Sunday, December 29, 2013

Sermon: Weeping with Rachel... and God

Matthew 2:13-23
Weeping with Rachel… and God
James Sledge                                                                           December 29, 2013

In the church I previously served, we usually held a “Hanging of the Greens” service sometime early in Advent. In one of the first of those services I participated in, I leaned a wooden cross against the manger that sat in our chancel area during Advent and Christmas. I also talked with the children who gathered around it about how Jesus, whose birth we would soon celebrate, would die at a young age on a cross. The choir sang an anthem called “Child of the Manger, Child of the Cross.”
It was all a pretty stark reminder that foreboding surrounds Jesus’ birth, a foreboding that is picked up on one popular carol. The fourth verse of “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” says, “Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom; sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb.” The joy and excitement of Jesus’ birth is tempered by the knowledge that Jesus is, in some sense, born to die.
Some people found that cross against the manger poignant and meaningful, but others were bothered and offended by it, even more so when I left it leaning against the manger for the rest of Advent. Boy, did I hear about that. I learned my lesson. I still brought that cross out sometimes during the “Hanging of the Greens,” but then I put it away until Lent.
Very often, people insist that Christmas be about pure unadulterated joy, but apparently Matthew didn’t get the memo. Every year we hear from the gospel of Luke a quaint tale of a babe laid in a manger, attended by shepherds who’ve been alerted by angels. We even drag the Wise Men to the manger, appropriating them from Matthew’s gospel, but in Matthew, the wise men never visit the newborn Jesus. 
Matthew simply reports that Jesus is born. He tells of no angels, no heavenly choirs, no nativity scene. No one in Bethlehem knows. But sometime later, maybe a year or two later, foreigners show up. Tipped off by a celestial sign, they realize that a new king has been born, and they come to pay their respects. They don’t really seem to understand what is going on, something made all too clear by their going to King Herod to ask directions. But their visit is a cosmic signal. Creation itself has announced the birth of a new king, and, symbolically, the nations have come to bow before their new ruler.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

A Christmas Stoning

If you went to the daily lectionary texts for December 26, expecting to bask in glad tidings and good cheer, you were likely disappointed. From the Old Testament we read of Zechariah being stoned to death, and from the New Testament we learn of Stephen's death by the same means. Not exactly angel choirs or a babe in swaddling clothes.

In this year's lectionary cycle, the readings for the first Sunday after Christmas are not much better. We hear of King Herod slaughtering the young children of Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the new king Herod has learned about from the magi. Joseph and Mary escape with Jesus, but must flee as exiles to Egypt. Not your typical Christmas story, and I suspect that many preachers avoid the gospel reading for this Sunday. We want to bask in the warmth of Christmas a little longer. (It also helps that so many of us pastors take vacation following Christmas and therefore often miss this Sunday anyway.)

Yet if we use the daily lectionary in our devotions, we are rudely shaken from Christmas warmth and mirth well ahead of Sunday and its "Slaughter of the Innocents." We are confronted with the fact that loyalty to God often does not ingratiate one to those in power, and that's often true of both political and religious power.

The people who killed Zechariah, the people who killed Stephen, and the people who killed Jesus all claimed to be acting as God's people. Many of them were no doubt absolutely convinced they were doing God's work. It is so easy to assume that God agrees with what we want and how we do things and so to see those who challenge us as our enemies as well as God's.

The story of Christmas is the story of God's entry into the world in the most vulnerable way, as a helpless infant. And while that infant escapes Herod's slaughter at Bethlehem, the man he grow up to be will face execution. He will not wield divine might against the powers that be, but will instead go quietly to a cross.

As much as we love the Christmas story, it proves difficult for many, certainly for me, fully to embrace the God of that story. The God of the Christmas story does not intervene to stop Herod's slaughter, or the slaughter of the Holocaust, or the slaughter today in Aleppo, Syria. Rather God confronts the evil and brutality of our world by entering into that suffering, by suffering as Jesus and calling us to join Jesus in his work, in the way of the cross.

Christ is born! Angels sing and celestial signs appear. And the powers that be still resist, by brutal force and by subtle co-opting of Jesus' name. But Jesus keeps calling us to join him in carrying a cross, in living as boldly as he did because we have discovered a power and freedom that makes no sense by the world's measures. As Jesus taught us, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it."

Jesus' words do not have much logic in the reasoning of the world and the powers that be, nor in the reasoning that most of us live by. But when the strange and wonderful ways of God begin to transform us, we start to see a new possibility.

This Sunday I'm preaching on Matthew's story of Herod's slaughter. Providentially a friend shared a post by Amy Merrill Willis on the passage, and I've added a quote from it to that sermon, a quote where Teresa Berger reflects on the September 11 terrorist attacks.
The divine presence wept. And then I saw: in her strong brown arms she was gathering the remains of her beautiful creation, all the maimed and the burnt, the dying and the dead, the unborn, the orphaned, the lost, and those who inflicted loss… And I saw that she was a woman in travail, desperate to birth new life, a child of peace… Then I heard the voice of the divine presence saying, Who will labor with me, and who will be midwife to life? Here I am, I said, I want to birth life with you. And the divine presence said, Come, take your place beside me.

Christmas is cause for rejoicing. But it is also a call to join God in something new, in the painful process of birthing something new. It is the beginning of Jesus' call to lose ourselves in something strange and wonderful and, in the process, to discover what it means to be children of God.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Drawn to the Light

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the LORD will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.    
Isaiah 60:1-3

This passage from Isaiah seems perfect for Christmas Eve. People are indeed drawn to the light of this dawn. (The word translated "nations" in verse 3 is goyim, a word that has come to mean "non-Jews," but in Isaiah's time also referred to humanity, other nations and peoples, etc.) At Christmas, people who don't normally have much connection to church or faith come, drawn in by the light, the hope of this day.

