Tuesday, July 31, 2012

You Just Wait!

The cross and the Crucified Christ are central elements of Christianity. But despite this, the faith has never come to a complete consensus on exactly what the cross means or how it "works." Scholars and writers are still offering their takes on the meaning of Jesus' crucifixion.

But at the moment, I'm not thinking about whether I prefer ransom, satisfaction, penal substitution, or some other atonement theory.  As I read today's gospel - Matthew's account of the crucifixion - I found myself fixated on the taunts hurled Jesus' way.  "Save yourself... He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him." Even the two criminals beside him get in on the act. (You have to go to Luke to find the one criminal who is sympathetic to Jesus.)

Much as happened during his trial, Jesus remains silent.  He suffer the abuses and taunts without a reply. There is no comeback, no "Just wait; you'll see."  Not that we don't sometimes provide that for Jesus after the fact.

It strikes me that we sometimes minimize the cross into a difficulty on the way to something great.  Jesus still turns the tables on those who taunt him, only later.  They still get theirs and Jesus gets his vindication.  In the gaudier versions of this, King Jesus comes back with a sword and settles old scores, and the cross was simply a cosmic version of "no pain, no gain."

The cross still perplexes and confounds us.  And so we try to fit it into models of victory that we do understand, where the bad guys still get their due, and Jesus wasn't a wimp after all.  He just knew that holding his tongue would make the victory sweeter when the time came.

Yet presumably Jesus dies for the very folks who taunt him.  And the biblical picture of Jesus doesn't speak much of an avenging warrior who returns saying, "You had your chance, but now you're really gonna be sorry."  Instead Paul speaks of God's power being made perfect in weakness.  And, in what I think one of the more remarkable images in the Bible, we meet King Jesus in John's Revelation. 

The typical expectations of a great king are there in Revelation 5.  He is "the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David," and he has "conquered."  But then John sees him, a "Lamb standing as if he had been slaughtered." We may want the Lamb on the cross to transform into a Lion, like a 98 pound weakling who bulks up and turns the tables on the bullies, but the Lion remains a Lamb that has been slaughtered.  And "conquer" takes on a whole new meaning.

I wonder what Christianity would look like if we really took the cross seriously, and if we took seriously Jesus' call to take up our own crosses, to embrace our own willingness to suffer for the sake of the other, even if that other hates us.

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Monday, July 30, 2012

Settling for Scarcity

The Lord upholds all who are falling,
    and raises up all who are bowed down. 

The eyes of all look to you,
    and you give them their food in due season.
You open your hand,
    satisfying the desire of every living thing. (from Ps. 145)

Today's meditation from Richard Rohr begins, "It is good to remember that a part of you has always loved God. There is a part of you that has always said yes. There is a part of you that is Love itself, and that is what we must fall into. It is already there. Once you move your identity to that level of deep inner contentment, you will realize you are drawing upon a Life that is much larger than your own and from a deeper abundance. Once you learn this, why would you ever again settle for scarcity in your life?"

Strange that Rohr would describe the lifestyle of out consumerist culture that acquires things at an astounding rate as "scarcity."  But I think him correct when he says that our culture trains us well in a kind of "learned helplessness."  Most of us have known people who were overly dependent on someone.  They needed their wife or husband or parent so deeply that they could do nothing on their own, and they lived out of a subservience that was crippling. 

Our culture works hard to put us in exactly such a position with regards to needing more.  We are rendered helpless by accepting the cultural lesson that "I'm not enough!  This is not enough! I do not have enough!" to quote Rohr once more.

Fear is a powerful, if evolutionarily primitive, emotion. There are perhaps still times when a fight or flight response may aid us, but such instincts do not lend themselves well to the sort of life Jesus says we are meant for; a life freed from fear, a life motivated instead by love.  

Jesus says, "You are a beloved child of God. You do not need to be more impressive or have more accomplishments. Open yourself to the powerfully transforming presence of God's love in your life.  Discover an abundance that truly satisfies and empowers you for a bold, new life."

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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Preaching Thoughts on a Non-Preaching Sunday

Today's worship looks a bit different at Falls Church Presbyterian.  It is organized around our just completed Vacation Bible School and is led by the VBS participants.  This is apparently a traditions here, one that I have not yet experienced.  Not having seen this or knowing quite what happens, I asked for some assurances that it would still "worship" and not simply a VBS slide show.

As a pastor, I tend to obsess about worship.  It's been drilled into me.  I took classes on worship in seminary, and our denomination not only puts out Book of Common Worship, but our constitution includes a lengthy section entitled the "Directory for Worship."  It speaks at length about what worship is, how worship is to be ordered, and what elements might be in it, should be in it, or must be in it.  All this attention to worship is not really surprising.  When you are a religious institution whose most visible product is a worship service, it is going to receive a lot of energy, thought, scrutiny, etc.

I also tend to worry about worship out of the criticism of it from the 19th Century philosopher, theologian, and existentialist, Soren Kierkegaard.  He spoke of worship as drama, but he said it too often got misconstrued as an event where preacher, choir, and liturgists were actors for the audience/congregation.  Rather, Kierkegaard said, God should be the audience with the congregants being actors.

I'm writing this prior to today's worship, but I won't be surprised if today's drama comes closer to what Kierkegaard suggests than many other Sundays.  Oh, there will be some parents or grandparents who are there for the performance rather than worship, but, as Kierkegaard complained, there are people there every Sunday in that mode.  But there will also be dozens of children leading worship, singing, praying, moving, dancing.  By that alone, today's worship will have more of what Kierkegaard wanted. 

No doubt there will also be a number of adult and teen VBS volunteers helping to keep all this going, and so even more people who otherwise might be sitting and watching worship will instead be "onstage," to use Kierkegaard's language.  And presumably God will find the whole thing every bit as pleasing and enjoyable as what happens on other Sundays, perhaps a lot more so.

The whole thing will no doubt be less polished than some other Sundays.  There will likely be times when it looks a little chaotic.  But there may well be times when it has more heart, life, and vitality than some meticulously planned and executed worship services.

At this point I'm not really sure where I'm going with all this.  But as one who sometimes obsesses about getting worship well planned and executed, it's likely worth recalling that today's worship may feel more like worship to God than some of those I'm responsible for.

