Sunday, June 24, 2012

Sermon - Standing Up to Goliaths

1 Samuel 17:32-49
Standing Up to Goliaths
James Sledge                                                                                       June 24, 2012

Some years ago a church member came to me with a problem. Her child was planning to do something she thought foolish, and she was looking for some help from me.  This woman was very involved in the congregation.  She was an elder, a tireless volunteer at that church, and I always got the sense that she was serious about her faith.
Her son was also a person of significant faith, having been very involved in the youth group at church before attending college. And he was quite involved in campus ministry there. In fact, the foolish thing he was planning to do involved a campus ministry mission trip.  The trip was to Haiti, and it was one of those times when Haiti had descended into political chaos.  The campus ministry organization had discussed cancelling the trip, but in the end, the decision had been made to go ahead with it.
Needless to say this mother was not happy.  Along with typical concerns for such mission trips – unsanitary conditions, tropical diseases, and so on – there was now the added the risk of political instability accompanied by violence. It was not too difficult for Mom to imagine some group thinking that kidnapping an American college student would be a great tactic.
However, this woman’s son truly felt called to take part in this mission trip. He was motivated by a deep faith commitment to help the poor, to take God’s love to people who lived in terrible circumstances.  And ultimately he did go, although his mother did succeed in getting the campus ministry group to take some additional safety and security precautions.
This story is far from unique.  I know of many cases where parents raised their children in the church and worried about them wandering from the faith.  But they were mortified when that faith led children to do something dangerous, called them into a low paying career, or caused them to adopt a lifestyle that didn’t fit well with the parents’ suburban, upper middle-class values.  These parents wanted their children to have faith, just not too much of it.
And that makes me wonder what David’s Mom thought about the whole Goliath episode.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Be Nice

A retreat leader once led an exercise to help a group of church leaders determine what their core values were. As a church, this group naturally assumed that their core values were somehow connected to their faith, but the retreat leader challenged them.   "What," he asked, "were the norms that, if you violated them, you would know rather quickly you had done something wrong?"

After a great deal of discussion, the group decided that there was a vague expectation of belief in God, but pretty much anything short of full blown atheism or Satan worship would not violate any real norms.  The only other norm or core value they could identify was something they labeled "Be nice."

After reading this account, I shared it with the governing board where I served at the time. At first they assumed that this would not describe that congregation, but after some discussion began to think that it did.  And they began to openly wonder whether or not this constituted significant enough core values for them to be the Church of Jesus Christ.

Now I certainly think the world would be a gentler place if everyone tried to be nice.  It is an admirable trait. But "Be nice" was not the core of Jesus' message as I understand it.Today's gospel even features Jesus talking about disciplining church members, an event I have never personally witnessed in a congregation. And I'm not sure if that is because such action was never warranted, or if it wouldn't have "been nice."

Now many of us have witnessed the bad side of enforcing standards. There have been terrible abuses of power against those who take unpopular stands or who are different from the majority. But I'm not sure that this problem is really fixed by "Be nice." (I wonder if there is a parallel to this with regards to evangelism. Sometimes the Presbyterian and Mainline response to the manipulative, coercive, and heavy-handed evangelism practices of other groups has been to do no evangelism at all. No danger of doing it badly, but is that what Jesus expects of us?)

Have you ever considered the core values of your congregation?  What are they, and where did they come from? And perhaps most importantly, are they what Jesus is calling your congregation to be and do?

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Similes, Metaphors, and Religious Arrogance

Similes and metaphors, by their very nature, allow for a variety of meaning.  To say something is like something else leaves a great deal up to the listener's experience of that something else. Those who use metaphor and simile have made a move toward art or poetry and away from scientific precision.  And for whatever reasons, much of what we know of God and life with God comes to us in this less than precise fashion.

