Sunday, March 31, 2013

Sermon: While It Was Still Dark

John 20:1-18
While It Was Still Dark
James Sledge                                                               March 31, 2013 - Easter

Today is the pinnacle of the Christian calendar. Christmas may have surpassed Easter from a secular standpoint, but today is still the big day for Christians. It’s the Sunday service most of us would hate to miss.  Attendance swells at Easter because we all know, whether we’re deep theological thinkers or not, that everything depends on, “Christ is Risen!”
Given this, I suspect that most Christians have some sort of picture of the first Easter in their minds.  Even many who scarcely know the Bible still know the story of women going to the tomb on Easter morning, finding the stone rolled away, the tomb empty.
What does the scene look like in your mind?  If you were painting a picture of it, how would you depict it?  In my mental picture the sun is still just below the horizon, and a gentle red glow colors the sky. The scene is pregnant with expectation.  Day is dawning. The brightness is about to spring forth and reveal the good news that the tomb is empty.
The synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – picture it this way as well.  They speak of “early dawn” or “when the sun had risen.”  But John’s gospel says something very different in our reading this morning. Mary Magdalene goes alone to the tomb while it was still dark.
Leave it to John’s gospel, so different in style and tone, to picture Easter so differently. The Sabbath, which had prevented adequate attention to Jesus’ burial, actually ended at sundown on Saturday, but people, especially women, were wary of going out at night, in the dark. And night was a lot darker in Jesus’ day.  No street lights or glow from the city. Yet John depicts a lone woman going out in the dark of night.
Biblical literalists struggle to harmonize John’s gospel with the others, but that seems unnecessary. John isn’t correcting a time error by the other gospel writers.  He is saying that when Mary went to the tomb, all evidence pointed to victory by the forces that oppose God. 
Darkness is a theological category in John’s gospel.  Jesus is the light that has come into the world. But darkness has snuffed out the light, has crucified Jesus, and the world is plunged into darkness. For Mary, and for all Jesus’ disciples, darkness seems to have overwhelmed the light. And who among us hasn’t felt the same way. The world often seems to brim with darkness while the light flickers and seems so faint.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Agony and Despair... and Hope?

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" So begins one of today's readings, Psalm 22 to be precise. However I suspect that more people know the words as those cried out by Jesus from the cross. "My God, my god, why have you forsaken me?"

Jesus is a man, and so his words should come as no surprise. Even though he has told his followers that a cross awaits him, how could he not have despaired at that moment? How could have not have felt the alienation and abandonment that most all of us have felt at times? Despite being completely faithful, despite being totally devoted to his call, he ends up here - alone, abandoned, and in despair. Even God has abandoned him it seems.


We who claim to follow Jesus should know better, but it is remarkably difficult to shed the notion that faithfulness will make things better for us. If we do as we are supposed to do, if we go when and where God says, "Go," we expect to be rewarded. At the very least our life should be fulfilling. It should not lead to abandonment and despair... even if it did for Jesus.

I have long felt that while suffering on the cross, Jesus is most fully in solidarity with us, is most compellingly human. Here he knows and experiences what it is to live as we are meant to live, and to suffer on account of it. On some level, his is the lot of anyone who would meet hate with love, would respond to evil with goodness and mercy. No wonder so few of us can summon the courage actually to follow Jesus.

But despite our aversion to crosses, most of us will regardless find ourselves in a place a bit like that of Jesus. It will likely be much less dramatic and will certainly have much smaller import, but we will all arrive at that place where we become fully caught up in the tragedy of our broken world. We will at some point find ourselves in a  moment where we feel totally alone, completely abandoned, despairing and without hope. "My God, my God, where are you? Why have you let this happen? I thought you loved me."

That's why I'm glad Jesus did not simply cry out from the cross, but he cried out with the words of a psalm. He spoke only its opening line, but surely he knew the rest. He knew how it catalogs suffering, abandonment, despair and seeming hopelessness. And he knew as well that it sees a future beyond abandonment and despair. He knew that a psalm begun in despair still holds to hope when none can be seen or sensed.
   All the ends of the earth shall remember
          and turn to the LORD;
   and all the families of the nations
          shall worship before him.
   For dominion belongs to the LORD,
          and he rules over the nations.

  To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
          before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
          and I shall live for him.
  Posterity will serve him;
          future generations will be told about the Lord,
  and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
          saying that he has done it.

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" I have no doubt that these words were precisely what Jesus felt at that moment. And still, despite this... there was yet hope.

Perhaps that is the true task of faith in the face of genuine despair, in the face of hopelessly intractable problems in our lives and in the world - broken relationships, hatred and bigotry, poverty, war, children sold as sex slaves, exploitation, genocide, and more - where the only possible response is despair. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why have you forsaken us?" And still, despite all this... there is yet hope.

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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Remember - Backward and Forward

Perhaps more than any other time of year, Christians engage in practices of remembering during this week.  We remember Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. We remember a last meal with his followers. We remember a foot-washing, an act of servant-hood we are called to emulate. We remember betrayal, arrest, trial, and execution.  And, of course, come Sunday we will remember the triumph of resurrection.

Today, on Maundy Thursday, we remember Jesus' last moments with his followers, his friends. Many of us will engage in foot-washings and reenact the Last Supper as we remember and rehearse the events of a Thursday long ago.  As well we should. No doubt the gospel writers expect that we will give special significance to the last words Jesus speaks with his followers, his last commands to them.

In my own congregation, we will gather tonight for a fellowship meal. While at tables we will break bread and share the cup, recalling that Last Supper. And when Sunday comes, we will break bread and share the cup again. And, I fear, for some worshipers it will be Thursday all over again.

When I grew up in the church, the Lord's Supper, no matter what time of year it was celebrated, was a somber, ritualized recollection of Maundy Thursday. It remembered back to what Jesus had done long ago. No wonder many members found the move to more frequent observance of the Supper troublesome. (Four time a year was the norm in my Presbyterian childhood.) Who would want to do Maundy Thursday all the time?

