show up both to end the heavenly gawking and to let the reader know something important.  They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

As a Southerner, I am rather fond of the comedy routines of the now deceased Jerry Clower.  If you're not Southern he is an acquired taste, but his stories of rural life in Mississippi are hilarious.  He was also a Southern Baptist who was very serious about his faith, a faith was also quite nuanced and exhibited a great deal of self-reflection.

I know Clower from his recordings, but I have a book of his that was given to me, a gift from my brother if I recall.  The book is a mix of his stories along with reflections and thoughts.  In one chapter, he recalls being taken to task by fellow Baptists for working in a nightclub that served alcohol. (That it was for an AA Convention had apparently escaped them.)  The title of the chapter is "Some People are so Heavenly Minded, They Ain't No Earthly Good."

I think Clower's title might be a very loose paraphrase of what the men in white robes tell those disciples staring up at the sky.  Jesus will return when he returns, they say.  In the meantime, your work is here, on earth.

One of the great failings of the Christian Church was losing sight of this.  All too often, we have acted like the work of the Church was getting people to heaven (or at least failed to correct this idea).  But Jesus says nothing of the sort to his followers.  They are to be his witnesses, to continue his work so that all the world experiences his healing and hope, his call to a new way of life, his dream of a world where God's will is done. 

Followers of Jesus, why do you dream of heaven?  You have earthly good you are called to do.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary as well as the Revised Common Lectionary readings for Sundays and feast days such as today.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Dangerous God

The LORD is king; let the peoples tremble!
     He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; 

         let the earth quake!     (Psalm 99:1)
 Those of us wearing the label "progressive Christian" are sometimes a bit squeamish at the notion of God making folks tremble.  "God is love," we say.  Jesus loved people and helped them.  He didn't try to scare them.  And plus there are enough people running around talking about a God who has it out for anyone who doesn't have her beliefs nailed down just so.

However, as true as all this may be, we sometimes end up with a very safe, user-friendly, manageable God.  And even sweet, loving Jesus scared folks badly enough that they thought it necessary to kill him.

One a those paradoxes inherent to a deep, mature faith is the experience of a God who is loving, merciful, and filled with endless grace, and yet is awe inspiring, wild, dangerous, and not the least bit manageable.  No wonder Jesus said that following him meant losing yourself, allowing your life to be taken over by this strange new thing that begins to happen in Jesus.

In my own spiritual life, I'm often more than happy with a hint of God.  A wisp of spiritual warmth will do.  I'm not sure I want to meet a God with the power to transform me, to spin me around and drive me in some direction I'd prefer to avoid at all costs.  God is supposed to grease the skids of my comfortable, middle-class, pastoral enterprise, not startle me or unnerve me or demand that I change.

Yahweh is king; let the peoples tremble!  Actually, just the thought that God is actually in charge, rather than me, is enough to make me tremble just a bit.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A Feminine God

In his meditation for today, Fr. Richard Rohr speaks of salvation depicted in feminine form.  (see Revelation 12)  Pregnant and in labor, this woman escapes "into the desert until her time."  He writes,
Could this be the time? It is always the time! The world is tired of Pentagons and pyramids, empires and corporations that only abort God’s child. This women-stuff is very important, and it has always been important, more than this white male priest ever imagined or desired! My God was too small and too male.
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. 
(Psalm 146:3-4)

Princes, Pentagons, pyramids, corporations, denominations, theologies, our ways of doing things, our ideologies, our heroes, ourselves; we have endless things to trust other than God.  I wonder if Rohr is right, and some of this problem is a male thing.  As he also notes in his meditation, Jesus came not exercising power in typical, male ways.  He was meek and lowly, come "to undo the male addiction to power."

 I wonder how much damage we do to faith, to the Church, because we imagine God in the form of princes, of Pentagons and generals and presidents, largely muscle-flexing, male images.  I wonder how often our faith and trust is in plans and institutions that we devise around such muscle-flexing images rather than in the Living God "who keeps faith forever," who comes meek and lowly, as a servant, in Jesus.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Sermon video - Facebook Faith

Who Am I?

Last week I wondered, "Why Faith?" and I mentioned some rather self-serving motivations that sometimes motivate religious participation.  But today I'm approaching the "Why Faith?" question from a slightly different perspective.  I'm less focused on what motivated someone to begin on such a path and more concerned with where faith is headed.  This may still entail a "What's in it for me?" question, but in a less cynical fashion.

One piece of the faith journey is a voyage of self discovery.  In the encounter with God (through revelation if you will) I begin to recognize who I really am.  This process reveals a mix of good and bad, and it also challenges some deeply held assumptions about what it means to be human.

