Thursday, February 28, 2013

Reluctant Prophets and Cheap Grace

When I first arrived at seminary in 1992, the school did many typical, orientation-type activities to help incoming students get to know one another and learn about life at that seminary. We had a picnic and other social events. We got a tour of the campus and met some of the professors and administrators.  And we did some "ice-breakers," those social interaction exercises that force you to move around and tell others something about yourself.

One of these exercises was to pick the biblical character you most identified with, and then to gather in small groups where you all shared something about your choice. After a few minutes everyone had to find a new group and share the same information, a dance that went on for several rotations.

Nothing particularly memorable about the activity itself. In fact, I doubt I would even recall it but for one fact. It seemed like nearly everyone had picked Jeremiah, the prophet who occupies the daily lectionary's Old Testament readings for the moment.

I suspect that this arose mostly from the opening of the book of Jeremiah where God calls the prophet but he objects. "Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy." (This complaint probably refers not to Jeremiah's being an actual child but to his being young and inexperienced.) Presumably many of us new seminarians thought of ourselves as called to something we weren't ready for, something for which we felt ill-equipped.

Of course there is another piece to Jeremiah. There is a lot of doom and gloom from this prophet. At one point Jeremiah is actually arrested as a traitor for telling the folks in Jerusalem to accept their defeat at the hands of Babylon as punishment from God. I don't know how much identification with this facet of Jeremiah was present in that seminary ice-breaker, but a lot of us had some sense that the church did need some reforming, rejuvenating, and rediscovering of its call. Few, if any of us, saw the situation in the dire terms of Jeremiah, but a lot of us probably felt a little kinship with the change agent part of a prophet's call.

Today's reading in Jeremiah is a curious mix of oracles of judgement along with anguish over what will happen. At one moment the anguish seems to be that of the prophet, but then God seems to feel the anguish as well. And there is only a hint of hope. "Yet I will not make a full end."

I think that many who love God and love the Church struggle with how to call the church to turn toward greater faithfulness without falling into the anguish found in Jeremiah. How does one call the Church away from its idolatry to consumerism, its captivity to giving its members what they want regardless of whether it is what God wants, without becoming Jeremiah? Or are there times when pastors are called to be Jeremiah?

I once had a wrestling coach who yelled a lot. He could be quite intimidating, but he would regularly remind us not to despair when he yelled at us. We should despair if he didn't yell at us because that meant he had given up.  Yelling meant he saw hope that we could become something better.

Now I'm not sure this translates very well beyond athletic endeavors, and even there my old coach belongs largely to a different time. But still there is this quandary of how to call people and religious institutions to repentance. (I use the word "repentance" here in its biblical sense of changing direction, of turning toward the direction of God's call.) And when it came to repentance and religious institutions, even Jesus had a hard time staying positive.

I think I struggle most in my ministry with how to balance God's love that in Jesus dies for us, with God's call to repent and follow Jesus, to learn a new way of living from him. Many years ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about this in terms of "cheap grace," which he defined in part as "the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance."

Socrates had his own take on this. "The unexamined life is not worth living for a human." But we often do not want to take the critical look at ourselves that might lead to change, to repentance. We often prefer cheap grace. So how do we call people to change, to lives reshaped by God's love and grace, while still holding tight to the love and grace part? I'd lile to know your answer.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

In Need of Healing

The line has long struck me. Jesus encounters an invalid who is lying by a pool purported to have healing powers when its waters are "disturbed" by an angel. Presumably the man is there because he seeks healing, yet Jesus asks him, “Do you want to be made well?” What an odd question. We are told that Jesus knew he had been there a long time, but if he knows that, surely he knows what the man tells him next, that with no friends to help him, others always beat him to the waters when they are "disturbed."

"Do you want to be made well?" Sometimes "made well" is a translation of the same word meaning "to save," but not here. Here Jesus literally says, "Do you want to become healthy?" Surely he does, so why does Jesus ask?

I'm not going to attempt to plumb the psychological state of this poor fellow. Perhaps Jesus' question is no more than a literary device. However, most all of us occasionally know what we need to do to get healthy, but for some reason do not take such steps. Sometimes what we need to do seems too difficult, and we don't have sufficient willpower to stick with the diet or exercise plan.

But other times willpower seems less the issue. At times we seem to be attracted to unhealthiness. Many of us complain about our over-scheduled, too-busy, over-stressed lives, yet we continue to add and schedule more for ourselves and our children. Here the cure would seem to be easy. We need only slow down, stop occasionally, and relax. No need to join a fitness center or Weight Watchers, but many of us find this impossible.

If Jesus found us, harried, stressed, about ready to scream and pull our hair out, might not he be justified in asking us, “Do you want to become healthy?”

Any doctor can tell you of patients who come to her seeking a cure, but who seem to do everything in their power to prevent a cure. With alcoholism and eating disorders, we recognize a sickness that drives people to do that which leads to unhealthiness and even death. People suffering from these may say they want to be made well, yet often they seem compelled to act otherwise.

"Do you want to become healthy?" There is a sense in which a genuine "Yes" requires the acknowledgment of our compulsion - large or small - toward unhealthiness. For those in 12 step programs, it is the acknowledgment of being an alcoholic or addict. For the wholeness and health Jesus offers, it is about acknowledging a problem we cannot fix on our own. Whether we label the problem sin, brokenness, distortion, or something else, we cannot cure ourselves. We need to be helped, to be saved, to be rescued.

But we struggle to admit this. Especially in America, with our worship of individualism, we are loathe to admit we cannot do it on our own.

"Do you want to become healthy?" The invalid at the pool doesn't really answer Jesus, instead giving Jesus reasons he has not been able to get into the pool on his own. Fortunately for him, and us, Jesus offers help, healing, saving, even when our asking is half-hearted. “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”

Thanks be to God!