But poetic rendering does not necessarily permit a "God is whoever or whatever I imagine God to be" proposition that is sometimes heard in popular religious thought.  God may be beyond our comprehension, and no image of God may be adequate. But if there is a God then presumably there are things of which it can be said, "God is like this and so not like that," or "A follower of Jesus should be like this and not like that."

Jesus says, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." In making sense of this, a lot is riding on what a person thinks it means to become "like children." And this problem is compounded by a kind of religious arrogance (a perhaps peculiarly Protestant one) that imagines the Bible is written for us and addresses us directly.

If you want to see this in full blown form, consider how a great many people handle the book of Revelation as a book of predictions.  Some imaginative interpreters even claim there are accurate accounts of nuclear naval battles depicted in the book. (I tried, but I couldn't see it.)  But of course the book is actually a letter written to Christian congregations many centuries ago. And while it may have been intended for wider circulation than the congregations mentioned in it, if it is written for us, telling of the end of the world in our time, what were the original recipients supposed to do with it?

The letters of Paul and other epistles point to this same problem. With them we are reading someone else's mail, and because such letters were the only means Paul and others had to communicate with distant congregations, we are essentially hearing one side of a conversation. We are not always sure of the problem being addressed by a letter, and if we don't know what Paul is talking about when he instructs or corrects a congregation, we may misunderstand him badly.

That brings me back to becoming "like children." I have frequently heard people start talking about the psychological makeup of a child and how Jesus is calling us to emulate this. But if Jesus is actually speaking to the people in front of him 2000 years ago, doesn't it stand to reason that he expects them to understand what he says without the benefit of any psychology. The Gospel of Matthew is written not so many decades after Jesus lived, and so wouldn't its author have reported Jesus' words fully expecting his readers to understand what Jesus meant? And so doesn't it stand to reason that this simile depends on a First Century understanding of what is involved in becoming like a child?

This does not necessarily mean that all modern understandings of childhood are useless in understanding what Jesus is saying. But if we imagine there are no historical or cultural barriers to encountering Jesus, surely we will create for ourselves a peculiarly modern Jesus who would be unrecognizable to his first followers. Of course if Jesus came of us and not them, that may not be a problem.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Sermon audio - Seeing as God Sees

Sermon and worship audios also available on Falls Church Presbyterian website.

Restless Hearts

 As a deer longs for flowing streams,
     so my soul longs for you, O God.
 My soul thirsts for God,
     for the living God.  
         from Psalm 42

"Our hearts are restless until they find rest in you."  So said Augustine of Hippo some 16 centuries ago. The book of Acts quotes the Apostle Paul speaking of a human inclination to "search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him..." Some writers in spirituality have said that this restlessness to find God is the beginning of spirituality.  And if you walk through the Spirituality section in your local Barnes & Nobles, or if you search the topic at, your will find ample evidence that this restlessness is as strong as ever in our "post religious" age.

This would seem to be wonderful news for the Church, this realization that, in a time of shrinking congregations, people are groping, searching, and longing for God. I think it is good news, but it does require that congregations become places that feel open, welcome, and inviting to those who are groping, searching, and longing.

Many of us in the Church grew up in a very settled religious landscape. People might experience a time of restlessness, such as when they went off to college, but there was a basic assumption that religious questions were settled ones. Restlessness was a phase some young people went through, but its primary religious implication was a period of time away from church.

But for a variety of reasons, old patterns of restlessness have broken down. The religious landscape itself is far from settled, and becoming older and more settled no longer means a return to church. Indeed, the term "return" no longer applies because many were never in church as children to begin with.  Restlessness, and particularly religious restlessness, is no longer a phase people go through at some predictable moment in their lives.  Rather it is a desire, a longing for something that is not fully known.

Congregations have a tremendous opportunity to assist people whose restlessness has them searching and longing. But I think that requires a subtle shift for some of us. It does not change our core beliefs or proclamation, but it does mean becoming more of a place for restless people. As I look back, my childhood notion of church is a settled place for a settled people. But in a new day and age, I think it needs to become more of a place where restless people can find their rest in God.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Sermon video - Seeing as God Sees

Are You There, God?

