Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween and Other Costumes

Before long the trick-or-treaters will arrive.  I have no idea how many. The first Halloween in a new neighborhood, you don't know how much candy to buy.  Hopefully we have too much rather than too little. I'll be happy to polish it off.

I always enjoyed Halloween as a child.  It was fun to dress up as something you weren't. Once when I was around 10, I made myself a robot costume.  A couple of boxes, some silver spray paint, and some antennae fashioned from household utensils, and I had a crude, but serviceable facsimile of a robot inspired by the Lost in Space TV series showing back in those days.

But whether the costumes were crude, home-made jobs or fancy, store-bought ones, everyone understood that the masquerade was fleeting. Other than the occasional very young sibling or family pet, no one was really fooled by these remodeled exteriors. Under the costumes, we were still the same. Nothing had really changed.

Yet despite knowing this, most of us still worry a lot about our costumes.  Not our Halloween ones, but the costumes we put on every day. Sometimes these are literal, the clothes we wear to project just the right image.  Sometimes that are a persona that we don, hoping it will make us look more impressive, attractive, sexy, knowledgeable, powerful, datable, and so on. But often they are not much more effective than Halloween costumes. Who we really are inside still shows.

Jesus goes after the Pharisees in today's gospel over their concern with the outside rather than the inside.  Seems that nothing has change in 2000 years.  And this isn't simply a personal thing. We church folks worry a lot about the outside of our buildings and our worship, sometimes to the neglect of deeper, more important things.

We all know that the Church is people, a communion of saints who together constitute the living body of Christ in the world. Yet very often we we mention "church," we are talking about our costumes.

What's beneath the costumes your church wears? And what sort of Jesus does that show to the world?

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Crisis of Jesus' Presence

The storm blew through last night. There's a tree down in the church parking lot, but that's about it. And we didn't lose power as we did in this summer's derecho, so I feel fortunate. Not so for many in other places such as New Jersey and NYC, not to mention the Caribbean. And as I read today's lectionary passages, it reminded me of how the poor suffer disproportionately at such times.

I was none too happy this summer when we lost the contents of a recently filled refrigerator/freezer to days without power. No one likes to throw away expensive food, but it did not really impose any great financial hardship on me to replace all that food. Not the case for some. And that is just one small example. For those who struggle to get by, storms like Sandy can mean days with no income, damage to cars or homes with no money for repairs. I don't mean to make light of someone's vacation home being washed away at the beach, but there is a difference.

What got me thinking about such things was a line from today's psalm and a statement from Jesus in Luke's gospel.  From Psalm 12,  
       “Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan,
          I will now rise up,” says the LORD;
       “I will place them in the safety for which they long.”

And from Jesus, when someone blesses the womb that bore him, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!"

The gospel of Luke emphasizes themes of love and forgiveness as much or more than any other gospel. It is in Luke alone that Jesus says from the cross, "Father, forgive them." But today Jesus speaks of obeying God, and of his presence as judgment, a sign requiring repentance or change. Jesus says we need to hear and obey. But too often in the church, we stop at "believe."  Worse, we pervert Jesus' message, reducing it to nothing more than one of personal salvation. And we conveniently forget that Jesus says his coming is about good news for the poor, release for the captive, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the year of Jubilee. (This Jubilee was a time when debts are forgiven and those who had sold land to survive have it returned. Clearly it is something that benefits the poor at the expense of the rich.)

The fact is, we have heard God speak of caring for the poor, of doing justice and mercy. We have heard Jesus call us to love God with all our being, and to love our neighbor as much as self. We have heard Jesus call us to be servants, but still we build our churches to serve us.  Look at the budget of the typical church, and care of the poor and needy will be one of the smallest slivers on the budget pie chart. It's not that we have no compassion for those in need, it's just that it's way down at the bottom of our priority list.

It's pretty rare to hear judgment preached in Mainline churches, unless it is judgment on others. But the presence of Jesus is a sign that brings judgment, that demands change. When we encounter Jesus, we must either go with him, or turn away. I'm not talking about getting into heaven or not, but I am talking about the crisis that Jesus' presence provokes. Perhaps that's why we Presbyterians are so uncomfortable talking about presence or the Holy Spirit. It is much safer to discuss Jesus than to encounter him.

On that note, let me start to lobby for something I've seen suggested by others. It is time to abandon the label "Christian."  It has become so vague as to be meaningless. "Follower of Jesus" would be much better. At least that would remind us of the response that his presence demands.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Hurricanes, Prayers, and Our Place in the Story

For God alone my soul waits in silence;
     from him comes my salvation. 

He alone is my rock and my salvation,
     my fortress; I shall never be shaken.

                                   (Psalm 62:1-2)

"I called to the Lord out of my distress,
     and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
     and you heard my voice.
You cast me into the deep,
     into the heart of the seas,
     and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
     passed over me.
Then I said, 'I am driven away
     from your sight;
how shall I look again
     upon your holy temple?'
The waters closed in over me;
     the deep surrounded me; 

                           (from Jonah 2)

These readings seem fitting on a day when Hurricane Sandy (or if you prefer, Frankenstorm) threatens the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast. Here in the Washington, DC area, most everything is shut down in anticipation, though as yet the weather is fairly tame in Falls Church, VA.  In the meantime, my Twitter feed has an interesting mix of religiously-oriented, hurricane-related tweets.

A large number offer prayers for those affected or encourage others to offer similar prayers. But a handful regard such activity as silly. I follow God on Twitter (actually a mostly humorous account, @TheTweetOfGod), and God tweeted this earlier. "Afflicted by #Sandy? Please turn to Me for comfort from the pain I'm causing you"

Speaking of cause, there's a lot of Twitter activity responding to folks who say Sandy is divine retribution for gay marriage or some other supposed "immorality." All the religious types I follow are trashing such notions. God chimed in on this one, too."I send natural disasters to punish mankind for being stupid enough to believe in a God who would send natural disasters to punish it."

I struggle sometimes with the notion of a sovereign God who rules over all history, a Jesus who "even the winds and the sea obey," alongside a perfectly predictable, destructive storm such as Sandy which has precisely followed computer models based on the best available science, unmoved by the prayers of many faithful people. What does this say about our faith, about our God?

A couple of things strike me. For many, God's chief concerns has become the status of our "eternal souls." (Never mind that the eternal soul is a Greek philosophical idea and not a biblical one.) And we are unsure about how God operates in other arenas. Even conservative evangelicals can get unnerved by Pat Robertson type announcements of praying away a hurricane. Best to leave hurricanes to the meteorologists.