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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Give Me a Sign

"Now this was the second sign that Jesus did after coming from Judea to Galilee." So ends today's gospel reading.  This sign was the healing of a boy near death. The first sign was the turning of water into wine at a wedding in Cana. A sign of prodigious abundance followed by a sign of healing. Signs play a curious role in John's gospel with a complicated relationship to believing. But regardless of the complex nature of signs in John, I am struck by their concrete substance - abundance and healing.

Such signs surely reveal a God concerned with human life; not merely with some life to come, but with the lives we are living now. Jesus is in some way is about God's concern and care for us, God's desire that we live life in the fullness that God intends for us.

By nature I am a somewhat restless and impatient person, sometimes unhelpful traits for a pastor. I desperately want the church to live into the fullness shown to us and offered to us in Jesus. And I can too easily grow frustrated at the ways church sometimes prefers to be a conventional, religious institution rather than experience the new life Jesus offers. In that frustration, I can become shrill and harsh, focused mostly on our failings, with little sense of a hope or promise for something new and better, without any invitation to healing and abundance.

Sometimes I suspect that it becomes difficult for me to see signs of God's healing and abundance breaking into my life and the church's life because I am looking too much at myself and too little at Jesus. When my frustration is at its highest, it is usually related to worries that I do not have what it takes, that I do not have the requisite abilities or gifts to renew and transform those things in the church that need renewal and transformation. But of course I have no real ability to grant true healing and abundance. Such things come from God in Jesus. They come in the work of the Spirit.

Those pastors like myself, who can get frustrated with the stodginess of a Mainline Church that seems trapped in its past, sometimes betray a remarkable lack of faith in one of our own core beliefs of resurrection. We can speak of decline as inevitable and hopeless, a hurtling unto death that not even God cannot undo.

I do not suggest that God must resuscitate the Oldline/Mainline Church. But neither is it for me to declare dead what God would give life. And so perhaps the task for me, and for others who love the Church, is to look for signs. Perhaps more than needing to improve our skills or develop our leadership abilities, we need to look for what Jesus is doing, to acknowledge that that the Church does not ultimately rise of fall on our efforts, but on the life giving presence of the one who comes with signs of abundance and healing.

What signs do you see? Lord, show us clear signs that you are at work in us.

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Monday, February 25, 2013

Astonished by Jesus

In today's gospel, we hear the tail end of the story of Jesus' encounter with a Samaritan woman at a well. We enter the story as the disciples return to Jesus and see him speaking with this woman just prior to her leaving. "They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman," not to mention that she was Samaritan.

They were astonished. Clearly this was not behavior they expected from Jesus. Now if this were the only time the disciples were surprised by Jesus' behavior, we might not be able to make much of it. But Jesus regularly surprises and confounds his followers. The very people who knew him best and who spent more time with him than anyone were often taken aback by the things he did, the people he hung out with, the things he insisted his followers must do.

How often does Jesus astound you? Perhaps that seems an odd question given that Jesus makes fewer personal appearances these days. But over the years I have occasionally been struck by the ways I have domesticated Jesus, fitting him in to very conventional slots that he rarely challenges, mostly because I never give him the chance.

It is amazing how, once we settle on an image of Jesus that works for us, we can keep Jesus shoe-horned into that image. I mentioned yesterday how we in the church have sometimes reduced following Jesus to faithfully attending worship. The discontinuity between the ways we live and act and what Jesus calls his followers to do can be quite striking, yet we often seem immune to being astonished by such discontinuity.

I suppose that those first disciples would have done the same thing if they had been able, but Jesus was too present to them and too new to them for such easy domestication. Perhaps that means it is more incumbent on us to seek out those moments where Jesus astonishes us, although we do not seem much inclined to do this.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the typical church-goer's lack of serious engagement with the Bible. Nothing is quite so challenging to the notions of Jesus and God that we construct for ourselves as the witness of Scripture. To hear Jesus or God speaking directly against notions that are dear to us can be a profoundly challenging experience.

Church doctrine can also be helpful here. Admittedly, Church doctrine can sometimes become nothing more than certain things you have to believe in order to be sufficiently "orthodox,"but it can also remind us of how our images of Jesus and church have strayed from any solid, biblically-based standard. I think of my own Reformed tradition's statement recommending "A faithful stewardship that shuns ostentation and seeks proper use of the gifts of God's creation." (See the Presbyterian Book of Order, F-2.05) This call to live simply for the sake of others is a faithful attempt to to do what Jesus asks of us, although looking at many church buildings I suspect the members would be a bit "astounded" to hear Jesus say anything of the sort.

So where has Jesus astounded you? How often does it happen at your congregation if you are part of one? I take it to be a given that if we are not astounded, surprised, and redirected by Jesus from time to time, the Jesus we are following is one of our own creating.

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Sunday, February 24, 2013

Preaching Thoughts on a Non-Preaching Sunday

It's a line filled with angst. "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" Jesus speaks of a maternal longing for the children of Jerusalem, a longing for those who push away from his loving embrace.

I wonder if we should count ourselves among the children of Jerusalem. Those of us who claim to be Christians are surely her descendants in some way. The Church has often spoken of being heirs of God's promises to Israel. That seems to me a claim to be children of Jerusalem.

We certainly seem to have the "were not willing" part down pat.

I've been thinking a lot lately (and writing some as well) about how we in church congregations fail to incarnate Jesus and his ministry to the world. If someone unfamiliar with Christianity were to read the biblical gospels and write down a synopsis of what Jesus calls his followers to do, he would surly struggle to connect that with the primary activity of many congregations. 

