Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Princes, Presidents, Ideologies and Theologies

Do not put your trust in princes,
   in mortals, in whom there is no help.

When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
   on that very day their plans perish. 
Psalm 146:3-4

We don't really have princes here in America, but we have some pretty good stand-ins.  We have presidents, and our current day presidents wield power Israel's princes could not even have dreamed of. But as a general rule, none of our presidents manage to do all that their supporters hope they will, and so the political pendulum tends to swing every so often.

Part of electing a president is trusting or liking a candidate, but part is the political ideology he or she represents. I'm never totally clear on just how this combination comes together, but somehow, we regularly place our trust in presidents and ideologies, hoping that they will guide us to a better place.

In the Hebrew scriptures, or Old Testament, there is something of a conflicted relationship between faith in Yahweh and kings or princes. There are certainly heroic kings such as David who have a special relationship with God, but there is also an awareness that kings are a part of the way of the world. When Israel demands a king in 1 Samuel 8, God says, "They have rejected me from being king over them."

For Christians, Jesus re-imagines the figure of king. He looks little like David or Solomon, not to mention little like our presidents. And we would never elect or put our trust in a candidate who acted very much in the ways of Jesus. We expect our presidents to know all about wielding worldly power, about getting things done. Meek, humble, and lowly are not adjectives we want used for our presidents.

This sort of thinking often filters down into the church. Some of the leadership training offered to pastors mines the practices of successful presidents, CEOs, and other secular leaders to help pastor be better at getting the results they want.

In today's reading from Romans, Paul urges believers "to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect." Paul seems to think that figuring out what God wants of us, what we are called and meant to do, requires a wisdom not found in political ideologies or presidential agendas. It requires a total and complete giving ourselves over to God in which we are transformed and renewed.

Trouble is, we trust ourselves, or our ideologies, or our theologies (our ideas about what God is like) a lot more than we actually trust God or Jesus.

So who do you think we'll elect president in 2016?

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Monday, April 29, 2013

Inspired to Behave Foolishly

Two very different lectionary readings got me thinking today about religious behavior. The first is a passage from Jeremiah. The prophet finds himself imprisoned because he refuses to accommodate the demands of civil religion. He will not say, "God bless America," or in his case, "God bless Israel." Instead he insists that God will give Babylon victory over Israel. Imagine a prominent pastor in 1942 saying that God was on Japan's side, and you get some sense of how many people must have viewed Jeremiah.

The second passage features a sinful woman who crashes a dinner party Jesus attends, then proceeds to kiss his feet, wash them with her tears and hair, and finally anoint them with expensive ointment. The Pharisee hosting the dinner party is appalled, as we no doubt would be if someone did this when we had the pastor over for dinner. Of all people, religious folk should no how to behave with decorum. But of course Jesus praises the woman and rebukes his host.

One of the endless challenges for meaningful Christian faith is the constant pressure for religion to serve convention, current social mores, morality, and the basic social order. And this challenge seems little lessened by the fact that scripture regularly shows us God's representatives refusing to bend to such expectations. Jeremiah and Jesus refuse to play this game, and it is costly for both of them.

I recently saw the movie 42, the story of Jackie Robinson's entry into Major League Baseball. There is a scene where the Brooklyn Dodgers have traveled to play Cincinnati, a city on the Kentucky border and a hotbed of virulent racism. Pee Wee Reese, a Dodgers player from Kentucky, has received nasty letters from folks back home about the upcoming games. When he goes to Branch Rickey's office to complain about this situation, Rickey shows him file after file of letters threatening Robinson's life and that of his wife and child if he plays.

When the Dodgers take the field in Cincinnati, the abuse is almost unimaginable. The scene is one of unadulterated hate. At which point Pee Wee Reese walks from shortstop over to first base and puts his arm around Jackie Robinson. Then he simply stands there, looking into the crowd and smiling. (The historicity of this event is debated.)

More than 65 years later, it is easy to sentimentalize this scene and to imagine that we would have done the same. But history suggests otherwise. One of Martin Luther King's great frustrations was the number of sympathetic, white Christians who nonetheless urged him to slow down, to take it easy, to wait. King's book, Why We Can't Wait, is written largely to such folks, including white pastors who had written to him, concerned over the Civil Right movement's potential to destabilize society.