At the same time, modern people are very immediate. We make judgments based on the moment and have great difficulty with a long term view, even more so if long term means not just a few years, but beyond my lifetime. We not only vote in elections based on how we think we will be affected in the coming days, but how we feel about God is often a matter of how it's going with me today.

One item of truly good news in the gospels is that God is concerned with each of us as individuals, that the hairs on our heads are numbered. But that concern does not mean that God measures all things based on how they affect me. The biblical story is primarily a corporate one. Each of us is valued, but we are also part of a larger whole. To be Christian is to become part of a larger story, a story whose meaning, direction, and ultimate culmination is not necessarily tied to what happens to me today.

None of this provides terribly satisfactory answers to why God permits hurricanes to kill and destroy. But it does speak directly to the fact that Hurricane Sandy barely showed up on my Twitter feed when it was wreaking destruction and death in Cuba and Haiti.  It's okay for God to ignore hurricanes that don't impact me.

I think it safe to say that a great deal of arrogance is required to imagine that God is not beyond my understanding. Clearly there are and will be many things for which there are no good answers, although the Bible endorses fist shaking and yelling at God in many such instances, at least according to Job. Indeed not to do so may be indicative of a lack of faith, of notions God whose power is restricted to admitting me to heaven.

But one thing is almost certain, wrestling with questions of where God is in the storm will raise questions of my place in God's larger story. What does it say if I barely noticed Haiti, or if I'd prefer Sandy to hit New York City rather than hit me? 

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sermon audio - Almost Ready

Audios of sermons and worship services available at Falls Church Presbyterian website.

Sermon - Almost Ready

Almost Ready
Mark 12:28-34

October 28, 2012                                                                              James Sledge

 When someone takes flying lessons, the first big milestone in the process is flying solo.  The first time the instructor gets out and says, “Take it around the pattern yourself,” is a huge moment in the life of a student pilot.  Many students who solo never actually get their pilot’s license, but still, they have flown by themselves.  They can truly call themselves pilots.
That first solo flight is a big deal among pilots.  It’s traditional to cut off the student’s shirt tail and tack it to the flight school wall with the student’s name and the date of the solo flight.  Not surprisingly, many students are anxious about when they will solo.  They bug the instructor.  “Do you think I’m ready yet?  Do you think I’m ready?” 
A few students never get it, but they are rare.  For most, eventually it clicks, and the instructor says, “You’re starting to get it.  You’re almost ready.  Let’s schedule your next lesson, and if everything goes well, you’ll solo at the end of it.”
It’s an exciting moment in the life of pilot, and even if you’ve never held the controls of an airplane, most of you can probably understand.  After all, life is full of such moments.  At some point, babies are almost ready to walk.  Children are almost ready to take the training wheels off.  Students are just about ready to graduate.  Couples are almost ready to get married or start a family. People are almost ready to retire.  We all experience such moments.  We reach those points in our lives when we are ready to move on to something new. 
In our gospel reading this morning, a scribe who has noticed Jesus’ keen religious insight asks him a question.  It was a question much debated among rabbis.  What commandment took precedence over others?  Or as the scribe says, “Which commandment is first of all?”
Jesus does not break any truly new ground with his answers. He quotes Scripture, first from Deuteronomy, then from Leviticus.  And interestingly, he can’t stop with one commandment but requires two, although both involve love.
The scribe is clearly impressed with Jesus’ answer.  And I don’t think it’s simply a matter of his agreeing with Jesus.  I get the impression that the scribe’s eyes are opened just a bit.  Things come into focus for him, and he gets. “You are right, Teacher. Now I see. To love God with every fiber of your being and to love your neighbor as yourself, that’s the point.   It’s so much more important than getting the liturgy or music or rituals just right.
And then it’s Jesus’ turn to be impressed. He says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”  At least that’s what our Bible translation says.  But translating from one language to another is never an exact business. There’s usually more than one way. And this one could also be translated, “You are almost ready for the kingdom of God.”

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Asking the Wrong Questions

Who is my neighbor?  That's the question Jesus is asked in today's gospel. In Luke's rather interesting take on this story, Jesus does not tell this fellow what the greatest commandment is. (See Matthew 22:34-40 or Mark 12:18-27) Rather the questioner provides Jesus with the commands to love God with all your being and to love neighbor as self.  Jesus simply affirms the man's response saying, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."

"But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, 'And who is my neighbor?'" I shouldn't say this during "stewardship season," but this question from today's gospel has always recalled for me a question about tithing. "Are you supposed to tithe from pre-tax or after-tax income?" I suppose some people might simply be asking so as to be sure and tithe correctly, but it usually strikes me a diversionary question, and my answer is, "Either would be fine."

The lawyer in today's gospel knows the commandments.  ("Lawyer" here refers to Mosaic law from the Old Testament.) He knows he is supposed to love his neighbors as himself, but is that pre-tax or after-tax neighbors?  What's a reasonable neighborhood zone?  Inside the zone equals neighbor while outside is not.

Jesus' answer is one of his most famous parables, even though it appears only in Luke's gospel. And this "parable of the Good Samaritan" does not actually answer the man's question, at least not directly. Jesus answers a question about who might fall outside a reasonable neighborhood zone with a story about a man who was already presumed to be outside that zone.  A thoroughly despised Samaritan, the definition of an outsider to many Jews of Jesus' day, goes out of his way to care for someone in need.  And Jesus says, "Be like him."

Much like the lawyer in today's gospel, our questions are sometimes not the right questions. I think that Christians often sound ridiculous and sometimes cruel because we insist on asking Jesus or the Bible questions that are the wrong questions. The lawyer knows what he is supposed to do, but he asks a question in hopes of limiting the command to be neighborly.  And when you consider how un-neighborly Christians often are both to outsiders and to one another, it seems we are still are taking our cues from the lawyer in Luke's gospel.

I wonder what might happen if every time we found ourselves thinking that some "other" did not deserve our help, our hospitality, our welcome, our love, our concern, our friendship, etc. we let Jesus retell us this parable.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Sermon video - Not So Among You

Other sermon videos available on YouTube.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What Makes God Mad

These words from today's reading in Micah are familiar to many.
  They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
       and their spears into pruning-hooks;
   nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
       neither shall they learn war any more. 

But I wonder how many know the context of these hopeful words.
   Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob
       and chiefs of the house of Israel,
   who abhor justice
       and pervert all equity,
   who build Zion with blood
       and Jerusalem with wrong!
  Its rulers give judgement for a bribe,
       its priests teach for a price,
       its prophets give oracles for money;
   yet they lean upon the Lord and say,
       "Surely the Lord is with us!
       No harm shall come upon us."
   Therefore because of you
       Zion shall be ploughed as a field;
   Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins,
       and the mountain of the house a wooded height.