Not that we never help the needy, the oppressed, the broken, or the poor. But often you have to look hard to find those things. The more obvious things we do are build buildings and hold worship services. Indeed many long time church folks speak of their church activity as "going to church," a phrase that accurately describes the primary primary focus of many church folk. Perhaps it is here, as much as anywhere, that we live out our heritage as children of Jerusalem.

"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" Presumably, Jesus' angst filled longing extends to us as well. He longs to gather us in and show us the true way. Here his longing for us seems much like that of the father in the parable of the prodigal. Our failures do not turn Jesus against us. They simply pain him and cause his heart to ache with longing.

That, of course, means that reconciliation and joy are never more than a turn away. The moment we move toward Jesus and his priorities, he reaches out to embrace us in the heartfelt passion of lovers reunited.

So why do we keep insisting on our way rather than his?

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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Light, Truth, and Roaches

I can never read today's gospel without thinking of roaches. The rainbow haired guy with the John 3:16 sign may occur to me as well, but my first thought is roaches scurrying off a kitchen counter when someone comes in for a late night snack and flips on the lights. If you've ever lived somewhere with a roach problem, you surely know what I'm talking about.

The same passage that talks about God so loving the world also speaks of a self inflicted judgment that reminds me of roaches fleeing the light. The Gospel of John loves the metaphors of light and darkness. It speaks of Jesus as the light that has come into the world, and today Jesus notes that people often prefer the darkness, fleeing the light lest it expose them for what they really are.

I find this to be true, both individually and corporately. We all have those parts of us we don't want revealed, that we hide and do not want light illuminating them. Sometimes there is nothing more difficult for us than to stand in the bright light of truth. We prefer the images we construct to the realities of who we actually are.

I thinks this becomes magnified in groups and organizations. Groups do not like to face their failings and shortcomings. We do not like the harsh light of truth, even on events of long ago. My own native South often chooses the remember the Civil War as a war between states, and it tells the story so as to minimize the role of slavery. We struggle with the notion that the South was wrong to start the war and fought it to preserve an evil institution that denied full humanity to people because of their race. Some even insist that the reasons for the war were good and noble. We just  happened to lose.

But this is not a problem peculiar to the South. People in the North have often pointed a wagging finger at southern racism while conveniently ignoring their own history of racism.  Some people in Japan still honor the war heroes from WWII while denying horrible atrocities committed by those same heroes. And churches, well we engage in this sort of behavior, too.

Not only do we like to forget the way our churches once participated in the ills of racism, slavery, sexism, etc. (we still participate in some), but we are often very good at avoiding any significant and deep self-examination in the present. We seem content to imagine that we are in some way doing God's work, and so it must be fine. And we often get very upset if someone points out our hypocrisies or the ways we fail to incarnate Jesus to the world.

The same Jesus who is the light that people avoid because they prefer darkness, also says he comes to testify to the truth.  But light and truth scare us. Better not to look too carefully. Better not to discover that Jesus' call to repent, to turn and move in a new direction, applies to us in the church as well.

This is strange when you think about it. Jesus comes because of God's great love for us, comes to call us to the life that God hopes and dreams for us. Surely we would want the bright light of God's truth to shine on us, that we might see clearly where we have gone astray, and see clearly where Jesus is calling us to go.

Wouldn't we?

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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Sequestration, Church, and Call

Perhaps it's because I live "inside the Beltway" near DC, but sequestration is big, front-page news around here. The newspapers and newscasts are filled with stories about what may happen if this sequester actually happens. Some seem unconcerned, but a lot of folks use "the sky is falling" language.

If you're not familiar with this issue, it refers to big, automatic, across-the-board budget cuts that will kick in on March 1. The whole thing was dreamed up back in 2011 as part of a budget compromise. The idea was to create a threat of automatic cuts that were so draconian, so terrifying, that it would force Congress to make some difficult choices to head it off.  But with an extremely partisan, extremely dysfunctional Congress, apparently no threat is sufficient to produce results.

People on the right and the left can point to the foolishness of a sequester. The idea that the most well-run and essential programs will see reductions of exactly the same percentage as the most wasteful and non-essential programs is clearly ridiculous. But Congress seems incapable of making decisions about what is essential and what is wasteful, what should be preserved and what might be pared. It is a remarkable failure of leadership.

It is also exactly what many churches do when they create annual budgets. Many congregations have no list of priorities, no way of determining which budget items are critical and which are less so. And so when budgets get tight, we simply employ our own version of sequestration. It may be a bit less onerous to tell everyone to cut 2 or 3% compared to the larger cuts facing the US budget, but sequestration is sequestration.  And all versions strike me as a failure of leadership.

Actually, the leadership failure in churches strikes me as the larger one, even if the percentages are smaller, even if there are no cuts in a given year. That is because Jesus has given his followers a pretty clear list of his priorities. But church congregations are often very invested in a different set of priorities. And so using a sequester to make budget decisions not only avoids wrestling with hard decisions, it also keeps us from examining our skewed budget priorities.

The core of this problem is one of call, or more precisely, the lack of one. We leaders in churches have become much more adept at managing religious institutions than we are at hearing Jesus' call. Absent any real call, keeping things going replaces it. And truth be told, we often prefer it that way. In the Bible, calls are almost always frightening, risky things that take people from where they are to some place glimpsed only by faith. It's much safer just to keep the religious operation going, at least in the short term.

The old, King James rendering of Proverbs 29:18 reads, "Where there is no vision, the people perish." That's actually a bad translation, but it is true nonetheless. When there is no vision, no clear sense of where God is calling us, we will meander and eventually waste away. The more accurate translation of the NRSV still hints at this. "Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint." Where there is no voice guiding us, we will go our own way, unlike those in the second half of the verse, "but happy are those who keep the law."

