Sunday, September 30, 2012

Preaching Thoughts on a Non Preaching Sunday

It's my first "Youth Sunday" in my new call. That's just one in a string of firsts that greet all new pastors.  Next comes my first Stewardship season, followed closely by my first Advent and Christmas, and so on. One of the reasons it takes a pastor a while to get acclimated is the need to go through a string of firsts that takes at least a year.

Today's first doesn't ask much of me, other than to step aside. As much as I love preaching, a Sunday off when I'm not away on vacation is something of a gift, and so I am happy to accommodate. But as I step aside, and middle and high schoolers take center stage, I find myself reflecting on Kierkegaard's critique of worship as drama.

We Protestants speak of a "priesthood of all believers," meaning that there are no special people needed to act a conduits for divine access.  We all have direct access to God in Jesus, and we all can share God's presence with others. And so it makes prefect sense that people other than pastors would lead worship, would seek to draw others into God's presence.  Indeed, the only reasons that Presbyterians require ordained pastors (or commissioned lay pastors) to preside over baptisms and the Lord's Supper is because they have special training to explain and interpret the meaning of such events. Other than this training, their presence confers no special aura to the moment.

And yet, worship in most churches remains a show of which pastors are lead players along with choirs and others. It is a show folks come to watch.  This is what infuriated Kierkegaard all those years ago, this notion of a drama on stage with the congregation as audience.  He insisted that the only audience for worship was God, and all of us involved are the actors presenting the drama to God.

The Youth Sunday that will unfold later this morning at least has the advantage that people who ordinarily would be part of the "audience" now become the lead actors.  Perhaps in that process, a greater sense of worship as shared offering to God can be glimpsed. If nothing else, perhaps the youth can have a better sense of worship as their offering to God.

But I suspect that for many worshipers, the old patterns are hard to break. The actors on the stage are different this week, but for the most part, the audience remains the same (other than friends, grandparents, etc. in the audience who came especially for this service).  And expectations likely remain the same.  Everyone realizes that worship will look a bit different today, but it will be something done by those on the stage, other than those few moments of congregational speaking of singing.

This is not a critique of congregations on my part, and I don't think of Kierkegaard's part either. I'm inclined to think that whatever sense people have of going to a show has been cultivated by those of us who are the presumed actors. We're the ones who have done worship all these years in a way to focus all attention on us. We Presbyterians speak of the Word being the central part of worship.  In old worship orders this Word functioned as grand finale. In more current orders of worship, the Word is at the center of the service with parts flowing toward or away from it.  But of course the major element of the Word is sermon. There is a long, rich, theological history in our tradition focused on the the Word and its place in worship.  But practically speaking, we pastors oversee a worship tradition in which sermon, if not in fact pastor, is the star of the show.

To be honest, I'm not entirely sure what a good, viable alternative to this is. And there are no doubt many people in the "audience" who feel very engaged in worship, who feel that their singing, attention, etc. are gifts they offer to God whose presence is quite real to them. But I worry that they are more exception than rule.  And I feel that we need to do more to help others worship on Sunday morning rather than serve as audience.

I'd love to hear from people who think I'm off base, who have ideas that might help, or whatever.  How do we do worship so that it becomes an event in which we all participate, an event where God's presence is palpable, and we offer out best to God?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Offensive Good News

Any pastor who adopts Jesus' preaching style in today's gospel will have a short tenure in his or her congregation. In Luke's version of the visit to Nazareth's synagogue, Jesus goes out of his way to offend the hometown crowd.  He has no sooner claimed to be the fulfillment of prophecy, the one who comes "to bring good news to the poor... to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor," than he reminds the crowd of those times God's saving power was offered to Gentiles and not to Israel.

It's worth noting that when this Nazareth story is told by Matthew and Mark, Jesus offers no such offense.  The people take offense, but not because Jesus rubbed their face in how God sometimes ignores Israel and helped others. They simply couldn't believe that a local boy, whose family they knew, could be Messiah.

Luke almost certainly had Mark's version of this story when he wrote his gospel, yet for some reason he felt the need to retell events so that Jesus goes out of his way to give offense. In Luke, they chase Jesus out of town not because they can't accept a Messiah with an unimpressive pedigree, but because Jesus tries to offend them. If Matthew and Mark say that God's salvation is offensive because of the surprising way it is manifest, Luke insists that God's salvation is intrinsically offensive to some, most especially to those who think they have advantages.