But while we rightly remember back nearly 2000 years tonight, this Sunday is a different matter. No longer is our host the memory of one about to die. Our host on Sunday is the Risen One. Echos of Maundy Thursday remain, but the new pattern is the Easter evening meal with disciples on the Emmaus road. Sunday's meal knows the past, but it remembers forward, to the great banquet to come at the full arrival of God's reign.

While we do well to remember backward tonight, such remembering is not enough. Christian faith is rooted in God's saving acts in history, but it is focused on the future. In Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, God's future, God's reign, God's new realm, begins to invade our present. And we are called, by our words, deeds, choices, and priorities, to remember forward, proclaiming God coming kingdom that we already participate in through the Spirit.

Tonight we gather. We eat and drink "in remembrance" of Jesus. But don't forget to remember forward.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Not Enough

In the DC suburbs where I currently reside, the cost of housing is astronomical. 1000 square foot ranches sell for over half a million dollars. And I regularly receive phone calls at the church from people seeking assistance paying their rent. Their hours have been cut back and work and they can't meet the $1000 per month rent for their small apartment.  I have no idea how working class people of modest incomes manage to live around here.

This situation may be more extreme than in other areas, but most of us have learned all about scarcity, about there not being enough. It is the world we live in. Budgets, whether the family sort or the church sort are about how to allocate scarce resources because there is not enough. Indeed, capitalism and the free market system are predicated on the idea of scarcity, of not enough. That is how to get rich, to have something of which there is not enough to go around. If you have a lot of a scarce commodity, you will be well off.

This is the way of the world, but it is not the way of God. The God of the Bible is a God of abundance and provision, who promises to provide enough, daily bread. According to the book of Acts, the early church lived within this provision and abundance. "There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold." (Acts 4:34) Freed from their fears of not enough, there was plenty for all.

That early church was living out its experience of Jesus, whose self-giving extended even to life itself. Jesus trusted so fully in God's provision and abundance, that he had no need to guard his possessions, even his own life. And Jesus called his followers to discover this radical freedom to love others without worrying about the cost, this freedom to respond even to evil with love.

Unfortunately, as the church became an accepted part of the world, it began to conform to the world. It even began to transform Jesus' message of abundance and provision into one of scarcity. The church possessed a scarce commodity: salvation. And it would provide it for you, at the right price. And in the process, Jesus' ministry of bringing the reign of God and the ways of heaven to the world got displaced. The body of Christ, free to give itself to and for the world, was diminished, often to the point of near invisibility.

But a strange thing has happened in recent decades. The scarce commodity that the church has peddled all these centuries has lost much of its luster. For a myriad of reasons, people are not coming to the church to get some salvation. Perhaps they feel no need of it, at least not the kind the church is selling. Perhaps they feel they have found it elsewhere. Whatever the reasons, we have fewer and fewer customers.

These are anxious times for many churches in America, but they are also times that invite us to recall and rediscover the good news that has been entrusted to us. This good news presents us with a choice, just as it did thousands of years ago. Will we live by the ways of the world, focused on protecting what we have and serving our own? Or will we live into the ways of Jesus, into the promise of abundance and provision, giving ourselves freely to others?

I've mentioned this line from my denomination's Book of Order before, but I think it is a perfect statement of what it means to trust in God's provision, to live in the manner of Jesus and as the body of Christ. "The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life." (F-1.0301)

The promise of Easter is that such entrusting ourselves to God is not foolish, as the world supposes. Indeed it is the way to full and abundant life. Dare we believe that? Dare we live that?

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Why the Cross? Why Christianity?

Sometimes the day provides surprise ingredients for the recipes behind these spiritual hiccups. My normal pattern is to read Richard Rohr's daily devotional along with the readings from the daily lectionary. Then I allow those to simmer for a while as I attempt to do (often badly) a bit of contemplative prayer. But today other things inserted themselves, notably Charles Hefling's article, "Why the Cross?" in The Christian Century and a blog post by Brian McLaren, "Q & R: Are You a Universalist? Or Are You a Whig?" The latter wrestled with the question, "What is Christianity for?"

McLaren suggested that Universalism is simply one of several responses to the question of how "to get as many souls as possible out of hell and into heaven after death." But if Christianity is not primarily a solution to the problem of eternal damnation, then the answer of Universalism along with its Exclusivist counterpart are different answers to a question neither pertinent nor relevant. And McLaren's suggestions dovetail nicely into Hefling's questions about the cross and "atonement."

In today's reading from John, Jesus speaks of his impending death, not as a sacrifice or punishment, but as a glorification and also a model for Jesus' followers. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life." (It's worth noting that "eternal life" in John's gospel is less about what happens after you die and more about a transformed quality of life that believers experience already.)

Now it seems obvious to me that Jesus is not arguing in favor of dying for the sake of dying. The willingness to give up one's life - to hate it if you will - is not a calculated act seeking a reward. It is a reconciling act of love. It cannot easily be reduced to a formula for rescuing us from hell. It is a relational act of self-giving that responds to evil with good, with a refusal to return evil for evil. And it calls those who would follow Jesus to join in this work.

As N. T. Wright has said, "Jesus' resurrection is the beginning of God's new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord's Prayer is all about."

As we move into Holy Week and as we celebrate the resurrection this coming Sunday, we will sing many old favorite hymns that seem unaware of anything resembling N. T. Wright's remark. We will remember the cross and the resurrection as though both were about rescuing us from hell. (That we focus on the heavenly side of "salvation" does not change this.) But is this what the cross is about? Is this what Christianity is about? 

My own congregation probably leans more to the Universalist side when salvation is understood as going to heaven instead of hell. But when Christianity is understood in this way, it is not always clear what "good news" we have to share that will impact anyone's daily living. But if Christianity and the cross are about heaven breaking into life on earth, that may well be the most wonderful news anyone can imagine.

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Monday, March 25, 2013

Transformed by and for Love

Not by works but by faith has been a dividing line among Christians since the Reformation. And very often this divide is understood - at least by Protestants - as a choice between impossible demands no one could ever live up to versus a free gift that is merely accepted. Protestants are heirs of Martin Luther on this, and he got it from his understanding of the Apostle Paul. 