God's promise of a new day comes because leaders of the present day neglect justice, concern for the poor, and the ways of mercy and peace. Government and the religious apparatus is tilted toward the wealthy, in cahoots with the rich. God is not happy because of behavior as current as this morning's headlines.

People of faith sometimes worry about what makes God happy and what makes God upset, although they often don't agree about the answers.  There's a lot of focus on what people believe and on certain sorts of moral behaviors. Because we are a sex-obsessed culture, sexual sins often head the lists of things God is riled up about.

The biblical prophets sometimes mention these, but most of the prophets seem much more worked up about injustice, the plight of the poor, the corruption of both governance and religion for the sake of the wealthy.  Another prophet, Amos, sounds a bit like Micah in condemning those who go to church on Sunday but exploit the poor.
  I hate, I despise your festivals,
       and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies...
  Take away from me the noise of your songs.
       I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
  But let justice roll down like waters,
       and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

At the most basic and fundamental level, what sort of behaviors emerge in your life based on what you think makes God happy or upset?

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Faith and Hospitality

The topic of hospitality has become big in the church of late. It is a chapter heading and one of the big "practices" in Diana Butler Bass' book, Christianity for the Rest of Us. And it is the focus of a new book by Henry Brinton, pastor at Fairfax Presbyterian, entitled The Welcoming Congregation: Roots and Fruits of Christian Hospitality. 

Hospitality in these books and in many other church discussions is about much more than being friendly. It is about a ministry to which each of us is called. It is about going out of our way to welcome the stranger, to see ourselves as hosts. And as such, it does not always fit well into the habits of typical mainline congregations.

In another of her books, The Practicing Congregation, Diana Butler Bass follows up on her aforementioned book, and in it she speaks of "established congregations" and contrasts them with "intentional congregation." (She argues that this is going to become a much more important contrast than conservative versus liberal, but that's another discussion.)  She contrasts them in a number of areas. For example she says that established congregations think of congregants as members or family, while intentional congregations think in terms of companions, pilgrims, and friends. The controlling image of church for the established folks is chapel, while it is community for the intentionals. 

An area of contrast I find particularly interesting is that of piety. Here Butler Bass says that the established are introverted, private, and devotional compared to extroverted, expressive, and spirituality for the intentional. And I can't help but think that some very different takes on hospitality emerge from these different takes on piety and church.

If I go to chapel for my personal, devotional time, I may well be convinced that I should show hospitality to a visitor in worship, but that is not likely to be part of my devotional/spiritual activity. It isn't a spiritual practice for me, and it may simply be a strategy to recruit new members.

But if my piety needs to connect with the other in order to build community, if my spirituality is about sharing a pilgrim journey with others, then I may view hospitality as an essential part of my faith life. It isn't something I ought to do so that people think mine is a "friendly church." Instead it is central to my faith life.

Now I don't know if Butler Bass is correct in her assessment of an established/intentional continuum or of its characteristics.  But I thought of her writings when I read today's gospel. Jesus has sent out 70 of his disciples on mission tour, and this is a portion of their instructions. "Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you.'"

The only requirement for people to be cured and to have good news of the kingdom delivered to them is hospitality. Nothing about their faith, or whether they were convinced by what the disciples say. But if they are welcoming, if they show hospitality...

Considering how often the Bible speaks of hospitality, and how frequently it calls us to welcome the stranger, it seems odd that hospitality has lost its place as a core faith practice.  "... for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me..." 

How do you engage in the spiritual practice of hospitality in your congregation?

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Monday, October 22, 2012


Today's gospel reading opens with this line about Jesus. "When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem."  Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem and the cross. His life was organized around getting to Jerusalem and the cross. Because Jesus' life was totally centered on serving God by giving his life for us, nothing could deter him from journeying to the cross.

As Jesus prioritizes his life around this journey to Jerusalem, he becomes the living embodiment of the commandment he will speak just a scant chapter later in Luke's gospel.  "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."

Priorities, we all have them. We're in stewardship season at my congregation, and so I'm talking about what our giving says about our priorities. If almost none of our money goes to loving God or neighbor, surely that says something significant about where God and neighbor fit among our priorities.

The ways we use our money and our other resources are faith statements and moral statements. They declare, often much more clearly than our professed beliefs, what is really important to us. The measly giving of many Christians often make a poor witness when it comes to our faith, but I think such stinginess is merely symptomatic of our real problem. When it comes to priorities, human beings have a universal tendency to make ourselves the center or the universe. And this tendency seems to have teamed up with American individualism to produce some disturbing results.

Individualism has religious roots, especially from the Protestant Reformation, and it has made real contributions to our society. But it has a dark side. Unchecked, individualism measures everything based on how it impacts me. Without a larger good to which the self owes allegiance, everything's worth is measured by whether or not it makes my life better.

Even God and faith fall under such measures. To the degree that faith makes my life better or improves it, it is worth my time.  But if there are not some clear, short-term benefits for me (we Americans struggle to think long term), it is not.  In such a climate, much church activity focuses on style, on whether or not this or that style of worship peps me up, feeds me, or makes me feel better.

This is not to say that worship should not feed us or at times make us feel better. But if we measure it purely on such terms, we rob it of any power to change us, to call us to a new life with different priorities such as loving God with all our being and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

What is the absolute core, the center around which your life is organized and prioritized? Regardless of how much importance we Americans put on the individual, I am certain that the answer to this question cannot be "Me."

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary. 

Sermon audio - Not So Among You

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

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sermon - Not So Among You

Mark 10:35-45
Not So Among You
James Sledge                                                                                       October 21, 2012