"How we've always done it" is not the law, nor is it a vision or a call. What keeps the members happy is not a prophetic vision that keeps people on the right path. So how do we let vision, call, the Spirit invade our little religious operations?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Religious Marketplaces

Today's gospel story of Jesus "cleansing the Temple" is often understood in simplistic, black and white terms. Those selling animals and changing money were crass, commercial interlopers, intent only on making a little money off religion. They clearly violated any reasonable standards regarding what was and wasn't appropriate in "God's house." Actually, probably not.

First of all, these folks are not in the Temple proper.  They are in the courtyard, and they are providing a real service. Pilgrims who journeyed long distances to the Temple usually did not have the Jewish coins required for making offerings. The money changers allowed them to convert the money used in the regular commerce of their homeland into that accepted at the Temple. Congregations that offer credit card giving or online giving provide a similar "service" to their members.

So too the animals being sold allowed pilgrims from far away to travel without needing to carry with them an animal for sacrifice. This even allowed poorer pilgrims to partner and purchase an animal together. Churches today often offer books for sale that will be used in a class or small group or hold fellowship meals which can be purchased at reasonable cost. How different are these from allowing pilgrims to purchase their sacrifice?

(In all this, it may help to remember that the Temple did not function quite like our churches. People did not "go to Temple" on a regular basis.  Many might go there only once in their lives, and these animals and money changers helped insure that such pilgrims could navigate the Temple's rituals.)

But if money changers and animals for sale were reasonable allowances to help pilgrims, why does Jesus get so upset? Various answers have been suggested. Perhaps Jesus is rejecting the sacrificial system itself, or maybe Jesus wants to reform a system that had become overly ritualistic and not focused enough on relationship and encounter with God. Whatever the precise answer, Jesus clearly thinks the Temple apparatus has gotten sidetracked from its core purpose.

So what might Jesus say on a visit to our church buildings and sanctuaries?  After all, we do have a lot that comes from the marketplace. We have yard sales and car washes at the church to fund the youth mission trip. We pass the plates each week to collect offerings of money. We have annual "Stewardship Campaigns" which more often than not are pleas for people to "give more so we can fund those programs that you enjoy." What could be more marketplace than expecting people to pay for what they like and use?

And if Jesus is upset over things that distract people from the core purpose of encounter and relationship with a parental God, what would he think of worship services that a reasonable person might mistake for a show, a concert, or a performance. And such performances even come complete with a tip jar, a pretty brass one with a velvet bottom, but a tip jar nonetheless.

Worship services are obviously not the only thing congregations do, but worship is by far and away the event with the most member participation. It is also the event that outsiders are most likely to encounter, and so it is often the event that most defines who we are. And so if the church is supposed to incarnate Christ to and for the world, it seems fair to ask if someone attending one of our worship services is likely to encounter anything resembling the biblical Jesus.

I happen to think that regular worship is an integral part of following Jesus. He did, after all, call us to love the Lord our God with all our being.  But Jesus also demanded that we love our neighbor, with a special emphasis on the poor, the marginalized, the weak, the outsider, and the afflicted. And you don't need to look very carefully at the typical church budget to figure out that we expend the vast majority of our resources on the loving God side, or more precisely, on worship. Whether our worship actually "loves God" is a question in its on right. (See Amos 5:21-24 for a scathing critique of worship that God does not like at all.)

We live in a consumer culture, one where people who are the churchy sort will speak of "church shopping." It is not uncommon to hear church leaders speak of "catering to our customers." So how do we make sure we don't or haven't become little more than a religious marketplace?

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Sermon video: Since You Are a Child of God...

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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sermon: Since You Are a Child of God...

Luke 4:1-13
Since You Are a Child of God…
James Sledge          Service of Healing and Wholeness          February 17, 2013

I don’t have much experience with services of healing and wholeness. This is my first. And I suspect some of you may find such events a little new age or trendy.  And yet… most all of us have those parts of us, those pieces of our lives that are broken, tattered, that get in the way of living fully. Most all of us have areas where we struggle to be whole, even if we don’t think of it as a religious or spiritual problem.
Sometimes the church hasn’t been much help, speaking of faith as purely a belief thing and confining the spiritual to a narrow little slice of life, divorced from work, physical health, politics, and so on. Sometimes we’ve even acted as though physical bodies are a spiritual problem. If we could just shed these bodies and our base, carnal humanity, becoming purely spiritual beings… But then Jesus comes along, quite content with a human body, quite content to be human, and he comes offering wholeness.
Actually, if you were to flip through the four gospels in our pew Bibles, you will not find the word “wholeness.” For that matter, you won’t find the word anywhere in those Bibles, but wholeness is in there.
Have you ever noticed how Jesus sometimes says, “Your faith has saved you,” and other times, “Your faith has made you well”? In fact, Jesus says exactly the same thing in both cases, but translators feel the need to make a distinction when Jesus is physically healing someone. In our worldview, saving and healing are different, even unrelated things. In our un-integrated, some might say dis-integrated lives, sometimes Jesus is playing doctor; sometimes he’s playing priest. 
But Jesus will not separate the spiritual from the physical, and so healing and salvation are simply different sides of the same coin.  And very often, our Bibles would do well to translate all of those verses, “You faith has made you whole.”
Jesus comes offering us salvation, healing, wholeness, but in our broken, divided, dis-integrated ways, we struggle to combine these things. Salvation is a future thing, we think.  Healing is about now. So what is wholeness? I think there are some insights into wholeness in today’s well-worn story of Jesus tempted by the devil.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Set Apart for a Reason

The word "holy" is a strange one. In popular speech it rarely refers to anything good.  It's used as a general exclamation. "Holy ____!" Or it's used to speak negatively of who think too highly of themselves regarding the morals or the like, as in "holier than thou." Only at church is it about something good, and here it has a more specialized use, often to speak of God. We talk about the Holy Spirit and some people begin prayers, "Holy God." 