 Give ear to my words, O LORD;
     give heed to my sighing.
 Listen to the sound of my cry,
     my King and my God,
     for to you I pray.      
Psalm 5:1-2

I had one of those nights that I assume all people have from time to time. I was trying to sleep, but my mind would not be still. Questions about how to handle this situation or that kept rearing their heads and insisting on wrestling with me. But these internal discussions seemed largely futile, leading nowhere. Contradictory options kept playing out in my head, but none seemed a good answer.  I would really have liked some clarity, some good guidance.

Being a pastor, one might assume that I immediately turned to God for help, but I must confess that I wrestled for some time without trying that. Funny how it sometimes requires desperation to move me toward God. But if I was expected a blissful, divine deliverance, none was forthcoming.

This morning's psalm may not be the best example (Try Psalm 22's "My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?"), but it is a reminder that even the writers of Scripture were quite familiar with what some have labeled "the absence of God."  They too struggled, turned to God, and found themselves groping in the dark, crying out without a response. And so they pleaded with God to listen, to heed their cries.

There is something comforting in knowing that people of deep faith struggle at times with God's absence (as Jesus did on the cross). But even more comforting is something else I share with the psalmists, the assurance that God's absence is not permanent. This assurance is born of previous experiences of God's deliverance and reliability, and virtually all the psalms of lament, those psalms that cry out to God in agony, resolve in praise for what God has done.

If you are anything like me, there are times when the problems of the moment capture your attention so fully that it is difficult to see past them. In that moment, there can seem to be no options, no help, and a kind of paralysis sometimes sets in. But in my experience, God is faithful, even though I often am not. I do know there are people who suffer in ways that I cannot comprehend and for which I have no easy answers.  But with the sort of struggles that so often paralyze me, I invariably end up looking back and wondering why my difficulty seemed so overwhelming.  Sometimes I even think I hear Jesus asking, "Why did you doubt?"

Are you there, God? Ah, yes, there you are.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Sermon - Seeing as God Sees

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
Seeing as God Sees
James Sledge                                                                                     June 17, 2012

Let’s be honest. Unlike Samuel, most of us would have gone ahead and anointed Eliab. I know that I would. If I had somehow been paying enough attention that I heard God in the first place and went to Bethlehem looking for a new king, I’m pretty sure that Eliab would have seemed an answer to prayer. Here’s the one! Pour the oil on his head. Glad that’s over. Can’t believe we found a new king so quickly.
We Presbyterians have our own version of Samuel.  Because we’re big on representative government, Samuel is not one person but rather a committee – a nominating committee to be precise. We have nominating committees charged to find those called to be deacons and ruling elders, and we have pastor nominating committees to find the person God is calling to be a teaching elder or pastor. Like Samuel, these committees are charged to find the one or ones that God already has in mind, and we use fancy words like discernment to make clear that the task is to hear and sense the Spirit guiding us to the one God has already chosen.
Now clearly I’ve had some recent experience with this congregation’s pastor nominating committee, although I did not see how they went about discerning and deciding. I’ve not been here long enough to see an officer nominating committee at work.  However I have seen them in a number of other congregations, and I’ve talked with enough pastors about how it works in their churches to have some sense of what is typical.
The stereotypical officer nominating committee works like this. A group of folks, including representatives from Deacons and Session, are cajoled into this task. Often people are chosen to represent some of the different groups and interests in the congregation. It is common to have someone from Presbyterian Women, someone from the youth, and so on.  Then this group is “elected” at congregational meeting.
Then comes the hard work. A first meeting is set, and nominating committee members arrive with pictorial directories in hand.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Clarence the Cross-Eyed Bear

I've used this title before in a post, but I couldn't help myself.  I'm not sure where the title comes from. There was a Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion character that was popular many years ago. Perhaps familiarity with this lion got conflated with the song "Gladly the Cross I'd Bear" to form Clarence, the sight impaired bear. Regardless, this apparent child's misconstruing of a Christian song has lots of company among adults who have distorted Jesus' words just as badly.