It is more than a little disturbing to consider how frequently Christianity, with notable exceptions, has stood on the sidelines while the winds of God's Spirit were blowing, too afraid to buck those religious pressures to support decorum and the current order of things. And I find myself wondering why this is so.

This is simply an off-the-top-of-my-head thought, but I wonder if there isn't some correlation between how real and vivid the presence of God is to how willing people are to act more like Jeremiah or Jesus. I'm thinking here of something akin to the feeling of falling in love. When people fall in love, they sometimes seem to take leave of their senses. They are willing to act in ridiculous and foolish ways under the influence of love. The Bible seems to expect a similar thing when we truly encounter God. It is such an overwhelming experience that we desire to do anything for God, to love God with all that we are and have.

What are your experiences of God that made it possible to do something daring, foolish, or outside your comfort zone? Where are those places where God is real and vivid enough that you get caught up in God's agenda? What spiritual practices do you need to cultivate in order to nurture a deep love of God so that you would do almost anything for God's sake?

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Sermon video: Seeing Visions and Dreaming Dreams

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Sermon: Seeing Visions and Dreaming Dreams

Acts 11:1-18 (Revelation 21:1-6)
Seeing Visions and Dreaming Dreams
James Sledge                                                                                       April 28, 2013

Longer ago that I like to admit, I spent a year as a high school history teacher. One day in World History class we covered a unit of European history that included the Protestant Reformation. As we discussed Martin Luther and his church reform attempts that led to a split with the Roman Catholic Church, a young woman in the class raised her hand.
She was a popular student, a cheerleader, and she had a confused, befuddled look on her face. “Mr. Sledge, do you mean that Roman Catholics are Christians, too?” I have no recollection of how I responded to her. All I remember is how stunned I was by her question.
In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have been. This was Charlotte, NC in the early 1980s, and in much of the South, Catholics and Jews were somewhat rare until the late 20th century. This young woman was from a rural background, and she likely knew of Catholics only by stereotype. To her they were those strange people who worshiped the pope rather than God. They were, in some fuzzy sort of way, an enemy, and so naturally they weren’t Christian.
Now clearly this student’s understanding of Catholics was rooted in bigotry that seems almost comical in this day and age. But of course us versus them divisions are a part of just about everyone’s life. We may laugh off some as harmless, like those connected to sports teams or colleges, but many are not.
Racial divisions are still a huge problem for our country. And right now, our partisan, political divide seems to be a particular curse. Having contrasting political parties and ideas can be a wonderful thing, bringing different perspectives to difficult issues or problems. But when the other side becomes a “them” whom we demonize, declare an enemy, and dismiss as evil, the beneficial side of such divisions largely disappears.
For the early Christians, the division between Jew and Gentile was the ultimate us versus them. Jews could not even eat with Gentiles, which caused huge problems as Gentiles began to hear about the risen Jesus and wanted to join the movement. It’s hard to appreciate in our day, but those first Christians did not think they had stopped being Jewish. They did not think they had started a new religion. And so when Gentiles wanted to join, they had to become Jewish first, males be circumcised, abide by Jewish dietary restrictions, and so on.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Impractical Advice

If you check out Bibles online or in a bookstore, you are likely to run across something called a Life Application Study Bible. As the name suggests, this study Bible is less about traditional Bible study and more about how to apply the Bible's teaching in everyday life. I saw a plug for this Bible that touted it for providing excellent "practical application."

In a similar manner, pastors are often encouraged to make their sermons "more practical," usually meaning something akin to what the Life Application Study Bible advertizes. How I am to apply this teaching in my daily living?

This certainly seems a noble, sincere desire to live faithfully, but the project is sometimes made difficult by the very impractical advice that Jesus offers. "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you... love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return." Really? This is practical advice?

I suppose there is practicality in that such behavior has a reward. "Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked." Of course just what this reward is remains unspoken. Perhaps it is being declared "children of the Most High," to become like God in being "kind to the ungrateful and the wicked."