So what to do with the opening line from today's Old Testament reading. "For you are a people holy to Yahweh your God." Given the common notion of the Church as the continuation of God's people Israel, presumably this could be read to say the Church is supposed to be "a people holy to Yahweh." (The notion of the Church as a continuation of Israel can be found in the New Testament book of Acts, and I have  no problem with the idea. However this has often been read to mean that the Church replaced Israel, which I do see as problematic.)

So what does it mean to say that we church folk are to be holy in some way? That might be an interesting thing to explore as a Lenten project. Just how is my or your congregation supposed to be holy?

It may help to realize that one meaning of the word is "set apart." Part of this set-apartness is about purity, but it is also about being set apart for a special purpose. Israel is called to be a holy people because the are set apart with a special calling.  That goes all the way back to Abraham who is called so that, through him, "all the families of the earth shall be blessed." In a similar way, the Church is set apart to be an instrument of blessing, to incarnate Jesus, the one who comes for the sake of the world.

Perhaps because for many centuries we labored under the delusion that we live in a Christian culture or nation, this notion of being set apart was hard to realize. If everyone is Christian, what does it mean to be set apart. I actually think it still means something significant, but it is easy to see how such a notion withers when we presume everyone else is Christian, too.

Unfortunately, the loss of any sense of our holiness (i.e. set-apartness) robbed congregations of a strong sense of mission and purpose. So we turned inward, and many congregations lost any significant identity around being set apart, called to bless the world, or existing for the sake of the other. But without such an identity, the Church loses much of its reason for being and much of its vitality.

How is God calling your congregation to bear divine blessing to the world? How have you been set apart as a special people who are to be a blessing to others and the world? For church people, those are absolutely critical questions.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

And Also Many Animals

I have always loved the book of Jonah, and I especially enjoy its ending, and unanswered question. The final phrase, "and also many animals," has always struck me as memorable, a bit odd, funny, and a little ego-deflating.

If you don't know the story of Jonah, or if all you know is he was swallowed by a big fish, it is a remarkable tale. Unlike other biblical prophets, Jonah leaves us with no record of anguished pleas for Israel to mend its ways and turn back to God. In fact, the book is not really about any historical prophet. If anything, it is a satirical story told to make a point.

Jonah is an unwilling prophet who, when called by God to go to Nineveh (capital of Israel's hated enemy the Assyrians), immediately heads in the opposite direction. Following a series of mis-adventures, including that fish, Jonah is finally re-directed to Nineveh. There the reluctant prophet utters a single sentence. "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!"

If Jonah were an actual prophet, he would be the most successful in all history. Hearing Jonah's brief oracle, all Nineveh repents, and then so does God. That's actually what is says in the Hebrew. After observing the Ninevites 180 turn from evil, "God repented of the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them."

This infuriates Jonah. He is so upset that Nineveh didn't get its just desserts that he wants to die. The rest of the story, like the beginning of it, is about Jonah's unhappiness with God. Following  his upset at the sparing of Nineveh, he is equally upset at the death of a bush that gave him some shade, again so upset he wants to die. This leads to that remarkable ending where God remarks about Jonah's upset over the death of a bush. “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

I saw a post on Facebook this morning from a fellow Presbyterian pastor complaining that Lent was simply one more bit of Christian navel gazing. I don't share his total disdain for Lent, but I have to agree that it can become terribly self-absorbed, not unlike Jonah and his bush. But that is true of religion in general, a tendency that the book of Jonah skewers with masterful satire. We imagine the world is askew because it isn't sufficiently focused on our little troubles. Never mind the thousands upon thousands who don't know their right from their left, who don't have shelter or enough food, who live under constant threat of death or exploitation, "and also many animals." Never mind what God's concerns are.

On this Ash Wednesday, as we enter into the season of Lent, perhaps we should let Jonah serve as a cautionary tale. If Lent does not help us turn more fully toward God and neighbor (both human and animal?), then perhaps it is only Christian navel gazing.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

All by Myself

It was hard to miss yesterday's announcement about the Pope "retiring." It was all over the internet, led network newscasts, and was the big headline in this morning's Washington Post.  Now admittedly, this is not as big a deal for me as it is for Catholic brothers and sisters, but I read with some interest the articles discussing how the tenure of the last two Popes had populated the College of Cardinals with thinkers similar to Benedict XVI. This of course virtually guarantees no real change because these Cardinals will elect a new pope committed to the same policies, at least according to these articles.

I'll leave to others questions of what needs or doesn't need to change in the Catholic Church. I'm more interested in questions of what allows or causes such change. If, for example, I accept the desire of some Catholics that the church modernize and shift views on celibacy, women priests, and so on as change that would be faithful to what Jesus wants, should I then simply despair that this can't possibly happen with the current College of Cardinals?

For me, this is not an academic question about another denomination. It is a more fundamental question about who the "players" are when a group of Jesus' followers think change is required in order to be faithful. Are decisions about change purely a matter of people's opinions on whether such change is good or bad, or does God ever weigh in and push things in a particular direction? Some of those articles I read yesterday quoted people who seemed to share two assumptions. Change would be a good and faithful thing. God certainly Isn't going to do anything to overcome the institutional resistance to such change.

I'm not making fun of Catholics on this. I see such assumptions all the time in the church, and I very often find myself captive to them as well. When I see changes that I believe are critical needs for the church, I can despair because I don't think there is any way I can rally and convince enough people to overcome the inertia of how things are. And very often such thinking betrays my assumption that God will do nothing to help, that the Holy Spirit will not inflame any hearts or inspire any action. (I'm also very impatient, but that's another issue.)