The term "my cross to bear" is a common one, even outside the Christian faith.  It has come to mean little more than some difficulty to endure.  The strange thing about this phrase, it least in my experience, is that it is most often used by people to speak of a difficult they have no control over. Be it some illness or chronic condition, ungrateful children, a crummy job, or countless other examples, these crosses are not something people picked up willingly. Bearing crosses has come to stand for patient endurance, but it seems to have nothing to do with self-denial.

The words of Jesus on bearing the cross are all about self-denial. When Peter objects vehemently to Jesus saying he is going to Jerusalem to die, Jesus reprimands him and then insists that following him requires a willingness to act contrary to self interest and take up a cross.

Now it occurs to me that there are plenty of Christians who willingly, in ways large and small, deny themselves in order to do what the think Jesus asks of them. It may simply be denying themselves some consumer item in order to give more money to the church or some ministry or cause. Or it may involve much larger sacrifices such as giving up a high paying career to run a non-profit that does the work of Jesus.

But while most congregations have shining examples of cross bearing, individuals who take on burdens they did not have to for the sake of Jesus and the new day he heralds, congregations themselves often have much more difficulty with cross bearing and self denial.

When congregations or their governing bodies discuss new ministries or new directions for the congregation, there is almost always an absolute assumption that no decision should endanger or injure the church in any way. In a parallel to most other institutions, congregations have a very strong survival instinct, and they almost always discuss what they should do or are called to do from that standpoint.  And so while individual members may embrace the call to deny self and take up their crosses, congregations seem less likely to do so.

Our denomination's Book of Order speaks of the Church's calling in its opening pages. "The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life." (F-1.0301) But in practice, the Church is very unwilling to lose its life. In its practice, the Church very often sounds much like Peter, who responds to Jesus' willingness to take up the cross by saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you." Clarence the Cross-Eyed Bear.

So... how does a sense of self-denial and a willingness to take up the cross, something many church members know well how to do, become a core part of who we are as congregations?

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Sermon audio - Like Falling in Love

Sermon and worship audios can be found on FCPC website.

Evidences of the Spirit

Writing to the Galatian church, Paul rattles off a list of "the works of the flesh." Some of the stereotypical things we might expect in such a list are there: fornication, impurity, licentiousness,  drunkenness, and carousing. Religious folks often seem fixated on "sins" of this sort, even though they make up a minority of Paul's list. Religious folks rail much less against enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and envy, perhaps because we enjoy these so much.

According to Paul, when the Spirit is present and active there is: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  If you have ever attended a regional or national governing body meeting in the Presbyterian Church (USA), there is a good chance you witnessed precious little of Paul's "fruits of the Spirit" but plenty of enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and envy. And even within congregations, factions and quarrels and distrust are all too common.

Some years ago our denomination promoted the theme, "Theology Matters." It most certainly does.  And despite those who say that it's actions that count and not theology, the fact is that bad theology leads to bad practices. However - and this is a big however - getting our theology correct will make little difference in the absence of the Spirit. And when our theological fights degenerate into enmities, strife, anger, quarrels, dissensions, and factions, what does that say about us, regardless of our theological positions?

We live in a time when there is a great deal of spiritual hunger and curiosity in our culture.  At the very same time, there is a significant drop off in participation at church congregations. Could it be that we humans come hardwired with some ability to sense divine presence? And when people see enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and envy in congregations, they correctly surmise that the Spirit is not active there.

What evidences of the "fruits of the Spirit" do you see in your congregation? And how might we be more open to the Spirit moving in our midst?