If you've ever been involved in a mission or ministry that tries to help people, you've likely encountered some very people who are very grateful for such help. But no doubt you've also encountered those who have no gratitude, who instead are bitter and insulting, demanding to know why the help isn't more.

I'll admit that such times can test my desire to help. If people don't appreciate it, why offer it. But then there is that terribly impractical advice from Jesus. "Do good... expecting nothing in return," not even gratitude. After all, God is "kind to the ungrateful and the wicked." You sure that's a good idea, God? It's certainly not very practical.

We humans like to measure things on practical terms, and on some level, we express most everything along these lines. "Falling in love," may not be immediately thought of in practical terms, but the relationships that emerge from it are usually contractual on some level. I'll stay with you, keep loving you, stay married to you as long as it makes me happy, makes me feel good, provide for me, etc. Even seemingly altruistic things like environmentalism have a practical side. We're preserving the planet for our children. And it's a lot easier to engage people in saving tigers or pandas than it is snail darters. Most of us will never receive any joy or experience any awe from observing the latter.

I'm not entirely sure where I'm going with this train of thought, but faith, at some level, is surely about taking a certain path or living a certain way without be able to see obvious, practical advantages to such actions. I suppose a reward of being called "children of the Most High," of discovering our own godliness, has a kind of practical appeal. But I wonder if it can really be experienced through practical, contractual means. It seems to me that is only discovered or experienced in the act of total surrender to God that doesn't really seek any reward.

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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Strange Sort of Blessing

There's little wonder that Matthew's more spiritualized version of the Beatitudes is more beloved than those found in Luke. Not only does Matthew's "Blessed are the poor in spirit" become "Blessed are you who are poor." But Luke also adds a corresponding list of woes or curses. “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation." Not hard to see why no one ever labeled these verses from Luke the "Be Happy Attitudes."

What does it mean to speak of God's blessing or favor on those who are poor and God's curse on those who are rich? And especially for well-off, suburban, American Christians, what does it mean? How are we to reconcile our near obsession with possessions, our desire to acquire more and more, and our portfolios designed to "build wealth" with these words from Jesus? If wealth is such a curse and poverty a blessing, why do we so want to be rich and so fear being poor? And if they are indeed blessed, why do we denigrate the poor so in our society.

I don't have a nice, neat answer to such questions. I find them quite troubling, although I think that argues for spending more time with them rather than dismissing or ignoring them. I say that in part because the God I meet in the Bible quite regularly acts counter to convention, in surprising and baffling ways, and in ways that upend human plans and my expectations. As the prophet Isaiah says, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD."

We would prefer it otherwise. We are forever trying to create God in our image, but God seems intent on someday having us mirror the divine image. Perhaps that is why many of us are so drawn to Jesus and yet find it so difficult actually to follow him. We see in him our truest calling, what it is to be fully human. But we're comfortable where we are, and so we'd rather convert God.

I'm no different. I'm drawn to Jesus, even enamored by him. But I keep hoping he didn't mean a lot of what he said. I guess it's a good thing that God's seems to be infinitely patient and merciful.

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Monday, April 22, 2013

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sermon: Hearing and Following

John 10:22-30; Psalm 23
Hearing and Following
James Sledge                                                                                       April 21, 2013