I’ve been reading a new book by MaryAnn McKibben Dana, the pastor at Idylwood Presbyterian just west of here. It’s entitled Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time.  If you’ve ever thought about Sabbath keeping, or simply thought about how life is too busy and distracted, I highly recommend it.
MaryAnn has young children, and in the book she tells of a time she attended a parenting workshop where the leader asked them to write down their goals and dreams for their children, to say where they hoped their children would be at age twenty-one.
She writes, “It was a heartwarming experience to imagine our children on the verge of being launched, all full of glowing potential without the messy inconvenience of reality mucking up the fantasy.  My list was filled with lofty goals—that they would understand their strengths and limitations, that they would have a spirit of service toward others, and so forth.  (Later, I asked Robert what he would wish for our children—what success would look like at age twenty-one.  Without hesitation he said, ‘Their own apartment.’)”
After writing our lists, the workshop participants read them to one another and basked in the radiance of all these self-actualized Eagle Scouts and lacrosse captains, confident yet humble.  They were like young adult ghosts, beaming all around us. Then the leader said something that made them all disappear: Poof!
“ ‘This list is for you,’ she said.  ‘You want your children to have a spirit of service?  A sense of the Holy?  A curiosity and openness to the world?  Cultivate those things in yourself.  Let them see you do it.  Become the person and parent you want to be.  It’s one of the most important things you can do for your child.’ ”[1]
The book goes on to say that if we want our children to have a different sense of time than most of the world, some sense of sabbath or holy time, we will need to practice it ourselves.  And the point is easily expanded. If you want your children to have a real sense of generosity, be truly generous yourself.  If you want your children to adopt some of Jesus’ priorities over those of the world, adopt those priorities yourself.
Jesus is pretty clear that following him is about a different set of priorities.  He says that we are to love God will all our heart, mind, soul, and being, and we are to love others as ourselves.  And much of his teaching is about fleshing this out, talking about what this looks like in various settings and contexts.  I think that’s the case in today’s passage.
Although they have been with Jesus for quite a while, the disciples still seem very much caught up in the patterns of the world.  They understand that Jesus is the real deal, but they try to shoehorn that into the ways of the world.  You see that with James and John.  They act just like any career consultant will tell you to do.  “Use your connections to get ahead.”  And so when the get a moment where they have Jesus to themselves, they make a move.  “Rabbi, let us be your right and left hand men when you take over.” 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Pride and Forgetfulness

I've always thought that Hosea was a remarkable book of the Bible. Its picture of God's anguished relationship with Israel, of God's inner conflict over how to respond to repeated unfaithfulness, is moving and poignant. In one moment God's anger seems to boil over. It's there in today's reading. "So I will become like a lion to them, like a leopard I will lurk beside the way. I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs."

But at other times God's tender mercies overwhelm divine anger. Following a moment of anger, God pivots.  "How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?.. My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath."

This view into God's heart, into the internal struggle that seems literally to cause God anguish and pain, grows out of God's desire for relationship with Israel. But the particulars of relationship with Israel can easily be transferred to God's desire for relationship with Christians, Muslims, and others.  God reaches out in love, but gets suffering for the trouble.

It's there in the heart of today's reading. "When I fed them, they were satisfied; they were satisfied, and their heart was proud; therefore they forgot me."  It's an old story, one repeated over and over.  People cry out to God in moments of distress, begging for help. But when the danger is over, the storm past, or the crisis navigated, we begin to imagine we made it through alone. We have triumphed, and our successes are a testament to our hard work and determination.  In short, we are proud.  And pride leads to forgetfulness.

When an actor gets up to accept his Academy Award, he will sometimes pause to thank the people who helped him win. At times this seems a genuine act of remembering that works against pride. At other times thanking these "little people" only serves to highlight how insignificant they are next to the great actor.

I imagine that being a successful actor tends to encourage pride in a way most of us rarely experience.  And perhaps that is a reason that so many actors struggle with personal relationships. It really is hard to remember where they came from.

And God knows all about being forgotten.

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Functional Atheists

Modern day Christians have sometimes been a little embarrassed by the miracles found in the Bible, and modern commentators have sometimes offered rational explanations for those miracles.  For instance, today's feeding miracle is interpreted by some as a "miracle of sharing." Many people in that crowd had a little food tucked in their robes but kept it hidden lest others wanted some of it.  But when Jesus begins to share the meager provisions his followers had, that prompts others to share, and before long there was more than enough to go around as everyone brought out what he or she had.  If you're familiar with story of "stone soup," it's the same idea.

But if you are embarrassed by miracles, you have your work cut out for you in today's gospel. Not only does Jesus feed the crowd but he heals people and also gives his followers "power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases."

Can Jesus really give power and authority to his followers?  What about present day followers?

I have to admit that very often I act as though my answer to the second question is "No." Some have referred to this as "functional atheism." Functional atheists don't deny the existence of God. Christian ones don't deny the divinity of Jesus. It's just that such beliefs don't much impact how they live, how they function. They can't do anything they couldn't already do all on their own, and their churches can't do anything beyond what the combined abilities and efforts of the members could do on their own.

The term "leap of faith" is a familiar one to many. It usually refers to the need to accept something for which there is not empirical proof, such as religious belief. But while believing in God may indeed be a move made without much empirical evidence, I'm not sure it involves much leaping, and a leap of faith seems to imply an action taken in hope or trust that things will turn out differently than suggested by the empirical evidence.  An individual or congregation trying to do something beyond what seems possible for instance.

But can Jesus really confer power and authority on us?  Or are we really all on our own?

Click to learn more about the Daily Lectionary.

Sermon audio - Because of Love

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

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sermon - Because of Love

Mark 10:17-31
Because of Love
James Sledge                                                                                       October 14, 2012

In 1889, James Bryan graduated from seminary and became pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, AL, having served there part time while still in school.  He would remain there for the next 50 years, becoming a beloved figure in Birmingham known simply as Brother Bryan. He was well known as an evangelist and for his work on racial reconciliation.  But he was best known for his work with the poor and homeless. 
There’s still a Brother Bryan Mission in Birmingham, and a Brother Bryan Park, and a statue of Brother Bryan kneeling in prayer that is one of the city’s better known landmarks. 
Brother Bryan was pastor of Third Presbyterian, but he thought of himself as pastor to everyone he met, and one day he happened to strike up a conversation with a well to do businessman.  At some point Brother Bryan asked the man about tithing.  The man neither tithed nor knew exactly what it was, so Brother Bryan launched into a stirring biblical argument for tithing, for giving the first 10 percent of his income to God. 
The businessman said, “Oh you don’t understand.  I make a lot of money.  Ten percent would be a whole lot more than I could afford to give to a church.”
Brother Bryan responded, “Well sir, I think we ought to pray about this.”  He got down on his knees and cried out to heaven, “Cut him down Lord, cut him down!  Lord, please reduce this man’s income, so he can afford to tithe!”
In our gospel reading today, Jesus meets a well to do businessman who can’t afford to tithe.  Actually, Jesus asks a great deal more of him than a tithe, but the man’s problem is similar to that Birmingham businessman’s.  Other people could toss aside all that they had to follow Jesus, but not this fellow.  And our gospel reading is quite clear why; he had many possessions. It was too much to let go of, and so he went away grieving. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Us, Them, and Christian Identity

I attended a presentation by Brian McLaren last night via Twitter.  By that I mean I read the Twitter feed of someone who was at the presentation. It's a little like reading the notes someone takes as she takes them. I had not known about this event in advance, but when I saw this from Debra, "Live tweeting @brianmclaren in PHX," I perked up.  I love Brian McLaren's books and think he is the best conference keynote speaker I've ever run across.