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Signs of the Times

It probably wasn't original, and it certainly expressed a commonly held sentiment. I'm referring to a post I saw on Twitter awhile back. It was from a Presbyterian pastor and it said, "If the 1950s ever come back, we're ready."

We church folks do often seem remarkably oblivious to the world around us.  That is especially true of mainline churches which once lived squarely in the center of American culture. If it weren't so depressing it would be funny to watch congregations who think that some improvement will return them to their former glory. If they just had a better preacher, a better music program, or maybe even a contemporary service...

Such thinking often seems completely unaware that church is an optional activity. Even in my own congregation, which is doing remarkably well by mainline standards, there seems to be an assumption that "visitors" are church shopping and they will end up somewhere.  But such assumptions are likely to be off the mark. We live in a culture where an ever larger percentage of people do not grow up in church. Even the notion that the church is a logical destination for someone who becomes spiritual curious is likely false. There are countless other options.

In today's gospel, Jesus blasts religious leaders who cannot read the signs of the times. They do not see God's reign drawing near in Jesus. They are oblivious to the seismic shift that is taking place. Like many religious leaders in every age, they are decent people who have become focused on running the institution, so focused on it that they miss God at work in their very midst.

The Spirit is stirring in our world right now. All around us are signs. Small faith communities are emerging where spiritually hungry people are finding a genuine presence of God. People are being drawn into communities of faithful, spiritual practice where they are transformed and the promise of God's coming reign is glimpsed.

But many of us, busy running our little religious enterprises, imagine all this is nothing but a matter of style, a passing religious fad.  We'll keep doing what we're good at, what is tried and true.  And if the 1950s ever return, we'll be ready.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

More Than Enough

Jesus looks out at a crowd numbering in the thousands and tells his disciples that they can't send them away without first feeding them. It's easy to make the disciples the bad guys in this story, but the fact is they don't have the resources. The story tells us there are 4000 men, besides women and children. The crowd might have numbered 8 or 10,0000 in all. Clearly the sparse supplies the disciples had on them were nowhere near sufficient for such a huge undertaking. And yet, Jesus takes those meager supplies - 7 loaves and a few fish - and feeds them all. "And all of them ate and were filled."

Sometimes in my work as a pastor I find myself facing situations I feel ill equipped to handle. I see a spiritual problem in the church or a need in the community that begs to be addressed, but I think, "I don't have the gifts to do this. We don't have the resources to pull this off."

I suspect that the disciples in today's gospel had compassion for the crowd just as Jesus did. They saw those hungry people who had been with Jesus for days in an area where there was no food to be had. They felt bad for them, but what could they do? They had so little. The did not have anywhere near enough resources even to make a small dent in the problem.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann once wrote an article entitled "The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity."  Our faith is rooted in the promises of a loving God who provides in abundance, but in practice we more often live out of the myth of scarcity. There is not enough to go around, and we need to protect our share. We do not have enough to respond the the needs we see around us, and so we say, "I don't have the gifts to do that. We don't have the resources to help."

One of my own recurring faith struggles is trusting that God can do more with me than my own gifts and talents might indicate. Doing a faithful job as pastor of a congregation is not a simple matter of doing the best I can with the abilities and gifts that I have. Christian faith insists that God can take my gifts and abilities and do far more than would seem possible based on those alone.

I think congregations need to struggle with this same faith issue. Just as I am tempted to think I can do no more than my gifts allow, congregations are often tempted to say, "We don't have enough talents, volunteers, money, space, etc. to do that." But Christian faith insists that God can do far more with our talents, volunteers, money, space, etc. than a simple accounting of those resources would indicate.

So where in my life or yours or our congregations is Jesus saying, "I have compassion. Let's do something about it." And where is he saying to our protests that we can't possibly do that with our meager resources, "What do you have?.. With my help, that is more than enough."

