Thursday, January 31, 2013

I'll Never Forget You

Can a woman forget her nursing child,
     or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
     yet I will not forget you.
Isaiah 49:15

A recurring religious question is that of God's disposition toward humankind and the world. And at those moments when things seem to be unraveling, when all evidence points to a life or a world hurtling out of control toward destruction, it is easy to wonder how long God will tolerate such things.  Surely someday, God will have had enough.

Such a question is on Israel's mind as the prophet speaks.  Their experiences suggest that God has abandoned them.  Perhaps it is all their fault.  They abandoned God and so are only getting what they deserve. But still this is a terrible realization, and so Israel says, “The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.”  So it seems.

But through the prophet, God responds. "Can a mother forget her young child?" We would certainly hope not, and any who did would be considered a disgrace to mothering. But God insists that the divine loyalty toward Israel - and through them "all the families of the earth" - surpasses that of a mother toward her child.

Sometimes, amidst our trying to figure out all the particulars of the faith, or all the machinations of the church, we need to pause and  remember this.  "I will not forget you," says our God. "The most effusive love of the most caring mother pales by comparison to my love for you."

That is a promise worth remembering and revisiting on a regular basis.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Grumpy Pastor

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
     to raise up the tribes of Jacob
     and to restore the survivors of Israel;
 I will give you as a light to the nations,
      that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
 Isaiah 49:6

I'm feeling a bit grumpy about the church and my denomination today, and attending a presbytery meeting yesterday has little or nothing to do with it. (Presbyteries are regional, representative governing bodies and my denomination's districts or dioceses.)  It turned grumpy when I saw another Facebook post about the proposed changes to our medical benefits.  I won't bore you with details, but like everyone, our denomination is dealing with the spiraling cost of healthcare. And the group that oversees our medial plan is proposing big changes, changes that seem to hit small churches and young pastors with children the hardest.

Now I should add that there are many things in our health and pension plan that lean the other way. Pastors who make less money pay smaller deductibles and their churches pay less for the same coverage.  And pastors making salaries below a certain point get treated as though they make more when pensions are calculated.  So traditionally we have tried to take good care those who labor in small churches earning small salaries.

But I should also add that such things were instituted in a past when Mainline denominations were quite well off and we had no trouble funding health care.  But now, as it becomes more painful and costly to provides such things, we are not so sure we can continue.  And to me it feels a bit like we're saying, "We want to love our neighbors, but only if it's not too difficult."

Sometimes we in the church are better at being an institution than being the body of Christ, and that's as true of local church governing boards as it is with the larger, institutional pieces of a denomination. We produce voluminous annual reports and statistics. We worry a lot about numbers.  When you meet people you don't know at a presbytery meeting and tell them the church where you represent, very often the next question is, "How many members do you have?"  (We pastors sometimes engage in what is jokingly called "steeple envy.") Numbers and statistics have their place and purpose, but no one has ever asked me, "So what is your congregation doing to share God's love?" And I'd be shocked if someone did.

"A light to the nations." The word "nation" here can also mean "peoples" or "Gentiles."  A light to others, to all people, a beacon showing the way.  But that is hard to do when our ways are indistinguishable for the world.

I'll admit to being overly idealistic at times.  That can lead to frustrations, but I really don't expect the church to be perfect or anything close to it.  We are a collection of human beings in all our sinful and broken glory. But one of our core faith claims says we are being transformed and made new, becoming new creations in Christ.  This is a process that does not come to completion in this age, but there has to be some visible evidence of it if the church is to be, in any significant way, the body of Christ.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Giving Offense

"And they took offense at him."  That's what today's gospel says about the hometown folks when Jesus returns to Nazareth.  They are wowed at first, but then they remember just who Jesus is, and they "take offense," or more literally, "were made to stumble." (The Greek word is the root of our word "to scandalize."

Jesus offends or scandalizes a lot of people. That is sometimes hard to reconcile with the sweet, meek and mild Jesus I met in Sunday School and church as a child. How could this Jesus ever offend anyone, especially offend them to the degree they felt it necessary to kill him.  Even as an adult, it often seems to me that the church has tamed and domesticated Jesus to the point he is not at all threatening. But he is not all that compelling or enticing either.

Richard Rohr's devotion from yesterday quoted Bernard of Clairvaux regarding how we eat Jesus in the Eucharist and are likewise eaten by God. "If I eat and am not eaten, it will seem that God is in me, but I am not yet in God." Rohr goes on to note that modern, rationalistic minds are upset - I might add offended - by such language. And I do think that forcing Jesus, God, and faith into our rationalistic, logical slots can be one more way we tame and domesticate Jesus.  (I can say this even while embracing many of my own Reformed Tradition's issues with Catholic eucharistic theology and practice.)

And so I found myself thinking about the sort of people who routinely are offended by Jesus in the gospels, as well as those who are not. Starting with today's reading, we have the people who thought they knew who Jesus was. To those we can add many of the good religious folks of the day, the religious establishment, and the Roman government. On the other hand, Jesus rarely seems to offend the outcasts, the sinners, the poor, and others whom the good religious folk looked down on.

Doesn't it seem that a faith that represents Jesus to the world would still have an offense problem with the same sorts that Jesus did. The dynamics of power and greed and institutions don't seem to have changed all that much from Jesus' day.  So it stands to reason Jesus would still confound and trouble those who think they know him best, the religious establishment, the powers-that-be, and so on. And so when a community of faith truly is the body of Christ, truly embodies Jesus, surely it will find itself giving occasional offense to such folks while attracting the broken, the outcast, the powerless, the sinner, and such.