As the Tweets of McLaren's presentation appeared on my phone, I was especially drawn to a string about Christian identity.  Here they are (combined and slightly edited to remove the abbreviations and shortcuts necessitated by Twitter's 140 character limit).

Christians know how to do 2 things 1) have a strong identity and be hostile to others with different identity. The correct people have the right to be here but everyone else is taking up our space. 2. We know how to have a weak identity in the name of tolerance. Weak/tolerant identity is less harmful to the other, but is also hard to pass on to the next generation. We need a third option: strong Christian identity that is benevolent toward other religions.
I couldn't agree more. Obviously these are generalizations, and don't apply to every individual Christian or congregation.  But in general, more fundamentalist, evangelical churches have tended to have a very clear and strong identity, but it often emerges from an "us and them" view of the world. And any positive view of the "thems" is largely limited to their status as potential converts.

On the other hand, mainline churches, and especially the more progressive wing of the mainline, often is very tolerant and accepting of others, seeing less of an "us and them" world and more of a one big "we."  But this inclusivity is often achieved by minimizing the differences and particularities of  Christian faith.  There's an old joke about about the liberal, UCC denomination that plays on their initials but could probably be applied to other liberal Christians. It goes, "What does UCC stand for?  Unitarians Considering Christ."  In reality it's the United Church of Christ, but the joke works because liberal Christians sometimes sound more like Unitarians than followers of Jesus.

That's no knock on Unitarians.  But if we prefer being Unitarian to being Christian, we should come clean and say so.

Today's readings from Acts and Luke remind us that Christian faith is rooted in the specific and messy particularities of the man Jesus. They speak of "a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous," and of sinners who are in need of forgiveness that Jesus can and does give.  And this is just the tip of the messy, particular iceberg.  Basic Christian identity includes a  bloody cross, a resurrection, an insistence that God is actively at work in human history, and more.

A few years ago, Kenda Creasy Dean authored a book entitled Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church.  The book is largely rooted in a massive study of adolescent spirituality in the US done from 2003-2005.  This study concluded that the faith of the typical American teenager was not really Christian, but something they labeled "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." And Dean says that this "Christian-ish" faith is a parasite draining the faith of its vitality. And the tenants of this Christian-ish faith are remarkably vague and innocuous, not in the least offensive to anyone. The is a god. God want people to be good and nice and fair. The main purpose of life is to be happy. God is uninvolved in our lives except to solve the occasional problem. And good people go to heaven. 

And the most troubling aspect of this study and book is that the Christian-ish faith of our teenagers is not the result of their misunderstanding something or perverting what they learned at church. Rather it is an accurate reflection of their parents' faith and the faith of the churches where they grew up. It's also a faith that does not bind teenagers to the church in any significant way.

I take it that this is precisely the sort of thing Brian McLaren was talking about last night when he spoke of a weak identity that was very tolerant but did not transmit well to the next generation.  And in fact, the study behind Dean's book found that typical teenagers had not rejected the church nor were they hostile to it. Rather the faith they had learned there was so vague and short on specifics that they saw little reason to continue participating. They could be moralistic, therapeutic deists without attending some anachronistic worship service.

And that brings me back to the challenge McLaren issued, to come up with a Christian identity that is strong, particular, and vital without any need to denigrate others. It is easy to build an identity using hostility, by defining us in contrast to "them." (Partisan politics is a good example.) But that is not the only way.  And I do not think it was the Christian way in the beginning. Only after Christians gained political power a few hundred years after Jesus did anyone begin to suggest forcibly converting people or killing those who would comply. Only when Christians resided in places of power did societies begin requiring conformity to a strong Christian identity under threat of the sword.

Progressive Christianity correctly rejects such coercive faith. It correctly champions freedom of religion and the denial of the sword to those who would say, "Believe as we do or else."  But these stances do not require us to water down our faith. The particulars of our faith are not the problem.

There is a concept from the world of business referred to as "the culture of mediocrity." It refers to a process where ideas or proposals are tweaked and modified in response to objections or concerns, but in the process of removing anything that bothers or upsets anyone, the end product is gutted to its core, leaving something that doesn't bother anyone, but accomplishes little. 

This process has a parallel in many churches, where proposals to do something new get whittled down to mediocre or worse.  And a similar process seems to have happened with faith itself. We have whittled it down and sanded off its corners and reduced it to something that offends no one but speaks to no one either.

I think that the challenge Brian McLaren issues is the big challenge facing Progressive Christianity. Can we articulate and proclaim a bold, vibrant, Christian faith and identity - emphasis on Christ - that is distinct and requires alterations to one's life to be a part of it, while at the same time remaining open, hospitable, and benevolent to those of other faiths and practices?

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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Dysfunctional Family Torn Asunder

If you have been reading the Daily Lectionary lately, you've been following the Apostle Paul as he journeys to Jerusalem where his presence provokes a riot, he is arrested, and, while under arrest, narrowly avoids a plot to kill him.  "The Jews" are the ones plotting against Paul, and on first glance, these Jews would seem to be those same Jews who opposed Jesus.  But it is more likely that these "Jews" are in fact Jewish Christians, Christians who were upset that Paul was baptizing Gentiles without requiring them to be circumcised or to adopt Jewish dietary restrictions and so on.

At the time of Paul's arrest, the Christian movement still existed within Judaism. But as Gentiles began to join the movement, a huge conflict broke out over how Jewish these converts had to be. The book of Acts reports this conflict, though in much more subdued tones than Paul's own words in his letters. But Paul hopes to mend the rift that had developed between his Gentile Christianity and the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, heading there with an offering to assist the Jerusalem Church. But Paul is clearly not confident of success. He seems to know that his trip will not end well. And indeed, there is no report of the Jerusalem leaders ever receiving Paul or his offering. In that sense, his trip is a failure, but while Paul's Christianity lost out in his lifetime, it became the norm not too long after his death.  (Paul Achtemeier wrote a wonderful little book on Paul and Acts that covers this: The Quest for Unity in the New Testament Church.)

It is somewhat sobering to think that only 30 years or so after Jesus' death, fights within the Christian community had already turned so bitter that people thought it necessary or justified to kill members of the "other side."  But Christians killing other Christians over faith differences has been commonplace in history, along with Christians killing non-Christians and non-Christians killing Christians. And it continues right up to this moment. It is much less common in America, especially nowadays, but that does not mean our divisions are any less bitter.

My current congregation hosted an Episcopal congregation for over five years after they were ejected from their property when the pastor led the church to break away from the denomination and join an African Anglican union that was more to their conservative tastes. A long and bitter legal battle ensued with the Episcopal diocese finally prevailing, allowing the congregation hosted here to return home. I can only guess at the amount of money and energy expended on the long battle.