P.S. My expectations were not far off.  The service was louder, more animated, and at times more chaotic that the typical Sunday.  But it was also more energetic, lively, and full of heart.  The children and leaders did a great job, and I'm pretty sure that God was pleased.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Holding on to Bitter Memories

Rare is the person who does not carry with him or her the memory of some great failing.  Most of us have at some point betrayed our principles, our convictions, our notions of who we truly are.  The motivations for such acts are many. To save face, to be successful, to get something we really want, to preserve our safety or security, we act contrary to who we say we are. Out of anger, fear, or zealotry, we go against what we say we hold dear.

Following 9-11, the swiftness with which we did away with freedoms and rights we had long celebrated illustrates how easily we change direction under certain motivations.  It is probably too early to say if we will someday look back in anguished regret, but history gives us other examples where the judgment is clear. The internment of Japanese Americans accompanied by their loss of property, homes, and businesses, is one of those failings many would just as soon forget. And there are many others, slavery, segregation, the treatment of Native Americans.  These cast a dark shadow on American claims of greatness, godliness, and goodness, so much so that some people would rather they be glossed over in teaching US history.

I've always thought it a bit odd that this did not happen with Peter's denial reported in today's gospel. Peter became a leader in the early Church.  He must have had his ardent supporters, those who viewed him like George Washington was viewed by many 18th century Americans.  Strange then that the gospels show so little hesitation in telling of Peter's moment of awful failure, a moment so personally devastating that the gospel says he left the scene and "wept bitterly."

I wonder what Peter thought about this episode as he grew older. Did it always haunt him in someway?  Did he try to put it out of his mind?  Or was it something he wanted to touch from time to time, a reminder of how easily we betray what we say we love?

I don't know if this is in any way peculiar to our age, but we do not seem to have much interest in lingering over things that remind us of our failings.  I've lost count of the times people have suggested eliminating prayers of confession in worship.  "Such a downer," they sometimes say.  The refusal of the IOC to do anything during Olympic opening ceremonies to recall the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 games is supposedly because that might put a damper on the celebratory nature of the event.  No bitter memories please.

But the Church clung to the bitter memory of Peter's great failing, making his denial of Jesus one of the better known stories from the Bible. The same Peter who is celebrated as a founder of churches and remembered (in tradition at least) as the first pope, is perhaps best know for his colossal failure of nerve following Jesus' arrest.

I like to think that Peter himself cherished this memory in some way. It reminded him that, despite all his boldness and bravado, he could not be who he wanted to be, could not be who God wanted him to be, on his own. Only the presence of God within, the Holy Spirit working through him, permitted that.  I like to think that this bitter memory constantly reminded Peter of where his true strength lay, that it kept him humble and dependent on God so that he could say, like Paul does in his letter to the Philippians, "I can do all things through him who strengthens me."

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Freed from Ourselves

In America, with all our focus on freedom and personal liberties, discussions often center on where reasonable limits to such liberties should be placed.  The old example speaks of us having freedom of speech yet not permitted to yell, "Fire!" in a crowded theater.  And since 9-11, there have been frequent discussions about whether to give up freedoms in order to gain security.  But regardless of where people come down in such discussions, there is a basic agreement that we should be as free as possible.

The Apostle Paul speaks of Jesus freeing us from the Law, and so he might seem to be our kindred spirit with regards to personal liberty. But Paul never worships freedom for freedom's sake.  In fact he speaks of becoming a slave to righteousness, and he insists that we cannot exercise our freedom if it causes the slightest difficulty for someone else in regards to her faith.

The same Paul who trashes Peter for bowing to Jewish pressure regarding dietary laws, says in today's passage from Romans that freedom from dietary restrictions cannot be exercised if they cause a fellow believer to stumble. For Paul, freedom takes a back seat to community, for living in ways that " pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding."  And when Paul writes to his congregation at Corinth, a group that seems particularly enamored by their new freedom in Christ, he chastises them for not considering their brothers and sisters.

A key issue is the eating of meat because meat had generally been offered as a sacrifice before ending up at the butcher shop.  Paul is very clear that Jesus has freed him from the Law and that because idols are really only human-made objects, eating such meat is no problem.  And yet he tells the Corinthians, "If food is a cause of a brother or sisters falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall."

In our culture, the other is often seen as a potential barrier to our freedoms and liberties and something we must guard against. Paul sees the other as a barrier to personal freedom and liberty as well, but in a completely different sense. They are opportunities for us to exercise what we have truly been freed to do in Christ: to love.

Most all of us are bound to some degree by fears: fear that we won't have enough, fear that we aren't safe, fear that others won't like us, fear that we will fail, fear that we won't find love, etc.  But "in Christ," we are freed from such fears and therefore freed to live more fully in the image of God, in the manner of Jesus, giving ourselves to others in love.  And for Jesus, loving freed him even from the need to save his own life.

At the beginning of the American experiment, our freedoms were always understood to exist within a "social contract." Our freedoms and liberties were for the good of society, not simply for our own use.  That's not quite Paul, but it is a bit closer to him than the increasingly individualistic notions of personal liberty in our day.

It strikes me that conversations on "gun control," which have flared up again in light of the Colorado theater shooting, are often argued almost entirely along individualist notions of freedom.  I'm not suggesting any particular stance with regards to gun ownership.  But I do not think I have ever heard anyone speak along the lines of Paul and say, "I believe in the right bear arms, but if it would make for a safer world, I would happily refuse to exercise that right." 

The same critique could surely be leveled at stances of all political persuasions. And that raises the question.  What rights, freedoms, or liberties that I cherish have become something from which I need to be freed in order to fully love my neighbor?

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Letting Go of Self

I've been thinking a lot about self and identity the last few days, spurred by Daily Devotions from Richard Rohr, comments on my blogs, and re-reading Graham Standish's Humble Leadership. I supposes this all started when a church member commented that my predecessor here once said there were only two Republicans who belonged to this church.  I must confess, I was stunned by that.

"All of you are one in Christ Jesus" is a fundamental Christian affirmation. The divisions of the world are obliterated when we our identity is reformed in the image of Jesus.  As Paul says in today's reading, "We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's."