Luther read Paul out of his own sense of guilt. While still Catholic, Luther used to drive his confessor crazy by continually returning to confess every little fault or misstep he had recalled. And he was terrified that he had failed to confess something. Luther apparently assumed that Paul's discussion of works and the Law had a similar experience behind them. Paul must have despaired at never being able to keep the Law fully, but then he had found freedom from the Law through Jesus. What a relief that the impossible was no longer required.

Scholarship into Judaism in Jesus' and Paul's day began to undermine such thinking some time ago, and it seems likely that Paul had not thought the Law an impossible burden prior to his "Damascus road experience." But you needn't be up on the latest biblical scholarship to share such views. Simply listen to what Paul himself says in today's reading from Philippians.

Paul is rattling off a bit of personal history as he argues against being circumcised, that is, against becoming Jewish first in order to become a Christian. "If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless..."

Notice that last phrase; "as to righteousness under the law, blameless." That does not sound like someone who was terrified that he couldn't keep the law well enough. Quite the opposite.

Clearly Paul's problem with the Law is not that one cannot keep it. (Likely Paul understood keeping the Law to mean doing your best to abide by it at all times, but being forgiven when you repented of your failings to keep it.) Rather the problem lies in where one places his or her trust. Paul seems to think that the Law has become the object of Israel's hope and trust, rather than God Godself. But in Jesus, Paul has encountered God's love and grace directly, and he now trusts that over the Law, no matter how good that Law may be.

As Paul considers his former faith in the Law and Israel's religious traditions he writes, "Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish." ("Rubbish" is probably too tame a translation. The word more often refers to "excrement.")

It strikes me that Paul's language here is the language of love. It sounds like the sort of talk you hear from those who have fallen in love, who suddenly find everything else meaningless by comparison. Having come to "know" Jesus, having experienced God's love dwelling in him, things that once had supreme meaning now seem like nothing, like crap to Paul. And just like a lover who would do anything for the sake of his beloved, Paul will gladly deal with sufferings and punishments and hardships to be part of that love.

This is why Paul can go on and on, trash talking the Law, and then turn right around and demand the highest ethical standards for Christians. Paul cannot imagine living in ways contrary to God. What lover would want to do that. Lovers want only to please their beloved.

Unfortunately, institutions don't do love or passion terribly well, and as the church became more and more institutionalized, it became more and more a set of rules and beliefs one needed to abide by in order to be on God's good side. From time to time in history, the Church manages to recover some of that passion. Martin Luther's movement, even if he did misunderstand Paul somewhat, was largely a movement back toward passion. And I think much of the activity around Emergent Church in our day is a move toward passion, toward love.

My own faith tradition has its fears about emotional, experiential faith. Some of these fears are well founded. Just think of the dumb things people sometimes do when they are head-over-heels in love. But all too often, this fear has led Presbyterians (and other Mainline folks) to be too focused on institution and doctrine. I suspect that much of the Mainline's decline is rooted in its lack of passion for anything besides "how we've always done it" or our tastes in music and worship styles.

What if instead of being raised an Israelite, a Hebrew, and a Pharisee, Paul had been raised a Christian, a Presbyterian, and a pastor or elder? And what if he then encountered Jesus in the manner Paul speaks of in today's reading? In his passion for "knowing Christ Jesus," what institutional pieces of the church might he come to regard as rubbish, as crap?

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Sunday, March 24, 2013

Sermon: A Victory Parade

Luke 19:28-40; Philippians 2:5-11
A Victory Parade
James Sledge                                    March 24, 2013 – Palm/Passion Sunday

Did you ever wonder who held the very first parade? We know they’ve existed since ancient times. They are in the Old Testament and other ancient writings, but where did they start? Perhaps it was a spontaneous thing. The hunting party is coming home after a successful hunt, carrying the game they have caught. As they get close, children run out and join the procession, excitedly celebrating that there will be ample food for a while.
Or perhaps the group was a war party, returning home in the wake of a successful raid.  They bring with them captured, spoils, perhaps even captured prisoners.  And here too, people from the camp run out to greet the procession, creating an impromptu victory parade.
Victors still have parades. The Baltimore Ravens had one after winning the Super Bowl, and Barack Obama had an inauguration parade. Mitt Romney didn’t get a parade. The losers rarely get parades.
Parades are almost always upbeat, celebratory affairs. Maybe that’s why Palm Sunday became a favorite over the years. We get to have a parade! Children march in waving their palms, and the adults join them, although sometimes a bit half-heartedly.
I’ve noticed over the years that while children will wave, even thrash their palms with gusto, adults are usually more subdued. My previous church handed out palms for everyone, but some adult worshipers would refuse them. And some who took them barely raised them to shoulder height, moving them almost imperceptibly.
Maybe this is simply the inhibition we gain as we grow older and leave the freedom of childhood behind. Or maybe it is because we aren’t quite sure what this parade is for. What are we celebrating? This is the start of Holy Week, when Jesus comes to Jerusalem to die. He’s been telling his followers and us that for a long time now. No one should be surprised when Jesus gets arrested and executed. So why the parade?
Luke’s gospel leaves little doubt that this is a royal procession. It’s a bit like President Obama coming down Pennsylvania Avenue as supporters wave and shout. Jesus’ supporters yell, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” But it is doubtful that they understand the sort of king Jesus is. Very often, neither do I. I’m ready to run from this parade to the Easter one, not fully comprehending what happens in between.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Confession, Bad Dogs, and Liturgy

I think I've mentioned this cartoon here before. It features a congregation of dogs, dalmatians to be specific. The preacher dalmatian is letting the worshipers have it. "And he said unto them, 'Bad dogs! No, No!' " Not unlike the treatment the people of Judah get from Jeremiah in today's Old Testament reading. The prophet and God hope that the threat of punishment, of hellfire, may prompt the people of Judah to change their ways, though that seems unlikely.

My own Presbyterian tradition has long featured the turn away from sin as part of its worship. Corporate prayers of confession figure prominently in thy typical worship bulletin. This is different from Catholic confession to a priest. It is more of a claiming our brokenness along with God's grace that forgives and heals our brokenness. I sometimes liken confession in worship to the statement recovering alcoholics make at AA meetings. "Hi, my name is Joe, and I'm an alcoholic." Claiming that identity is not viewed as a "downer" (as I often hear people speak of confession in worship). Rather it is the opening through which people step into new life.