My own denomination has fought over issues of gay and lesbian ordination for decades. The divide over the issue was often extremely bitter, so much so that those on the left distrusted anything proposed by those on the right and vice versa. It looked remarkably similar to the partisan political divide in our nation where if it comes from the other side, our side's against it.

Lost in all this is any real sense of a unity in Christ. We say that in our baptisms we are joined to Christ, made his brothers and sisters. And so we are brothers and sisters to all those other Christians who disagree with us.  But our loyalties to positions seem to have superseded our family loyalty.  Brothers and sisters are now our enemies, our opponents. And when we get really riled up, we sound like political partisans who insist their opponents want to "destroy America."

My congregation's experience of hosting that Episcopal congregation included many practical and logistical difficulties to overcome, but it was an overwhelmingly positive experience. And we now have a much closer relationship with the Episcopal congregation than was historically the case. A small victory for Christian unity.  But we are both progressive, liberal congregations with no great theological gulf separating us.

We are now entertaining a request from a local, Russian language congregation to hold worship and classes here. Because they are happy to worship in the afternoon, the practical and logistical challenges are considerably less than they were with the Episcopalians. However, they are not liberal or progressive, far from it. They aren't ordaining women, much less gays, and their theology might be described as something along conservative, evangelical, Southern Baptist lines.

Can they worship here, or does their theology make them unwelcome? They are our brothers and sisters, but we have some significant disagreements.  Are our disagreements and differences sufficient to undo the family bonds? A question that biological families sometimes wrestle with.

I have considered myself a liberal or progressive for all of my adult life. I have been a longtime member and supporter of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, a group that has worked toward the full inclusion and ordination of those in the LGBT community.  But I have always been somewhat uncomfortable identifying myself primarily by such things. And that discomfort has only grow in recent years.

I am not a liberal or progressive who happens to be a Christian.  I am a follower of Jesus who happens to be a liberal or progressive. And I fear that the Christian right and left do grave damage to the Church universal, that vast family of all the baptized, when our primary identity comes from our place left or right, our denomination, our style of worship, or anything else other than Christ.

There was an article in the local paper yesterday about Protestants no longer comprising a majority in the United States, something no one would have predicted 50 years ago. Meanwhile, we Presbyterians have created yet another denomination, splitting again, largely over the issue of gay ordination.

God sure has one dysfunctional family.

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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Two Miracles and God's Compassion

Two miracles; and what a contrast. In the first, a centurion comes to Jesus, seeking healing for one of his slaves.  In this story the focus in on the man's faith.  He comes to Jesus and asks for his help.  Jesus is astounded at the man's great faith, and grants the centurion's request. Presumably the healing and the man's faith are related.

But then comes another miracle, this one more impressive than the last. Jesus raises a man from death.  But this time there is no request for help and no demonstration of great faith. Jesus sees a widow whose son has died. He is filled with compassion, and he acts, going so far as to violate purity laws by touching the funeral bier. (Luke tells the story in a way that points us to 1 Kings 17, where another widow's son is raised.)

In Jesus' time, in a day before social safety nets, widows and orphans were among the most vulnerable.  The frequent admonitions in the Bible to care for the widow and orphan are a call to care for society's most vulnerable.  And a widow without a son was in a most precarious position. In a time when women did not have legal status as persons, being widowed and without a son left her totally defenseless, and she might well be reduced to begging.

Jesus sees the situation and he springs into action. There are no questions about her faith or worthiness. There are no questions at all, but rather two commands. "Do not weep... Young man, I say to you, rise!" after which "Jesus gave him to his mother."

If Jesus is indeed a window onto God's heart (and that would seem to be a most fundamental Christian notion), then it seems that God is moved more by God's own compassion than by our faith. That is not to make light of faith, but I have heard too often that God didn't heal someone because people didn't pray enough or didn't have enough faith. Yet in this story, deep compassion leads Jesus to raise the dead. And of course Jesus goes to the cross, not because of anyone's great faith, but because of God's great compassion.

There are times when I cannot understand why God's compassion does not seem more evident. I have no good answer for why God does not intervene when children are being slaughtered or entire villages are wiped out in ethnic cleansing. Nor do I know why God permits horrible personal suffering that leads people to take their own lives.  But if Jesus is my guide, I can only trust that God's compassion is at work in some way I cannot discern. Children are not being slaughtered because someone prayed the wrong prayer or had faith that failed to soar like the centurion's.

And me, as a part of the body of Christ, what about my compassion? At this moment, I'm thinking less about large scale compassion for the poor, the prisoner, etc. Instead I'm thinking about how hard it sometimes is for me to feel compassion for those who irritate me or make life hard for me.  Very often, I don't see people's hurts or brokenness if they inconvenience me very much. And people who actually make my job difficult may get no compassion at all.

On one occasion Jesus says that he comes to serve, and whoever wants to be great must first be a servant to all. A servant tends to the needs of others. Not a job many aspire to, and being a servant to all sounds impossible. I suppose it is, unless one is moved by compassion and love.

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Monday, October 8, 2012

Love, Security, and Freedom

"Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do what I tell you? "Every time I hear Jesus say this, it cuts me to the quick. I say, "Jesus is Lord" without much hesitation.  It is one of the most basic Christian affirmations, and it means many things at the same time.  Jesus is master, boss, due great honor, the ultimate authority, and more. And thanks to the peculiar Jewish use of the word "lord" as a substitute for the divine name, it also means Jesus is God.

So if I easily say "Jesus is Lord," why do I find it so difficult to act like it?  Clearly Jesus anticipates this problem, and in Matthew's gospel he addresses it even more bluntly. "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven." (I hope this statement is at least partly hyperbole on Jesus' part.) Jesus couldn't be more clear about the need to do as he says, and I embrace him as Lord.  So why is it so hard to actually live as he commands?

I like to think that Jesus is sometimes less than clear about what he wants me to do. And certainly there are times when it's difficult to know just what a disciple is to do in the face of complex situations. Clearly Jesus wants me to be for the poor, but exactly what policies and programs would be most helpful is not always clear.

However, I think my biggest problem with following Jesus is fear. If I did what Jesus says, even most of the time, lots of "bad" things might happen.  People might not like me. Worse, they might tell other people not to like me, that I was a troublemaker or stupid or misguided. And I want people to think well of me. Following Jesus also might cause me to invest myself and my possessions in things other than myself. But if I did that, I might not have enough. And I'm afraid of not having enough. I'm afraid of being insecure. And if I don't look out for myself, who's going to do so?