In the teachings of Jesus and the writings of Paul, new life emerges as the self is denied or dies.  But our culture worships the individual self.  It says that happiness comes from satisfying all the desires of the self rather than subjugating the self to some larger good.  Western individualism has always had tendencies in this direction, but they seem to have grown more pronounced in recent decades. There have always been conservative and liberal congregations, wealthy and working class congregations, but I think there was some recognition that this was a regrettable result of human frailty. It was certainly nothing to be proud about.

As one who is fairly liberal, I confess that there is a certain comfort in moving to a congregation that is closer to my liberal leanings than my previous one.  But at the same time, the idea that our liberalism could form a sufficiently large part of our identity that a Republican would not want to join is disconcerting.  We are all one in Christ Jesus, as long as you are a Democrat?

(Let me quickly add that I'm responding to a statement and not necessarily to reality. I hope my predecessor's observation some years ago was an exaggeration, a misread, or is no longer true.  And I've not experienced any in-your-face, strident politicizing that one might expect if we were managing to run off all non-liberals.)

If required to label myself, I will say I am a liberal or progressive Christian. But I hope it is the Christian part of that label that is primary, not the liberal or progressive. In Paul's letter to the Romans, he mentions some issues that divided Christians in his time: refusing to eat meat because almost all the items at the butcher shop had started out as sacrifices at some temple or worshiping on the Sabbath (Saturday) versus worshiping on the Lord's Day (Sunday). In different letters he mentions other dividing lines: Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free.  In our day perhaps he would have added liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, black or white, etc.  But he certainly would have said that none of these divisions matter because all are made one in Christ Jesus.  But such a notion seems difficult, even impossible, unless the self recedes and "in Christ" comes to the fore. 

Who am I?  That is a basic human question.  Many of us spend a great deal of energy trying to hone and stake a claim to a particular identity.  And the idea that our true identity requires letting go of self goes against the cultural grain.  Not me, but Christ; not my will but God's will; not what I want but what God wants; saying such things are difficult for many of us.  But Jesus, Paul, and the lives of countless Christians over the centuries all insist that we discover who we truly are, find a joyful new life and sense of being reborn, when we let go of self and become a new self in Christ.

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Monday, July 23, 2012

Sermon audio - Quiet Desperation

Audios of sermons and worship can be found on FCPC website.

Becoming Better Lovers

In seminary, my favorite subjects were theology and Bible exegesis (the careful study of Scripture in order to understand, explain, and interpret a passage).  I really enjoy the rational thought processes involved in such study.  I love trying to figure things out, trying to understand what something means, and there were times when I thought about further academic pursuit, about trying to become a theology professor perhaps.

I still love theology and exegesis. After all, it is not possible to be a Christian without doing both. All people of faith have some way of deciding what God is like, how to use the Bible, etc.  But sometimes I have tendency, as does my denomination, to make such things an end in themselves. That's likely one of the reasons Presbyterians tend to be a bit on the stuffy side.  A great deal of the time, faith operates only in our brains.

I am overstating things a bit, but there is some truth to Presbyterian stereotypes.  And as one somewhat comfortable in those stereotypes, I find Paul's words today a tad unsettling.  "The one who loves another has fulfilled the law.... Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law." 

Paul is referring to law in the sense of Torah, so we're not necessarily talking about speed limits here.  But neither did Paul divide things into religious and secular spheres.  The religious permeated all things for Paul and most ancient people, and so he might well has seen speed limits as religious.  Speeding or running a red light does increase the chance of me injuring a neighbor.

But the bigger issue for me is this idea that loving the other fulfills all the law, rules, and regulations.  Can it really be so simple?  If we just all loved one another, would everything else take care of itself?

In my denomination, pastors, along with elders and deacons (who might be called "lay leaders" in other traditions), are ordained.  One of my favorite questions asked to those being ordained is also probably the most difficult promise to keep. "Do you promise the further the peace, unity, and purity of the church?" The problem is that some folks tend to emphasize one component while other folks have a different favorite. Some will happily sacrifice peace for the sake of purity while others will happily toss out any notion of purity to maintain peace. 

(One of the reasons there are liberal Presbyterian Churches and conservative Presbyterian Churches is because we can't figure out how to do all three.  And so we divide up, allowing individual congregations to live more or less peacefully in unity as they practice the particular purity of their position.  This moves the purity fights that reveal our lack of peace and unity, [and love?] mostly to a regional and national level.)

But if we take Paul seriously, and if we draw some parallels between purity and the law, then loving one another would seem to take care of purity.  And certainly loving one another would seem to build peace and unity.  Of course it must be said that Paul had opponents, and he wasn't always shy about saying nasty things about them.  Was this a matter of Paul having trouble practicing what he preached, or was he simply dealing with people who were hurting others because they weren't loving their neighbors?  I'm not sure there are easy answers to such questions, but I do think that embodying the idea that love fulfills the law in doing no wrong to the neighbor would makes things better.

There's an old line that says, "I'm a lover, not a fighter." In my experience, we Presbyterians (and plenty of other groups) are sometimes better fighters than lovers.  We are very good at rational exercises of theology and exegesis that allow us to marshal compelling  arguments to help our side win.  But how might it look if we focused more on loving?