It is easy to get caught up in the darkness of the world, and as we enter winter in this hemisphere, that darkness can seem amplified by short and dreary days. The lights of Christmas, both those in churches and those in secular decorations, provide a pleasant contrast, the promise of light and hope and warmth in the mist of coldness, darkness, and, all too often, despair.

That is not to say that any light will do. The bright lights in my neighborhood are lovely and do brighten things up a bit. It is enjoyable to look at them as I go home from the church each evening. But when they are soon gone (granted, some will remain through much of winter), they will not have changed anything. They will have been little more than a pleasant diversion.

Christmas can be little more than such a diversion. That happens when Jesus' call for us to follow him as his disciples gets lost in the seasonal cheer. If the celebration of a Savior's birth does not draw us toward the one who calls us to new life, then Christmas at church isn't much different than the decorations in my neighborhood. 

But when this strange story of God entering fully into the messiness of human existence helps open our eyes to the ways of God, ways that are so different from ours, when it pulls us toward God's power made perfect in weakness, then there is hope and light and warmth that remains when all the decorations and crowds are gone.

The light has come into the world. Sing and rejoice. And also, walk in that light. Let the light guide you in the ways of life, or true and full humanity that Jesus embodies and calls us to share as his sisters and brothers.

Joy to the world! The Lord is come. May God's love be born in you and lead you toward the life God created you to live.

Monday, December 23, 2013

A Gathering of Regulars and Christmas Pilgrims

I was glad when they said to me,
    “Let us go to the house of the LORD!”
  Psalm 122:1

In ancient Israel, people who didn't live near Jerusalem did not see the Temple on a regular basis. Synagogues didn't appear until the time of the Babylonian exile, so prior to that there wasn't anything comparable to our neighborhood church. I suspect that some people didn't have much regular contact with formal, authorized religion. For many of these, a trip to the Jerusalem Temple would have been a much anticipated pilgrimage, not unlike some Catholics making a trip to Rome or Muslims on the hajj to Mecca.

I wonder if this sort of pilgrimage doesn't also get enacted by some who will journey to church sanctuaries tomorrow evening. (Brief commercial: our family service is at 4:30 and our lessons and carols candlelight service is at 8:00.) A fair amount of disparaging of these once or twice a year worshipers goes on in church circles. Some of it has warrant, but some of it is rooted in the institutional nature of church congregations. Unlike the Jerusalem Temple or other pilgrimage sites, we cannot stay in business if we are dependent on irregular pilgrims. We need regulars who show up to volunteer and who provide a steady stream of income.

However, the nearly every-week-regular does not necessarily have any better handle on faith than the once-a-year pilgrim. Granted, regular participation holds within it the disciplined activity that is needed for being a disciple of Jesus, but not every discipline is connected to Jesus. I've known my share of church folks over the years who seem to derive a great deal of satisfaction out of their church participation but who seem hardly at all interested in what Jesus says they should do. Perhaps they would embrace Jesus if he showed back up, but I suspect many of them would be modern day versions of the religious folks who rejected  him. (I suspect I am in that camp myself at times.)

By the same token, there are irregular church pilgrims who practice disciplines in their lives that seem very much in keeping with some of Jesus' commands.

As so often happens when I begin writing one of these little reflections, I don't really know where this is headed. But I wonder if all of us who plan to show up for the big celebration tomorrow night - whether we are pilgrims or regulars - wouldn't benefit from an examination of our own reasons for being there. Why is it we made this pilgrimage? Why is it we show up the rest of the year, too?

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Preaching Thoughts on a Different Sort of Preaching Sunday

Our choirs and orchestra treated us to a magnificent performance from Christmas portions of Handel's Messiah this morning so I did not preach, at least not in that service. However, we recently began an early, informal service. It features a sermon like reflection that is a bit more interactive and less formal. It's something of an off-the-cuff version of the sermon prepared for the traditional service, but today I had the opportunity to be genuinely off-the-cuff.

Today's gospel reading is the familiar tale of Joseph learning of Mary's pregnancy and planning to divorce her quietly. (In Jesus' day, engagements were legally binding and pretty much a marriage in the law's eyes. And so Mary would seem to be guilty of adultery and could have been stoned to death for her "crime.") Not only is Joseph a righteous man, seeking to live according to God's law, but he is also a compassionate man. Whether we are to understand this compassion as part of his righteousness or as something more is not clear to me. Regardless, Joseph is all set to do quietly what the law requires and what society expects. That is, until he has a dream.

If I were to begin acting contrary to the law and contrary to what was expected of me as a pastor, defying all custom and convention, I'm sure I would get called on it. People would want to know what I thought I was doing. And if I responded to them that I had had a dream where an angel from God told me to do these things, their next call might be to a mental health professional.

I grew up in Spartanburg, SC and Charlotte, NC in the 1960s and 70s. In those days society's Christian veneer was still quite well preserved. As a child, I assumed that most people were Christian and the society I lived in was Christian. And so to me the phrase, "good, Christian person" meant more or less the same thing as a good citizen. Such a person would obey the law, have a job, keep their yard in decent shape, etc. In fact, I frequently heard the term "good, Christian feller" applied to folks who weren't necessarily church people, but nonetheless were reasonably upstanding members of the community.

My understanding of what being a good Christian entailed was quite minimal. And one thing that understanding definitely did not include was doing crazy things because God - or God's representative - said so. Good Christians didn't rock the boat, upset their neighbors, or call time honored ways of doing things into question. No wonder a great many white Christians of my childhood thought Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to be decidedly unchristian. In my childhood world, nearly everyone was a good Christian, and most of them would not react kindly to the mention of Dr. King. It did not happen in the churches where I grew up, but Dr. King was condemned in no uncertain terms from many pulpits as lots of good, Christian folks nodded in agreement.