There's a famous line from 1 John that says "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear."  I have known a few people who seemed to have no fear, and it gave them a remarkable freedom. (I'm not talking about the bravado that comes from the "immortality of youth" or from not realizing the risks involved.) These people could take a difficult stand without worrying about what it might cost them. They could be generous beyond what might seem prudent. They could take great risks that might not pan out and did not seemed crushed if things went poorly.

I once thought that such people were simply braver than me. They were better able to screw up their courage and do difficult things. They were more accomplished at fighting their fears. I no longer think that. Rather I think their remarkable freedom to do difficult things comes from being remarkably secure. They are not much worried about what others will think or say. They are not greatly concerned about not having enough.  And with most of them, this is a matter of feeling secure in God's love. God loves them even if no one else does. God cares for them and will provide for them. The resurrection assures them that finally, nothing is stronger than God's love, the love in which they rest.

One of the great pitfalls in my faith life is a desire to makes sense of and understand everything. That makes me good at theology but not always very good at knowing God. Too often, I know about rather than know.

I suppose that with enough scientific study and research and analysis, it might be possible to explain the things that happen to someone when they fall in love. It might even be possible to predict whether or not two people could fall in love and under what circumstances. But even if all this were possible, I don't think knowing it would be anything like actually falling in love.

"Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do what I tell you?" Jesus, help me know you and your love.  Help me really know, so that I can be secure and free.

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Sunday, October 7, 2012

Preaching Thoughts on a Non Preaching Sunday

Two Sundays in a row without preaching.  Feels odd.  I hope I remember how come next Sunday.  Of course I can't totally doze off today. We have a congregational meeting today to elect a nominating committee, the group charged with finding those whom God is calling to be the deacons and elders who lead this church.  Presumably this will be a rather perfunctory meeting, but one never knows.

I don't know that today's gospel speaks directly to calling and electing leaders in a congregation, but it is interesting to think about a kingdom belonging to little children beside the question of who leads the church. "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs."

Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom.  We forget that in the church sometimes, focusing more on heaven than the Kingdom. But the Kingdom is not a synonym for heaven. So what does it mean to say the Kingdom, God's new day, God's new dominion or realm,belongs to children, and we must receive it as children to enter?

It's worth remembering that Jesus lived in a very different time and culture than we do.  In Jesus' day, children did not enjoy the status they do in our culture. Children had no rights, were property of their father, and, to a perhaps even greater degree than women, were not thought of as full persons. Until they came of age, they really did not matter. "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs." 

The Kingdom belongs to the nobodies, the invisible, the unimportant.  And Jesus seems to think that those of us who are somebodies, who are prominent and important, will have difficulty with this kingdom. Nobodies received the Kingdom easily, but others must become like nobodies in some way.

I'm not sure how to make a smooth segue from nobodies receiving the Kingdom to the question of who leads the church, but is seems to me that the two things should be related in some way.  If the church is to continue the work of Jesus, which must surely mean continuing to proclaim the kingdom, then it stands to reason that we must know something about receiving the Kingdom as nobodies.

 The manner of electing elders and deacons in the Presbyterian Church has changed since I was a child, but I still remember those elections when ballots were handed out and people circled the people they wanted to elect. (Today our nominating committee brings back a slate with the same number of people as offices to be filled.)  In a reasonably large church, this was something of a popularity contest, and the nobodies almost never got elected. In fact, the people I remember as elders and deacons from my childhood didn't seem at all like nobodies to me. They were prominent, important, impressive, and so on. 

Now obviously a church does want leaders with real strengths and abilities, people God has given gifts of discernment and leadership.  But I can't help wondering about how these impressive leaders should relate to a Kingdom that belongs to nobodies.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

What Shapes and Forms Us

One of the trends in my faith tradition has the term spiritual or "Christian formation" supplanting the term "Christian Education."  Directors of Christian Education (DCEs), once common in larger Presbyterian churches, are becoming scarcer while Directors of Christian Formation are seen more regularly.

Religion, like other fields, is often captive to trends, and so churches reorganize and restructure and revision just like other organizations.  And we rename committees and positions without it really changing anything that happens. But I don't think the idea of spiritual formation is simply a passing fad. No doubt there are congregations who rename a DCE as a DCF with no accompanying change in practices. But the name change more often reflects real changes in how churches do what they used to call Christian Education.

In the 1950s, for better or worse, many people expected that participation in the larger culture would form people both as citizens and as people of faith. The idea that America was a Christian nation, however far that was from actual truth, implied that one could learn the habits and practices of being a Christian via active participation in our society.  Practices of sabbath keeping, regular patterns of worship, and shared moral standards were encouraged and enforced by cultural and governmental forces.

In such an environment, church congregations were one player among many in forming Christians, and they could focus on activities such as holding worship and teaching the finer points of the faith (and their version of it) to members. To that end, Sunday School (which itself had begun as social program to educate poor children who couldn't attend regular school) was seen as a classroom much like the ones students attended Monday-Friday.  There were "text books" and various things that needed to be taught. (An unfortunate and unintended side affect of this specialized religious instruction was that religious education came to be seen as the work of experts rather than a primary tasks of parents.)

But over the last half century or so, the cultural components where a "Christian nation" formed people in faith have pretty much disappeared. The culture no longer encourages and enforces sabbath keeping or regular worship. Instead it actively works against these, creating all manner of enticements designed to draw people away from worship or treat Sabbath like any other day. Faithful participation in a religious community has gone from expected to downright counter-cultural.

In this changed landscape, many of those old Sunday School models make very little sense.  Forty five minutes a week in a classroom on a less than regular basis is not likely to profoundly change how people live their lives without some other supporting structures.  If the Christian life is indeed counter-cultural, Sunday School alone doesn't stand much of a chance against all the forces aligned against it.

In short, faith communities are faced with the problem of how to shape and form people for lives that exist in some tension with the community around them.  And while those who want to put prayer or God back into the schools recognize this problem and likely have the best of intentions, the fact is there is no going back. We are not going to get the culture to do this work for us. The culture has too much invested in Sunday soccer, endless childhood enrichment, 24-7 efficiency and productivity, economics based on consumerism, and so on to ever fully buy into a way of life that insists on sabbath rest, on life more focused on others than self, on life lived toward God and not much worried about acquiring more.

In such a setting, the need to form people for faithful lives becomes more and more the issue. Teaching people the Bible and theology is still a big piece, but learning the basic rhythms and practice of a faithful life become critical. We still need to teach beliefs, but we also need to learn ways and habits. We need to help people be formed in ways that allow them to follow Jesus, not simply believe in him.