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Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sermon - Quiet Desperation

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Quiet Desperation
James Sledge                                                                                       July 22, 2012

Jesus and the disciples needed a little R and R.  They had scarcely had a moment’s rest for weeks.  It had been a nonstop preaching, teaching, and healing tour. The crowds were everywhere, pressing in on them, demanding access to Jesus.  Perhaps that is why Jesus had sent the disciples out in pairs on a tour of their own.  He needed surrogates to help in the face of so much demand.
When the disciples returned from their mission trips with tales of their own crowds and of teaching and healing many, everyone was exhausted.  But still people swarmed around.  And so Jesus said, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.” And like celebrities escaping the paparazzi, they got into a boat and slipped away.
But the crowds were as persistent as paparazzi.  Jesus and his entourage had not made their getaway completely undetected.  They had been spotted, the direction they were headed observed. Word quickly spread, and by the time Jesus and his crew came ashore at their deserted hideaway, a huge, clamoring crowd was waiting for them.
Time to make another break for it. Time to give the crowds the slip.  Send a couple disciples one way, a few more the other, then slip out the back.  Except that Jesus looks into the faces of the crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.
How pathetic those folks must have been. They were so desperate that they chased after Jesus like pre-teen girls chasing Justin Bieber.  They were so desperate for help that they begged just to touch his clothes. The disciples could have made a fortune if they had known about mass marketing.  “Get you own piece of Jesus’ cloak for only $19.95, plus shipping and handling.”
I’m sure glad I’m not like those pitiful Galileans.  Sure, I’ve got my problems, but I’m not going to come unglued over them.  I don’t need to push and shove and beg.  I have things under control. I have resources as my disposal.  I’m not going to let myself get in a situation where I need to act like those folks who chased after Jesus, begging for him to help.
Feelings this way may be why the images out of New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina were so disturbing. 

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Not Much to Say

I imagine there were people who expected that I would write something about the horrible shooting in Colorado yesterday, but the truth is I really had little to say.  Calls for prayer were everywhere, I and I didn't feel the need to echo those.  Facebook and Twitter were filled with comments and messages. Many faith based responses struck me as trite. Other struck me as almost cruel, insisting so forcefully on joyful hope that they seemed to deny people their grief.  And so I said nothing.

I don't have much more to say today.  I'm not at all certain how to salvage any "good" from this terrible and evil act. But neither am I comfortable simply chalking this up to how things are in a broken and fallen world.

There's a line in the old John Prine song, "Sam Stone," about a man who gets addicted to morphine after being wounded "in the conflict overseas." His life spirals downhill upon his return home, and he finally dies of an overdose.  The chorus to the song goes,
There's a hole in Daddy's arm where all the money goes,
Jesus Christ died for nothin' I suppose.
Little pitchers have big ears,
Don't stop to count the years,
Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios. 
 Sometimes I don't feel very far from such sentiments, and I simply rest in a quite, poignant sadness. But feeling I should say something, I looked at the lectionary readings for yesterday, and there were these verses from Paul.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." No, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
 I've often heard the line, "Vengeance is mine" quoted, but rarely with Paul's intent, rarely arguing that we are to love our enemies and leave all the vengeance stuff to God. Paul seems to think that evil can be defeated with good.  But evil seems amazingly resilient.  Can we really believe it will be overcome by good, by love?  Dare we believe it?

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Thursday, July 19, 2012


I've likely mentioned this before, but one of the classic 20th Century works in my faith tradition is a book by H. Richard Niebuhr entitled, Christ and Culture.  It speaks of several possible relationships between the two, "Christ against Culture, The Christ of Culture, Christ above Culture, Christ and Culture in Paradox," and finally argues for "Christ the Transformer of Culture." 

I'm not sure the Apostle Paul is thinking at all along Niebuhr's lines when he wrote the verses in today's epistle reading, but I think they underlie such thought. 
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Paul says that being in Christ makes us non-conformists.  That might not lead directly to Niebuhr's conclusions. A non-conformist might choose simply to be "against culture."  But clearly a non-conformist has to have some sense of tension with any culture this side of the reign of God, the full-blown arrival of the Kingdom on earth.

Church congregations vary widely with regards to their level of non-conformity, but I don't think it unfair to say that on the whole, church congregations are a fairly conformist group.  My own Presbyterian tradition, which proudly claims both H. Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr, certainly has been very at  home in the culture for much of its time in America.  We Presbyterians have been referred to as the "Republican party at prayer" (a moniker we've shared with others). Granted, this referenced a Republican party no longer in existence, but I'm not sure the Republican party was very non-conformist in the 1950s either.

For much of American history, Mainline churches were viewed as cultural institutions that helped raise solid citizens who shared a common moral framework.  That did not necessarily prevent working to make changes in the culture, but it did pose problems.  Mainline churches often came late to movements to change society, drawn to things such as the Civil Rights movement by members who caught the fever for change outside their congregations.  (I should add that much of that fever was faith induced, but its origins tended to be non-Mainline churches.)

Of course we Mainline denominations have lost our special place in the culture.  There are still vestiges of it, especially in the South, but by and large the culture decided it doesn't need us as one of its key institutions for raising good, community citizens.  And perhaps this is nothing short of a gift from God, though one we don't yet know how to use.

We Presbyterians still love to pass resolutions with regards to the environment, the Middle East peace process, health care reform, gambling, immigration, and so on as though we spoke with some authority to the culture.  We still operate out of patterns that evolved when we were an important cultural institution.

I'm not sure I know just what patterns we should be embracing in this new time, although I suspect such patterns will require a lot more being "transformed by the renewing our your minds" at a congregational level. Congregations need to become places of personal transformation if we are to be non-conformist, transforming agents in the culture, in the world. 

And so that is what I'm struggling with myself right at this moment.  What sort of non-conformity am I being called to in Christ?  And what sort of transforming non-conformity needs to catch fire in this and other congregation?

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Becoming Least

Today's gospel reading with its famous Jesus quote, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me," is loved by many. But I'm not entirely sure what to do with this passage, sometimes called "The Judgment of of the Nations," other times "The Judgment of the Gentiles."  And my dilemma is related to those different titles.

When "the nations" are gathered before the Son of Man and separated "as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats," just who is it that is gathered?  For much of my life, I assumed it was everyone who was so gathered, but I'm now reasonably certain that is not the case.  In the original Greek of the gospel it is the ethnos who are gathered.  This word can mean "nations" but it more regularly is used to refer to the "Gentiles."

Matthew's gospel is a very Jewish gospel, and in Jewish thought, ethnos, Gentiles, nations, provides the ultimate us-them demarcation. Matthew seems here to use it just that way. The Gentiles, the goyim, the others, are gathered for judgment.  And in a surprising turn, they are judged worthy because they were kind to members of Jesus' family (presumably meaning his followers) who were in need.

When I think about the gospel passage from this point of view, it resists simple, moralistic understandings, but it is rich with interpretive possibility. If Jesus judges outsiders, not on their receptiveness to the Christian message but on their kindness to Christians in need, what does that say about Jesus' priorities?  And if this passage is about how Jesus judges outsiders, what does that say about how the Church should relate to outsiders?