It makes me wonder a little about the Jesus we church folk represent to the world. 

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Monday, January 28, 2013

VIPs and Outcasts

I've always loved today's story from Mark. (It gets picked up by Matthew and Luke as well.)  It's not the only place Mark brackets one story with two halves of another so that the stories end up informing one another in some way, and I suspect that technique has much to do with my appreciation of this story.

The combining of the two stories makes for a number of contrasts.  The outer story features a man named Jairus, a person of considerable influence and prominence who is a "leader of the synagogue," and whose daughter is gravely ill. The story sandwiched in the middle features a woman who remains nameless, who is cut off from her community because of an illness that renders her "unclean" and has left her destitute. In fact, she must secretly break the law in order to touch Jesus.

That Jesus goes with Jairus is not at all surprising.  Not only is the situation desperate, but the man is a VIP.  But in the middle of this mission of mercy, Jesus stops.  At first glance it is not at all clear he needs to do so.  The woman has received her secret healing and seems happy to leave undiscovered.  But Jesus stops to find her and talk to her. (I've always wondered how Jairus reacted to this unexpected delay, a question only heightened by my now living in the DC area, a place filled with VIPs and VIP wannabes who are always in a hurry and seem to think everyone should get out of their way.)

Perhaps Jesus delaying to talk to the woman is primarily a literary device, serving to highlight the woman's healing plus allowing time for Jairus' daughter to die, thus heightening what Jesus will do at the VIP's house.  But I think not.  Jesus calls her "Daughter," sends her away in peace, and speaks both of healing and restoration. ("Made you well" translates a word that literally means to save or rescue or restore.)  Jesus stops and makes sure this woman realizes what has just happened.  She is a daughter or Israel once more.  She is restored to full participation in  community.  She is no longer an invisible, untouchable, but a beloved child of God.  And Jesus pauses to do all this while a frantic father is no doubt beside himself at the delay.

I find it a remarkable story.  Jesus will not pass up this opportunity to give a woman more than she hoped for, to make sure she experiences the full implication of her encounter with God's love and grace, even when that leaves a desperate VIP pacing, perhaps fuming, on the sidelines. But the fact that Jesus seems particularly attuned to the needs of those like this unnamed, unimportant, unclean woman, does not mean the VIP gets left out. He is required to wait, and he must welcome a Jesus who is now unclean from this woman's touch into his home. But presumably such religious distinctions have become insignificant in this desperate situation.

I think it can be very difficult for the Church and for congregations to embody the Jesus we meet in this story, and I'm not talking about our inability to heal or raise people from the dead.  I'm talking about being genuinely with and for the good religious folk like Jairus but always ready to discover,  embrace, and restore the outcast, unclean, and broken among whom Jesus is so often found.  Even some congregations who do a great deal of good with the homeless, hungry, and needy, still see such people as others, as "them" to our "us."  And rare is the congregation where the Jairuses of the world sit side by side with people like the unnamed woman in today's gospel.

If the church is to be the living body of Christ in the world, it seems we should attract all sorts to us, from those like Jairus to unclean, unnamed outcasts like the woman with a hemorrhage.  So how do we set up our congregations, our mission, and our worship so that we draw all sorts and not simply those who look the same as us, act the same as us, and like all the same things as us?

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Sermon video: What Sort of Good News?

Others sermon videos available on YouTube.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Sermon: What Sort of Good News?

Luke 4:14-21
What Sort of Good News?
James Sledge                                                                   January 27, 2013

How many of you watched the inauguration on Monday?  It was a great day for a lot of people, a celebration of the good news of Obama’s win and a second term.  Of course it’s not necessarily good news if you are a Republican or you disagree with Obama.
If you are from Seattle, the outcome of a football game a few weeks ago was very likely good news to you, but for a lot of people around here it was a bitter pill to swallow.
The term translated “good news” in the New Testament is the root of our word evangelism. But how many of you think of good things that need celebrating when you hear the terms evangelism or evangelical? For some Progressive Christians, the term evangelical is used almost as a slur. But why? Why would we react negatively to good news? Surely it is because of the particular content we have come to associate with evangelism.
What is the content of the good news, the gospel that followers of Jesus are called to share?  You would think that after all these centuries, this would be an easy question to answer, but there seem to be a lot of different answers. 
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that the Christian gospel sometimes becomes about escape.  “Good news! Even though the world’s a crummy place and you may experience suffering and difficulties, if you just believe the right things, you will get a ticket to heaven when you die.”  Some have labeled this a gospel of evacuation. Liberal Christianity usually rejects the harsher requirements of this gospel, deemphasizing or completely leaving out the need to believe the right things, but it often maintains the evacuation part.  “Good news! God loves you and you’ll go to heaven.”

Thursday, January 24, 2013

A Little Ambiguity

"The kingdom of God is as if... With what can we compare the kingdom of God?.. It is like..." Similarities and comparisons. Is that as close as we can get to the kingdom?

The modern, scientific age (which is perhaps now giving way to post-modernity) is all about precision and rationality and logic.  It is about empirical truth.  Not that we know nothing of things that don't fit easily into such categories; beauty or love for example.  Still, much of modern religious thinking has sought to work out its religious theologies and doctrines in great detail. Much of these doctrines and theologies are very robust, logical arguments explaining with great precision what it means that God is sovereign or that Jesus suffered and died.  And this drive to work things out just so hasn't very much room for ambiguity and uncertainty. It seeks clarity and certainty.