When I began writing this, I had no thoughts of discussing DCEs or Christian Education. I was reflecting on why Jesus had so much difficulty with the good, religious people of his day. I was thinking about formation from that standpoint, wondering about how Jesus' opponents had been religiously shaped in such a way that they saw him as a threat. This notion of formation made me think of Christian formation and led to the long tangent that has delivered me here. 

But at the end of that tangent, I find myself still reflecting on how those scribes and Pharisees got off track somewhere in their religious formation. And I'm wondering what that means as we in the church face the huge challenge of forming people for Christ in our time.  What does it mean to form and shape people to be like Jesus, someone who adhered to his faith tradition and taught as a rabbi in it, who learned the Scriptures and kept the Sabbath, and yet never let his faith tradition keep him from helping and caring for others.

The Apostle Paul seems to capture this pattern in his famous piece on love from 1 Corinthians 13. Too often relegated to weddings, Paul's soaring words remind us that faith and knowledge and power and abilities are all rendered meaningless without love. And of course Paul is not speaking of romantic love, but of a love that always sees the other as one deserving my care, help, etc. Jesus embodies what Paul describes. Jesus is formed through and through by and for love. Jesus taught and followed the rules, but he never succumbed to what so often happens to good people who have knowledge. Jesus never viewed those without knowledge or outside the rules as somehow undeserving. Rather he sought them out, feeling especially compelled to love and care for them.

How does one teach this? How does a class fill someone with such deep love and compassion that she would cross cultural boundaries and break religious convention to reach out to an outsider? How are we to form people by and for love?

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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Is It Worship?

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

Sing to the LORD, bless his name;
   tell of his salvation from day to day. 

Declare his glory among the nations,
   his marvelous works among all the peoples. 

For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised;
   he is to be revered above all gods. 
(from Ps. 96)

Both this morning's psalms call us to praise and worship God. These psalms don't ask anything of God. They sing about God, brag on God, and tell about the wonderful things God has done. They seem to have no ulterior motive, expecting nothing in return for their worship and praise. They are - to borrow the title from Marva Dawn's book on worship - A Royal "Waste" of Time.

A colleague of mine, James Kim, had a blog post yesterday with this title: "Connecting with God Is Not the Same Thing as Worshiping God." He's correct; it's not. Pastor Kim is contrasting Sunday worship with things that we do outside church to connect with God. But I worry that this connecting with God vs. worshiping God dynamic exists within Sunday worship itself.

In its most basic form, worship is the sort of activity found in today's psalms. But we ask that thing we call a "worship service" to do a great deal, perhaps way too much. The name "worship service" implies that we serve God with our worship  But we expect to be served as well, sometimes so much so that our serving God gets lost.

I'm not suggesting that worship should be nothing more than songs of praise and adoration. We do need to hear God's word speak to us in worship. We do need to be nourished at the Lord's Table. But if we understand worship primarily as something directed at us for our benefit, if we don't have a significant sense of offering ourselves to God in worship, then I fear that we've turned worship into one more consumer item that's supposed to make our lives better. And at that point, we may well have turned God into a consumer item. This consumer-item God does not inspire wonder and awe trembling, but exists solely to make our lives better, happier, more spiritual, more meaningful, etc.

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
   let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
let the field exult, and everything in it.
   Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy.

The God of the psalmist is so wonderful and awe inspiring that even creation itself cannot stop from joining in the worship and praise. Is that the God we "worship?"

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

What I Really Need

"Which is easier, to say, 'Your sins are forgiven you,' or to say, 'Stand up and walk'? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins" - he said to the one who was paralyzed - "I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home." (Luke 5:23-24)

I've always been bothered by this passage. Companions bring a paralyzed man to Jesus, and his response is to say, "Friend, your sins are forgiven you." My problem is not that Jesus says this, but that this is apparently all he plans to say.  Perhaps I'm reading the passage too literally, but Jesus does say that he heals the man so that people will know he can forgive sin. This seems to say that the man needed forgiveness more than he needed to be healed of his paralysis.

It's interesting to contemplate the idea that I need forgiveness more than any of the other things I think I need.  My experience as a pastor is that lots of Presbyterians would just as soon not have a prayer of confession in the worship service.  We know we're not perfect, but we're not that bad.  It's not something we need to be overly concerned with.

I wonder if mechanical understandings of forgiveness sometimes accentuate this. We're sinners; Jesus died; we believe; it's all okay now. We get it. No need to go over it and over it.

True, we know the formula, but have we really experienced God's forgiveness? Have we truly felt what it is like to restored, to have a broken relationship healed, to have God make amends for the hurt we have caused, to experience a whole new quality of life?

One of the most basic Christian affirmations is that Jesus is Lord and Savior.  But I really don't want a Lord.  I want to be in charge of my own life. And I'm not all that sure I need saving. I'm a bit like a raging alcoholic who manages to fool family, friends, and himself into believing that he has it all under control.  There is no deep and serious problem. I don't really need any help.

We humans seem to have remarkable abilities to delude ourselves. So I wonder, what is it that I really need?

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Monday, October 1, 2012

For God Alone

For God alone my soul waits in silence;
  from God comes my salvation.
  Ps. 62:1

A question I've gotten from a few folks in my new call goes like this. "So James, what is your vision for our church?"  I confess to being a bit uncomfortable with the question, but I don't think that's a matter of shirking my leadership responsibilities. I'm not at all averse to pointing out things we need to do or pushing for certain things, but I don't think a congregation's vision is supposed to come from me.

One of the things I enjoy about the lectio divina practice of reading Scripture is the way it can open you to hearing a word that you would never get from traditional Bible study. It is important to study the Bible and to explore the meaning of a passage after considering its context, to whom it is addressed, the type of literature, and so on. But hearing God speak is not simply a matter of understanding the Bible, and lectio divina lets us listen in a different way.  This spiritual practice, where a passage is read simply listening for a word or phrase that seems to stand out, is a wonderful way to become more open to God in a manner that is not academic or about what I know.

For God alone...  That grabbed me this morning. And as I reflected on why that might be, I don't think it had much to do with the psalm's looking to God for rescue or security. I heard this as a word for that question of vision. For God alone we wait, hoping to hear clearly.  For God alone we become still and silent, anticipating that God does have plans for us, that God has a calling for us.

I'm not suggesting that our knowledge and understanding don't matter.  If we know our Bibles at all we surely have some idea of the kind of things God expects from us. But what is there that is peculiar to us, to our current moment and particular context? What calling is God placing on us right now?

For God alone my soul waits in silence, longing to hear.

"So James, what is your vision for our church?" True vision is from God, but in the meantime, I have what might be a provisional vision.  May all of us in this congregation become more attentive, waiting for God alone, so that together we may hear God's call.

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