Matthew's gospel ends with Jesus commanding his disciples (and the Church) to "make disciples of all ethnos," and so the Church is clearly charged to call people to lives of following Jesus. Yet Jesus says here that these ethnos won't necessarily be judged on how they respond to this disciple making enterprise.  In fact, putting ourselves at the mercy of the ethnos, thus giving them a chance to show us kindness, would seem to offer salvation every bit as much as the stereotypical evangelistic appeal.

As part of a denomination that is not terribly good at evangelism, and sometimes seems to dabble in it only out of some survival instinct, I wonder what it would look like for us to reach out to them in an entirely different way.   What would it mean for us to put ourselves at the mercy of them, to become the "least of these" who are dependent on others' kindness?

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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Risky Business

I'm guessing that most church folks have at one time or another heard a sermon from today's gospel with an Aesop's Fable type moral.  "Use your talents wisely."  Trouble is, the parable of the talents is not about that at all.

The two slaves who doubled their master's investment most certainly had to engage in risky behavior.  They were no safe, prudent investors.  But the third slave was.  In Jesus' day, there were no reliable banks.  On top of that, the Bible has prohibitions against lending money at interest.  And so the third slave did the safe and prudent thing, the one thing that guaranteed he would not lose any of his master's money.

On a number of occasions, I've been part of groups that were discussing how to invest a church's endowment funds.  And I probably don't need to tell you that risky, speculative investments were not seriously considered. I don't disagree with such financial prudence, but the same sort of timidity often saturates all church planning and thinking.  Yet Jesus' parable lifts up risky behavior and says, "Well done, good and trustworthy slave."

I don't think that Jesus meant that we are never supposed to consider the risks before doing something. In fact, he tells a parable about doing just that.  But clearly Jesus thinks there will be times and places where we are called to risk it all for the sake of God's coming reign.  Jesus certainly did so, risking even his very life.

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Sermon audio - Dancing Naked

Sermon and worship audios also available at Falls Church Presbyterian site.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Acting on Predictions

One of the comic strips in this morning's paper featured a scraggly character holding a sign that said, "Repent! The world ends tomorrow."  The fellow is a stock character we've all seen many times, the crazy who has figured out the end is coming and wants everyone to be ready.

But if this is a fringe, stock figure, tamer versions of him are quite popular. On the one hand are those who presume they can do reasonably accurate predicting by deciphering a code for the book of Revelation.  And on the other hand are the larger number of folks who laugh at such attempts but do a different sort of predicting themselves, insisting that nothing will happen in any foreseeable future.  Things will go on pretty much as they are well beyond all of our lifetimes.  And both sorts of predicting are used to support behaviors, or the lack of them.

"Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour," says Jesus in today's parable.  Jesus says this sort of thing a number of times, but his followers seem not to have heard him. Some insist they will not be surprised by the kingdom's arrival because they will have seen it coming, but others insist they will not be surprised because it won't come.

 I have really been intrigued in recent years by the Emergent Church movement and its attempt to reclaim an emphasis on the Kingdom, on the promise of God's coming rule. This is certainly central to what Jesus teaches. He calls people to reorient their lives in preparation for a very different world whose arrival will take us by surprise. But somehow Christianity's focus shifted over the centuries to an off-world heaven rather than the transformed world Jesus proclaimed.

My own faith is probably more about personal solace, about hope and guidance for the day than it is about being transformed so that I conform to an as-yet-unseen, new world.  "It's gonna happen.  It's gonna happen," says Jesus.  Sure it is, but right now I need a nap.

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Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sermon - Dancing Naked

2 Samuel 6:1-19
Dancing Naked
July 15, 2012                                                                           James Sledge

One of the things I still miss from my time in Raleigh, NC in the late 1990s is the campus radio station at N.C. State, WKNC.  It was student run station that played songs rarely on commercial radio.  One Sunday while driving home from church I turned on the station expecting the reggae program normally on at that time.  Instead I heard bouncy pop tune with a chorus that went, “He’s dancing naked!” over and over.  It was quite a toe-tapper, and I soon found myself singing along, “He’s dancing naked!”
Programing at WKNC was always dependent on whether the student DJ woke up and got there in time. The reggae DJ must have overslept because the “Rez Rock Show,” short for Resurrection Rock was still on in the reggae hour.  It was a Christian rock and roll program, and the Christian band singing “He’s dancing naked!” was singing about King David.
Actually David wasn’t completely naked.  Our scripture says that he had on an ephod, a little apron or loin cloth.  Dancing around with nothing but a loin cloth is hardly what one would expect from a king.  It’s embarrassing.  David’s wife certainly thinks so.  She looks down on David in disgust.  And if you read a little further than we did this morning, she tells David what a fine spectacle he made of himself and calls him “vulgar.”  Michal was the daughter of King Saul, so she had some knowledge of how royalty should behave – certainly not like David.
You have to admit, it’s pretty strange behavior for a king, a head of state.  (Think how people would react if President Obama suddenly ripped off his clothes at a state dinner and started offering prayers in his underwear.)  Had David taken leave of his senses? 
A little background may help. David is bringing the Ark of the Covenant, which held the Ten Commandments, into his new capital of Jerusalem. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Getting Personal

On a handful of occasions, I have been surprised by someone who seems religiously progressive and open-minded as well as open to interfaith dialogue, who then says something like, "I feel bad for Jews who can't really have a personal relationship with God." The first time this happened, I got the impression that the person didn't actually know anyone who was Jewish, that her notion of a Jewish person was a mistaken caricature she had picked up somewhere.  Still, her remark startled me.

Today's morning psalm begins:
   I love the LORD, because he has heard
          my voice and my supplications.
   Because he inclined his ear to me,
          therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
   The snares of death encompassed me;
          the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
          I suffered distress and anguish.
   Then I called on the name of the LORD:
          “O LORD, I pray, save my life!”
   Gracious is the LORD, and righteous;
          our God is merciful.
   The LORD protects the simple;
          when I was brought low, he saved me. 
This hardly sounds like the words of someone for whom God is a distant concept or unapproachable deity. And if you read through the psalms, you will discover cries to God that many Christians wouldn't dare utter for fear of being irreverent,  or perhaps simply out of fear.  I've known many church folk who could never say, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" unless they were reading it from the Bible. But of course some ancient psalmist felt close enough to God to shake a fist and demand an answer from God long before Jesus borrowed the psalm while on the cross.