However, a colleague (Thanks, Jeff.) pointed out to me how much attention gets paid to confession in the typical Presbyterian liturgy. Not only is there a confession prayer that we all read together, but there is often a time for silent confession, plus a sung Kyrie or other response, and so on. And as my colleague pointed out, this is often the only place where we ask worshipers to spend time in silent prayer. What message are we sending by such a practice? Why do we not ask worshipers to spend time in silent prayers of thanksgiving or intercession, to name only a couple of other possibilities?

I do think that we modern Christ-followers need to claim our brokenness. We need to resist that temptation to think Jesus needs to save some folks but not me. I'm not really bad enough to need saving, just a little helpful direction perhaps. But at the moment, I'm wondering whether our liturgy asks much more than simple acknowledgement of our identity in an AA like, "Hi, my name is James, and I'm a sinner." Does it focus too much on this, minimizing other components of the Christian life?

I'm wondering what worship might look like if we acknowledged we are sinners in the manner of an AA meeting, but we didn't make it such the highlight of the congregation's participation in the service. What do you think?

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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Shepherd and Other Metaphors

Given the culture of ancient Israel, it is hardly surprising that shepherd became a popular metaphor to speak not only of God but also of Israel's kings. Shepherds were everywhere in the ancient Near East, and so people hand a real familiarity with the work. Shepherds led their flocks to places where they could graze. They fought off predators. They cared for the injured. They spent a great deal of their time and energy caring for the flock and insuring its safety.

And so Israel could say, "Yahweh is my shepherd," and Jeremiah, as well as other prophets, could foretell doom of the the kings of Israel who had misled and abused the sheep, who exploited the flock so that they could enjoy a life of ease.

Jesus takes up this metaphor as well, calling himself "the good shepherd" who "lays down his life for the sheep." Jesus speaks of himself as one who cares for the sheep no matter the cost to himself.

I'm trying to think of what metaphors we use for our leaders today. Shepherd still is used in the church for pastors and such, but I'm thinking more about political leaders. We don't have kings, but what metaphors do we employ for presidents or governors or mayors?

I'm having trouble coming up with any. That could be because I write these blogs off-the-cuff, more stream of consciousness than anything else. Perhaps further thought would call some to mind, but I'm struggling at the moment, and nothing along the line of shepherd suggests itself.

Presidents get called "Commander-in-Chief." That's more title than metaphor, although there may be a warrior metaphor in that title.

This is the 10-year anniversary of the war in Iraq. If we attempt to use a shepherd metaphor for the president, how does the decision to invade stack up? Was there sufficient reason to justify all those sheep who were slaughtered or left horrible wounded? And such questions could be extended to the current president with regards to escalating the war in Afghanistan.

For that matter, the shepherd metaphor, and especially Jesus' employment of it, can provide a harsh critique of all sorts of activities by presidents and other leaders. Is concern for the flock primary, or is it only considered after other goals are met?

Many in the political arena like to trumpet that America is a "Christian nation founded on Christian principles." What could be more Christian that a shepherd who cares for the flock no matter the cost. But present-day, American politics is mostly about winning no matter the cost. And the cost of winning very often entails forging relationships and loyalties with donors and organizations that puch the flock further and further down the priority list. There are good reasons that political "saviors" are never quite so good as promised, regardless of party or ideology.

"Yahweh is my shepherd," begins the 23rd Psalm. This shepherd has no other loyalties to divert the shepherd's attention, no large donors who cause this shepherd to ignore the regular sheep. In fact, the Good Shepherd upsets the powerful and the large donors so much that they want to kill him. But he is not dissuaded, and this shepherd goes to the cross for all the flock, for the regular sheep and even for the most scruffy, wayward, and seemingly worthless ones.

Thanks be to God!

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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

"I See," Said the Blind Man

Sight and blindness make literal and metaphorical appearances in today's gospel, the conclusion of a story begun yesterday. A blind man's sight has been restored by Jesus, spurring an inquiry because this healing was done on the Sabbath.  The formerly blind man points out the obvious to Jesus' opponents, sending them into something of a frenzy. What business does this uneducated, recent beggar have trying to teach the trained, religious teachers? And so they throw the man out.

Following all this, Jesus reveals himself to this once blind fellow.  He then lets loose this pearl. “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”

Considering what the Pharisees have just said about Jesus, why his opinion would bother them is not at all clear to me. Yet still they seem worried that Jesus may be referring to them and they seek assurance he is not.  But Jesus responds, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

So let's see. If you are blind - metaphorically I presume - then you do not have sin. But if you are one of those who sees, or perhaps claims to see, then you are in sin. Sounds a little like an argument in favor of not knowing.

Are those who are in the dark about religious and faith matters somehow at an advantage? That's a little troubling for folks like me, and probably for lots of others who take their Bible study, faith, and beliefs very seriously. But this is not the only place Jesus talks like this. In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus is more often found among "sinners," and in Matthew 21:31 he says to the religious authorities, "Truly I tell  you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you."

I think the Apostle Paul is on much the same topic when he argues for faith rather than the law. It has been conventional to think Paul is talking about keeping the law precisely, an impossible burden relieved by turning to God's grace via faith. But it seems more likely Paul is talking about Israel trusting in their possession of and knowledge of the law. In this scenario, knowing exactly what to do or not do - this includes asking for and receiving forgiveness when you fail - becomes what Israel trusts rather than God Godself. And that seems to me the temptation for all learned folks, to trust their learnings over simply trusting in God.

(Interesting that the quest for knowledge is central to the first humans breaking covenant with God in the Garden of Eden story.) 

Of course Paul is a fairly learned guy, as are some of the gospel writers. I don't know that they are, in fact, arguing in favor of ignorance. I certainly hope not. But I do think they want us to consider where our faith, our trust, actually lies. Is it in the knowledge we've acquired and the ways of being Christian that we've learned? Or is it more fundamentally in the God we meet in Jesus?