To which Jesus says, "as if, compare, is like." 

I have long found the rigid, religious certitude of some fundamentalists very off-putting.  However I have found some liberal reactions to this so vague as to be equally off-putting as well.  At times they seem to say, "Well since we can't say with absolute precision exactly how all this works, we can't say very much at all." And Mainline faith has sometimes been reduced to a vague belief in God and trying to be moral.

I wonder if we don't all need to get a bit more comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty.  For some that means letting go of the notion that they know the formula to the smallest detail like a pastor who once confided in me that he hated doing funerals when he knew the person was going to hell because he had not made a public profession of Jesus as Lord and Savior. For others it means being willing to point with conviction to something and say, "I don't know all the details, but I am certain that the kingdom is very much like this."

Which direction to you need to step in order to embrace a little ambiguity?

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Holding onto Paradox and Contradiction

I read Richard Rohr's daily meditation, and then I read the daily lectionary passages. Some days these compliment one another perfectly. Rohr was talking about how dilemmas, conflicts, paradoxes, and contradictions are a necessary part of scripture, and how we gain true wisdom only when we wrestle with such paradox and contradiction. Noting the "fragmented" nature of scripture he quotes Wendall Berry who says, "the mind that is not baffled is not employed."

Then came the morning psalm. "O LORD, who may abide in your tent?  Who may dwell on your holy hill? Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right."Such lines are not uncommon in the Bible. Only the pure and the righteous shall dwell with God.

Such talk is hardly restricted to the Old Testament.  Today's reading from Ephesians is also about purity. "Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure person, or one who is greedy (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God."

 So God wants nothing to do with you unless you are pure and righteous. Only problem is Jesus says things like this to the good religious folks who worked very hard at purity.  "Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you."

Have you ever noticed that Christians of both liberal and conservative stripes often feel a need to get rid of such biblical contradictions by emphasizing some and ignoring others? Some people's God is mostly concerned with purity and righteousness while other people speak of a God who seems not to care about such things at all, only wanting to embrace them and say, "There, there."

Strange that we expect humans to be complex and full of self contradictions, but we expect God to be a flat, two dimensional, cartoon character.  We think God should be easier to comprehend than our friend, partner, or neighbor.  What would Wendall Berry say about that?

I wonder what our faith might look like if we were more willing to hold onto the self-contradictions of scripture. (And perhaps even of God?)  If we took seriously God righteousness and holiness and mercy and forgiveness, how might that show in our lives?

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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Sermon audio: Sign of Abundance

Preached by Diane Walton Hendricks on January 20.

Additional audios of sermons and worship can be found on church website.

Must Be Crazy

Jesus' family tried to stop him, to drag him back home because folks were saying, "He has gone out of his mind."  So it says in today's gospel. Jesus was acting strangely enough that people thought him possessed, and his family seemed to agree.  They thought it best to go get him and talk some sense into him. Fortunately this is no longer a problem. We in the church are free to domesticate Jesus as we see fit, to make him into a champion of middle class values and attitudes, perfectly at home with the status quo. 

This notion of domesticating former revolutionaries struck me yesterday as I watched the President's inauguration on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.  Amidst the frequent references to Dr. King, I was struck how he has become a sanitized revolutionary, remembered for platitudes easily embraced by most all decent folks nowadays.  There was little to see of the Dr. King who spoke out against the Vietnam War, who questioned American capitalism, and who blasted white, middle-class Christianity.

While in a Birmingham jail, King wrote an open letter to fellow clergy, especially to white pastors in more liberal churches whom King had supposed would be natural allies, but who instead told King to slow down, to stop acting so impatient (so crazy?)  Here's a piece of that letter.
So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent -- and often even vocal -- sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
I was especially struck by that last line of the paragraph about young people's disappointment.  Judging by the number of young adults who want little to do with church in our time (now at a third and rising for those under 30), King could just as easily be speaking of the twenty first century.

It is strange the way the church so often becomes defender of the status quo. After all, our founder was persecuted and killed by the status quo.  But for some reason we imagine our status quo to be sufficiently "Christian." And those who do claim the culture has fallen away so far as to earn God's ire measure this in trivial things such as "prayer in school" or with regards to the right stance or hot-button social issues.  Nearly impossible to see in any of this is a Jesus who was at home with prostitutes and other ne'er-do-wells but who frightened to death many of the good, church-folk of his day.

I have yet to meet anyone who would seriously claim that the world has been transformed into anything resembling the vision Jesus proclaimed of a Kingdom of God, a new realm where earth looked like heaven, all things done just as God would have them. And yet the church, as Dr. King unhappily discovered, is often the biggest defender of the status quo has. This is so commonplace that there is an old joke about the 7 last words of a dying church being, "We've never done it that way before."

I wonder what would happen if the church became a little less beholding to the status quo or to "how we've always done it, and a little more shaped by the pattern of Jesus and how he lived. Actually, I think we know and that is what keeps so frightened of change.  We're afraid people would say, "Those folks must be crazy!"