As a Christian, I certainly believe, among other things, that Jesus is a unique window on God, an encounter with God not available otherwise. But that is a far crying from saying no one else can draw close to God in a personal sense.  In fact, I'm intrigued by the question of what constitutes a personal relationship with God.  What allows someone to feel an intimacy with God, to engage God in a personal sense? 

It seems to me that any sort of personal relationship has a significant experiential component.  We don't really have relationships with people we've never met, talked to, or done things with. We have to respond to one another, react to one another, and so on.  You have to go through things together to really get to know someone, which is why the first year of marriage is often tumultuous. The couple is getting to know one another and working out a deep relationship with each other.

Does God inclined her ear to me?  I can't really know unless God has responded to me.  Does Jesus save me?  Hard to say unless I've experienced that in some way. Simply believing a few things as part of a contract that promises me heaven in some hereafter is not personal, and it's not a relationship.

I love the LORD.  My God, why have you forsaken me?  Exactly the sort of things you would expect someone who gets personal with God to say.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Sermon audio - Constrained by What We Know

Audios of sermons and worship available at Fall Church Presbyterian website.

Favorite Hymns

     O sing to the LORD a new song;
          sing to the LORD, all the earth.  

(from Psalm 96)

Falls Church Presbyterian, where I recently became pastor, has a wonderful music program. I was blown away by the choir the first time I heard them, and they have continued to astound me. I've not yet had the chance to hear the children's choir, but if they are half as good as the youth, that will be a treat as well.  And the congregation itself seems to be very musical.  They throw themselves into the hymns and are deeply appreciative of the music program.  Many of them sit back down after the benediction at worship service end to listen to the organ postlude.

All this is a preface to saying that our denomination has a new hymnal coming out.  Like all new hymnals, it will have some wonderful new additions and some head-scratchers, although from what I've seen of it, this one looks better than most. Given what I've observed about music in this congregation, I'm assuming that we will be getting new hymnals sooner rather than later.  But I know that will not be the case everywhere. There are still plenty of congregations who have not bought the "new" hymnal that came out over 20 years ago.

When I arrived at my first congregation in 1995, they had bought those "new" hymnals not terribly long before I came.  And there was a sizable contingent of folks who were quite vocal in their dislike of it. Not only had it messed with lyrics to make them more gender neutral ("God of our Fathers" became "God of the Ages"), but it had removed beloved favorites such as "Onward Christian Soldiers." (That it had added old favorites such as "How Great Thou Art" and new favorites such as "I Danced in the Morning" was conveniently overlooked.)

Christian faith looks forward to the new.  In Christ we become new creations. We await a new heaven and new earth. The Bible concludes with the promise, "See, I am making all things new."  Well that's great, but don't change any of the songs.

In truth, I think that people's attachment to songs and hymns actually speaks to a spiritual power in music that is rarely present in words alone.  Music impacts us more deeply than the neck up religious experience that dominates Presbyterian worship.  It may be the one part of our worship that touches us deep down in our soul.  No wonder people sometimes react so viscerally over a new hymnal.

Perhaps this sort of reaction speaks to a spiritual hunger that has not always found sustenance in our worship. And perhaps fights over music and hymnals are sometimes proxy battles that are really about the fear of losing a personal, spiritual connection in worship.  If so, how do we address that directly so that we can joyfully sing the old favorites and sing to the LORD a new song?

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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

God Is for Us... and for Them

A lot of people in the Presbyterian Church USA are still in pain with regards to last week's General Assembly.  The defeat of a proposed change in language about marriage - from a contract between "one man and one woman" to a contract between "two people - was a bitter pill for many.  This is especially so for many younger members.  Young Adult Advisory Delegates and Theological Student Advisory Delegates at the General Assemble supported the measure by 78 and 82% respectively, and I have to imagine that many of them feel that "the old guard" is thwarting the fresh winds of the Spirit.

Of course there are other people of deep faith who feel the Assembly made the correct decision. I don't agree with them, but that is hardly a sure fire indicator that they, unlike me, ignore God's will.  However, it is clear that both side cannot be right with regard to God's will. Regardless of how faithfully we have approached this issue, how diligently we have listened for God, at least one of the "sides" in this issue has misunderstood what God is saying.

And here is where Christian faith can get very difficult.  When we feel convinced that we are indeed doing as God desires, that we are responding to the Spirit's movement, it can be very tempting to view those who oppose us as opponents of God in some way.  And if they are against God then no doubt God is against them. "If God is for us, who is against us?" writes the Apostle Paul. Yes, God is for us, but surely not for them.

I don't for a moment think it unimportant correctly to discern God's will, and there most certainly are consequences for getting it wrong. But the new thing God is doing in Jesus is not rooted in our getting it right. It is rooted in "while we still were sinners, Christ died for us." In Christ, God is for even those who are against God.

And more than that, God is not thwarted by our failures.  God is not thwarted even by concerted resistance to God's will.  God's transforming love is at work, and gospel logic does not reckon victory or defeat by the same standards we use. Failure, set-back, and defeat do not always mean what they seem.

Surely Jesus' greatest moment of testing and doubt was the cross.  This was total and absolute failure.  It was absolute triumph for those who resisted God's will.  Or so it seemed. So it seemed.

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Monday, July 9, 2012

Sighs Too Deep for Words

One of the difficulties of entering a congregation as a new pastor is the relational nature of congregations and pastoring.  But as the new pastor, I don't really have any deep relationship with church members at first. And, to a degree I had not anticipated, I find myself grieving the loss of relationships from eleven years in a previous congregation. These two things seem to conspire to emphasize the sense of being an outsider.