Harry was expecting a call so he picked up the phone without checking the caller ID and found himself talking with a pollster.  He thought about hanging up but he recognized the polling organization as a legitimate one, so if it didn’t take too long…
“I a few questions on political issues,” the voice said.  “But first, are you a person of faith? And if so, are you Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or some other?” 
Harry was an active church goer, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to announce that to some stranger on the phone.  “If I say Christian do I get lumped in with Pat Robertson and Joel Osteen?” Harry asked, “because I’m not that kind of Christian.  Will you assume I’m a Republican, pro-life and pro-gun because I’m certainly not that kind of Christian.”
The pollster tried to assure Harry that he wouldn’t be lumped in with anyone, but Harry was rather enjoying the inversion, with him asking the pollster questions.  “If I say that I’m a Christian will you assume that I don’t want my kids being taught evolution in school?  If I say I’m a Christian will you think I’m one of those people who are sure we are in the end times, or that Obama is the anti-Christ?”
Harry was starting to get worked up, and the pollster was trying to calm him.  “Sir, I didn’t mean to upset you.  I’m not trying to link you to anyone or any group.”
Harry thought for a moment and said, “I have an idea.  Why don’t I just tell you a little about myself and how I live?  Then you can decide if I’m a Christian.  I’m against the death penalty.  I pray for my enemies.  I went on a mission trip to Haiti. I think the federal budget needs to prioritize the needs of the poor, the sick, and most vulnerable.”
“Sir, sir,” the pollster said, trying to get him to stop.  But Harry continued, and finally, in frustration, the pollster hung up.
Although a devout Christian, Harry knew that people mean a lot of different things by that label.  Jesus is in a similar situation in our gospel reading this morning, except for him the label is “Messiah.”  “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly,” some people ask Jesus.  But Jesus doesn’t give them the straightest answer.  He is almost evasive, and I think that’s because the label Messiah, or Christ, was more problematic than helpful.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Terrible Week... and a Dream

I've been leading a study of Genesis this winter and spring, and today we were looking at the story of Joseph. It's a complicated story, nothing like the one I remember from childhood Sunday School days where Joseph was a cardboard cut-out hero in a "coat of many colors."

In the actual events found in the Bible, the dream of God creates a great deal of tension, aggravating already difficult relationships between siblings. Joseph's brothers go so far as to attempt to kill him. They end up backing off that plan but still sell him as a slave, seemingly jeopardizing God's dream. But the story will eventually prove otherwise.

I find myself wondering about dreams in a week that has felt more like a nightmare to this point. The events of the week, the bombing at the Boston Marathon, fire and explosions in West, Texas, ricin laced letters mailed to the president and others, and the total inability of Congress to do anything meaningful against the scourge of gun violence in this country, all make a solid case for cynicism and for the foolishness of dreams. Worse, these events make it easy to dismiss those who march for peace, against guns, or for social programs rather than huge military budgets as naive idealists who just don't understand how the world really works.

Trouble is, followers of Jesus are called to be dreamers. We are bearers of a dream Jesus called the Kingdom, a new realm or dominion where wolves and lambs lie down together. Jesus says that the dream has drawn near in him, and when the Church is born at Pentecost by the gift of the Spirit, Peter says this is fulfillment of the prophet Joel's dream, a day when God's Spirit is poured out on all people, "and your sons and your daughters shall prophecy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams." O to dream some dreams.

I've always love the old John Lennon song "Imagine." Some people of faith dislike it because it asks us to imagine no heaven, no hell, no religion. Both those are the easy things to do. They are not the reasons Lennon embraces the label others use to dismiss him, "a dreamer." It is imagining no greed or hunger, all people living together as one, that makes him a true dreamer. And such dreams put him squarely in the company of prophets and a Messiah, people who speak ridiculous dreams and call us to share them with the world.

As a terrible week draws, hopefully, to a quiet close, there is much evidence that speaks of the foolishness of dreams. But if ever we need dreams, it is now. And if the church will not be the bearer of dreams it is called to be, then, no doubt, God will find others to carry the dream forward.

Pour out your Spirit, O God.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Believing in Jesus

I've told the story many times about Dr. Paul "Bud" Achtemeier leading a devotional during a faculty meeting at Union Theological Seminary (now Union Presbyterian Seminary) back in the mid-1990s. I attended these meetings as a student representative, and one of the professors typically offered a short devotion at the beginning.

Dr. Achtemeier was a preeminent New Testament and Pauline scholar, and on that particular day he was reading a passage from Paul's letter to the Roman church. Naturally he was reading from the Greek New Testament, translating to English as he read. I have no recollection of what the passage was or what he did in the devotion that followed. What I do recall is a rather lengthy pause when he finished reading, after which he said, "I'd never seen that before."

I've long cherished that moment and the idea that a brilliant man who spent his professional life teaching and writing about Paul could still discover something fresh and new when he looked at the Bible.