It's hard to miss this offense when you read Luke's gospel. A pregnant Mary sings of God scattering the proud, bringing down the powerful, and sending the rich away empty. In Luke's version of the Sermon on the Mount, there are accompanying woes to to go with the blessings or beatitudes. "But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep."

I'm not exactly sure how literally we are to understand these woes, but Luke clearly sees the salvation Jesus brings as something other than a rising tide that lifts all boats. Luke has Jesus engaged in class warfare, lifting up the poor and lowly and oppressed, but dragging down the rich and powerful and well connected and religiously comfortable.  If you're not on the bottom, how could you not be offended?

Over the years, many have wondered about what happens to the gospel when it moves into the arena of wealth and power. When Christianity was embraced by the emperor Constantine, and over the centuries populated with Christian kings and presidents and factory owners and billionaires, what happens to the good news Jesus proclaims?

I have little doubt that this gospel has remained a powerful force that benefits the world, but there is also little doubt that it nonetheless gets corrupted in the process. Most of the time the gospel's offensive, scandalous nature has been greatly diminished, but it is still there, nagging at us now and then. But we must admit that at times, its offensiveness has been obliterated, and in such times, faith can become an instrument of oppression and hate.

For most of my life, I have lived in a church populated by people who are middle class and above.  I may have encountered the poor via church, volunteering at the homeless shelter or when they came to the church run food pantry or clothing closet.  But for the most part they were people the church helped, not part of the church. In such a church, if Jesus doesn't make us just a little nervous, if he doesn't scare us just a bit, I wonder if we're still proclaiming his good news.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

I Need a Better Religion

I have to admit that I've always had something of a love-hate relationship with religion.  I suppose that requires some sort of definition of "religion." I think that most people are religious in some way. They have an impulse to connect to something beyond themselves. And any way of doing such connecting, barring one that is done in complete isolation, ends up requiring some element of organization or institution. But of course we humans can muck up most anything, and so the religions we practice are a mixed bag. They do help people draw near to God, and they do help people become more like they "should" be. But of course religion also makes people feel superior to others and sometimes makes them feel justified in hating and even killing others. Like I said, a mixed bag.

The churches I've been connected to have not been much into hating, and you have to go a long way back in history to find killings. (John Calvin does take a pretty big hit to his reputation on this one.) But we do proof text from the Bible to support our agendas, agendas that often have little connection to faith. And the fact that Jesus slams the devil for his proof-texting in today's gospel doesn't much dissuade us on that practice.

But my biggest struggle with religion arises in the salvation area.  By salvation I'm not really talking about admittance to heaven.  I'm referring to more concrete examples like those in today's psalm.  "Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion; and to you shall vows be performed, O you who answer prayer!.. By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance, O God of our salvation."  Here the reference is likely to the past rescue from slavery in Egypt as well as present rescue from enemies, drought, etc.  God saves, and the stories of Jesus healing or stilling a storm are there to say that Jesus has that same saving power.

Now here's where my struggle comes in. I regularly come in contact with religious folks who occupy two very different poles regarding God's saving power. On the one hand there are those who regularly post trite platitudes on Facebook that sound naively unaware of anyone ever suffering unjustly or faithfully trying to love and serve God but receiving only heartache for that effort. And then there are folks at the other extreme who seem to think God powerless over the concrete difficulties of life, providing little more than a cosmic shoulder to cry on.

Granted, these are extremes. There are many people somewhere in between these two poles, but I suspect most of us tend one way or the other. I tend toward the second pole, in part because I'm bothered by the first. A lot of people that I know tend this way for the same reason. A loved one has cancer and a "religious" friend says, "If you pray and really have faith, God will heal him."  And we recoil at such notions, as does the book of Job.  But in the process, our God sometimes becomes impotent except as a divine mental health counselor.

I get frustrated because I feel like I have to choose between the two poles. I must either embrace a saving God who always fixes things for the truly faithful.  This of course requires ignoring a lot of evidence to the contrary and is so a very unsophisticated choice. I'm no simpleton, but when I rush to the other pole, I end up with a God who looks little like what my faith proclaims, a mighty God who is sovereign, even over history, and who, in Jesus, is moving the world and history toward something new and wonderful.

I could never be a "fundamentalist" sort of Christian.  Nearly everything about me makes that impossible. But the liberal Christianity I inhabit sometimes seems to have gone too far the other way. By that I do not mean too far left on social or political issues. Rather I mean too far away from an active, powerful God, ending up in a place where God becomes more philosophy than being.