An outsider doesn't see things the same way insiders do. This is not a matter of one viewpoint being the correct one.  It is simply a different perspective. Things that are cozy and familiar to insiders may seem off-putting or strange to an outsider, just as the treasured things of the outsider may strike the insiders as strange or worse.  Compounding this is a natural tendency to become focused on those things that seem strange or off-putting.  And so an outsider pastor can seem an overly critical guest in the congregation while that congregation may seem an impenetrable other to the pastor.

I must confess that at times I find myself worried that I come across as much more critical than I mean to be in my new position. Yett the very same time, I find myself a little lost, like a college freshman who just arrived on a huge, urban university campus from a small town high school.

I assume that such feelings are not all that unusual, and that time will rectify much. (Most college freshmen eventually figure out their new surroundings.) Still, I suspect that my current situation has a lot to do with how a line from today's epistle reading grabbed me. "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words."

Sighs too deep for words. That sounds like the perfect prayer right now. Much of my present anxiety is about what I should do. What should I focus on? What should I change? What should I emphasize? What should I encourage? What should I leave alone? How should I allocate time and energy? Etc, etc, etc. So much anxiety about doing, but God easily gets lost in such busyness. Such busyness makes it difficult to "Be still, and know that I am God!"

The Spirit helps us. The Spirit comes to my weakness. Sighs too deep for words; sighs too deep for words.  Come, Holy Spirit, in sighs too deep for words.

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Sunday, July 8, 2012

Sermon - Constrained by What We "Know"

Mark 6:1-13
Constrained by What We "Know"
James Sledge                                                                                       July 8, 2012

Some years ago, the PBS show Frontline did a four hour long documentary entitled, “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians.”  I enjoyed it, and it was well done, although its scholarship was largely from the “Jesus Seminar” school of thought.  But my recalling it today has nothing to do with its merits.  It’s that title, “From Jesus to Christ.”  The title implies that the person Jesus and the religious figure labeled Christ are not always one in the same. 
You don’t necessarily need to be a biblical scholar to wonder about Jesus’ identity.  Simply read the four gospels.  (By the way, they’re not very long and were originally meant to be read at one sitting.  Try it sometime.)  If you read Matthew and then read Luke; or if you read Mark and then read John, you will see that the Jesus in one gospel has much in common with the Jesus in another.  But you will also see that there are significant differences.  And this is no modern discovery. Christians down through the centuries have addressed the topic, “The harmony of the Gospels,” grappling with the different pictures of Jesus that emerge there.
However, that the idea of recovering a correct, historical picture of Jesus is a modern idea and, I think, a misguided one.  The gospel writers did not share our modern, scientific notions of truth being a matter of getting all the facts right.  They were not writing history as we understand it.  Those gospels were not used to tell unbelievers about Jesus. They were not evangelical tools.  They were written for communities of faith who already knew the story of Jesus.  They did not so much attempt to tell people what happened, but rather to make sense of what happened.  As the author of Luke says in his introduction, the gospel is written “so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.
But regardless of the New Testament writer’s original intent, the varied and different images and concepts of Jesus that people construct from the Bible are a problem.  Consider the amazingly different faith based stances that Christians take.  Some followers of Jesus are complete pacifists, taking very seriously Jesus’ command to love even your enemy and to offer your left cheek when struck on the right.  But some churches have held special worship services where members are encouraged to bring their concealed weapons, where self-defense is lauded as a God given right, and gun regulation proclaimed the work of the devil. 
It seems there are a number of very different versions of Jesus floating around. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

Demographic Harbinger?

I just finished watching the debate and vote from my denomination's General Assembly. The hot topic today was an attempt to change the definition of marriage from between one man and one woman to between two people. Suffice to say that there was a fair amount of parliamentary maneuvering; that and debate that could often be characterized as mean-spirited and hurtful. But in the end, the motion to change the definition of marriage failed by a close margin, 48-52%.

The church headlines will be about that vote, but there were other votes. Our General Assembly has Advisory Delegates. There are four categories: Missionary, Ecumenical, Young Adult, and Theological Students. They vote prior to the vote that really counts, and these votes "advise" the regular commissioners. The ecumenical delegates are from other denominations so they don't say much about our denomination, and the missionaries are a pretty distinct niche group. But the other two groups are the future members and pastors of our denomination, and their vote was quite different from that 48-52%.

78% of the Young Adults favored changing the definition of marriage, as did 82% of the Theological Students. Clearly there is a substantial difference of opinion between younger members and the denomination at large. I don't suppose this is all that startling. Religious institutions tend to be conservative entities, prone to preserve traditions and practices. And young people tend to be more embracing of change. But they will eventually mellow and begin to feel more comfortable in their institutional faith. Or will they?

I'm inclined to think that the "old guard" is fighting a losing battle, although I can see two different ways to lose. One way to lose is for enough of the old guard to age out, allowing the views of the younger members to become a majority. But another way to lose is for a well established trend to continue and even accelerate. More and more younger people may simply leave the church. Then the old guard remains the majority, but of a disappearing church.

Is the huge disparity in votes between the younger advisory delegates and the, for the most part, older regular commissioners a demographic harbinger of some sort? I tend to think so, but I also think it points to a deeper problem. This vote disparity mirrors our culture at large. The divisions on this issue are very much like the divisions in our nation, right down to young people being much more open to same sex marriage. But aren't we who are "in Christ" supposed to be different from "the world?"

Watching the debates this afternoon, I saw much of the same partisan nastiness that has come to mark American politics. Perhaps my disappointment in those who were hellbent on their side "winning" obscured my view of those who faithfully tried to seek God's will. But still, I fear that we do not look much like the body of Christ, nor do we offer much in the way of witness or hope to the world. And perhaps that's the most worrisome harbinger of all.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Blesssings, Curses, and False Gods

Cursing is a relatively trivial thing in most of our minds. Curse words aren't dangerous, just unsavory. Many people consider the command against taking the LORD's (Yahweh's) name "in vain," to be about being reverent and respectful. But the command is actually against using the power of God's name for purposes other than God intends. (The NRSV translation captures this well with its "You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God.")

In ancient times, to invoke a divine curse was serious business. The revealing of the divine name, Yahweh, to Moses and to Israel is a big deal in the Old Testament. It implies an ability to call on God by name, granting Israel access to God and God's favor as well as God's ire against enemies.  But as the commandment makes clear, this access is not something to be abused or misused.