Someone on Twitter provided me an "I'd never seen that before" moment the other day. It had to do with an event often reported in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), one seen in today's gospel reading. The "demons" that Jesus encounters and "casts out" of people know who Jesus is. They regularly say, as they do in today's passage, "You are the Son of God."

Now I was well aware of demons and the devil knowing exactly who Jesus is the synoptic gospels. But what the that Twitter post made me notice for the first time was that these demons profess Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, without it changing them in the least. They are not "saved" or transformed one tiny bit by their knowing and acknowledging this truth.

What struck me about this was, in an "I'd never seen that before" kind of way, that these demons performed the very thing oft times cited as the core of Christian faith, believing that Jesus is the Messiah or Christ and the Son of God.

Out of this notion of faith, many Christians view atheists as the antithesis of faith and as threats to faith because they do not believe in God, because they refuse to profess what the demons do. But in these gospel stories, the enemies of God have no problem believing.

So then, what is it that moves someone from believing to real faith?

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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Where Is God?

I've debated whether to write anything today. (It's depressing to recall that I've had this same debate on previous occasions.) What to say in the face of senseless violence? What to say following yet another act reminding us that things we want to take for granted cannot be? What to say in the face of questions with no easy or good answers?

Twitter and Facebook were awash yesterday in "pray for Boston," prayers that continue today. It's hardly surprising that people of faith would seek comfort from that faith. But the appeal to faith raises its own uncomfortable, difficult questions that the cheesy faith platitudes sometimes offered don't do justice. One more reason I debate writing anything today.

Still I know that some will expect it. And then one of today's lectionary passages seemed to encourage it. The reading from 1st John opens this way. "Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God." Is this part of an answer to the question of where God was yesterday?

Yesterday many people posted a quote from Fred Rogers of PBS's Mr. Rogers fame. (He was an ordained Presbyterian pastor by the way.) In it he recalls times when he would see scary things in the news and his mother would say to him, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." Surely helping is a form of loving. Surely it is a way that God is experienced, is known, and is made known.

That does not answer the question of why God does not simply overpower evil and wipe it away. And Christians face that same question when we look at the cross and its "foolishness," as the Apostle Paul called it. Why does God confront the brokenness and terrors of this world with a cross? Why not a full frontal assault? And once again, cheesy platitudes about the cross and Jesus' "sacrifice" don't do such questions justice.

I don't have the best answers to why God acts as God does, but one thing seems clear. Despite our continued insistence that evil can be conquered and overcome by force, God meets evil with love. It makes no sense by our reckoning. But in the inscrutable ways of the divine,"God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength."

And according to today's epistle reading, we come to know this God when we love others. This is Mr. Rogers' "Look for the helpers," but it is more. It is a defiant act that says we will trust God's foolishness and weakness over the ways of power and violence. Even in the face of violence and evil that seem beyond comprehension, our response will be to help and to love. We will not let evil turn us from the promise and hope of love, for through love we were "born of God," and as we love, we draw near to and know God." And right now, I really need that.

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Monday, April 15, 2013

Spiritual Junk Food?

What is it that constitutes Christian faith? Is it believing certain things, or is it more than that? Today's reading from 1st John speaks of us abiding in Jesus and him in us. Then it adds this, "And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us."

There is nothing particularly stunning about this statement. The early Christians understood the Spirit to be something given to all believers, not just a few at Pentecost. John's gospel especially focuses on the idea that Jesus' return to the Father allows him to become present to all via the Spirit. His presence is no longer limited by bodily constraints, but is now able to be with everyone. And today's epistle reading clearly understands that faith is confirmed by this experience of the Spirit.

But our reading today adds a caveat. If you have a spiritual experience, make sure it is the Spirit. "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God."

We Presbyterians have tended to be uncomfortable with the Holy Spirit and spiritual experiences. We're about as rational, studied, and reasonable sorts of Christians as you will find. But even we have needed to learn some spiritual language of late. Spirituality is such a hot topic that it is now quite common to find classes on contemplative prayer and discernment in Presbyterian churches. And there is a growing desire on the part of many for worship that is less informational and more experiential (although few churches have done much to satisfy this longing).