Maybe I'm must weird on this.  I don't know. I do tend to over-think things.  But I still wonder if the rapidly declining rates of religious participation in our country aren't a bit related to the unsatisfactory nature of both these poles.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

I'm Not That Desperate

Imagine that you've been a little disconnected from church or whatever your faith community is (if you even need to imagine). Now imagine that you're feeling inspired.  You want to reconnect. You want to recommit yourself to your faith practices.  And so you head out to worship, feeling very good.  You even get there early and relaxed.  The service starts, and the preacher looks straight at you and says, "What are you doing here, you vermin? What brought you out?  Your little religious stirrings don't impress God at all." Now perhaps the preacher isn't speaking just to you, but it feels like it.

If that happened to me, I rather doubt I'd ever go back.  I probably would leave right then and there. But in today's gospel reading, those people who are listening to John have not left after he called them a brood of vipers. After he had trashed them, they begged him to tell them what they must do.  And in today's reading, they think he might be the Messiah.  Wow, those folks must have been pretty desperate to hang around after John had treated them so roughly and rudely.  We'd never stand for such.

I've been thinking a lot lately about competency and the ability to hear God. I'm still wrestling with this, but it seems to me that highly competent people have more trouble being open to God's voice. By definition, highly competent people are able to get things done. They trust their own abilities, and they aren't prone to feelings of desperation, at least not on a regular basis. 

Spiritually, a lot of we competent sorts don't desperately need God. We may very well need God, but not in some huge, dramatic way.  We need God only a little bit.  We need some help, but not all that much.  We're able to manage for the most part, and we're not desperate enough to hang around if a religious experience doesn't nod approvingly at our willingness to be religious. We don't need God badly enough to put up with much.

As a Presbyterian pastor, that is a pastor who had to learn Greek and Hebrew and get a Master's degree in Divinity, I am filled with religious competency.  And I wonder if that isn't the worst kind, at least when it comes to hearing God. 

I wonder if when Jesus says we must deny ourselves in order to follow him, part of that is denying our competencies.  I don't mean to deny their existence, but rather to let go of the notion that they get us very far in terms of relationship with God or understanding what really matters.

When I think about my own faith, surely one of the biggest sources of frustration for me comes from how difficult it is to hear God with any real clarity. It happens, but it is rare and often fleeting. And I wonder... Might my own competencies - or at least my trust in them - be getting in the way?

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Monday, September 24, 2012

On Hearing Voices

It's curious the way various things can conspire to get you thinking in a particular direction. It happened to me this morning. It actually began a couple of weeks ago in a conversation with a church member. I'm not entirely sure what prompted the remark in question, but I suppose it emerged from my efforts to get the leadership here to listen for God's call to this congregation. "I don't hear voices," the person said.

Truth is, I could probably say the same thing the great majority of the time. But the remark really bothered me. If the church is nothing more than a group of people trying hard, but without any really guidance or assistance other than our own abilities and insights, how can we speak of being the body of Christ?  If all we have is scriptural words about God to use as we best see fit, are we anything more than a philosophy or ideology?

Today brought other partners into this conversation. Today's reading from Acts included this. "One night the Lord said to Paul in a vision, 'Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city who are my people.'"

Then a Facebook friend posted this quote from Rachel Naomi Remen. "We have not been raised to cultivate a sense of Mystery. We may even see the unknown as an insult to our competence, a personal failing." 

Finally, Richard Rohr's daily devotional had this to say. "When we read the prophets, we see that without exception they talk about an intimate relationship with God that, itself, led to radical social critique." The strain of Presbyterianism I live in is very fond of social critique, but I wonder how often it emerges from an intimate relationship with God?

I'm really struck by the idea that Mystery can be a threat to our sense of competence.  It seems to me that it's a short hop from such fears to a full blown idolatry of self.  And I wonder if this isn't a real challenge for liberal Christianity.  Can we discover and be open to ways of hearing God's voice, or will we be content simply to do the best we can on our own, leaving the listening for God's voice to folks less "sophisticated and competent" than us?