Today's Old Testament reading continues the story of Balak and his attempt to curse the Israelites through the services of Balaam.  Balak is a local king frightened by the arrival of the Israelites as they move into land God has promised them. Balaam appears to be some sort of shaman who performs divinations and other religious services for a fee. Balak seeks to hire Balaam in order to curse the Israelites, but Balaam is no mere profiteer, and he heeds a word from Yahweh not to do as Balaam asks. (The famous story of Balaam's talking donkey pokes fun at "seers" like Balaam but does not seem to fit logically into the larger story surrounding it.)

Balak grows increasingly angry with Balaam as he refuses to curse but instead blesses Israel. As he rails against Balaam for failing to curse on demand, Balaam reminds him, "Did I not tell you, 'Whatever the LORD says, that is what I must do'?"

We don't much believe in curses in the 21st century, but that does not stop us from invoking God on our behalf.  But unlike Balaam, we frequently fail to inquire of God to see what God wants. Instead, we assume that God wants what we - being the good religious folk we are - want. And so we easily enlist God in our causes, be they national, political, personal, or even congregational. Church people often assume that God is for whatever we are wanting to do.

Writer Anne Lamott famously said, "You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do." To this obvious truth I would add the corollary, "and supports all the same things you do."  

Balaam is not of our time and culture. He looks little like anyone we know today, but I think the Church would do well to emulate him. We need to learn ways of drawing near to God and listening for God's voice prior to proceeding with our plans, no matter how well conceived, appropriate, and likely to succeed they seem to us. We need to recover spiritual disciplines of discernment so that we take the time, as well as know how, to seek God's will. If we do so, I have no doubt that we will find people who look at us like we are crazy and demand to know why we are not doing what makes good business sense, what we've always done, what people want, etc. To which we will reply, "Did I not tell you, 'Whatever the LORD says, that is what I must do'?"

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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Institutions, Communion, and Community

Doug Ottati, my very favorite professor from seminary, said on a number of occasions that all the salvific activity of God, the entire Jesus event, was about "true communion with God in true community with others." In other words, it is about relationship in cruciform shape. It's not just about me and God, and it's not just about getting along with others. Jesus' life, death, and resurrection means to create a transformed relationship with God within a transformed community of relationships.

This relational activity on God's part certainly has substance and content. There are standards of behavior, and there are calls to right living. But these are invitations to move toward something new and wonderful, not boundaries that declare who's in and who's out.

This boundary issue is on display in today's gospel. Jesus, as happens so regularly in the gospels, is enmeshed in conflict with religious authorities.  It is a recurring theme: Jesus is rejected by the good, religious folk of his day but very much at home with sinners and outcasts. And it seems likely that Jesus' focus on relationship is at the heart of this.

Religions inevitably acquire institutional components and functions. This is not entirely bad, and it is necessary to some degree. It is nearly impossible for groups larger than just a few people to function without some sort of organization, some sort of institutional structure.  But it is very difficult for institutions to nurture relationships. Relationships often seem threaten to institutions for they easily subvert institutional boundaries.

On some level, most congregations seem to sense this. The tendency for churches to speak of themselves as families points to it, although this family is often more dream or illusion than reality. I've seen a number of congregations that view having a single worship service as a measure of all being one big family or community.  But having 200 people all in one service doesn't make them family, doesn't put them in relationship with one another. On more than one occasion I've been in discussions with church leaders who have just declared, "We're really a family; we all know one another" only to realize they don't recognize any of several names put before them to serve on a church committee.

I think that congregations need constantly to reflect on the degree to which the institutional overwhelms the relational. Jesus' own encounter with the good, religious folk of his day should be a constant reminder that well-intended, sincere guardians of religious institutions can have more difficulty recognizing God in their midst than sinners and outcasts. This tragic tendency begs religious institutions to repeatedly ask themselves, "Are all our actions serving the goal of true communion with God in true community with others?"

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Monday, July 2, 2012

Moving, Sin, and Other Stuff

The moving van arrived at the church manse on Saturday morning. (The storm that left us without power until today complicated this only slightly.) We are moving from a home with a garage, a basement, and a large shed into a church manse with a small shed, no basement, and no garage. Let's just say there are lots and lots of boxes, along with a washer, dryer, and a good deal of furniture and lamps stashed away in the attic.

There nothing quite like a move to reveal the degree to which you are afflicted with the American idolatry of stuff.  (George Carlin used to do a hilarious comedy routine about us and our stuff. You can find it on YouTube.) My wife got rid of a lot of stuff before we moved to Falls Church, but still we will soon be looking for a home of our own in the area, one with a basement and garage so we can store all that stuff that won't quite fit where we are now.

And now, after several days offline, I look at the daily readings and see Paul talking about how we are no longer slaves to sin. In Christ we are freed from sin and become "slaves to righteousness."  And Jesus is all worked up about how the Temple has stuff being sold there, how it has gone from a "house of prayer" to a "den of robbers."

I'm not entirely sure exactly where these verses intersect with me and my stuff. But it does seem that in some ways I am still a slave to the ways of this world, thinking that I won't be happy without more and more stuff. And my life is often animated more by the stuff I have and the stuff I want than by a desire to do God's will. But of course some stuff is necessary for life, and knowing just where one crosses the boundary between necessary/reasonable and idolatry of stuff can be difficult to figure precisely.

I think that Christians like me, who grew up in what purported to be a Christian culture, sometimes have difficulty reflecting on how our day to day lives do or don't square with our faith. Because we were products of this "Christian culture," there is a certain presumption that typical, middle-class, American-dream values arein fact Christian.  All of our stuff is "God's blessings."

I've been talking with the Stewardship Committee here about a Fall campaign that moves away from fundraising and focuses instead on growing in faith through spiritual disciplines of giving and generosity. I want us all to reflect on the ways in which we struggle to be the generous disciples we are called to be because so much of our energy, efforts, and cash are devoted to stuff.

Paul promises that we can be set free.  We can become new creations, no longer bound by what marketers or ego or envy tells us we cannot live without. And surely we want to be freed and made new.

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