Most good Christians love the Christmas story, even if we miss the fact that it requires people to act contrary to what was expected, contrary to the law and to time honored practice and convention. Mary must say yes to an angel, and Joseph must do as he is told in a dream, even though it is not what a "good Christian" is supposed to do. God's dream of something new is dependent on people who listen to angels and dreams rather than abide by how things are done, time honored traditions, or what is expected of them. And it doesn't stop with Jesus' birth. The people who most easily embrace Jesus are on the margins of society, while the good Christians of his day see him as a troublemaker, a rabble-rouser who doesn't understand what it means to be "a good, Christian feller."

"When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him..." We are about to celebrate the birth of God's dream, the birth Joseph embraces because a dream told him to do so. God's dream is still being born, and it still depends on those who will pause to listen for angels, attend to crazy dreams, and get caught up in the dream of God. Never mind what the neighbors or the "good Christians" say.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

God Could Never Work Through Them

The gospel of Luke begins its story about Jesus by announcing a birth but not the birth of Jesus. Before we hear of Mary and Joseph, we meet Elizabeth and Zechariah. We learn that they are both righteous before God and blameless with regard to keeping God's commandments. "But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years."

In our day, this inability to have children may seem no more than an unfortunate, perhaps even tragic, medical condition. But in ancient times, an inability to have children was always the woman's fault, it basically robbed her of her only valid purpose in life, and it was thought to be a punishment of some sort. Some god was involved in closing a woman's womb and rendering her barren. This happened for some reason.

I can only assume that people talked about Elizabeth and Zechariah, speculating about what one of them had done to tick off God. Zechariah was a priest, so maybe it was Elizabeth's fault. Yet Luke tells us quite clearly, "Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord."

Modern folk are less likely to blame God's personal activity for every event and misfortune, especially if we understand the scientific process behind the event. But that doesn't mean we don't make assumptions about who deserves what. We may even hope for some people to get what's coming to them, wishing for karma, the universe, or perhaps even God to intervene and set things right.

But Luke opens his gospel by knocking over basic assumptions about karma, justice, and people getting what they deserve. A righteous and blameless couple seems to have incurred God's wrath. By all appearances, God is against them, and yet the story of Jesus begins by telling of their critical place in God's plan to save and renew.

You needed by a conservative fundamentalist to think you know who God prefers and who God would and wouldn't use as part of God's plan. I was once at a church conference populated mostly by Presbyterians, many of them of a more moderate or liberal ilk. The speaker was Brian McLaren, and at some point he made a comment about there being things we Mainline Christians could learn from our more evangelical brothers and sisters. The visceral reaction from a great many was astounding to me. It all but said out loud, "God cannot possibly work through such folks. They have offensive views and bad theology. Surely that disqualifies them."

Some of the recent furor over an interview given by Duck Dynasty star, Phil Robertson, is perhaps instructive. I think what he said is completely wrong, but that doesn't mean that he is the anti-Christ as some Facebook posts or Tweets would seem to suggest. And it doesn't meant that this person is now so tainted that he cannot be a disciple of Jesus. He may be a flawed and misinformed one, but then again that probably describes all of us in some way.

Some years ago, Tom Long preached a sermon at a Covenant Network of Presbyterians conference where he told of meeting a hairdresser who was a member of Creflo Dollar's mega church in Atlanta. He laughted to himself about how he was going to get some bad theology to go with his bad haircut, but then he discovered through their conversation that God at work in this woman, and in Creflo Dollar's church. (You may be able to find the sermon via Google or on the Covenant Network website. It's truly wonderful.)

I think one thing we can say with absolute certainty is that God rarely acts in quite the manner we would have done it. The cross alone is sufficient confirmation of that. And so as we draw toward the end of Advent and near to the celebration of a Savior's birth, perhaps we should be especially attentive to surprises that are contrary to our assumptions. Perhaps we should be a tad suspicious of our well constructed doctrines and theologies, designed by the most learned and scholarly sorts. After all, the first person in Luke's gospel who begins to expound on the character and intentions of God is a teenage girl (Luke 1:46-55). And she didn't even have a seminary degree.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Harold Camping and Being Ready for God's New Day

Today's Washington Post contained an obituary for Harold Camping. If the name doesn't ring a bell, he was a radio evangelist who caused quite a stir in 2011 with his predictions of the world's end. His radio company spent millions advertising the event, buying ads on 5000 billboards around the country. Add in the all the free advertising he got via the new media and on the internet, and his predictions likely created a bigger stir than any before. Many of his followers reportedly sold their homes and gave Camping's ministry the proceeds to help publicize the impending judgment day.

It's rather striking that Mr. Camping's obituary (he died on Sunday) appeared on the day when the gospel reading speaks of the end times. I assume that Camping had read these words spoken by Jesus, but he apparently had some reason for ignoring them. "But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."

Quite understandably, we humans prefer to have advance notice for big events. We like to make plans and prepare. Right now we are in the midst of the season that likely includes more planning and preparation than any other. Whether it's the religious or the secular observance of Christmas (or the hybrid many of us do), there is a flurry of activity this time of year. I suspect more energy goes into Christmas preparations than any other event at church, many homes, or the malls. Of course we know the exact date when all this culminates. There is no mystery about that at all.

But Jesus insists there will be no time for elaborate preparations when God's new day arrives in full. It will be impossible to miss, but until then folks will be engaged in normal, day to day activity. Therefore we have to remain at the ready.