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Monday, June 11, 2012

No Time for Silence

I just got an email that asked for 20 minutes of time in an upcoming session meeting (sessions are Presbyterian's governing board). The request itself is no problem. It's an issue we need to discuss and consider.  But still I gave a little involuntary flinch when I saw the email because I worry about time pressures in session meetings.  More specifically, I worry about what we don't do when we get pressed for time.

Being the new pastor here, I've only been to two session meetings. But in my experience elsewhere, when the meeting agenda gets full, the natural place to save time is that portion of the meeting set aside for meditation, Scripture, reflection, and prayer.  I like to include a good 20-30 minutes of such time in Session meetings, but there can be immense pressure to "get down to business."

Of course I can't simply blame the elders on the session for this. In my own work as pastor, I'm prone to follow the exact same pattern.  The busier I am, the less time for prayer, for quiet, for meditating on Scripture, and so on.  Martin Luther may have said that he was so busy he needed 3 hours of prayer to get it all done, but I too often do the reverse.

Today's psalm begins, "For God alone my soul waits in silence." But in our culture, silence and stillness aren't productive, and so they are wastes of time. I and members of the sessions on which I've served have been well trained by our culture, and when there's a lot to do, and we want to get people home at a decent hour, we certainly don't want to waste anyone's time.

Every now and then it hits me just how badly I've lost my way on this. A pastor who acts as though it's a waste of time to wait in silence for God? A church session, the body charged to watch over the spiritual health of a congregation, that would jettison time for prayer and discernment so there is plenty of time to debate whether or not to pave the church parking lot? (Not an agenda item here.) It seems that we sometimes get so caught up in running the church that we forget what it means to be the church. We become so focused on functioning and logistics that we have no idea what God is asking us to do.

Surely, above all else, we have to make time for silence.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Sermon video - Like Falling in Love

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Sermon - Like Falling in Love

Mark 3:20-35
Like Falling in Love
James Sledge                                                                                       June 10, 2012

So, Jesus’ family thought he had taken leave of his senses, that he was out of his mind.  Probably not the most unusual occurrence in families.  Families frequently think a child is acting in ways that aren’t rational.  And on occasion I’ve had parents come to me as a pastor, seeking assistance in some sort of intervention they were planning for a child they thought had taken leave of his or her senses.  But that’s pretty rare.
 However, I’ve had a lot of dealings with another situation where people can seem to have lost touch with reality.  It’s a common condition, one that afflicts most all of us at some point in our lives. It’s usually called “falling in love.”
Falling in love leads people to do any number of less than completely rational things.  There’s a good reason that people who are in love say, “I’m just crazy about Jane,” or John or whomever.  People who are in love will drive for hours and hours just to spend a brief bit of time with their beloved.  Natural tightwads will inexplicably experience bouts of extravagant gift giving.  Meticulously laid out career plans may be put on hold or abandoned altogether.  And sometimes such behavior becomes too much for friends and family to sit idly by, and they feel the need to stage some sort of rescue or intervention.  Someone needs to reconnect the person with reality.
Jesus’ family seems to be engaged in just such an activity in today’s gospel reading.  The story is pretty short on details so we can’t say for sure why the family thinks an intervention is in order.  The NRSV translators seem to think the family is only trying to protect Jesus’ reputation.  They go to “restrain him” because other folks were saying Jesus was crazy.  I understand the translators preferring that Jesus’ family not come off too bad in this story, but suspect that may have colored their translation. 

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Rethinking Church

Yesterday I reflected on a God who sees a hungry raven and is moved to help. Today the gospel lection shows Jesus trying to get away by himself. But the crowds find him, and when he sees them, he is moved with compassion.  He heals their sick and later feeds the entire bunch, once again revealing a God who is moved by need. Yet the Church often seems focused more on other issues. The recent crack-down on nuns by the Vatican seems to me to place doctrine well above compassion, and that does not seem to be the God revealed in Jesus.