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Monday, March 18, 2013

At the Risk of Our Own Life

Today's gospel is a rather messy episode with all sorts of uncomfortable questions and answers. Why would someone be born blind? That was much more of a tragedy in Jesus' day than ours, with few employment options beyond begging. Surely there must be some way to explain the situation, prompting the disciples' question.

Jesus' answer at least refuses to assign blame, but it isn't entirely satisfactory either. He was born this way "so that God’s works might be revealed in him?" Really? This man suffered all his life just so he could be a prop for Jesus? Based on everything I know about Jesus, I'm going to say that Jesus didn't mean it that way. Here merely shifts the emphasis from one of blame to one of opportunity to minister and share God's love.

Yet when Jesus does just that, it stirs up more problems. Jesus had done "work" on the Sabbath when he made a little mud. Granted, this obsession with exacting requirements of Sabbath keeping is baffling to us, but if a homeless person shows up at our churches on Sunday morning, we generally tell him that we deal with such problems at other times. As I said, this is a messy gospel passage.

I wonder how many people in America today view the church in much the same way church congregations tend to view the Pharisees in today's gospel. Does the church look as baffling to outsiders as the Pharisees' behavior sometimes seems to look to us insiders?

Given that most of the opposition to Jesus seems to have come from religious circles, it would seem incumbent on church denominations and congregations to examine themselves carefully, to ascertain the ways in which we model Jesus' behaviors and the ways in which we model those of his religious, and no doubt well-intended, opponents. And surely we would want to guard against acting like Jesus' religious opponents, people of faith who seemed to think that their religious traditions and practices were so sacrosanct as to need defending and preserving at all costs.

One of the fundamental claims of the church is that we are called to be the body of Christ in the world. I won't for a moment minimize the difficulty of figuring out exactly what this call looks like, what particular ministries it calls us to undertake. However, it seems highly likely that any such calling will create tension and even conflict with our institutional, religious sensibilities.

The Presbyterian (USA) Book of Order, in its opening pages, says this about the church. "The Church is the body of Christ. Christ gives to the Church all the gifts necessary to be his body. The Church strives to demonstrate these gifts in its life as a community in the world: The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the the risk of losing its life." (F-1.0301)

I wonder if the tension I am talking about doesn't reside within this line about faith and risking our own life. Jesus was willing to risk ridicule, suffering, and death for the sake of others, for the sake of the world. As Christ's body in the world, we are called to do the same. So what does that look like for the congregations where you and I are?

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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Preaching Thoughts on a Non-Preaching Sunday

As we drawn closer to Holy Week and the cross, the gospel reading for today speaks directly of Jesus' being anointed for burial, albeit in advance. And it contains that troubling line where Jesus deflects Judas' supposed concern for the poor with, "You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."

Much has been made of this one, stray line. At issue in the passage is a single act of extravagance, an outpouring of love by Mary. Jesus will not condemn her extravagant love. His comment presumes that caring for the poor will continue to be a priority for his followers. They, and we, will have ample opportunities to do so, but Mary will not have many more opportunities for such extravagance. As she likely senses, Jesus' time is growing short, and she expresses her love the best way she knows how.

It is difficult to make this story an allegory or analogue for our time, though that hasn't stopped us from trying. By Jesus' own words, Mary seizes a fleeting opportunity, one that is no longer available. Jesus does not go to the cross again. Jesus is not prepared for burial again.

Nonetheless, people will make a comparison between Mary's act and our worship, saying these are our extravagant acts of love directed toward Jesus, and surely Jesus would not pit these against helping the poor as Judas attempted with Mary.

Perhaps not, but Mary's one-time, extravagant act has become our primary focus. We in the typical church congregation pour the lion's share of our resources into worship, and we help the poor with whatever is left over at the end. Now certainly Jesus does not disdain our worship. He does call us to love God with all that we are and have. But he will not separate love of God from love of neighbor, and his words to Judas in today's gospel are not about a choice between worship and assisting the poor.

In the terms of today's passage, using the very same measure Jesus uses, we can easily invert what he says to Judas. The risen Christ is always with us. He is constantly available to us through the Holy Spirit, and our opportunities to worship him in ways plain and extravagant are without end. The same cannot be said for many of the poor. How many children in developing countries will die today for lack of clean drinking water, a relatively inexpensive problem to solve?

What would we do if we heard Jesus say to us, "You always have the chance to worship me, but such-and-such situation needs your attention now." Would we cancel our worship, and focus all our energies on doing what Jesus asked?

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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pain, Groaning, and Hope

I vaguely recall a quote without remembering who said it (an all too common occurrence for me). I think it was either Lyle Schaller or Tex Sample, and my paraphrased recollection goes thus. "Over a generation, the position of pastor went from a high-status, low-stress job to a low-status, high-stress job." Now if you think I'm going to whine about how hard it is to be a pastor, I'm not. Rather I see this as a reflection of how hard it is to be the church in our day and time.

Like pastors, churches have lost a great deal of status. Many people view churches with great suspicion. Even those who find spirituality and Christian faith somewhat attractive may want no association whatsoever with an actual church congregation.

Congregations respond in various ways to this situation, and these responses can create a good deal of stress. Some congregations "circle the wagons" and become righteous remnants, preserving old ways at all costs. But such attempts to guard the tradition can produce nasty battles over exactly what constitutes the tradition, especially around music and worship. Conversely, congregations that respond by trying to change the tradition and do new sorts of worship can find those changes producing stress and conflict over what changes to make and what is good worship and what is not.

Anxiety about where the church is headed magnifies every choice and decision. Wrong choices could have dire consequences. This is stressful, and when people are stressed out, they rarely exhibit their most endearing behavior. Fights over worship are common in both innovating and conserving congregations. Or it can lead to a kind of paralysis where people don't dare do anything.

In such an atmosphere, congregational leaders and pastors can feel overwhelmed and inadequate to the task at hand. The stakes seem so high, and every little problem, misstep, or upset can feel life-threatening.

In today's reading from Romans, Paul speaks of the difficulties that he and others face as they work to build up the church. He writes, "We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience."