Very often this gets interpreted to mean some sort of religious hyper-vigilance, but I do not thing that at all what Jesus means. If you continue reading beyond today's verses, Jesus continues to teach, but our tendency to chop up scripture into small bit for easier preaching and teaching often obscures the connection to what comes before and/or after. Today's reading is part of a single teaching that takes up all of Mathew 24 and 25. That means that Jesus finishes his teachings on being wide awake and ready with parables about boldly using our gifts for God's purposes, and about how caring for people in need is the same as ministering directly to Jesus.

In other words, being alert and ready has nothing to do with staring off at heaven, eagerly anticipating Jesus' return. Instead it is about living lives of faithful discipleship, risking ourselves for the sake Jesus' work, and seeing those in need as thought they were Jesus himself. "Be about this work I have given you," Jesus says, "and you will be ready."

That seems so mundane. Do your job; do your duty; share the gospel in word and deed. Shouldn't there be a big festival? Shouldn't we plan a cantata and a big party? But apparently God's new day will come without much more hoopla than when Jesus first arrived.

Do you job; be disciples; love God and love neighbor; bring good news to the poor; pray for your enemies; minister to "the least of these." Something to remember and guide us when all the Christmas hoopla is over.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sermon: Are You the One?

Matthew 11:2-11
Are You the One?
James Sledge                                                               December 15, 2013 – Advent 3

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” What a strange question, at least it is coming from John the Baptist. When Jesus came to be baptized by him in the Jordan River, John had initially refused. “I need to be baptized by you,” he protested. Jesus was the one he had foretold, the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. Why on earth would John baptize him. But Jesus had insisted, saying it was necessary “to fulfill all righteousness,” and John had relented. Now however, John seems to be having second thoughts. Maybe Jesus was not who John thought he was, who he hoped he was.
Have you ever been really sure about something, only to doubt or even regret it later? I may have told you before about a seminary classmate whose call to become a pastor led him to go back to college to finish his degree so he could be accepted at seminary. Then he flunked out in his first semester at seminary. I don’t know what happened to him after that, but I’d be surprised if  he still felt called.
In today’s economy there are many who went to college and pursued a degree, assuming that it would lead them to a good and rewarding career. But now such hopes seem to have evaporated, and they may wonder about or regret their earlier choices.
Six years ago, people bought houses, certain that the value would only go up. The nation elected a black president and hoped that this meant we had turned a corner on racism and entered a new era. But if anything, racist attitudes seem to have been inflamed.
The list goes on and on: the coach who will finally turn our team around or the politician who will change the way Washington works. On a personal level there is that acquisition that will make us happy, content, cool, or hip, and there is that new job that is perfect and will leave us fulfilled and rewarded. But things don’t always work out like we had hoped.
John the Baptist had felt a call from God. He was supposed to get people ready for something wonderful and new. God was about to change everything, and people needed to prepare, to repent, to clean the slate so they join in this new thing. A Messiah was coming who would toss out the corrupt leaders at the Jerusalem Temple, who would lift up the  oppressed, make sure Herod got what was coming to him, and restore Israel to its former glory. As John said about this Messiah to those who came for baptism, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Something’s a ‘coming , folks, and you’d better get ready.
But now John was in prison, wondering what Herod would eventually do with him. As John awaited his fate, he surely knew it would not end well. And nothing he had expected seemed to be happening. Herod was still in power. Rome was still in power. The Temple priests were still in power, and the world didn’t look any different. No wonder he sent some of his followers to ask Jesus, “Are you the one?”

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Taking Christmas Out of Church

Today's Old Testament reading is from the prophet Amos, and it is a full blown oracle of judgment against God's people. The problem is not a failure to be religious. The folks in Jerusalem were apparently quite good at that, but as God says a few chapters earlier, "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." I'm reasonably certain this had nothing to do with the musical quality of the performance, and today's passage makes clear where the problem lies.

     Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
     and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
     saying, "When will the new moon be over
     so that we may sell grain;
     and the sabbath,
     so that we may offer wheat for sale?
     We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
     and practice deceit with false balances,
     buying the poor for silver
     and the needy for a pair of sandals,
     and selling the sweepings of the wheat."

Amos' and other prophets' disgust for those who faithfully go to church while participating in social systems that oppress the poor and weak is well known, if frequently ignored. But as I read today's passage, I was struck by people's longing for new moon and sabbath to be over so they could get back to commerce. What a different world from ours. I have no desire to go back to the trivialized sabbath keeping of my southern childhood, and it clearly didn't help the people Amos condemns, but the notion that there are things more important than commerce might be a refreshing one.

I think of this especially in this season of Advent which has been taken over by a frenzy of Christmas commerce. Don't worry, I'm not going to launch into a rant about the commercialization of Christmas. The very phrase, "commercialization of Christmas" sounds as though commerce invaded and occupied something sacred, but I don't think that happened at all. This is one of those classic cases of meeting the enemy, and it is us.

In a society preoccupied with possessions and consumer goods, the joy of Christmas has become about getting stuff. For some reason, the church felt it couldn't afford to miss out on all the frenetic energy surrounding this economic extravaganza, and so it welcomed a consumer Christmas into its observance of Advent. Christmas trees got put in sanctuaries at the beginning of December, often with wrapped presents beneath them. (That some insist these are "Chrismon" rather than Christmas trees reveals a certain suspicion of our own practice here.)

Once our consumerist Christmas sufficiently replaced Advent, it became increasingly difficult to discriminate between what belongs to the faith and what to the secular celebration. In a few congregations, there seems to be an only slightly more classy version of the Christmas decorations in front yards where inflatable Frosty, Santa, elves, candy canes, and reindeer share space with a plastic nativity.

In the midst of such confusion, I suppose it is to be expected that "Happy Holidays" and "Merry Christmas" would mark some sort of religious fault line. The consumer driven Christmas has become so interwoven with Advent that if the commercial side of the operation drops its Christian moniker, it does indeed threaten the cultural buzz and energy with which we have replaced Advent waiting and reflection. I wonder what the prophet Amos would think of it all.