In today's reading from the letter to the Colossians, the author prays that the readers would be "filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God."  The writer clearly thinks that as we grow in spiritual wisdom and understanding, this will shape our sense of who we are.  We will want to lead lives that please God, that draw us closer to God, and that manifest themselves in the fruit of good works.  Behind such notions is a clear sense that, to paraphrase the Heidelberg Catechism, we are not our own; we belong to God.

That is a challenging concept for many of us.  We were raised in a highly individualistic culture that says we are each autonomous agents, free to choose our own path.  But Jesus invites us to walk a path we would likely never have chosen on our own.  And Christian faith insists that when we follow this path, we discover who we truly are.

I am fond of quoting a line by John Calvin, the founder of my theological tradition.  “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 a basic assumption of Christian faith is that on our own, we will never fully realize this knowledge of ourselves.  This requires accepting the limitation of our human condition, that God is God, and we are not, that our Creator knows things about us that we do not.

There is an oft quoted remark by Gandhi that says, "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."  To be Christian is to say we are followers of the way Jesus shows us, that he is the true image of what it means to be human.  But as Gandhi so well points out, most of us are still prefer our own ideas about this over those of Jesus.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sermon - Facebook Faith

John 15:9-17
Facebook Faith
James Sledge                                                                     May 13, 2012

I’m guessing that I don’t have to tell anyone it’s Mother’s Day.  Whether you think this is a great idea or a manipulative conspiracy devised by the greeting card and florist industries, you’d have to be really tuned out not to know. 
As the new pastor here, I suppose I should let you know that I don’t really preach Mother’s Day sermons.  Nothing against Mother’s Day or mothers, it’s just that I like to keep worship focused on God.  Our worship is something we offer to God.  It is about drawing close to God.  But there are constant temptations to turn worship into something else.
Some of you may be familiar with the critique of worship by Soren Kierkegaard, 19th century philosopher and theologian.  Kierkegaard said that worship is drama, but he thought that churches often got confused about who played what roles.  He complained that worship was too often understood as a drama where God was a kind of director, while preachers, liturgists, and musicians were actors, and the congregation was audience.
Kierkegaard thought this entirely wrong.  Rather, he said, preachers, musicians, and such are prompters within this drama, and they and the congregation are actors.  But it is God who is the audience. 
I’m with Kierkegaard on this which is why I tend to stay away from honoring mothers on Mother’s Day, or America on the Fourth of July, or, for that matter, Presbyterian heritage on Presbyterian Heritage Sunday, which is next Sunday if anyone’s interested.
But that is not to say that I never speak of America on the Fourth of July or mothers today.  In fact, mothers and, in particular the love that many mothers give, may be instructive in understanding what Jesus says to us this morning.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Politics Based Faith

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.  Leviticus 19:9-10

If someone suggested this as the basis for some new business regulations in the US, the outcry would be swift.  How could businesses compete if they were required to embrace such inefficiencies?  What possible right does the government have to require businesses to set aside some of their potential profits for the poor and immigrants?

Rarely do legislators suggest laws hostile to business or our capitalist economic system because of the Bible.  In fact, it is quite rare for anyone to suggest that the Bible is hostile to, or a bit suspect of, capitalism.  Yet there are a huge numbers of biblical passages that would suggest such, quite a few more passages than those addressing same sex relationships.  And yet legislators regularly mine those few texts to support proposed laws.  Just yesterday, my home state of NC passed a constitutional amendment banning recognition of same sex marriage or civil unions.

A column by Aaron Graham in last week's Washington Post began this way.
It breaks my heart today to see how often politics shapes our faith, rather than faith shaping our politics. Over the years the church in America has become so biblically illiterate that we are often being more influenced by cultural and political trends than we are by the Word of God.
As a result when we do come to church or read Scripture, we come with our minds already made up. We interpret the Bible through our own ideological lenses, picking and choosing what we want to believe and leaving the rest. This is dangerous, not only spiritually but politically as well.
There is no escaping significant cultural influence on our understanding and interpreting Scripture, but I believe Graham is correct that cultural sources are no longer an influence.  Rather they are our primary source for who we think God is and what we think faithfulness is.  Less and less is the divide between conservative and liberal Christians about different interpretations of Scripture.  It is about political differences that then inform our faith stances. 

I see no easy way out of this.  Aside from the biblical literacy problem, it likely requires a level of humility that does not come easily to things rooted in political ideologies or religious convictions.  Many of us feel a significant amount of pride regarding our faith positions, proudly waving our conservative or progressive banners.