Not that there is any need to single out Roman Catholics. We Presbyterians have been engaged in theological and doctrinal wrangling over ordination standards for decades now. It has most certainly diverted time, energy, and money from missions of compassion and from acting as Jesus did.

Of course Jesus wasn't just saccharine sweet and nice. He scared people because he looked like a threat to those in power. But we Presbyterians are mostly a threat to ourselves.

It seems to me that the Church is very often focused mostly on itself. I don't want to diminish the considerable good done by Christians and the Church, but if you look at the typical church budget, you will see that it is mostly directed inward. It goes to fund worship that we like, music that we prefer, programs for our kids, fellowship events for us, and so on. Some of this is essential activity in cultivating a faith community, but a lot of it is a consumerist driven desire for the church to "meet my needs."

My own congregation is fairly typical on this. We have many wonderful things that we do, but when push comes to shove, we are driven more by what we want than the example of Jesus or what God wants. And I'm embarrassed to say the percentage of our budget that actually goes to mission.

We Christians say that we are the body of Christ, but I sometimes wonder what sort of glimpse of Jesus people get when they encounter us.  And that makes me wonder if we don't need to do some serious rethinking on what it means for us to be the Church.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Pictures of God

W. C. Fields is quoted as saying, "I love mankind. It's people I can't stand." It's easy to be for something in principle but struggle to demonstrate it in individual, concrete encounters. Lots of people want to help the poor, but they wouldn't dare invite them into their homes. It can be difficult to reconcile the big picture with on the ground realities.

It strikes me that big picture notions of God don't always cohere with on the ground expectations of how God acts. It is common for people to speak of a loving God and then direct God's ire at those they don't approve of. And those who pride themselves on not denying God's love to anyone often don't expect that love actually to do anything. God's love is a nice concept, but we often seem to think it quite impotent.

What a contrast to the words of today's psalm. Young ravens cry, and God acts. I think that is a rather startling picture of God to a lot of people. Our images of God are often of a very removed and distant figure, not so different from the Deists' "watchmaker" god who designs and builds the universe, winds it up, and walks off. Such a god never says, "Oh look, a baby raven is hungry. Let me help."

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Offended by Jesus

Jesus' experience at Nazareth is not so unusual. Many of us have found ourselves trapped in old identities. I grew up in "the country" and there I was Rose and Ken's boy. Even as an adult, this is some way remained my identity. Likewise a bad reputation gained as a youth can follow someone around for years, sometimes preventing people from seeing the very different person that youth as grown up to be. And this same phenomenon affects groups, organizations, and institutions. Once people "know" who or what a group is, they respond based on that "knowledge," even if it no longer is accurate.

Years ago, the now defunct GM car brand, Oldsmobile, ran a series of ads that trumpeted the theme, "Not Your Father's Oldsmobile." Clearly this was an attempt to redefine their brand, to break free from what people already "knew" about them. (Given that Oldsmobile no longer exists, I'm guessing they were unsuccessful.)

When Jesus acts in ways that do not fit into what his neighbors already "know" about him, even though they are impressed, they take offense. Literally translated, they are scandalized by it. It's an experience that I imagine must be tiring for Jesus. After all, it still goes on all the time.

Lots of people, even ones who've had little experience with Christianity or the church, think they "know" Jesus. And we who are church folks certainly think we "know" Jesus, although depending on which church you go to, this Jesus can look remarkably different.

In the same way, people inside and outside the church "know" it is. We "know" what it's about and what it does. And if it acts in ways contrary to what we "know," we'll take offense, just as we'll take offense if someone speaks of a Jesus who acts contrary to what we "know."

Where do we get what we "know" about Jesus? About the Church? About what it means to be a Christian, a disciple of Jesus? And when we encounter something that offends our sensibilities about these things, how do we figure out whether or not we've just taken offense, just been scandalized, by Jesus himself?

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Monday, June 4, 2012

The Kingdom is Like...