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Sermon video - Taken Over by Love

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Sermon audio - Taken Over by Love

Sermon and worship audios can be found on FCPC website.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Sermon - Taken Over by Love

Mark 9:30-37
Taken Over by Love
James Sledge                                                                                       September 23, 2012

Jesus would have made a terrible politician and a terrible campaign manager.  “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  I don’t think so.  Politics is all about being impressive and convincing people how great you are, not about being servant like.  Jimmy Carter might be the one president in my lifetime who at times seemed genuinely humble, if not actually servant like.  And this did  not serve him well in his one term.  He looked weak, not at all the forceful leader people wanted, and this image problem probably had as much to do with him losing his reelection bid as anything.
Elected officials sometimes get referred to as “public servants,” but there is rarely anything reminiscent of a servant about them.  And the word Jesus uses in our gospel today refers to the servants who waited tables.  These were the bottom tier of the servants and slaves who were everywhere in the Greco-Roman world in which Jesus lived.  They were the nobodies among nobodies, and Jesus says to become like them.
Of course Jesus doesn’t just launch into some arbitrary teaching about servanthood.  Jesus is responding to the disciple’s discussion of who is the greatest.  It’s a strange scenario.  Jesus has been telling his followers how he is going to be handed over and killed, but then rise again.  This is the second time Jesus has explained the peculiar sort of Messiah he is.  Last time Peter tried to straighten Jesus out.  This time the disciples did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
We don’t usually think of Jesus as someone we’re afraid of, but it says his disciples were afraid to ask him.  I wonder why.  Maybe Jesus just plain scared them, even more so when he started talking about dying.  Jesus obviously scared lots of people.  He did get executed after all.  And he was radical enough that he sometimes frightened his own followers.
Then again, maybe the disciples had some sense of what Jesus was saying but didn’t like the sound of it.  Maybe they were afraid that if they asked him he would confirm their worst fears.  Better not to know for sure.  Let’s move on to another topic.  We do the same thing.  Jesus starts talking about self-denial or taking up our cross and we change the subject.
But in a rather bizarre twist, the disciples decide to talk about who is greatest.  Jesus may be refusing to operate on the world’s terms, but the disciples aren’t ready to join him.  Like us, they lived in a world where people aspired to power and status, although there were very limited opportunities to move up in the hierarchy of Roman society.  But if Jesus was the Messiah, they had found their ticket to the big-time.
Reminds me of a line in a song from the musical, Jesus Christ, Superstar. “Always hoped that I’d be an apostle.  Knew that we would make it if we tried.  Then when we retire we can write the gospels so they’ll still talk about us when we’ve died.”
The disciples knew better, and so when Jesus asks what they were discussing, they just stare at the ground and shuffle their feet.  Then Jesus sits down.  That’s a rabbi’s way of saying, “This is a teachable moment.”  Rabbi’s taught sitting down, so this means it’s time for the disciples to get some instruction, instruction that has a very difficult time breaking through the expectations that they, and we, have acquired from our cultures.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Seeing Where We're Going

"I was completely in the dark." If we hear someone say that, we know what she means.  We're familiar with metaphors of light and dark.  And just as we can be in the dark, we can also see the light. A light can go off.  We even use light bulbs to speak getting ideas.

John's gospel loves metaphors of light and dark. Jesus is "the light of the world," but "people loved darkness rather than light."  That's from the beginning of John's gospel, but as Jesus draws close to the cross in today's gospel, they're there again. "The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going."

Where are you going? That's an interesting question to ask oneself, or at least it is for me. However I think that Christianity has often been so preoccupied with heaven that it fails to make much of this question. I don't know exactly what people mean when they say, "I'm going to heaven," but very often it sounds to me like reservations they've made for next summer's vacation. "We going to the Outer Banks next July." Of course that won't have much if anything to do with daily life between now and then.  They already put down their deposit and made the reservation.  There's really nothing to do until the time draws near.

When I read the gospels, I don't get much sense that Jesus thinks this way about where we're supposed to be going.  Most of the guidance he gives us, most of what he does, is very connected to the now, the moment. Love your neighbor, love one another, visit the prisoner, welcome the stranger, reach out to the outcasts and rejected, embrace the nobodies of the world, care for the sick, be a servant to all... None of this has the feeling of long term reservations, of tickets to be used in the future. This is in the now. This is about our daily walk.

My daily walk, even as a pastor, often seems not to be headed anywhere Jesus recommends. I have lots of tasks, lots of things to do.  Because they are related to church it's easy to fool myself that I'm going somewhere Jesus wants me to go.  Sometimes I am, but sometimes I'm just going toward the end of the day, toward another paycheck.  If Jesus asked me, "Do you know where you're going?" I'm not sure if I'd have a good answer.

"Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going."  Where are you going?