If at this point you were to surmise that I don't like Christmas trees, lighted houses, or Christmas music a the mall, you would be wrong. I also enjoy the nostalgia that is so connected to Christmas in our culture, right down to watching Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life. But I do think the church needs to rethink its association with it. (I like the Fourth of July but think the church does well when it doesn't make that a big part of our worship.) If that makes me a curmudgeon, so be it. 

Have a blessed Advent and a Happy Holidays. I'll wish you a Merry Christmas in a couple of weeks.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

False Gods, Fox News, and Radical Love

Fox News is upset that President Obama shook hands with Raul Castro at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela. As a good southern boy, my momma taught me to shake hands when you meet someone. It's the polite thing to do, whether you particularly like the person or not. And so when Fox starts fussing about this sort of thing, I have to imagine that it doesn't much matter what the president does, Fox will find something wrong with it.

In that very limited sense (I'm not comparing Obama to Jesus, just comparing Fox to his narrow minded opponents), Fox News functions a bit like the Sadducees and Pharisees in today's gospel. These opponents have already made their judgments about Jesus. They "know" they are right and are only interested in making Jesus look bad. And so they ask questions, not to learn anything, but in hopes of catching Jesus in a mistake. It's not unlike our political scene today, and people on the left and the right are equally skilled at this game.

The Pharisees' mean-spirited questioning produces one of Jesus better known statements, but nothing he says is original. He is asked about "the law" and his answer quotes from that law, in this case from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. To paraphrase, Jesus says, "Love God with every fiber or your being, and love your neighbor as yourself." And then he adds, "On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

For a Jew such as Jesus, "the law and the prophets" was shorthand for the bulk of what Christians call the Old Testament. This also spoke of what it meant to live in covenant relationship with God. Jesus is asked for a single commandment, but he will not stop with one. For Jesus, loving God cannot be separated from loving those around us, and anyone who imagines that a personal relationship with God (or with Jesus for that matter) can happen without it transforming social relationships is sadly mistaken.

Loving neighbor as self gets a lot of lip service from both Christians and non-Christians, but I'm not sure we reflect very much on what it actually means. To love others as myself means that my needs, wants, and desires are no more important than those of the neighbor, the other. This of course means that the needs of my family, or my community, or my nation, are not more important than those of other families, communities, or nations. But despite how easily we have slapped the Judeo-Christian label on our American culture, we've never really imagined that our national neighbors counted nearly so much as we do.

The call to love one's neighbor has nothing to do with warm and fuzzy sentimentalism. Jesus is not saying that I must have sweet, warm feelings toward everyone, no matter how they act or what they do. But he is saying that I must have their best interest at heart, just as much as I have my own. That clearly would preclude the sort of pettiness that Fox News is so good at, as well as the pettiness that marks a lot of politically motivated action from conservatives and liberals alike.

But I can't stop there. There are plenty of reasons for the rapid rise of the "Nones" in American religious life, people whose respond, "None of the above" when asked for a religious preference. Some reasons are external to church and faith and beyond our control. But failure of so many Christians to embody what Jesus insists is at the core of a faithful life surely has done tremendous damage to our image. Fox News and a cadre of religious conservatives are often prime examples of a pettiness and an "us versus them" mentality that seems devoid of any love or real concern for the other. However, this cannot be said of all religious conservatives, and such behavior is hardly restricted to conservatives.

The arrogance of some liberal Christians and their total dismissal of conservatives and evangelicals as dimwitted Neanderthals can be something to behold. And if you have enough liberal, Christian "friends" on Facebook, you will see more than enough posts featuring character assassination and out-of-context quotes to make you wonder if Fox News has switched sides. It seems that neither the left nor the right has quite realized what a radical thing it is to love your neighbor as yourself.

All ideologies - right, left, and everything in between - are false gods when they garner too much trust, hope, or loyalty. Christians should be very suspicious of those who cannot step outside of their ideology. If an ideology is the highest authority in someone's life, then it is that person's idol, his or her god, no matter what faith may be formally professed. That so many Christians on both left and right confuse their ideology with God has a great deal to do with the church's current low public esteem.

Much of the current fascination with Pope Francis is precisely because he seems an exception to this. He appears more captive to Jesus' gospel of love than to any ideology. He has a quite conservative theology on a number of social issues, but his loyalty to Jesus seems paramount. As a good Protestant, I understand the pope as a sinful human who is a debtor to God's grace, but I also see him as one whose faithfulness is an inspiration, demonstrating something of the radical nature of loving neighbor as self.

So too, Nelson Mandela seemed to understand something of what it means and requires to love the other as oneself. Though not a religious figure per se, he embodied Jesus' command in a way that few have. That he was able to stay focused on the best interests of his nation as a whole, including those who had tortured him and imprisoned him for nearly 30 years, speaks volumes about a loyalty to love that trumped ideology.

"You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus says this commandment is "like" the one on loving God. If that is so, then any concern for "getting right with God" must be matched by a concern for getting right with the neighbor. Have we really thought about what a radical idea that is?