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Sunday, January 20, 2013

Preaching Thoughts on a Non-Preaching Sunday

Water into wine.  Even people who've never been to a church have probably heard about Jesus turning water into wine. It's a pretty whiz bang sort of  miracle, but I'm not sure its significance is much appreciated.  Often the story gets drawn into discussions about religion and alcohol, or about whether or not to believe in miracles.

I heard a very good sermon on this passage today from Diane Walton Hendricks, the pastor for spiritual growth here at Falls Church Presbyterian. She pointed out that this story is about God's abundance, about how God steps in when it seems there isn't enough, enough resources, enough money, enough political will,  enough hope, enough time, etc. (I will post the sermon on this blog later in the week.)

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has written on "the liturgy of abundance, the myth of scarcity." He points out that consumerism is all about scrambling to acquire things of which there aren't enough to go around. But the biblical narrative is one of enough for all, enough to go around. And in his first "sign," Jesus demonstrates this promise of enough, or God's abundance.

Much of public discourse and politics these days is about scarcity and about how to deal with it.  Who will get left out?  What essential services must be cut? In a nation of incredible wealth, our lives are often shaped more by the myth of scarcity than by any promise or liturgy of abundance.  Seems to me that one of the most important things a follower of Jesus can do is to expose and counteract that myth by proclaiming and living in ways that bear witness to the hope and promise of God's abundance.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Faith of Others

I've always been both enticed and bothered by today's gospel reading, the story of a paralyzed man who is lowered through to roof to get around huge crowds. It's one of those favorite Bible story episodes I remember from my childhood. But as an adult I was troubled by the notion that Jesus only heals the man to prove to the scribes that he has the authority to forgive sin.  Does that mean if no scribes had been there, Jesus wouldn't have healed the man?

But something different struck me on reading the story again today.  It was the initial motivation for Jesus to act.  "When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, 'Son, your sins are forgiven.' ” Not the paralytic's faith but "their faith."

A well known phrase in the gospels is Jesus saying "Your faith has saved you," or "Your faith has made you well." (These are just different translations of the same Greek.)  But in today's reading it seems Jesus should say, "Their faith has saved you/made you well." 

American Christianity tends to be highly individualistic, but in this gospel a person is both forgiven and healed because of others' faith.  That reminds me of another biblical phrase that can be translated more than one way. A lot of Protestants are familiar with passages such as Galatians 2:16 which says, "A person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ." But the Greek of this sentence can just as easily be translated, "...through the faith of Jesus." So are we saved, justified, healed by our faith, or by his?

Part of Paul's insistence in such passages is that our new and restored relationship with God is not something we accomplish.  Rather it is a gift.  But very often we Protestants simply turn faith into a different sort of work or accomplishment.  We decide to believe certain things and so God must reward us.  But what if it's more like the story of the paralytic in today's gospel?  When Jesus saw "their faith," he forgave the man.  When God saw Jesus' faith, he forgave us?

If this is in fact the case, then what does it means to live a life of faith?

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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Egos and Community

When you've worked hard and done a good job, it's quite natural to have some pride in your accomplishment.  It also makes good sense to appreciate and thank those who have worked hard and done a good job. Never to hear a "Well done" makes such effort feel pointless, and even the Bible gives us that phrase, "Well done, good and faithful servant."

But then there is this line from today's epistle reading. "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast."  So that no one may boast... I take it that boasting marks some sort of line where recognizing hard work makes an unfortunate transition into egoism.

The warning in today's epistle is far from the only one in Scripture.  It seems that ego can be a real problem for people of faith.  This problem is the central one behind another epistle, First Corinthians. The Corinthian congregation was very animated and motivated by their faith.  The people diligently tried to hone and improve their spiritual gifts, but they also thought some gifts superior to others. They looked down on those who didn't have them and felt puffed up if they did have them.

The gifts of God became things that divided and destroyed community rather than building it up, which is why Paul tells them that the greatest gift is love. Paul's words about love being patient and kind and bearing all things are heard primarily at weddings these days.  Egos can cause problems in marriages, so that is not inappropriate, but Paul isn't speaking about romantic love. He is reminding the Corinthians that the greatest gifts do not puff up one's ego, they diminish it as the good of the other becomes more important than self.

This problem with ego continues to bedevil people of faith. Those who diligently strive to work out their theology in great detail so that it will guide them in faithful living look down on those whose theology is different. Those who have expended great energy and effort to worship God with the very best music and liturgy they can muster, look down their noses at others who are "less sophisticated" and do "bad worship."

You can probably come up with countless other examples where our egos lead us into ways more apt to produce division than unity, that create categories of "us" and "them." We Presbyterian clergy have any number of these. We like to point out our "educated clergy" who are required to take Hebrew and Greek, often with an implied slight to those uneducated clergy of some denominations and churches. And we don't always leave the slight implied.

I do think we should try to encourage hard work, and we should acknowledge the efforts of those who work hard. But when such encouraging or acknowledging moves into egoism and begins to create "us" and "them," when it fails to build community but instead creates division, something has gone amiss. And the cure, if Scripture is to be believed, requires gratitude, and it requires love. That's the Jesus kind of love.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Irresistible Presence

"And immediately they left their nets and followed him."  That's what happens when Jesus calls Simon and Andrew to follow him in today's gospel, an event pretty much repeated with James and John.  That's pretty amazing.  I'm not sure if I've ever said to a church session or committee, "Let's do this," and immediately they all said, "Sure, that's a great idea. Let's get started."  Of course I don't really expect that to happen. I may suffer from messianic delusions as much as the next pastor, but I know I'm not Jesus.