In today's first morning psalm, this line appears twice, "Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God." And the second morning psalm includes this. "Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help... Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God." Clearly the psalmist speaks out of different assumptions.

In his book, Becoming a Blessed Church, Graham Standish says that many mainline churches succumb to what he calls "rational functionalism" which precludes anything that isn't empirical and logical, that assumes that the Spirit does not act and miracles cannot happen. He also suggests that such assumptions have robbed the mainline church of much of its vitality.

I wonder how often my own assumptions cut me off from what God is doing? Do some people in a church need to be attentive and open to the Spirit for the Spirit to act, and if so, how many? Will the Spirit work through me or a congregation that won't cooperate, or will she move on to those who welcome the Spirit's help? Are we trapped in a logical, predictable functionality, or is something wonderful and new truly possible?

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Monday, February 11, 2013

The Other & Where Are We Going?

"Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." These words from Deuteronomy are often referred to as the "Shema"from the Hebrew for "Hear."  (This is the only Old Testament verse I can actually recite from memory in Hebrew.) This command forms a centerpiece of Judaism, and many Jews affix them to their doorways, as Deuteronomy tells them to do.

Jesus reaches for this command when he is asked for the greatest commandment, linking it with another Old Testament command to love neighbor as self.  Linked together, these two speak of life animated by the Divine Other and by the human other. Quite a contrast to life organized around my wants and needs. But how on earth to move from the self-centered life to the other-centered life?

Today's meditation by Richard Rohr includes this. "The mystics’ overwhelming experience is this full-body blow of the Divine loving them, God radically accepting them. And they spend the rest of their life trying to verbalize that experience, and invariably finding ways to give that love back through forms of service, compassion and non-stop worship. But none of this is to earn God’s love; it’s always and only to return God’s love. Love is repaid by love alone."

The full-body blow of Divine love; now that's a phrase. And it speaks of an experience not easily transmitted by the methods of "Christian Education" I encountered growing up in the church. That is not to dismiss those as meaningless, but for all the information they imparted, they were modeled on the schoolhouse. And they did not speak the language of relationship or love.

This strikes me as the big challenge facing the church and congregations.  How do we provide the necessary information about God that is needed to distinguish those experiences that are of God from those that are not? And how do we help people be open to the experience of God that gives real meaning to their information about God? And while traditions like my own Presbyterian Church have historically done a very good job on the informational side, we seem to struggle on both counts now. We struggle with "Christian Education" even as we make sporadic attempts to do "Spiritual Formation."

To be sure, I have no magic solutions to offer. We seem to be in a time when the old is breaking down, but the new that will replace it is as yet very unclear. It is an exciting time with much experimentation going on. And it is a frightening time of dislocation where many hunker down with what they already know. But both the experimentation and the hunkering down can be, and often are, very self serving, without the Other-centered focused called for by Deuteronomy and Jesus.

Perhaps a good lenten discipline for many congregations would be to spend time reflecting on our focus. What is it that gives us meaning and purpose as a congregation? What is the "North star" that guides all that we do, and is it about the Other. This moves us into the language of "call." Call is always about an other, and it always draws us away from ourselves toward something else. But that makes call inherently frightening. Many people correctly intuit that a call in one direction by necessity eliminates a number of other directions, and many of us are loathe to narrow our options.

Speaking of focus, I feel very much that I am wandering around in this post, with no clear idea where I am headed. In that sense, these words mirror some of my worries for the church. Can we encounter the love of The Other and hear the call of that Other that pulls us away from ourselves and sets us out on the path we are meant for? Can our congregations hear a call that guides us clearly so that we began to realize where we are going, and also where we are not?

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Sermon audio: Listen to Him!

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Sermon video: Listen to Him!

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Sunday, February 10, 2013

Sermon: Listen to Him!

Luke 9:28-43a
Listen to Him!
James Sledge                     Transfiguration of the Lord         February 17, 2013

Some of you may be familiar with French writer and philosopher Albert Camus.  Perhaps you read The Stranger in a high school or college literature.  Camus was an agnostic and a pacifist, but after witnessing Nazi atrocities, he became part of the French Underground during World War II.  Though agnostic, he was asked once after the war to speak to a group of Christians.  Speaking out of the horrors of the war and the Holocaust he said this.
What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out, loud and clear; and that they should voice their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could arise in the heart of the simplest man.  That they should get away from abstraction and confront the blood-stained face history has taken on today.  The grouping we need is a grouping of men resolved to speak out clearly and to pay up personally…  Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured.  But we can reduce the number of tortured children.  And if you don’t help us, who else in the world can help us?…
It may be, I am well aware, that Christianity will answer negatively.  Oh, not by your mouths, I am convinced.  But it may be, and this is even more probable, that Christianity will insist on maintaining a compromise or else on giving its condemnations the obscure form of the encyclical.  Possibly it will lose all the virtue of revolt and indignation that belonged to it long ago.  In that case Christians will live and Christianity will die.[1]
I’m reading this from the book, Christian Doctrine, in a chapter entitled “Are You a Christian?  The Doctrine of Sanctification.”  Shirley Guthrie, the Presbyterian theologian who wrote this book, says that Camus, an unbeliever, challenges Christians to take seriously our own doctrine of sanctification.  Sanctification is about how we, who have been embraced, forgiven, and claimed by God as children, begin to live as such children, letting the Holy Spirit work within us to transform us so that we act more and more like true children of God.
Though not a Christian, Camus is knowledgeable enough about the faith to expect this of the church, and he is upset when he does not see it.  He is frustrated by our failure to live out our faith claims. Interestingly, Jesus seems to share some of Camus’ frustrations in our gospel today, saying to his followers, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?”
Perhaps more than any other gospel, Luke seems to have the Church in view as it talks about Jesus.  By the time Luke is written, hopes for Jesus’ immediate return have begun to wane, and the Church has to focus more on what it meant to be faithful in an indeterminate, perhaps long lasting, meantime.  And in this story of Jesus’ glory and identity being revealed to the Church – here represented by three of his closest followers – Luke speaks both of how the Church is to live in the world, and of frustrations over our failure to do so, frustrations not unlike those Camus shares.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