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Sunday, December 8, 2013

Sermon: Sacred Remembering

Matthew 3:1-12
Sacred Remembering
James Sledge                                                               December 8, 2013 – Advent 2

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” So says John when he appears in the wilderness. Repent has a scary sound to it, but Jesus says exactly the same thing. After John is arrested, Jesus moves from Nazareth to Capernaum and begins his public ministry, repeating word for word what John had said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” It somehow sounds different when John says it, less inviting in a way. He sounds too much like street preachers and tent revivalist who use “Repent” as an accusation.
Quite literally, the word John and Jesus use means to change one’s mind, with implications of turning away from something that you once thought a good idea, but now see differently. Before the word became an almost exclusively religious one, it could be used without some of the accusatory sense we may hear. In such usage, you could be headed out on a trip, realize you were on the wrong highway, and repent of the directions you were following. And in fact, there a few places in the Old Testament where God repents. In the book of Jonah, God “repents” of plans to destroy Nineveh.
Our gospel reading connects John’s message of repentance to his identity as one spoken of by the prophet Isaiah. “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ ” According to both Jesus and John, repenting is critical to preparing for God’s new day, the kingdom that has drawn near.
Advent is a season of preparation and expectation. A lot of getting ready goes on this time of year. Choirs prepare special music. Houses and churches get decorated. Special worship services are prepared. Presents are bought and wrapped. Travel plans are made.
There are some big events in our lives, things that require planning and preparation, that point toward big changes coming. Think of all the work and planning that goes into to a college graduation or a wedding. Or consider a couple about to have their first child and all they must do to get ready. They need a crib, a stroller, baby clothes, and so on. And this getting ready is only a beginning. It starts this couple down a road that, for better or worse, will be vastly different from one without children.
What will change as a result of your Advent preparations? Do they start you on a new and different path? How will things be different come January, when all the special services are over, the presents all opened, and the decorations all put away?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Faithful Servants and Wicked Tenants

I just saw the news that Nelson Mandela has died. It is indeed a momentous passing. It is hard to overstate the witness of his life, from all he endured and suffered in the struggle against apartheid to the remarkable humility and grace with which he took up the reins of power. If ever it could be said, "Well done, good and faithful servant..."

As I reflect on this, I am acutely aware of how easy my life has been, how petty my concerns and problems are, yet how hard it often is for me to do what I know is right. And the parable Jesus tells in today's gospel only heightens this awareness.

The "Parable of the Wicked Tenants" is directed at chief priests and elders, the leaders of Temple Judaism, the Church of that day. Jesus is abundantly clear that these leaders have failed in their calling, operating the religious structures more for their own benefit rather than serving God. And I can't help but wonder; what sort of parable would Jesus tell to me and to leaders of the Church in our day?

Read through the gospels and listen to Jesus' teachings. Hear the sort of life he calls his followers to live - suffering for the sake of others, praying for enemies, inviting the poor and destitute into our homes, not worrying about possessions of money but focusing on God's coming rule, doing God's will even when it is terribly difficult and costly - then wonder how likely Jesus would be to say to me or you, "Well done, good and faithful servant."

Very often the church is focused on serving its members and leaders, and the work Jesus calls us to is a small, sometimes insignificant piece of a congregation's life. It is common for churches with million dollar budgets to spend well under $100,000 on others, on the work Jesus calls us to do. We may not be corrupt like the tenants in Jesus' parable, but neither are we much focused on what Jesus calls us to do.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana had an interesting blog post the other day on the 'beyond repair" status of the Christian "brand." I wonder if this 'beyond repair" situation describes a great deal of what is labeled "church" by those of us who grew up in traditional, Mainline congregations that reached their zenith in the 1950s. If Jesus returned and gazed upon the many beautiful church buildings that dot the American landscape, would he give their congregations a "Well done," or would he instead say something about not one stone being left upon another?

Thankfully, with God there is much grace, yet still the Advent call rings out, "Prepare the way of the Lord. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."

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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Higher Authority

The particular events of American history have made us rather inclined to question authority. There are theological roots to this, Presbyterian/Reformed worries about sin that led to division of power in different branches of government so that power isn't overly concentrated in one place. Add to that a strong tendency toward individualism and personal freedom, and authority is further called into question. No doubt there are times when this suspicion of authority is a great strength in our society. But great strengths are usually roots of great weaknesses also, and our inability to recognize authority we don't like or agree with accounts for some of the partisan gridlock and chaos in Washington.

Jesus gets asked about his authority in today's gospel. As so often happens, Jesus answers a question with another question, querying his opponents about what authority lay behind the ministry of John the Baptist. Jesus' question demands that his opponents reveal what authority they do recognize, but they cannot do that, and they refuse to answer.

What authority do we recognize? In the season of Advent we say we are getting ready for the king who is coming, but to have  king is to respect the authority of that royal power. But most Christians, both on the left and right, fashion Jesus to suit themselves. We embrace the Jesus we agree with and reject the one who challenges us. In the end, we declare the real authority we recognize: our reason and intelligence, our personal preferences, our ambitions, or our desires. If Jesus does not cohere with some or all of these, we won't accept his authority or do as he says.

Soon we will sing of a king that is born, a lord who has come, a Savior who reigns. But will we allow this king to change us, to transform us into the children of God we are meant to be? Or will we insist that he recognize that we are the ones who are truly in charge?

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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

I Trust in God, but...

A king is not saved by his great army;
     a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. 

The war horse is a vain hope for victory,
     and by its great might it cannot save. 

Truly the eye of the LORD is on those who fear him,
    on those who hope in his steadfast love, 

to deliver their soul from death,
     and to keep them alive in famine.

Our soul waits for the LORD;
     he is our help and shield. 
Our heart is glad in him,
     because we trust in his holy name. 

Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us,
    even as we hope in you.         
Psalm 33:16-22

I wonder if the psalmist really believed the words he wrote. After all, Israel had warriors and horses and chariots and weapons of war. And being a rather small and insignificant kingdom, they also made military alliances with stronger powers. God is our help and shield. Really?

I'm not picking on the ancient Israelites. Many in our country and in our country's history have claimed that the US is the new bearer of God's blessings and covenant, the new Jerusalem. But some of the most ardent Christians are also the most ardent supporters of large military budgets along with the "right to bear arms" so that we can protect ourselves. God is our help and shield?