The disciples' immediate response is amazing not simply because it is so at odds with my experience.  In the Old Testament, God calls quite a few people, and besides Abram (later named Abraham), they all have some reason they shouldn't say, "Yes." They need coaxing and reassuring.  But not Simon, Andrew, James, and John.

Considering what fumbling and bumbling followers these four often are, I don't think Mark's gospel is pointing to them as paragons of faith. Rather it is saying something about the presence of Jesus that is nearly irresistible. For those who encounter him and hear his call, the truly amazing thing would be to say, "No."

Which is all well and good until I began thinking about my own encounters with Jesus and my response to his call. I have very little trouble saying "No" to Jesus.  So either my powers of resistance are remarkable, or perhaps I've not really encountered Jesus.

It's that old problem I talked about before, knowing about Jesus versus actually meeting him.  Knowing that Jesus said, "Love one another" or "Make disciples of all peoples" versus hearing him say that to me. 

There's a hymn in our Presbyterian Hymnal that I will confess to disliking greatly, not for its music but for its words. It begins,
We walk by faith and not by sight; No gracious words we hear
From Christ who spoke as none e'er spoke; But we believe him near.
In my understanding of this verse and those that follow, this hymn describes faith as believing what the Bible says is true. But the Bible speaks of the Spirit making Christ present to us. The Apostle Paul speaks of us being "in Christ" and made new by that experience.  And on occasion he claims to have a word "from the Lord." Is Paul an anomaly, or did we modern, rationalist Christians take experience out of the faith equation? It certainly makes things much more neat and orderly if everything Jesus said is way back in the past, and the Spirit doesn't issue any new commands in Jesus' name.

I'm not advocating turning our brains off. Charismatic types have done great damage to the church and the faith throughout history. But if it is true that we can no longer hear any gracious word from Christ who spoke such words long ago, well no wonder the Church sometimes seems to be half dead.

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Monday, January 14, 2013

Faith Patterns

The daily lectionary moves to a new gospel today, taking up the gospel of Mark. A lot happens in these opening 13 verses: and introduction, John the baptizer and his ministry, Jesus being baptized, and Jesus being tempted for 40 days in the wilderness. All that in 13 verses. Of course that means that we don't get a lot of detail about the events, and there's more about John than Jesus. But I wonder if Mark doesn't give us something of a basic pattern for the life of faith.

A call to repentance, a response, a clear identity and the gift of the Spirit, then a time of testing all come prior to Jesus beginning his ministry. Mark does not directly address the question of why Jesus would need "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin," but Jesus certainly does repent, at least in the sense of changing the direction of his life. Jesus has lived well into his adult life without attracting any attention at all, but that will change dramatically in short order.

A call to change or repent, a response to that call, a clear sense that this is central to who you are and is divinely inspired and supported, and a time of testing or temptation... I wonder if Mark doesn't  provide us with a kind of prototype for the Christian life.

There was a time when I would have argued against such an idea. I grew up in the Presbyterian Church, and we tended to leave dramatic faith experiences to Baptists and other more "born again" sorts. Being nurtured in the faith from birth, we not only had no actual memories of our baptisms, but we were often taught that our faith was more about accretion than transformation. If repentance was part of the pattern, the change in direction was so slight as to be almost imperceptible, perhaps prescribing an arc that could be seen following a long passage of time, but there were no dramatic turns for most of us.

I now reject such thinking.  While it may indeed be that we trust in Jesus from such an early age that we can't speak of a dramatic conversion experience, being called to the work of ministry is another matter.  And all Christians receive such calls. More precisely, all who would follow Jesus receive such calls. The term "Christian" does not always imply actually following Jesus.

Jesus presumably grew up with some sense that his identity was rooted in God. Surely there were inklings and moments in his life prior to  his baptism where he felt that he had special purpose. Still, his life seems to have followed a road little different from other people in his community for nearly 30 years.  Jesus may have always been Son of God, but his life did not prescribe any smooth, gentle arc. It featured a screeching turn as God's call became clear to him.

I don't care for notions of a one-size-fits-all faith or for exact formulas that every person of faith must adhere to. But that does not mean there are no patterns that can be discerned, or that there are no normative sorts of experiences.  The Bible is full of "call" stories that vary greatly in their details. The call of Abram is quite different from the call of Moses or Jeremiah or the virgin Mary or the first disciples of Jesus or the Apostle Paul or of Jesus himself. But as different as they all are, the pattern outlined in today's gospel would seem to fit into each.

Have you experienced God's call in your life? If so, how has this pattern played out for you?

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Sermon audio: In Line with Us

More audios of worship and sermons on church website.