Even though I tend to fall solidly within the liberal church camp, I'm not sure we are true to our calling when we define ourselves this way.  And I suspect that a hopeful future belongs to the Church that figures out how to faithfully struggle to follow Jesus without starting on the left or the right.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Invaded by Heaven

I have no way of knowing for sure, but the Lord's Prayer may be the best known prayer in American culture.  When I was growing up, it got repeated before the game with every football team I ever played on.  I'm not quite sure why this prayer got attached to such events, but I suppose it was a "religious" counterpart to playing the national anthem.

Growing up in the church, I don't think I ever took part in a worship service that didn't have the Lord's Prayer.  How deeply ingrained this prayer is in church folk can be see by people's habit of adhering to their way of saying it, (debts or trespasses) even when they are with a group that says it the other way.

Given how integral this prayer has been to generations of Christians, you would think it might have shaped our Christian life more than it seems to have done.  The prayer's first petitions (from the version in today's Matthew reading) say to God, "Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."  In other words, "Your reign appear on earth.  May your will be done here on earth as it currently is in heaven where you live."

This prayer basically asks that God's reign, a world where things operate as they do in heaven, would be born.  Yet despite praying these words over and over, many of us have somehow reduced the good news to what some have labeled a "gospel of evacuation."  This gospel says, "Believe the right things; have faith in Jesus, and you will get taken somewhere better."  But the model prayer Jesus gives us says nothing about going to heaven.  Rather it asks that heaven invade earth.

 Prodded by those in the Emergent Christian movement, I have wondered a great deal in recent years about why and how the Church traded talk of God's Kingdom coming to earth for us going to heaven.  No doubt some of this was simply a way of dealing with the delay.  The early Church could expect Jesus to come back soon.  But as years and centuries went by, hope for that waned and was replaced with dead believers going to God's abode.  If the Kingdom wouldn't come to us, we would go to it.  But somewhere along the way, an essential piece of the gospel got lost.  We kept praying the prayer, but forgot what it meant. 

And this relocation of God's reign to heaven also goes hand in hand with a tendency to separate "the spiritual" off from the real world.  It allows the gospel to be relegated to our interior lives.  After all, its culmination has nothing to do with earth, but our evacuation from it.  (A fascination with a Rapture seems inevitable with such a gospel.)

Confining God to "the spiritual realm" does not, of course, confine God in any way.  It does, however, confine our faith and understanding of God.  The God of our imaginations cannot transform earthly life.  The world is beyond hope.  That is an impossible project, even for God. 

I wonder how we might live out our faith lives differently if we actually embraced the prayer we say so frequently, if we actually thought is possible that heaven might invade earth.

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Monday, May 7, 2012

Why Faith?

As a pastor, it is sometimes interesting to speculate about what motivates people to participate in churches and other forms of religious activity.  (Such speculation should generally not be shared except in the most generic form.)  At times I have the opportunity to ask people directly.  Some folks can answer off the top of their head, but most find this a difficult question.

Sometimes this may be because their participation is a deeply ingrained habit that simply is.  I have known dedicated and intensely loyal church members who seemed to be not so much religious or spiritual as institutional.  They viewed the church as a worthwhile institution - not unlike a university or civic club - and they believed in working hard to support the particular church they had chosen to affiliate with.  But I should add that folks I presumed to be of this sort have regularly surprised me and revealed a deep faith I had never suspected.  (This surprise is not unlike discovering that the cranky old couple who barely seem to tolerate each other are in fact deeply in love.)

Figuring out what motivates faith turns out to be every bit as complicated as figuring out what motivates human relationships.  In both cases, it's usually a pretty mixed bag, a concoction that has elements of altruism and self-sacrifice along with self interest and a desire to "have my needs met."  I'm not sure relationships with no self-serving element exist, and so faith is bound to have its "what's in it for me" side.

Today's New Testament readings speak to things often associated with the self-serving side of faith.  There is the blatant religious hypocrisy that Jesus condemns, and then there is the issue of life after death.  In Paul's letter, the worry is for family and friends who have died rather than anything about going to heaven.  But the question, "What happens when I die?" has motivated more than a few folks to profess their faith.  (It's difficult for some modern Christians to imagine this, but many in Paul's day presumed that only those who were alive at Jesus' return would participate in the Kingdom.) 

I think the reason faith sometimes gets a bad rap is because it too often looks like a shallow relationship that is all about the self-serving side.  The "faithful" look like they are after something, but don't seem to have given themselves to the relationship in significant ways.

All relationship have a self-serving side, but those relationships where deep love emerges are never dominated by this.  In relationships with a spouse, a partner, a child, most of us discover a capacity to give ourselves, even to lose ourselves in the relationship.  The self-serving side is still there, but it is balanced by and even subsumed into a self-giving love.