I trust in God, but... I presume that almost every honest person of faith (emphasis on honest) can finish this sentence with multiple buts and excepts. We trust in God, but only so far. And most of us tend to trust in ourselves or in the things we and others can do more than in God. In the modern world, most Christians have relegated God and trusting God to a narrower and narrower slice of life. For many, God isn't to be trusted with anything more that what  happens to us when we die. No wonder so many find Christian faith not worth their time.

I make no claims to be a big exception to this. I struggle to trust God as much as the next person. I manage to here and there, but I fail to do so regularly. But I have also discovered something over the years. At those times when I trust most in myself, in my abilities and skills and whatever else I think impressive about me, I inevitably find myself in trouble. And I find myself back before God, a little sheepishly, trying to lay claim to the hopes of the psalmist.

In Advent, as we once again remember and rehearse ancient stories, we might do well to remember that we are getting ready for the one who could trust himself completely to God, and who calls us to follow him. Especially among more "progressive" Christians like myself, Advent is a good time to refocus on the person of Jesus, on this one who does trust and who comes to show us his way of trusting.

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Monday, December 2, 2013

C and E Christians

I am apparently in a significant minority of pastors in that I tend to prepare sermons well in advance. I usually complete a sermon just over a week before it is preached. That means that right now I am reading in Matthew about John the Baptist's second thoughts on Jesus. John had almost refused to baptize Jesus, saying it should be the other way around. But now John is in prison, and he seems less certain. "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?"

I can only assume that John had expected things to change more than they had. He expected the Messiah's arrival to rework the world and its structures in some way, but things still looked the same. Maybe Jesus wasn't the one after all.

We're a long way removed from John, and so his disappointments may not be ours. Our Christian faith has lived for a long time with a world slow to come around to God's ways, and so we may not be so acutely disappointed as the Baptist. But we still have to deal with all those promises of a kingdom drawn near, good news to the poor, and peace and goodwill. If we've always been Christian, we may simply shy away from John's question and instead operate with greatly lowered expectations of Jesus.

Today's lectionary gospel reading is Matthew's account of Palm Sunday, and I found myself thinking about how the tendency to rush from "Hosanna" to "He is risen" may, in some way, parallel the way Advent has been swallowed up by Christmas. Granted, Advent as Christmas may spring largely from the secular, consumerist, economic focus on Christmas while jumping straight from palms to Easter lilies is more about avoiding the ugliness of the cross. Still, both seem to focus on a happy event to avoid looking at something else.

The term "C and E Christians" is sometimes used to disparage church members who only show up a couple times a year, but I'm using it differently here. I refer to the much larger group of us that focuses on Christmas and Easter so that we don't have to consider some more troubling questions. Skipping over betrayal, arrest, trial and execution on a cross as we hurry to celebrate Easter not only avoids the messiness of the cross, but it also avoids Jesus' call for us to take up that cross as well. And spending so much time and energy celebrating Jesus' birth, on a babe in a manger, allow us to bask in the warmth of God's love, or at least in the warmth of a wonderful, old story, without needing to consider just who this baby is and what his coming demands of us.

But when we engage in a bit of Advent, we are again faced with John's (and perhaps our own) question. "Are you the one?" No need to ask that of a baby. We can imagine and mold the baby Jesus into whatever sort of Messiah we want. But Advent keeps asking who this baby is, what he will bring, and how we must prepare to be a part of that.

No doubt it is easier, certainly less costly, to be a C and E Christian. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer's "cheap grace" comes to mind here.) But I feel fairly certain that any faith with power to transform and make new can't be all C and E. With apologies to the musical Mame, maybe we really "need a little Advent, right this very minute."

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Sermon video: Awake and Ready

Audios of sermons and worship available on FCPC website.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Sermon: Awake and Ready

Matthew 24:36-44
Awake and Ready
James Sledge                                                               December 1, 2013 – Advent 1

I want you to do a bit of imagining with me this morning. Imagine that you have just learned that you have one year to live. In this imaginary situation, you will be able to live a perfectly normal life for most of that time. You will not feel bad, and you will be able to do pretty much anything you can do now. But there is nothing you or anyone else can do to change the situation. You have a year to live.
If you found yourself in such a situation, how would that impact you? What would change? What would you do differently? What things that are unimportant in your life right now might become more so? What things that are important now might not seem so important anymore? What would you start doing? What would you stop doing? Who would matter more? Who would matter less? Take a moment to mull all that over.
When someone has a dramatic event in life – a brush with death, the loss of job or career, the loss or someone important, or some other dramatic change in life circumstances – it’s sometimes referred to as “a wakeup call.” Some of you may have had one. Something happens that shakes us, and suddenly things look different, suddenly our perspective changes.
It’s an interesting metaphor, this “wakeup call.” It suggests that we were, in some way, sleeping up until we were roused into a state of alertness. But what does it mean to say that, metaphorically at least, we’ve been asleep?
Have you ever driven somewhere – work, school, the mall – and upon arriving you cannot actually recall the drive? You have no idea if the lights along the way were green or red. You clearly made it safely from point A to point B, but for all you know, you ran several red lights or stop signs. It’s like you were sleepwalking, or, in this case, sleep-driving.
Think of the things that lull us to sleep as we live our lives: long, monotonous commutes, a teacher, professor, or boss who drones on and on, long hours at a job that has lost interest or excitement for us. We can start simply to go through the motions, to sleepwalk , and it may touch all facets of our lives. We get home, grab a bite, get a drink, plop down on the couch and flip on the TV, or start checking out texts, tweets, and Facebook posts. We may even do all this in the company of friends or family yet hardly be aware of one another.
Most of us have some familiarity with going through the day scarcely aware, scarcely awake, not noticing the beauty all around us, not noticing the hurts and pains all around us. Maybe it’s a coping mechanism, a way to get through long difficult days, to deal with relationships that have soured, and so on, but we can become numb, oblivious to much around us, sleepwalking through our lives.
Our gospel reading today is part of a much larger section of Jesus’ last teachings to his followers before he is arrested and taken from them. He focuses on their need, and ours, to stay alert and awake. After the verse we heard, he tells a number of parables that speak to this. The last of these, Jesus’ last teaching prior to his arrest, is the so-called Judgment of the Gentiles where the returning Son of Man gathers all people and separates them as one separates sheep from goats. Both sheep and goats say that they never saw Jesus hungry or thirsty or naked of a stranger or in prison. “But,” says Jesus, “Some of you did see the least of these who were hungry, sick, strangers, or prisoners, and so you saw me.” I wonder if the goats didn’t see because they were sleepwalking, walking right by those in need without even noticing them.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Praise the Lord! But What Have You Done for Me Lately?