Sermon video: In Line with Us

Other sermons available on YouTube.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Sermon: In Line with Us

Luke 3:15-22
In Line with Us
James Sledge                             January 13, 2013  -  Baptism of the Lord

John the Baptist gets a curtain call today.  We just heard from him during Advent, as we do every year. In fact, John gets two Sundays during Advent. He’s there to help us get ready, to prepare for the coming of a Savior.  But now here he is again.  This time the focus is on his ministry of baptizing as we remember Jesus being baptized.
As a result, we don’t hear all of John’s message this time, don’t get called a brood of vipers, and don’t hear about the ax at the root of the trees, but we still get some sense of that. John says of Jesus, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  I’ve always gotten the impression that John expected Jesus to kick butt and take names.
I wonder if John thought the world was beyond hope. Did he expect Jesus to show up, clean house, and start over with some righteous remnant?  Was Jesus going to institute a fiery version of the Noah’s ark story, wiping out all the bad with unquenchable fire?
John the Baptist was probably a pretty strange guy.  Prophet types often are.  But despite all his strangeness, I know a lot of people whose thinking is a good deal like John’s.  Sometimes mine is, too.
A lot of Christians proclaim a slightly modified version of John’s message.  “The world’s horrible, filled with all sort of terrors and cruelties and exploitation and needless suffering.”  John could point to Herod and Roman occupation and corruption in the Jerusalem Temple hierarchy and the way the poor always got the short end of things while the rich got richer.  Herod and the Romans are gone, but other than that we know all about the exploitive dictators and military occupations and corrupt religious institutions and the poor getting the short end of things while the rich do just fine. 
John expected Jesus to show up and fix things somehow, and it wasn’t going to be pretty. In the Christian variation on John’s message, fixing things is still not going to be pretty.  But now it comes mostly via evacuation.  Jesus comes with his winnowing fork and carries the wheat off to heaven. But the not so good and creation itself, well nothing but fire will fix that.
Liberals Christians sometimes burn less stuff, less folks, but that doesn’t mean we can’t adhere to the basic formula where the world is in some way hopeless and beyond redemption.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Something to Eat

Reading today's gospel made me think about how often feeding miracles shows up in the gospels. All four contain one, and Matthew and Mark have two.  Six miraculous feedings.  No missing that Jesus provides food for the hungry.

So many occurrences suggests this was a very well known story. No matter what sources a gospel writer had, there it was.  And Mark had two different accounts (apparently replicated in Matthew). Perhaps they were the same event via different sources, or perhaps they were stories of different feeding miracles.  Either way, Jesus feeding the crowds features very prominently in the story the early Church told.

Our course meals figure prominently in other ways. Huge portions of the synoptic gospels are devoted to Jesus' last meal with  his followers. A banquet was a well worn metaphor for the coming of God's reign. And the early Church came together around a meal.  (The typical dry cubes and thimbles of juice in the Lord's Supper I grew up with bore scant resemblance to such meals, much less to a banquet.)

Eating a meal with someone is a significant act. Most of us are pretty picky about who we invite over for dinner.  In our day of fast and easy food, we may not spend much time reflecting on the act of eating, but we still have favorite foods and restaurants. And while going to the movies is a safe first date, dining together at a nice establishment is a much more intimate event.

Church suffers a huge loss when the experience of worship is more like the movies or a concert than like joining others for dinner.  Not that movies or concerts cannot be deeply moving, but they lack the intimacy of a meal.  They lack the sense of receiving something one cannot live without, nourishment and companionship, community if you will.

I suspect one reason so many young people find traditional worship unappealing is that it feels more like going to something than it feels like receiving something you deeply need.  The pendulum swing in my tradition back toward more frequent celebration of the Lord's Supper perhaps senses this lack. But I am not sure that simply doing communion more often, especially in services with lots of people, changes things very much.

I once new a church member who I liked a great deal. When he would leave Sunday worship, he often commented on my sermons.  If he had really liked one he would make a point of saying, "I really enjoyed the lecture today." I never objected.  I knew he meant it in the kindest possible way, but it always unnerved me a bit.

Jesus taught, he told stories, he healed, and he fed people and ate with them, and the early Church and the gospel writers seem quite captivated by the food part.  Jesus offers food for those who are hungry, and he gives it to his followers to distribute and share.

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Wednesday, January 9, 2013


God is our refuge and strength,
     a very present help in trouble. 

Therefore we will not fear, 
          though the earth should change,
     though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; 

though its waters roar and foam,
     though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

Psalm 46:1-3

"We will not fear." So says the psalmist.  But the fact is that most of us live with a fair amount of fear and anxiety. If you read newspapers or watch the news, there are plenty of reasons for fear and anxiety. But you would expect people of faith to have less trouble with fear, wouldn't you?  After all, God is on our side.  And so we won't be afraid even if the earth changes, the mountains shake, and the waters roar and foam. Right?

Yesterday I read Tom Ehrich's blog post, "Speaking of Fear." Tom is a writer, Episcopal priest, and church consultant, and he was speaking of fears that often impact Christians and their churches.  In particular, he listed "fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of losing control, fear of conflict, and fear of change." These fears often paralyze church congregations.

When Jesus promises the gift of the Holy Spirit, he tells his followers that the Spirit will abide with them and strengthen them and teach them all they need.  Therefore we should not have troubled hearts or be afraid. And yet the fears Tom Ehrich lists do afflict us and keep us from doing what Jesus calls us to do. Churches are often afraid to try anything new or different, sometimes out of fear of change and sometimes over fear of failure. There are remarkable exceptions, but churches are often some of the most timid organizations around, afraid to try anything they don't already know how to do.

And pastors' fears can be just as problematic.  If we're not control freaks afraid of delegating anything, we are needy and afraid people won't like us, not daring to speak what we think to be the truth. Or our messiah complexes make us afraid that our congregations will lose their way if we don't make sure everything is done in theological or ecclesiastical purity.

All of these fears, I fear, have a common denominator.  All of them have difficulty trusting God with anything of much significance.  If we can't think of it, control it, manage it, and accomplish it all on our own, we're pretty sure, or at least very afraid, that it can't happen. Practically speaking, we do not believe that God is with is us in any significant way, and we certainly don't believe in any power or assistance from God the Holy Spirit.