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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Make Me Captive, and I'll Be Free

I recently received something in the mail asking our church to ring its bells on a particular date in celebration of freedom.  Thanks to a vacation, I didn't get the chance to deal with it until after the date in question so I didn't pay much attention to the details. I do recall it used the phrase, "let freedom ring," and it prominently displayed stars and stripes on the letterhead.

I get a lot of such mail, activities and events aimed at churches but with a strong patriotic fervor to them. Some of this simply acknowledges that faith did play a part in America's break with England all those years ago.  (Back in Britain, the American Revolution was sometimes referred to as the Presbyterian rebellion.)  But still, much of the flag draped, faith oriented mail I get seems to assume that American notions of freedom are right in line with Christian understandings of freedom.
Secular freedom only creates individualists, and private freedom, but not a society. It never gets around to the common good, which is a central principle of Catholic social teaching and the Gospel, which demands from you and demands for others. Then you become who you most deeply and truly are, a member of a family, a neighborhood, a society, and a planet. If you are trying to “go to heaven” alone or on your own merits, you are preparing for a place other than heaven.
This is a part of Fr. Richard Rohr's daily devotion for today. He is talking about how many of us think of freedom as being able to do what we want and not do what we don't want.  But as he points out, this looks very little like the way Jesus lives or the way he calls us to live.  Jesus says, "Not my will but yours." He says we must become servants and slaves to all, and in today's gospel he speaks of his death saying, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also." (In the hyperbolic speech of the Middle East, "hate their life" is a colorful and forceful way of saying "love their life less" than they love serving Jesus.)

St. Augustine wrote of God's grace making our wills willing. In other words, freedom is of little use to us until we want the things that God wants, until we truly want the things that we know are good and right. Think of all those times we do things that we regret even as we do them. Think of all those promises to ourselves that we break.  Think of how fractured our society has become because so few of us can bear the thought of giving up our freedoms for the sake of another.

We don't need more freedom.  We need a different understanding of freedom.  There's a hymn in The Presbyterian Hymnal with this opening line. "Make me a captive, Lord, and I shall be free."  A later verse begins, "My will is not my own till Thou hast made it Thine." Those strike me as pretty good descriptions of Christian freedom.  Might we all be so free.

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Sermon video: Who Do You Say That We Are?

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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Which Prince To Trust

Do not put your trust in princes,
   in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
   on that very day their plans perish.  
from Ps 146

Living inside the DC Beltway, in the swing state of Virginia, there is no escaping the presidential election. It is everywhere I turn, and even though I tend to be a bit of a political junkie, I am tired enough of it to be getting a bit snarky. Once or twice I have found it impossible not to comment on someone's politically oriented Facebook post, a practice I normally avoid.

My snarkiness aside, we Americans do make a big deal about presidential races. We don't have kings or queens of princes. And so I suppose that presidents are as close as we get. I saw an interesting piece on presidential elections today in The Christian Century. It commented on the candidates attempts to make personal connections with voters, but then it said this.

   But the primary problem with American political culture isn’t that we emphasize the wrong things when we scrutinize presidential candidates. It’s that too much of our scrutiny goes to these two human beings in the first place.
   Americans overestimate what a president can do. The office is certainly more powerful than it used to be, especially when it comes to foreign policy. But on domestic issues, the main focus of this election, presidents are greatly constrained by the federal system of checks and balances—and by the fact that many decisions fall to state and local officials.
I think that most of us know this to some degree. We realize that no president can get much done if Congress doesn't help out, yet we may not even know the names of those running for our congressional district seat.

People have accused President Obama of messianic pretensions, but it seems we all tend to place unrealistic hopes and dreams on our choice for prince. The psalm today warns us about this, but few of us heed such warnings. One candidate will save us, but the other will lead to our destruction.  Such is the power of princes to us.

The psalms' warning on princes takes notice of their mortality. The day will come when they are gone. The world will still be here, and God will still be in charge. But in our fascination with princes, this is "the most important election of our lifetime," or for some, "the most important election in history."  Hardly. Perhaps it isn't just princes we overestimate. We have an inflated sense of our own importance and imagine that history hinges right where we are, on the very issues that concern us.

I just started reading MaryAnn McKibben Dana's book, Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family's Experiment with Holy Time. I've not gotten far, but as I read of her family's struggle to implement Sabbath keeping, I saw a metaphor for much that traps and enslaves us, that makes us anxious and afraid that things could slip away from us if we are not ever vigilant, ever busy, ever careful. We cannot leave anything to chance. Too much is depending on us at this critical juncture in history.