If my Facebook page is any guide, there are a lot of people terribly upset by plans at Macy's, K-Mart, and other retailers to begin their Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving Day, but I'm struggling to come up with much outrage of my own. No one is required to shop at these establishments, tomorrow or on any day that follows. And what is so sacred about gluttony, parades, dog shows, and football that it is somehow sullied and profaned by this service to the almighty dollar?

Thanksgiving certainly has its religious connections and roots, though they have receded so far as to be nearly invisible. Some faith communities still hold Thanksgiving services, but rarely on the actually day. No sense trying to compete with the primary events of Thanksgiving. No complaints from me on that. Thanksgiving as a practice is essential to Christian faith, but Thanksgiving Day isn't.

It is possible, however, that Thanksgiving's being invaded by the spending frenzy of Christmas does speak to issues facing Christian faith, namely the difficulty we contemporary Americans seem to have being truly grateful (see Monday's blog). We are anxious people who struggle with being content. And so we quickly forget past accomplishments and gifts. We want to know, "What  have you done for me lately?" We all know stories of a very successful football coach who was fired after a single losing season.

Both of this morning's psalms call the faithful to praise, song, and thanksgiving for all God's graciousness, saving acts, and wonderful works. But such songs of thanks and praise require a longer memory than tends to be our wont. God is a remarkably patient and non-anxious deity, but our anxieties make patience, waiting, rest, and Sabbath very difficult for us. If God hasn't done something for us very recently, we may have a hard time finding it on our ledgers.

I wonder if one of the most profound things Christians might do as we move into Advent, something that might also allow for a more genuine giving of thanks, would be to slow down. What if, in this season of hectic busyness, we entered into an Advent discipline of rest, of stopping long enough for our fields of view to grow a little larger and lengthier? What if, in our recalling old, sacred stories of God's entering into human history at Bethlehem, we were able to remember and rest in the grace of God, allowing us not to worry so much about tomorrow, to be a little less anxious? What a witness that might be.

Grace and blessings to you for Thanksgiving. And may you find in it rest and space and sabbath to see beyond tomorrow's anxieties and to glimpse the goodness of God.

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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

If Jesus Got Ahold of Christmas

As surely as bad Christmas music is blaring in the stores and malls, so too the posts have begun to appear on Facebook from those upset over "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas." It seems like so much manufactured upset to me. Is it really a significant concern for the faith if Target tries to whip people into a seasonal spending frenzy without using the word "Christmas?" For that matter, does the Messiah really want his title attached to our rampant consumerism?

That said, I understand some Christians' frustration with what they see as a gradual erosion of respect for the the church and religion. And even if the mall version of Christmas is largely devoid of any religious content, it was still connected in some way and still shares a date and a name. In minimalist fashion, Christmas keeps a very small bit of the Christian story before an increasingly nonreligious population. "Happy Holidays" make the tenuous linkage seem even more precarious. But even if I can understand some of their fear and frustration, I think the "Keep Christ in Christmas" crowd terribly misguided.

As this morning's psalm opens, I imagine some of these folks would nod in agreement with the psalmist's lament.
      Help, O LORD, for there is no longer anyone who is godly;
         the faithful have disappeared from humankind.
      They utter lies to each other;
          with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.

"Yes indeed... the world is going to hell in a hand basket."

But as the psalmist continues, we discover that this terrible situation has nothing to do with keeping up good, religious appearances. It has nothing to do with whether or not merchants have signs with Christmas, God, Lord, or Yahweh in their stores.
    “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.”

Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan... The American version of Christmas is about conspicuous consumption, about an orgy of buying and spending. To that we sometimes sprinkle in some toy drives for poor children and some turkey dinners for the hungry. But at the same time we cut food stamp programs and refuse to set a liveable minimum wage.

If Christ truly were to enter into our Christmas, it might well have all the warmth of when he lost it in the Jerusalem temple. "This is what you do in my name!?"

Sometimes I wonder if the New England Puritans didn't have it right. They celebrated Easter, but they completely forbade any celebration of Christmas. Except when it fell on a Sunday, a person could be arrested in colonial Massachusetts for not going to work on Christmas day. I'll admit such an approach is a bit severe, but they had come from England where Christmas wassailing often resembled a rowdy, drunken version of Halloween. Seeing no connection to such activity and a life of following Jesus, they banned the practice.

Actually, I have no desire to ban Christmas, I enjoy it, even those many aspects of it that have  nothing to do with Christian faith. But I don't see much call to "keep Christ in Christmas," at least not as that is usually understood. However, I wouldn't mind if Christ entered into our Christmas, at least the Christmases of those of us who claim to be his disciples. Surely the one who comes "to bring good news to the poor," who is celebrated in the Magnificat with "He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty," would put an entirely different spin our our notions of Christmas.

Enter into our Advent, O Lord. Transform our preparation for another Christmas into preparations for a new day, that kingdom you proclaim is drawing near.

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