The relationship of faith is not so different, although I suspect that a lot fewer people go as deeply into relationship with God as they do with spouse or child.  Many of us get stuck in superficial, self-serving relationships with God.  That is why we find it so difficult to be extravagant, or even simply generous, in giving ourselves to God.  We are stingy with our time and money and affection because we are still doing the calculations of a immature, self-serving, superficial relationship.

At some point in our lives, most of us find it nearly impossible to resist the allure of love.  It draws us in and we find ourselves giving without calculation, lavishing another person with all we are and have.  I sometimes wonder if we didn't do such a good job of institutionalizing religion and church that we've created an edifice that insulates us from the allure of God's love.  It certainly seems there is something that prevents us from knowing the joy of falling deeply into the love of Christ.

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Sermon audio - Walls and Fences

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Sermon - Walls and Fences

Acts 8:26-40
Walls and Fences
James Sledge                                                                                     May 6, 2012

I wish I knew why I can remember lots of useless, trivial information, but so easily forget important things that I really need to remember.  I forget an important meeting and struggle to remember your names, but recall some stray episode from twenty or more years ago such as an ad I once saw for a fence company.  It was a full-page magazine ad, and it had a photograph of a quite substantial brick wall.  Right beside the wall, it said, “‘Good fences make good neighbors.’  - Robert Frost.”
I knew who Robert Frost was and had read a few of his poems in school.  I had heard of this one, but not actually read it, and so I took the fence company’s quote at face value, assuming that Robert Frost thought good fences to be a good idea.  Only later did I learn that the statement is a quote spoken within the poem, and it is a sentiment with which the poem wrestles.
The poem is entitled “Mending Wall,” and it describes two neighbors walking on either side of the stone wall that separates their properties, picking up and replacing the stones that have fallen down over the winter.  It is the narrator’s neighbor who speaks of good fences, but the poem is not so sure. 
The poem opens, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”  And after the neighbor makes his famous quote, the narrator wonders if he might challenge such thinking, wonders if might somehow plant this idea in his neighbor’s head.  "Why do they make good neighbors?  Isn't it where there are cows?  But here there are no cows.  Before I built a wall I'd ask to know what I was walling in or walling out, and to whom I was like to give offence.  Something there is that doesn't love a wall, that wants it down!"
You may have never noticed it, but there is a wall, a fence around the communion table. 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Heart Problems

On more than one occasion the gospels report where Jesus says, "You have heard it said... but I say to you."  Jesus takes something from Scripture or his religious tradition and does something surprising with it.  That happens in today's gospel reading. He says, "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment."  Jesus says that being angry is the same as murder.  I'm guessing that nearly all of us are in big trouble.

Of course Jesus himself seems to have gotten angry once or twice, so I'm not sure how literally to take this.  Hyperbole was also a key component of speech in Jesus' culture, and that probably figures in, too.  But Jesus clearly does say that what's in our hearts matters a great deal, perhaps as much as what we actually do.

Nearly everyone has seen a young child being forced to apologize to someone.  The child clearly does not think an apology appropriate or warranted.  The "I'm sorry" is clearly coerced, spoken only under the threat of something worse than having to utter the words.  It is probably a good thing for parents to enforce such behavior, but everyone can tell that the child is not sorry.  The action of saying I'm sorry is clearly not genuine.  It does not really indicate much significant other than the parent thinks the child should be sorry.

As we become adults, we get much better at publicly following the rules in ways that don't give away what we really think or feel.  Most of us have been trained well enough that we abide by a great many rules, social conventions, laws, and such without letting everyone know how disgusted we are at having to do so.  And so our proper actions may say no more about our hearts than the "I'm sorry" of that small child.

I do think that practicing certain habits over and over can indeed change our hearts, modify our inward orientation toward that habit.  People can begin to engage in a discipline of helping others for selfish motives yet be transformed in the process so that serving becomes something they want to do.  But Jesus seems to say that until that transformation happens, we have a serious heart problem. Even though we may be infinitely better at keeping our genuine feelings and motives hidden compared with a little boy or girl forced to apologize, until our hearts change we only look better. 

And so the song goes, "Change my heart, O God."

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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Lines in the Sand

If someone tells me that he has no trouble understanding what the Bible tells us to do, I know instantly that I do not want that person as a spiritual guide.  If God had wanted us to have a clear and unambiguous set of rules to follow, God would have provided "The Holy Pamphlet" rather than the Bible that we have.  (And it bears recalling that Christians can't even agree what books belong in said Bible.)  As it stands, we have a dizzying array of stories, rules, poems, songs, letters, and literary genres, some parts nearly impossible to reconcile with others.