I am inclined to think of difficulties, of pain or groaning, as signs that something is terribly wrong. But Paul seems to view the very same things as signs of something new being born.

I like to talk a lot about call, about my own and about the church needing to hear a clear call from Jesus. But I have to acknowledge that difficulty and pain and groaning are more likely to stop me dead in my tracks than they are to seem like signs of something new being born.  I want a call that does not include any pain or groaning or difficulty or struggle.

Paul clearly understands Jesus much better than I do. He has totally bought into Jesus' language of taking up the cross, taking up suffering, and even death, as the path to true life.  How else could he say what he says to us today. "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us."

We live in a time when it is hard to be the church, when church is not highly valued by the culture, when the way of Jesus is not a way many people, even many in the church, want to embrace. We also live in a time of great spiritual hunger, a time when people are longing for something they cannot find in the culture at large.

This is very different time from the time the church knew when I was born, but in many ways, it is a time not so different from the one Paul knew when he wrote his letter to the church at Rome. I wonder if I might be able, like Paul, to sense, in the difficulties and struggles and groaning that seem so much a part of being church in our time, the labor pains of something new that is being born.

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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

On "Being Fed"

After Jesus slips away from the crowds, they search for him and eventually find him. Unsure of how Jesus had given them the slip, they ask how he got there.  But Jesus doesn't really answer them. Instead he says, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves."

Not very nice of Jesus, complaining that those who seek him only want something, that they aren't following him because of who he is but because of what he can do for them.

Nothing much has changed, has it?

Twenty-first century Americans have taken this to new heights. We live in a consumer culture, after all, and so religion/spirituality becomes one more consumer item. We even use the same language of eating found in today's gospel. We are happy when religion "feeds us" and complain when it doesn't. We're less concerned with who Jesus is and more concerned with having our needs met.

Certainly God cares about our needs, but the whole Jesus business is about a lot more. It is about discovering the reality of God and ourselves that is otherwise out of reach. It is about discovering a whole new way of life that overturns consumerist notions of happiness and "being fed." If we can just quick focusing on or needs for a moment, and focus on Jesus.

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Monday, March 11, 2013

Do the Math

Churches have to do a fair amount of math. Every year we set a budget based on our best guesses regarding expenses and congregational giving. Every year we make decisions about raises for employees and whether or not we can do that big repair we've been putting off. Every month we check on the actual giving and expenses to see if our best guesses are holding up.

We do lots of other kinds of math, too.  We count the number who attend worship on Sunday and the number of youth in the youth group. We keep track of our membership numbers, adding and subtracting as people come and go. Sometimes such numbers tell us things we very much need to know. But at times we can get controlled by numbers. Sometimes numbers keep us from doing what Jesus wants us to do.

In today's gospel Jesus gives a follower a math problem to solve. We're even told that it is a test. Jesus sees a huge crowd of 5000 people coming toward him and his little band of followers, and so he asks Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”

It's a pretty straight forward problem about math and logistics. 5000 people, how far to the nearest take-out joint, 5000 multiplied by the cheapest menu item, and how many needed to transport all those sandwiches? But Philip doesn't need to do all the math. 5000 multiplied by the price of a hamburger and he's done. “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”

Another disciple, Andrew, volunteers that a young boy has a lunch basket with some small bread loves and a couple of fish, but then he does a little math of his own and realizes how useless his suggestion is. "But what are they among so many people?” It's a math problem worked out over and over again in churches. "Yes we see the problem, but we don't have enough to do anything about it." Never mind those biblical stories of Jesus refusing to be constrained by the math.

Not that I occupy any faith high ground here. I regularly do the math and conclude it's hopeless, that there's nothing to be done. There's not enough time. There's not enough energy. I don't have enough or the right skills. There's no way I can pull this off.  I've done the math, and it's obvious. I don't have any miracles up my sleeve, and you just can't count on Jesus to come through with a miracle when you really need one.

Of course the miracles I'd like from Jesus sometimes have little to do with continuing his ministry to the world. I want Jesus to bless what I'm doing and make it successful, often without ever asking Jesus if this is what Jesus wants me to do.

I struggle with this faith thing as much as the next person, but it seems to me that the whole shebang is pointless if it doesn't work hard to figure out what Jesus wants of me, of us. This problem is perhaps a more serious one for church folks and especially pastors. It is easy to presume that our church activities are what Jesus wants. It is church, after all. But then I remember that it was the good church folk and their pastors who found Jesus so insufferable that they wanted to kill him.

What is it you want from me Jesus? What is that thing you would have me do, never mind what the math says?

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Sunday, March 10, 2013

Preaching Thoughts on a Non-Preaching Sunday

Today the children of this congregation are doing a musical based on the book of Jonah, on the same day that the gospel reading is Luke's parable of the prodigal. But for this largely accidental pairing, I don't know that I would ever have contemplated the similarities between these two stories. Both the younger son of the parable and Jonah act contrary to what is expected of them. Jonah flees the call to be a prophet, and the younger son refuses to act the part of a good son. And both are eventually rerouted by events and circumstances.

If that were not enough, both the parable and the book of Jonah end with uncertainty. Will the older brother come into the party thrown for his younger brother? Will Jonah come around to God's willingness to save the people and animals of Nineveh? (Curiously, Jonah gets to play both the disobedient role and the older-sibling-like role of one offended by God's mercy and grace.)

Both these parables are fairly well known. The parable of the prodigal is much beloved, although there is a tendency to ignore the fact that most of us church folks are more older sibling sorts. We someone manage to hear the story from the younger brother's perspective, even while we run our congregations like elder siblings, insisting that church exists primarily for us elder types, not the wayward folks out there.

So too the story of Jonah, one of the Bible's more remarkable parables, is known in a stereotyped way. People know about Jonah being swallowed by the fish, but know little about the story's playful wrestling with running away from God's call and despising God's love given to those we hate.