But of course our breath with soon depart us as well. The world will still be here, and God will still be in charge. But if my candidate doesn't win...

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Monday, September 17, 2012

Honeymoons, Stewardship, and Love

I just got back from my first vacation since coming to Falls Church, and it feels a bit different to come back to a place that is not yet home.  I was in Columbus, OH for over 11 years, and I've been here a bit over 4 months.  One of the lessons I'm relearning is that it takes a while to get to know a congregation.This is hardly surprising.  Couples get married after months or years as a couple yet often struggle in that first year of marriage as they get to know one another more fully. 

Not so coincidentally, people speak of a honeymoon period for new pastors.  There's not set time for how long this lasts, though some say a year or less is common. The actual end is usually marked by some sort of conflict, and that conflict is often the born of the congregation figuring out the new pastor is not who they thought he was, or the pastor figuring out the congregation is not what she thought it was, or both things together.

In this "getting to know one another" phase, there is a certain generic nature to ministry.  By that I mean that sermons tend to be more generic because I don't know the congregation well enough to ascertain how certain issues do or don't apply. I don't know how people will respond to certain sorts of statements by me.  After all, they don't know me well either and aren't used to my preaching style or other idiosyncrasies.

Now we are drawing close to my first Stewardship Season here, and so I'm a tad nervous.  Money can be a touchy topic in both marriages and churches, and churches can be very different in how they approach issues of money.  I know of churches where the pastor is not allowed to know how much anyone gives or even who gives and who doesn't.  But in other churches the pastor is expected to speak with members who don't give or whose giving patterns seem "problematic."  And churches have very different patterns of talking about stewardship and raising money for church budgets.

And so I was a struck to read today's gospel and discover a stewardship oriented gospel on my first day back in the office. It's John's version of the anointing at Bethany. It shows up in Matthew and Mark as well, and a similar story occurs in Luke.  I say that it's stewardship oriented because it features extravagant generosity along with a budget conscious critique of that extravagance. (In John's gospel we're told this critique is from Judas and disingenuous, but in Matthew and Mark the other disciples offer the critique with no mention of ulterior motives.)

Now here I have to be generic because of not knowing the congregation well enough. Generically speaking, church stewardship discussions often have more in common with the disciples' comments than the extravagant generosity that Jesus praises. Mention tithing and people immediately start talking formulas. "Is that a tenth of pre-tax or after tax income?" And stewardship is often simply fund raising called by another name.  It is often not viewed as a spiritual issue, as a part of our call to follow Jesus, or as an expression of love.

In my experience, people are generally extravagant toward things they love. When people are passionate about something, whether that is gardening, golf, or music, they will spend huge amounts of time, money, and energy on that passion. The same is true when people have a deep passion about a cause. Extravagance towards oneself is not all that unusual. And people who have fallen in love are very prone to extravagances toward the object of their affection. In fact, love can be difficult to sustain with some extravagances. Extravagances come in many varieties. They may cost a lot of money or none, but they are always a gift that was not required, that didn't come from any formula, that was simply an overflowing of love.

Considering how much the Bible talks about love -- God is love. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and being. Love your neighbor as yourself -- it is strange how frequently faith gets reduced to formula. Be good and get rewarded. If you like the church's programs, help pay for them. Design church to serve the loyal members. Never mind the people Jesus says we are to focus on and minister to.

In marriages, when the honeymoon is over and love gets dulled by routines and formulaic patterns with little in the way of extravagances, love can begin to die. I wonder if some of the cynicism in our culture about marriage doesn't emerge from the witness of too many dead, formulaic marriages. And so I also wonder if the growing cynicism in our culture toward "organized religion" doesn't emerge from the witness of too many congregations that seem more about formula and tradition than the extravagances of love.  I'm speaking generically, of course.

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Sermon audio - Who Do You Say That We Are?

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

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Sermon - Who Do You Say That We Are?