It Is Necessary

On the heels of Peter's profession of Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus "began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering..." I'm not certain this translation picks up the full force of the line. A different translation might say that Jesus "began to teach them. 'It is necessary for the Son of Man to experience great suffering...' "

It is necessary. Jesus is not simply predicting what will happen but is stating what must happen, what is required to happen. There is some compulsion that drives Jesus toward Jerusalem and the cross.

It is conventional to speak of this in terms of a formula. Jesus must die in order to pay a price that would otherwise have to be paid by us. (Given how frequently this formula is cited, it seems rather odd that the Jews could be "blamed" for Jesus' death. After all, it was necessary.) But often this formula sounds terribly mechanical, and it seems to imply that God is somehow as trapped by this formula as we are.

I find it much more helpful to speak of this in terms of what is necessary to restore any broken relationship. Generally this requires reaching across the divide of  hurt and pain to attempt a reconciliation. The deeper and more profound the break in a relationship, the more difficult this becomes.  At some point, it may become so difficult, so costly, that no one can bear such cost, and there is no healing to be had.

"It is necessary" feels to me like a statement of the costs involved if there is to be healing. The divine human relationship might seem to be beyond repair, but God is willing to do what it takes, to bear the cost required. It is no simple formula, but it is still necessary, a necessity God willingly chooses to bear.

In a Bible study earlier today, we were discussing the Noah's ark stories. We noted that the reasons given for God wanting to destroy all those on the earth (see Genesis 6:5) are virtually the same reasons given for why God will "never again destroy." (see 8:21) God's relationship with us human creatures seems to precipitate an internal crisis within God, one resolved in both the Noah story and with Jesus in favor of restoration, redemption, and hope rather than judgment and wrath. (See Hosea 11:1-9 for a poetic depiction of this.) But this is costly for God.

It is necessary, and God seems determined to do whatever is necessary to woo us back. And when you think of what colossal screw-ups we so often are, including how badly we screw up the church, that is truly good news.

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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Arguing with Jesus

The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, asking him for a sign from heaven, to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.” And he left them, and getting into the boat again, he went across to the other side.                          Mark 8:11-13
A lot of people seem not to realize this, but the Pharisees were not nasty bad guys plotting evil deeds while twirling their mustaches à la Snidely Whiplash. (For post-Baby Boomers, that refers to a 1960s Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon character.) The Pharisees were an educated and dedicated reform movement in Judaism, the forerunners of what became rabbinical, synagogue Judaism. They struggled against what they thought a corrupt Jerusalem Temple complex run by the priests, a struggle with some real parallels to the Protestant Reformation.

The Pharisees are not always portrayed negatively in the gospels, and they would seem to have had some natural affinities with what Jesus was saying and doing, yet they mostly end up in conflict with him.

Today's verses, and especially Jesus' reaction, might seem to indicate that arguing with the Pharisees was a common occurrence, one that had begun to wear on Jesus.  Not that arguing implies fighting. It was common for rabbis to engage in long discussion and debates. Indeed a great deal of Jewish writings catalog such discussions in a kind of doctrinal discussion project. But for some reason, this does not go well with Jesus as one of the discussion partners.

I wonder if this might be because Jesus won't play by the normal rules. He refuses to be just one more rabbi adding a bit to the discussion stew. He insists he knows and has authority that the other rabbis don't. If so, no wonder these discussions ended badly, with the other rabbis demanding a sign, proof that Jesus had such authority.

I don't say any of this as a knock on those rabbis,  nor on Judaism past or present. In fact, I find this to be a very active pattern in many churches today. Jesus not being physically present, it is carried on via more indirect methods. We engage in arguments with Scripture, with doctrine, with tradition.  Much of this discussion is a good thing, helping us be in conversation with something living and dynamic, helping us hone our faith and understanding.  But sometimes this discussion ends poorly, like Jesus' with the Pharisees. 

Jesus starts to insist that we must follow him and seek God's will more than our own and we get testy. We're happy to listen to Jesus and consider what he has to say, but we'll be the judge of whether it is of any great merit. We're not any more ready than those Pharisees to grant Jesus that sort of authority over our lives.

As one who places myself well to the left side of the faith spectrum, I have to admit that this particular "arguing with Jesus" problem is a favorite of us liberals. (Conservatives have their own ways of misconstruing Jesus, ways we liberals are quick to point out even as we ignore our own.) We liberals are happy to enter into conversation and discussion with Jesus - and most anyone else for that matter - but we struggle actually to accept Jesus as more than a wise conversation partner.

The are probably many reasons for this. But whether we think ourselves too smart and educated, see things in too nuanced a fashion, or simply recoil from anything that reminds us of "God said, I believe it, that settles it," we end up participating in that good ole bugaboo, idolatry.

Idolatry is simply about placing our trust in things other than God. And while the word "idol" may conjure up thoughts of molten images, the most successful idols are much harder to spot. Family and country make passable idols. Church can be an even better one. Reason and intellect will do fine, too, and these have the added advantage of appealing to people regardless of what they think of church.

Now I will admit to engaging in a bit of hyperbole and generalization to make my point, but I do think it a most interesting question to ask, "Who or what can exercise some degree of authority over you life?" To some degree, that is your god.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting blind obedience to any doctrine or any particular church stance. I think Jesus is more than happy to get in there and have a great discussion, even argument with us. I just hope those arguments don't end with Jesus shaking his head and  sighing deeply in his spirit.