1 John says, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear." Perhaps the timidity and fearfulness of congregations and pastors is less a faith problem and more a love problem. We've never quite encountered God's love in so vivid and tangible a way that it has cast out all fear. We're worried, even afraid, that God might not love us so much that our failings couldn't drive God away.

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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

On Receiving a Scary Letter

Imagine that your congregation received a communication from a prophet who had just had a vision.  And that communication said, "Some of you are about to be put in prison on account of your faith. You will likely be tortured, and it will be terrible for 10 days.  But remain faithful until death, and you will conquer."

I'm not sure I can imagine such a thing.  It is so far outside any religious experience in our culture.  So if such a letter arrived at our church, no matter whom it came from, I would likely think the person a crackpot, some Tea Party sort who had gone completely off the deep end.

But what if, by some remarkable circumstance, I or you could be convinced that this communication was true?  Perhaps I'm wrong, but I feel reasonably certain that the vast majority of American congregations would lose over 90% of their members instantly.

The book of Revelation is a letter written to Christians facing just such difficult circumstances.  And unlike many modern Christians, they understood that this letter meant to assist them in remaining faithful under very trying circumstances.  It wasn't giving detailed predictions about the future or the end of the world.

Revelation was written in a very different time and to a very different Church.  Those Christians understood themselves to stand outside prevailing culture to some degree. They experienced a fair amount of tension between their new life in Christ and what it took to fit into Greco-Roman culture. 

When I was growing up, it was very difficult to separate Christian faith from the prevailing culture. There was a symbiotic relationship between the two, although I've often thought that the Church sold its soul in that bargain.  My Presbyterian/Reformed Tradition often spoke of Christ/Church as a transforming presence in the culture.  To be sure, some of that happened, but it cut both ways.

Over the years and centuries, Church became a very worldly institution, and like all institutions, it is often more fixated on preserving itself than anything else.  When the culture realized it no longer needed or wanted a symbiotic relationship with Church, the watered down thing we had become began to struggle without the stores and malls being closed on Sunday morning or religious indoctrination conducted by the public schools. (I think that the origins of the "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" I mentioned yesterday emerge from this transition.)

In the last 50 years or so, membership in Mainline churches has dropped by half.  And most who left did not join other denominations or mega-churches.  They simply left.  This group of "Nones," as some have labeled them, is huge and growing. "Nones" make up an estimated 20% of American adults, and the percentage is surely much higher among young adults.  But church congregations often seem blissfully unaware unless they are experiencing a big loss in membership and therefore worrying about how to get more people to come so their congregation can survive. 

In the staff meeting at this church today, I asked folks an identity question. (I borrowed it from a book on church planning by Kenneth Callahan.)  How would our neighbors finish this sentence?  "Falls Church Presbyterian, it's that church that___________." It's hard to know for certain if their answers accurately reflect what non-member neighbors would say, but I suspect they are fairly accurate.  Suggestions included something about our nice buildings, the Scouts that meet here, community events that we host, our great music program, or our once a month "Welcome Table" where we offer a free meal along with gift cards for a local grocery store and other items to people in need. 

As I looked over the list, it struck me that many congregations might have prompted a very similar list.  It also struck me that only the last item - and it was one of the last suggestions from the staff - had a direct connection to anything Jesus called us to do.

There are times when I wonder if the "institutional church" can actually be the Church. Sometimes it seems the best it can do is to house and nurture occasional episodes of Church, of Christ's body present to the world.  But the bulk of its energy and resources get tied up by the institution and its edifices, regardless of whether those do much to further the work of Christ in the world.

Perhaps I'm just having "one of those days" and being too hard on this thing we call Church.  What do you think. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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Monday, January 7, 2013

Pondering a Miracle

Upon reading today's gospel where Jesus turns water into wine, I have a profound sense that I am missing something. It seems a rather odd story for John's gospel, which is not all that big on miracles, instead featuring great speeches and teachings by Jesus.  But here is a spectacular miracle with no teaching at all.

More liberal types like myself sometimes get tied up in knots over readings such as today's gospel. We're troubled by the miraculous, especially a miracle so blatant as this one. It is so foreign to our scientific worldview, and there is no moral or spiritual lesson to be easily generalized from this episode. And so we have trouble taking this text seriously because to do so feels like fundamentalist literalism to us.
Banquets, wedding banquets in particular, get used in the Bible to speak of the abundance that God will provide, of the plenty and goodness that will mark God's coming reign. Surely today's gospel insists that even though Jesus' "hour has not yet come," God's abundance and provision are fully present in him. The steward in the reading remains blissfully unaware of this, attributing the abundance to some hyper-hospitality on the part of the groom.  But the disciples "believed in him." They saw God's abundance in Jesus, and so they could do nothing less.

But do we liberal and progressive Christians actually believe in God's abundance? (The question is probably valid for conservatives as well.) Can God provide in any real and tangible ways, or is God restricted to my interior life, and perhaps to something after death?

In her book, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church, Kenda Creasy Dean discusses the normative faith of American teens, something a huge national study labeled "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism."  This notion that there is a God, that we should be "good," that God sometimes bails us out of personal jams, and that we go to heaven when we die, is not something teenagers produced by perverting the teachings they learned at church, says Dean. Rather, this is precisely what they learned at church.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism doesn't know what to do with Jesus changing water into wine, nor with God entering into and transforming history. These sorts of things simply have no place in the benign, innocuous, "Christian-ish" notions that teenagers have learned because that is what many churches have peddled.