As I approach my first anniversary as pastor of this congregation, I find that issues of call are taking center stage. This includes my own sense of call but also the call God places on this congregation. And it seems to me that this morning's two parables offer cautionary tales of sorts. They invite us to consider the ways in which we function like Jonah or like an older brother, unable to embrace the grace of God that is scandalous and offensive. And so they invite us to consider where we, who like to think of ourselves as God's people, are found to be opposing God's plans.

But most of all, these two stories remind us that God's grace will have its own way. Wayward siblings and Ninevites will be rescued, renewed, and restored. There will be rejoicing and celebration as grace has its way. And the only question, in these two parables at least, is whether we will join the celebration.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Redeeming Church

A Twitter comment about pastors caught my eye the other day. In part, it said this, "Great post. Church has dropped ball. I blame clergy. Timid, inward focus." It referred to a blog post on home foreclosures and the faith community's failure to see this as a justice issue that demands our attention. (You can read the blog post here.) But without regard to the blog piece itself, I was struck by the reading assigning the blame to clergy.

It has become a kind of conventional wisdom that the gridlock in Washington, DC is because everyone is beholding to some special interest in order to get reelected. Whether that interest is the NRA, a labor union, or some ideological position, the conventional wisdom goes, "They can't get reelected if they alienate their key supporters, corporate donors, well-funded lobby, etc. And so they can't do what they think is right or best for fear of losing the next election."

Presbyterian pastors don't exactly run for reelection, but congregations vote on our pay every year. And of course that salary comes from the voluntary contributions of members, so we have the same sort of political pressures on us as members of Congress. We can't simply do what we think right. Actually we can, but there may be consequences.

This system works pretty well when pastors, church leaders, and members are all in basic agreement about the mission and purpose of the congregation. Needless to say, this is not always the case. And if the Church fails to be Christ in and for the world as we are called to be, there is probably enough blame to go around for both pastors and congregations.

We pastors get comfortable with our churchy patterns: getting ready for weekly worship, managing the institutional apparatus of a congregation, attending meetings, visiting people, and for this getting a regular salary, health-care plan, and a pension. We Presbyterians actually have a stellar pension plan. Wouldn't want to jeopardize that.

Congregations have their own churchy patterns: "going to church" on Sundays, helping keep up the buildings, having fellowship and learning activities, and, if there is any money and energy left over, doing some "mission." A lot of folks find this a very comfortable set of patterns. And like pastors, they may be disinclined to rock the boat over any perceived deficiencies.

“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” So says Jesus in today's gospel. But truth is often much less comfortable than the routines we know and enjoy. In fact, churches and pastors are sometimes downright allergic to the truth.

In previous congregations I've served, I've had members praise "our great youth program" which had all but disbanded a couple years previous. Similarly I've been told about the 100s of children at our Vacation Bible School, only to discover that such numbers were last reached in 1967. Not that I'm immune to such wishful thinking or denial. I recall being stunned by the truth of attendance and giving trends on a graph charting both over an extended period of years. I had been there while it was going on, but somehow missed the truth right in front of me.

It is striking what settled things church congregations and pastors often are. Especially when you consider that our founder proclaims a kingdom, a new reign or realm of God where things will be new and different, where God's will done on earth, how can churches simply become a part of the cultural fabric? But we have, and we like it. We like the familiarity, the comfort, the pension.

“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” If you continue in my word... Nothing there about continuing what we are doing as though it were timeless. Rather it is about continuing in Jesus' word and finding there a truth that frees us. Frees us from old patterns that imprison us and make us timid perhaps?

I started off this post with a comment from Twitter, so it seems appropriate to circle back and say that I see a lot of Twitter comments about church. Many of the people I follow on Twitter are connected to church in some way, so that's not a big surprise. But a lot of those Tweets wonder if Jesus meant to start a church. They wonder if church as we know it is more hindrance to the ministry of Jesus than help. Troubling thoughts for someone with a church pension.

Is church as we know it and do it something Jesus wants? If the answer is "No," in full or in part, are there changes that can be made to pull us back to what Jesus does want? If the church is not what Jesus meant it to be, is it redeemable? Can it become what it should be?

Answering such questions surely requires us to continue in Jesus' word, to dwell with Jesus and his teachings and discover the truth. If, as I believe, the church is redeemable, surely it will take a deep engagement with Jesus' words so that our priorities begin to look a little more like his.

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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Loving Church Bullies

"But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us." Regardless of how you understand the mechanics of the cross, this statement from today's epistle insists that Jesus is, in some way, God's intention to reconcile with us, no matter what it takes. Restored relationship with God isn't a reward for being good or for believing the right things. God has already done everything possible to reconcile with us, regardless of who we are. We simply need to realize how much God loves and desires us.

If Christians can claim to be anything special, it is to claim that we have experienced this reconciling love of God, an experience that  has tremendous implications for all our relationships. As the writer of 1 John says, "Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another."

I suspect that most of you have at least one person you can't stand, who drives you crazy, who you go to great lengths to avoid. I sometimes think such situations are even more common in church congregations. Churches have a remarkable knack for enabling and even encouraging anti-social, dysfunctional, and manipulative behaviors. Because most congregations have a cardinal rule of "Be nice," bullies, antagonists, and people with no power anywhere else discover that churches are loathe to call them out on their behaviors. Indeed such folks often occupy key leadership roles, and they can contribute to premature departures of pastors and other church staff.

Of course such folks sometimes go too far, creating a showdown of sorts. Tempers flare. Words are exchanged. But this upsets the culture of nice which must be restored, and peacemakers will work diligently to get one party (rarely the bully) to extend an olive branch. And "nice" rules once more.

Sometimes churches seem to have substituted "Be nice," for "Love one another." Perhaps such niceness is a sort of love, a bit like that of a doting grandparent who spoils a grandchild and is oblivious to any and all misbehavior. But such love is nothing like the costly love of God in Jesus. For that matter, it is nothing like the love of a good parent.

If you were a parent, and learned that your child was a terrible bully at school, tormenting and even physically injuring other children, what would you do? Perhaps there would be some temptation to excuse this behavior, but surely most people would want to correct it. True parental love demands such action.