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Monday, February 4, 2013

Enough with the Worship

This morning I was reading from Paul's letter to the Galatians, and I was struck by this line.  "You are observing special days, and months, and seasons, and years."  Paul is chastising them for abandoning their new life in Christ and returning to something old. Perhaps this refers to Jewish festivals or perhaps pagan ones. Either way, we church folks have our special days, months, seasons, and years. (We're in "year C"by the way.)

I also came across this in today's meditation by Richard Rohr. "Most of us just keep worshiping Jesus and arguing over the right way to do it. The amazing thing is that Jesus never once says, 'Worship me!' whereas he frequently says, 'Follow me.'" And that reminded me of this passage from Amos. "I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies." That's God speaking by the way, who goes on to say, "Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."

It must be one of those days when I can stop making connections, because I found myself thinking back to Paul's words to the Corinthian church from Sunday's sermon, famous words that said without love (that's Christ-like, self-giving love) all else we do is meaningless.  "Noisy gong or a clanging cymbal" is one of Paul's illustrations.

Yet despite all this, church in American remains focused heavily on worship. As a pastor, I can mess up a great many things, but if most people are happy with the worship, I will get by. There's a reason we get referred to as "preachers," and people joke about us working one day a week.

I don't have anything against worship, and indeed my tradition thinks it of vital importance. But when people of faith define that faith by private belief and attendance at worship, we have moved into the territory of the quotes above.  

When it comes to this, the now largely finished Christendom role that traditional, mainline churches once played is a huge albatross around our necks. In that former time, we imagined ourselves partners with the culture in a Christian enterprise. We could concern ourselves largely with worship in the mistaken notion that the culture itself was somehow forming people to live as disciples and providing them with opportunities to serve. Being a "good citizen" was very nearly equal to "discipleship."

While being a good member of one's community can indeed by a way of living out faith in Jesus, there is plenty Jesus calls us to that our communities often prefer that we wouldn't do. While this would seemingly be obvious to anyone who as actually read the gospels, the fact that some faithful church people endorsed racially based slavery as God-ordained, fought against civil rights, and think defending the right to bear arms is a Christian duty points to how easily the obvious gets overlooked.

Still, we in the dwindling mainline church keep focusing on worship, often to the point of everything else being tokens. We keep expecting that if we do good worship people will keep coming because that was what we did in Christendom. But if anyone asks us how to experience the Spirit's help and guidance or what it actually means to follow Jesus, we stammer, suggest they talk to someone else, or tell them about the new, informal worship service we are planning.  And then we wonder why things are going so poorly for our brand.

Since I'm making so many connections today, here's another one, from a piece by Jack Haberer of the Presbyterian Outlook which begins, "
The bad news is that the older generations have wrecked the church. The good news is that newer generations are poised to resurrect it — that is, to support Jesus’ resurrection program." (If you're curious you can read the editorial here.) 

I wonder if this realization by Haberer isn't critical to traditional churches.  We have to quit thinking of ourselves as wonderful, sacred bearers of God's timeless, heavenly truths, and admit that we need resurrecting. While there is plenty in our tradition that does have value and worth, that is a faithful expression of what it means to follow Jesus (By the way, some of these new generations of resurrection folks are much more keenly aware of our traditions' merits than we in them are.), there is much that is nothing but old, tired habit that we have made idols.  And increasingly, younger people who are looking for a living faith with a living God are rejecting our human-made idols that have proven as inert as the ones Old Testament prophets railed against.

There's an old adage about the church being a hospital for sinners rather than a club for saints. Even though I'm not sure we really believe that, perhaps we need to take it one step further and recognize that it is not only we individuals who need healing. The institutional church that we create could use some critical care.  Now where are those defibrillator paddles?

Sermon video: The Greatest Gift

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Sunday, February 3, 2013

Sermon: The Greatest Gift

1 Corinthians 13:1-13
The Greatest Gift
James Sledge                                                               February 3, 2013

I’m guessing that many of you have heard this passage from 1 Corinthians before.  Maybe my experience is skewed by being a pastor , but I’ve heard it a lot, mostly at weddings. I don’t keep good enough records to say this with any certainty, but I would be surprised if I haven’t used this passage in at least half the weddings I’ve done.  And in a number of weddings that didn’t use these words on love, the couple was making a conscious decision to do something different from what they’d seen at all their friends’ weddings.
Paul is not talking about marriage or romance, but his words can speak to the sort of love required to sustain a marriage.  But I doubt that many couples who choose this passage realize its real meaning, though that may be as much the church’s fault as anyone’s.
If you were having some significant difficulties with someone who was very important to you, and this person wrote you a long, heartfelt letter trying to resolve the situation, what would you do?  That may seem a rather odd question.  Most of us would read the letter.  And it would have to be incredibly long not to do so at one sitting. Certainly we wouldn’t read it a few paragraphs per day, sometimes skipping around rather than going from beginning to end.
Yet this is precisely what we do with the letters in the Bible, which is why so many people have heard Paul speak on love without having the foggiest notion of why he felt the need to do so.  This lack of context leads to all sorts of interpretive mischief. Shortly before our passage, Paul writes this about the Lord’s Supper.  For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.  People routinely suggest that this is about mystical presence in the elements, but when you read what comes before and after, Paul makes quite clear the “body” he is talking about is the church, the community of faith.
So too, the words we heard this morning address concerns outside the reading itself.  Paul is concerned about divisions within the community of faith. In particular, he is worried about divisions that arise from some members thinking they are better than others, and in the Corinthian church, this seems to have happened around spiritual gifts.