Another finding of that national study is that teenagers, by and large, don't have much animosity toward religion. They don't reject church as something bad. They simply cannot fathom why they would invest much energy in it. After all, believing in God, trying to be good, and praying now and then don't require church membership or participation. And why would anyone worship and sing songs to a vague, distant, not-really-involved-involved-in-the-world God?

When people encounter our congregations, do they encounter anything of a God who is bending the arc of history toward God's purposes, whose providence sustains the universe, and whose grace intrudes into human life and history?  Or do they find some nice people trying hard to do some good things and enjoying a little spiritual boost from the rhythms of worship, but without much sense that God is there and up to something. (I realize that I'm making an either/or question out of something where there is a huge continuum of possibilities.)

I frequently cite a quote I believe to come from someone at the Alban Institute (Roy Oswald perhaps?). Speaking on the troubles of Mainline churches this person said something to the effect, "People come to us seeking an experience of God, but we give them information about God."

It is very hard to share an experience of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. It's a nice enough notion but not the sort of thing you would give yourself over to.  And if God cannot intrude into our lives and our world in ways that violate our expectations, that defy our notions of what is possible or plausible, if God cannot turn water to wine, then why are we church folk here? 

There's an old joke that goes, "What do you get when you cross a Jehovah's Witness with a Unitarian?" Answer: "Someone who knocks at your door but isn't sure why he's there."  And I sometimes wonder if many church congregations don't operate on a similar principle. We keep doing our thing, but we're not really sure why.

I know from serving three churches as pastor, and from working with a number of other congregations via denominational committees, that we often function as though God was not really part of the equation.  We say that we are doing what Jesus calls us to do, but we are no bolder in that work than we are at any other organization, from the workplace to PTA to Scouts to a local charity. We make decisions and undertake projects with absolutely no expectation that God/the Holy Spirit will add anything to the effort. If we have sufficient funding and volunteers and expertise, fine. Otherwise, it's just not possible.

But what if God's abundance and provision and grace really do enter into human experience in the person of Jesus?

I did not start out to write anything of the sort I just did. Strange where you end up when you stop to ponder a miracle.

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Sunday, January 6, 2013

Sermon: Now What?

Matthew 2:1-12
Now What?
James Sledge                                                                           January 6, 2013, Epiphany

Our family went down to see relatives in South Carolina after Christmas.  We’ve always done Christmas at our house, and then traveled to the grandparents.  But now it’s over.  We made the drive back on Tuesday.  There are still remnants of Christmas morn lying around at the house, but more and more are being put away.  The tree is getting pretty dry.  Time to haul it out. When we had an artificial tree, we sometimes left it up till late January.  But no one acted like it was still Christmas.  Christmas is over, and we all know it.  Now what?
Although many of us like to attach the Wise Men to the Christmas story, adding them to our nativity scenes, they are a post-Christmas story.  The shepherds are all gone.  The angels are all gone.  In fact, they never even made an appearance in Matthew’s gospel.  There is no stable or manger.  Mary and Jesus live in a house, and Jesus is no longer a newborn.  He crawls or perhaps even walks around the house, getting into things like any toddler does.
 In his gospel, Matthew doesn’t say very much about Jesus’ actual birth.  It is noted only briefly in the story of the angel telling Joseph to wed the already pregnant Mary. He took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. Jesus has been born and been named with a name meaning “he saves.”  God’s anointed is here.  Now what?
The story of the Wise Men is a “now what?” story, and so it may be a good thing that the story has gotten attached to Christmas.  As much as we may enjoy the Christmas season and as much as it may touch us, there is a tendency simply to bask in its warmth, to drink in its hope and promise without ever asking, “Now what?”  But the story of the Wise Men won’t allow that.  It alerts us to choices that must be made, to powers that do not want God’s new day.  It warns us of danger.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

It Can't Be That Simple

The metaphors are flying in today's gospel. Jesus is the gate, while others are thieves and bandits. Then Jesus is the good shepherd as opposed to a hired hand.  And bouncing around within these metaphors is an "I AM" that gets lost in English translations.  This grammatical structure, one not really available to English, is a kind of divine marker.  And so these become more than metaphorical description. They are windows into the heart of God.

And those windows reveal a divine motivation that has been clearly stated in John's gospel from early on. God acts out of love, "For God so loved the world..."  God acts in order to give life. God is willing to go to incredible lengths, willing to die for the sake of the sheep.  And God is not concerned only with my particular flock. God longs for our petty divisions to disappear once and for all.

It's all right there, so clearly, so simply. But if I preached a sermon and said only this, I would feel like I hadn't done my job.  I wouldn't have unpacked the text enough.  I wouldn't have been creative enough.

God loves the world. In Christ, God would go so far as to die for us. It's so plain and simple, but it is so hard to accept. It can't be that simple.  There has to be some catch.  I have to believe the right things. I have to be good enough to deserve such love. And surely God isn't talking about loving "them," whoever we understand "them" to be.

"I AM," God, is the gate, an opening to abundant life.  "I AM", God, puts my and your well being over divine welfare.  God willingly undergoes great anguish within the heart of the divine self for my and your sake, simply because of who God is. 

It can't possibly be that simple, can it?

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