Mark 8:27-38
Who Do You Say That We Are?
James Sledge                                                                           September 16, 2012

Years ago I read an article on studying the Bible.  Noting the obvious fact that people can read the Bible and get nothing from it, the writer said, “The Bible is a book for earnest seekers.”  I totally agree.  Casual readers of the Bible often get little from it other than some trivial information that might be useful when a biblical category comes up on Jeopardy.  But for the Bible to speak to us, to become God’s word to us, we must inquire of it.  We must ask it deep and probing questions.
Of course people sometimes ask the Bible questions it has no real interest in answering, such as science or history questions which I think rather trivial compared to the big questions the text does want to answer.  But you don’t need to be creationists to ask the Bible questions that it cares little about.  I you’re looking for directions to heaven, that’s not really of great concern to the Bible.  And if you’re hoping the Bible will help you discover a bit of a spiritual boost, you may also be disappointed.
The Bible has plenty of rules and teachings and proverbs, and it contains a fair amount of history. But all of this is in service to bigger interests.  The Bible’s real concerns are with fundamental issues about God and about us.  My all-time favorite quote from John Calvin, a line members of this church may know by heart by the time my tenure here ends, speaks directly to this.  In the opening of Calvin’s  Institutes of the Christian Religion he writes, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”[1] 
Who is God, and what is God like?  What does it mean to be human, and what does that have to do with God?  These are the fundamental questions Scripture deals with, and the answers are embedded in the stories of other people’s encounter with God, and in the stories of communities that seek to live in relation to God.  And our gospel reading deals with just such fundamental issues.
Jesus asks his followers a very basic question.  “Who do people say that I am?”  After they respond, Jesus turns the question directly to them.  “But who do you say that I am?”  Peter answers for the group, “You are the Messiah.”  The Greek word for messiah is Christos.  Christ is not a name as some folks presume; it’s a title.  Peter says Jesus is the anointed one, the one people have been waiting for, a new king for the throne of David, the hope for a new day. 
Who am I?  Who are you?  And what information is it that answers such questions?  Am I who I say I am or think I am?  Or does my identity come from somewhere else?  How about you?  Where does your identity come from?  What makes you who you really are?  Or to borrow from John Calvin, how much do you know about yourself?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Reaching for Stones

Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am." So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.   John 8:58-59

It's easy for us to miss the huge offense Jesus offers to his opponents.  You can't see it in English, though sometimes translations try to indicate it with "before Abraham was, I AM."  John's gospel regularly has Jesus employ an unusual grammatical way of saying "I am."  It recalls God's words to Moses at the burning bush and, as such, functions as a kind of divine name in John.  You can't see this in English, but you can see it in the reaction of people picking up stones at Jesus' blasphemy.

Today's gospel got me wondering about the things that we get riled up about, that cause us to swell with righteous indignation and grab for a stone, if only a metaphorical one.  No doubt there are occasions that warrant righteous indignation.  But much more frequently, such anger reveals our own idols.  Idols, by the way, need not seem religious.  Anything that has a sufficient amount of my devotion and passion can become an idol, an object of devotion that rightfully belongs only to God.  Nation, family, wealth, or political systems and ideas come to mind.

Of course religious things make for wonderful idols.  Churches, pastors, worship styles, a theology or ideology, even the Bible itself can be and have been idolized.  And such idols are perhaps more problematic for church folks like myself and those I serve as a pastor.  All these religious idols have the advantage of being part of our religious practices.  They are not bad things per se, but rather lesser goods mistaken for the ultimate good.

It is not so unusual for pastors to encounter people in congregations who reach for metaphorical stones over the seemingly insignificant. These can be as varied as moving a sanctuary decoration, tinkering with the order of worship, suggesting a different Bible translation, or suggesting changing the color of carpet in the sanctuary.  There's no knowing exactly what motivates such over-reactions, but surely some of them are about mistaking things associated with God for God.  Sometimes we decide that God is bound up in the things we use in our practice of the faith.  But if today's story in John is any guide, at such moments we may well miss God in our midst.

Jesus' opponents were very religious and very devout.  They were the sort of people every pastor wishes she had in greater numbers at her church.  Yet somehow they could not see God's presence in their very midst.  Indeed they grabbed for stones to hurl at that presence. 

I'm an idea guy, so I suspect the idols that have me reaching for stones are deeply held understandings and ways of thinking about God.  I'm not likely to get upset with you over carpet colors, but trample on my deeply held truths and I may struggle to keep my hands in my pockets.

What can prompt you to reach for stones?  Any chance it's an idol that keeps you from encountering the living God?

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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Discipleship, Politics, "Isms," and Idols

A line in this morning's psalm reads,  “Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up,” says the LORD."  It's hard to read the Bible without getting the sense that God cares especially for the poor.  Conversely, Jesus seems to think that wealth is something of a curse. Not that many of us take him seriously on that.

Now this is not a political post (though I suppose it has political implications).  People can be very concerned about the poor and end up in very different political places. But I'm not sure the Bible's aim is simply to create concern for the poor.  Rather it seeks to form us into people whose lives are radically reoriented. Jesus calls his followers to lives of total devotion to God and concern for others that, at the very least, equals concern for self.  And whether we are Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, most of us find this very nearly impossible.