Today's gospel immediately confronts us with this.  Jesus says, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished."  Not one letter of the law passes away, so let's try one.  "Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy... you shall not do any work."  Hopefully you see the problem.  For starters, the Sabbath is Saturday, and even if you justify relocating it to Sunday, we still ignore the command.

I'm not saying anything you probably don't already know.  No one, not even the most ardent fundamentalist-literalist, actually does all that Scripture says.  Everyone picks and chooses.  And yet, even though most everyone acknowledges this, we still draw scriptural lines in the sand, saying, "Break this commandment from Scripture and you've gone too far."

In my own denomination, issues around gay ordination and gay marriage have become theological lines in the sand.  Given Scriptures sparse treatment of homosexuality, this might seem a strange place to draw such a line, but given its hot-button status in our society, perhaps this in unavoidable.  Regardless, many believe that you have or haven't abandoned the Bible based on where you come down on this topic.

Given that none of us fully embrace Jesus' call to follow him, that all of us are implicated in things that Jesus and the Bible explicitly condemn, perhaps all of us would do well to consider how it is we go about determining where lines in the sand should be drawn.  What is it that makes us want to drawn ours here rather than there?

I'm not arguing for no lines.  If we have no clear way of saying, "This is what a disciple of Jesus looks like," then we end up with Christian faith so vague and nondescript as to be meaningless.  And indeed this is a problem for mainline congregations in a post Christendom world.  There sometimes isn't enough distinct and meaningful about joining us for folks not already in the habit to bother. 

So then, if we need lines, where shall we put them?  I think this is a critical question facing mainline congregations.  How are we to define ourselves?  What is it that identifies us as followers of Jesus?  Who decides which issues are crucial and which are less important?  There's no avoiding an engagement with the culture here.  Think back to the Church and slavery, the Church and the problems of industrialization 100 years ago, or the Church and the Civil Rights movement.  The Church could not avoid those issues, and it cannot avoid engagement in the issues of our day.  But how do we know when such issues demand lines in the sand?

What informs where you place your lines?  How do you decide what is non-negotiable and what is optional?  Did you inherit lines that you need to reevaluate?  Or could you use a few lines to guide you in your faith walk?  How do you finish this sentence?  If you're going to get serious about following Jesus, you really need to... 

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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Salt, Light, and Introverted Congregations

For a variety of reasons, Christian faith in America tends to be a private and personal thing.  Faith is what we believe, and that can be safely tucked away in our brain somewhere.  In the faith understanding I grew up with, you can be a faithful Christian if you go to church on Sunday and abide by societal norms for morality.  So, in essence, if people don't check the church parking lot on Sundays, nothing about your faith would distinguish you from anyone else who functioned as a good citizen.

Jesus clearly didn't anticipate such a development.  In the "Sermon on the Mount," a portion of which shows up in today's gospel, Jesus refers to us as salt and light.  The obvious idea is that we impact the world we live in.  And given that the world does not yet look all that much like the Kingdom of God, Jesus fully expected that our impacting the world around us would cause problems, that we would be persecuted like prophets of old.

It's worth noting that prophets generally were not persecuted for what they believed.  The people who persecuted them were fellow members of their faith, fellow worshipers of Yahweh.  They were persecuted because they insisted that being God's people demanded that they live differently than they were doing.  The prophets insisted that they could not claim to be God's people while exploiting the poor, worrying about their personal fortunes more than God's commands, and so on.

I regularly hear the term "introverted" used to describe church congregations.  Often this happens in the context of not doing evangelism.  But I think the issue is much larger, going well beyond our not telling others about our faith.  Our introversion thinks that we can be "good Christians" without being noticed.  It thinks we can blend in with the prevailing culture, acting no different from anyone else beyond believing in Jesus and going to worship on occasion. 

I sometimes think that the demise of Christendom, of a culture that enforces some basic Christians practices, is a huge gift to the Church Jesus envisions.  When the culture stopped being overtly Christian, being a good citizen could no longer be synonymous with being a follower of Jesus.  This has been bad news for the institutional church, hurting attendance on Sunday and shrinking the collections in offering plates.  But it does force us to re-define ourselves.  If we aren't simply good citizens who believe a few peculiar things, then who are we?

Increasingly, non-church folk who decide to do some spiritual exploring, who visit congregations wondering if there is anything significant going on there, are embracing or rejecting Christian faith according to the answers they see us giving to such questions.  If they drop by on Sunday, and nothing they see or hear suggests that the worshipers are any different from the other, non-church folks they know, why would they bother to become a part of such an enterprise?

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