So how are we to love church bullies and troublemakers? I think it starts with acknowledging that some of our "Be nice" behaviors are not about love at all. They are about avoiding the hard work of real love. It is easier and less painful for us to ignore them, avoid them, or let them have their way. Unless they get us so mad we explode, and of course very little that looks anything like love often comes from that.

How do people love one another in your faith community? More to the point, how do people love bullies, antagonists, and troublemakers? 

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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Too Smart To See the Messiah

Nothing new in this observation: The folks who gave Jesus the most trouble were religious leaders. They were the learned folks, the people who had studied their Bibles and understood church doctrine. Anyone who knows Jesus' story knows this, but I'm not sure we always take it to heart. Do we who know our Bibles, who've learned doctrine, who are heavily invested in the church, every consider what it would be like if Jesus showed up now? Would we recognize him? Would we embrace him? Would we resist him?

There's an interesting bit in today's gospel where the Pharisees dismiss the crowds that are drawn to Jesus. "But this crowd, which does not know the law — they are accursed.” These devout, followers of the Bible can't figure out how to fit Jesus into their church doctrines, into their reading of Scripture, into their carefully crafted and sophisticated view of things. Perhaps those dumb, uninformed peasants who didn't understand the Bible could be fooled, but they are way too smart to be taken in by Jesus.

I am, too. Not that I'm going to reject Jesus outright, nor do I need to. With Jesus not being physically present to stir up trouble, I'm free to wear the messiah label, calling myself a Christian (Christ is simply the Greek form of messiah.) without actually doing what Jesus says or even thinking it's a good idea.

I'm too smart to think Jesus really meant it when he told me not to invite people to my dinner party who might invite me to theirs in return. "But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind." Maybe such lines worked 2000 years ago, but not in my world. And I can't really love my enemies or act like other people are as important as me. My daughters never would have attended a nice suburban school system so they could get ahead of folks who couldn't afford to live there if I had thought that way.  Maybe Jesus could resonate with simple peasants from the 1st Century, but I'm too smart and sophisticated for such things.

And so I'll keep thinking that Jesus was a good guy with some good ideas. I'll keep looking for some spiritual nuggets in the words of the Bible. But I'm way too smart actually to follow him.

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Monday, March 4, 2013

Comfort for Hire

I did a graveside funeral service this morning for someone I did not know, someone who wasn't a member of this congregation. I had received a call from the funeral home. They wanted a Presbyterian pastor, and I fit the bill. The whole thing had a bit of a mercenary feel to is, and perhaps I was trying to assuage such feelings when I insisted the funeral home return the fee they had already charged the family for my honorarium. (I think I offended the funeral home employee when I said I would confirm with the family that this fee had been refunded.)

When I got to the funeral home prior to the service (they are located on the cemetery grounds), I found a room being prepared for a reception to follow the graveside service. After meeting the family I looked around to fill the time until we went to the graveside. And so I discovered that catered receptions were one of the services this funeral home offers to families. The "tastefully" displayed advertising for this service was hard to miss. And the layout of the facility was clearly designed to allow this on a large or small scale.

I had never seen this before, which may reveal nothing more than the lack of such practices in Raleigh, NC or Columbus, OH, the only places I served as a pastor before coming to the DC area. Regardless, I found myself wondering about a funeral home providing a "service" that in another time or place would have come from a faith community or from friends and neighbors.

Perhaps it is simply the very diverse and transient nature of this area, but my heart ached just a bit at the situation. Was there no community to provide comfort and care to this family? Could they only find such care for hire?

I don't know, and I wasn't about to ask the family. But it got me wondering about the level of community and care people experience in the typical church congregation. I've known many people who have felt very cared for at a time of loss, but often they have a long association with that church. What about folks who are new to a congregation? And I suspect this question may have different dynamics based on the size of the congregation.

There was a time when people were less transient, and it was more likely that multiple generations would live and die in the same congregation. In such circumstances, communities of caring could emerge in a fairly organic way. Over long years of association and friendships, a natural community emerged. Such communities can develop regardless of faith. It has happened in union halls and Elks Clubs right along with congregations. But surely church communities are supposed to be more than a natural development that grows from long association.

I wonder if this isn't a big issue for churches in an age when so many people are transient and have so little in the way of roots. If the church is to be the body of Christ, then it seems to me that people should encounter something of Christ's self-giving love the moment they arrive, and not after they are well enough known.

One of the things I love about baptism is the notion of it being an adoption ceremony. In baptism we are joined to Christ, and so we become his sisters and brothers, meaning, of course, that we become sisters and brothers to all those other siblings of Jesus in the church.

So if we are in some sense family, how are we to insure that people experience the sort of love and care one might expect from a reasonably functional family? And without having to pay for it.

Sermon video: If Only I Had a Cowboy Hat

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Sunday, March 3, 2013

Sermon: If Only I Had a Cowboy Hat

Today's worship included the Lord's Supper and the ordination and installation of Elders and Deacons, making for this rather brief sermon.

Isaiah 55:1-9
If Only I Had a Cowboy Hat
James Sledge                                                                                       March 3, 2013

There’s been a lot in the news lately about changing the offensive name of the Washington  NFL team. I try not to say the nickname, but the discussion recalls my childhood, a different time when cowboys and Indians were movie and TV staples.
Cowboys were everywhere in the 1950s and 60s, and my brother and friends and I all had holsters and plastic six-shooters. I also had a pair of pointy-toed cowboy boots, and at some point decided I needed to complete the look with a cowboy hat. I had a toy cowboy hat, but I wanted the real thing, and they had them in the Sears, Roebuck & Company catalog.
For those too young to recall such things, the Sears catalog was the closest thing we had to internet shopping. It was a huge book. You could find almost anything in the Sears catalog, and they had genuine cowboy hats, right there in the section with saddles and bridles and barbed wire and other things that real cowboys might need.
My parents wouldn’t buy it for me though, and so I began saving my money. With a 25 cents a week allowance, it took a long time save the $8.00 or so, but I saved and saved, and finally had enough. My mother ordered it for me from the catalog, and then I waited. It seemed to take forever. I’m not sure I ever anticipated something so intently. O how different and grand my life was going to be when I got that real, genuine, cowboy hat.