It is very difficult for any political movement to embody the reoriented life Jesus asks of us because all such movements, all "isms" from feminism to liberalism to fundamentalism to patriotism, suffer from the basic human problem of being self-centered rather than God and other-centered.  Even movements begun from entirely altruistic motives eventually succumb to this tendency, to our sinful nature.

Churches and faiths on both the left, right, and everywhere in between routinely forget this and too easily associate God and faithfulness with their particular stances and positions, politics and "isms."  And far too often, churches and faith communities of all persuasions fail to encourage an openness to fundamental transformation that transcends politics and "isms."  As such, our devotion is too often to our causes, politics, and "isms" rather than to God and neighbor.  Fervent, well-intended causes make the most impressive idols, and very often we are remarkably blind to our own idols, although we can be quite astute at pointing out the idolatry of others. I take it Jesus is addressing just such a concern when he speaks of seeing specks in our neighbors' eyes while missing the log in our own.

I don't mean by this that all stances, causes, politics, and "isms" are equally loathsome.  Loathsome indeed would be the person who argued that the causes of civil rights and segregation were equally misaligned with God's coming Kingdom.  I have no doubt that Jesus was on the side of civil rights marchers and not segregationists.  But Jesus asks something bigger of us that simply to back the right causes.  He wants us to be completely made over, to discover our true human nature in living as he lived.  But that seems so hard.

I sometimes wonder if the Church hasn't done a great deal to make the call of Jesus seem too hard, even impossible.  For a variety of reasons, church leaders have been afraid to ask much of those in the pews.  We might lose members if we spoke as Jesus did. Easier to stake out a few positions or embrace a certain cause and tell people that faith means agreeing with us or supporting our cause.

I certainly get nervous at the thought of calling people to radical discipleship.  What if I offend the people who pay my salary?  A self-centered fear if there ever was one.  Maybe what I need to do first is listen more carefully for Jesus calling me.

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Sunday, September 2, 2012

Sermon - Shaped for Love

James 1:17-27
Shaped for Love
September 2, 2012                                                                                           James Sledge

Five year old Tommy walks in to the kitchen from the family room carrying an empty bowl.  “Mom,” he says, “can I have some more ice cream?” “No,” she says.  “You’ve already had two bowls and it’s nearly bedtime.”  “But please,” he whines. “I’m still hungry.”  But she stands her ground and Tommy stomps off back to the family room and the television.
Before long his mother comes into the room and says, “Okay big fella, it’s time to get ready for bed.”  Tommy of course objects.  “Do I have to?  I’m not tired.”  His mother is gentle but firm.  “Yes, you do have to.  It’s a school night, and you can stop the video and finish watching it tomorrow.” 
Tommy continues to whine and complain as he is led off to brush his teeth and put on pajamas.  “When I grow up I’m gonna stay up as late as I want, and I’m gonna eat all the ice cream I want.  Nobody’s gonna tell me what to do.”  His mother just smiles and says, “Well when you grow up you can do that.”
I suspect that at some point in their lives, all children are convinced that their parent’s chief purpose in life is to keep them from doing the things they enjoy.  Parents burden their lives with arbitrary rules which serve little purpose beyond making them miserable.  And they long for the day when they will make their own rules.
Of course most children grow up and decide not to stay up all night eating nothing but ice cream.  And when they have children of their own, they burden those children with bedtimes, deserts contingent on eating their vegetables, and so on.  As many people have noted, your parents seem to get a lot smarter as you get older.
There must be something in our human nature that makes us chafe when rules are imposed on us.  We seem to assume that they are unnecessary constraints on us.  And while most of us grow up and gain a certain appreciation of our parents’ rules, this view of rules as burdens remains with us.  Drivers don’t like speed limits.  Corporations fuss about environmental laws, and people howl and threaten to sue anytime anyone infringes on their rights or tries to tell them what to do.
Most of us have learned to appreciate many of our parents’ rules, and cognitively we understand the need for speed limits, for not allowing everyone just to do whatever he or she pleases.  But still we chafe at the idea that another can restrict our freedom in any way.  And this aversion to rules extends to those that come from God.  People think of religious rules as things that restrict our freedoms, that keep us from doing things that would be fun, that interfere with us enjoying our lives.  That’s probably why Mark Twain once said, “Go to heaven for the climate and hell for the company.”