"The kingdom of heaven is like... The kingdom of heaven is like... The kingdom of heaven is like..." so says Jesus.  I wonder if we modern folks wouldn't have gotten frustrated very quickly with Jesus.  "Don't tell us what the kingdom is like!  What is it?"

A conceit of the modern era is that everything can be explained. We haven't figured it all out yet, but we will. Modern people do not do so well with mystery. (Some argue that post modern folks do better, but that's another discussion.) It's no coincidence that Unitarianism was a modern, Enlightenment undertaking. And while that movement was in part a reaction against wars and violence in Europe that seemed to be driven by competing religious doctrines, it was also a move away from mystery. Its god was high concept: rational, logical, and not engaged in human affairs or natural events. 

But I do not mean to pick on Unitarians. Most Trinitarian Christians have God safely secured behind walls of doctrine, logic, and a thoroughly modern, scientific worldview. Even fundamentalists, who may view science as an enemy, see the world and God through this scientific, modern worldview, where truth is about demonstrable facts. (Belief in supernatural "facts" has little to do with embracing mystery.)

Jesus begins his ministry with the proclamation, one shared with John the Baptist, that the Kingdom has come near. Clearly this Kingdom has to figure prominently in the work of the Church, but the Kingdom is like... Its arrival, its actual shape, our place in it, etc. are shrouded in mystery. But we don't care for mystery so we have decided we will turn this thing we cannot fully embrace or understand into something plain, clear, and straightforward: going to heaven when we die. No mystery required at all. Unitarians, Trinitarians, and even those who aren't religious at all are happy to embrace such a notion.

Who in their right mind would start a religious movement around something only partially grasped and hidden in mystery? "The kingdom of heaven is like..." No church consultant would ever let that become a centerpiece of a congregation's life and ministry.  So where does mystery live in the Church?

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Sunday, June 3, 2012

Preaching Thoughts on a Non-Preaching (Trinity) Sunday

I have a lot of colleagues who would be perfectly happy if there were no Trinity Sunday on the Christian calendar.  Certainly doing a Trinity sermon can pose challenges.  Because the the term Trinity never occurs in Scripture, Bible readings for this Sunday sometimes have fairly strained relationship to this central, Christian doctrine.  And then there is the basic logical problem of 1+1+1=1 that leads many, even many preachers, to relegate this doctrine to "only of interest to academic theologians" status.

I am not dealing with such problems myself this year. Our congregation is doing a lessons and carols styled journey through the Christian year, and so there is no sermon today. But I am in some ways sorry not to be preaching on Trinity Sunday. Despite the obvious challenges , I think the doctrine provides some very practical help when it comes to envisioning God.

A seemingly universal, religious tendency is to render God manageable. As a good Calvinist, I know that we humans love our idols, substitutes for God that are much more willing to do our bidding and much less inclined to challenge us or frighten us or demand that we change. But a Trinitarian God resists such attempts if, for no other reasons, the difficulty we have explaining and picturing this God.

Of course most of us are not really Trinitarians. We are functional Unitarians. You can promote any member of the Trinity to top status and make the other two junior partners, but my Presbyterian experience has been almost entirely a Unitarianism of the Father sort.  God is Father and Father is God.  Consider how people began their prayers.  Rarely do they pray to Jesus or the Spirit.  "Father God" is even a popular opening. Jesus and the Spirit are not discounted, but they don't have the full godhead credentials for some reason.

Now there are plenty of people who are Unitarians on purpose, but that is not the issue on my mind. I'm talking about Presbyterians who today sing "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty" with great gusto.  They don't flinch singing "God in three persons, blessed Trinity," but when it comes to relating with God, this goes out the window.

I think it was C.S. Lewis who called God the great iconoclast who keeps shattering our images of God so we can replace them with better, but still incomplete ones. And the Trinity keeps chipping away at our too small images of God, forever reminding us that God is always beyond, fuller, more than we can ever imagine.