However, I wonder if many of us, from those who long for more spirituality to those who are suspicious of or even frightened of more it, aren't a bit ill-equipped to "test the spirits." How are we to tell what is "from God" and what is something else altogether?

I have met spiritual junkies who seem to relish spiritual experiences for their own sake. They long to be touched deep inside, but such touches do not necessarily lead them to anything beyond wanting more such touches. At the same time I know many traditional church folks who resist the spiritual currents in the church today by insisting they are spiritually fed by traditional church practices. But when pressed, some of them sound a bit like the aforementioned spiritual junkies. They find a particular style of hymns or music touches them deeply, and so they want more of that.

But what if we were to test these spirits? Perhaps the better question is, how are we to test these spiritual experiences? I don't know that there is one right answer to this question, but one simple test seems very helpful to me. If my spiritual experience does not equip, propel, lead, entice, inspire, etc. me to follow Jesus, to continue his ministry on this earth, then there is a problem. Not that spiritual experiences shouldn't warm my heart, fill me with a deep serenity, or any other number of such things. But if that is all my experience provides, then I have not discovered the bread of life, I have found spiritual junk food.

I hasten to add that I know many people with vastly different spiritual practices whose varied spiritualities nurture them in equally committed discipleship. I do not begin to presume that there is a correct way to be spiritual or a spirituality that works for all. But I also know that there are many things that touch me or move me which are not of God. And so whatever sort of experiences or practices I identify as feeding me spiritually, I need to make sure they are the sort of food that leads to true life.

So how do you "test the spirits" that touch or move you?

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Sermon video: Do You Love Me?

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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sermon: Do You Love Me?

John 21:1-23
Do You Love Me?
James Sledge                                                                           April 14, 2013

“Do you love me?” Has anyone ever asked you that question? They don’t come much more freighted than this. If you hear this question from a spouse, partner, lover, friend, child, or parent, what thoughts go through your mind as you consider your answer? “Do you love me?” is rarely an innocent question. It is more than a simple query for information.
The question could be manipulative. I could arise from a place of hurt and doubt. It could arise from hope that another will say, “Yes.” But regardless of its origins, almost all such questions assume that love has a shape to it, that it is lived out in some way. Sometimes this subtext is even spoken. “If you loved me, you would…” or “If you loved me you would not…”
“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” There is plenty of subtext to Jesus’ question. Peter had earlier spoken of his great love, presumably greater than the other disciples, when he professed his willingness to die for Jesus. But in the face of danger, he had folded, had even denied knowing Jesus. Surely “Do you love me?” was a terrible question for Simon Peter.
But this passage is about more than Peter and his restoration. Jesus’ threefold questioning does seem to undo Peter’s threefold denial. But on a larger level, this passage is about the Church and its ministry, about how the Church will live in the world now that Jesus has died and has been raised. In that sense, Jesus’ question to Peter is a question to every follower. “James, Diane, Bill, Mary, Sam, Dawn, do you love me?”
There is a problem here, though. I’m afraid we hear Jesus’ question very differently than Simon Peter does. For Simon, there is really no question that he does love Jesus. Just look at his buffoonish behavior when he realizes who the man on the beach is.
Faith is such a serious, somber business, we often miss the humor of Peter unable to wait for the boat to get to shore, plunging into the water. But not before he takes a moment to make himself presentable by putting some clothes on. I’m sure he looked most presentable, dragging himself out of the water, clothes dripping wet.
We rarely look so foolish as Peter. We don’t plunge headlong into the water. We form committees. We study all options.  Not that Peter’s impulsiveness is always a good thing, but it comes from a different place than much of our religious behavior. Simon is so enamored, so in love with Jesus, that he acts in ways that are ridiculous, and so Jesus’ questions to him are less about whether he loves and more about what shape that love needs to take.
But Jesus isn’t so viscerally real and present to me as he was to Simon Peter. Very often, Jesus is a collection of teachings, a way of living, a call to action, but not someone I can fall in love with, not someone I would make a fool of myself for. And so that question, “Do you love me?” doesn’t touch me as it does Peter. Do I love you? Well I’m not exactly sure. I love your ideas. You’ve got some great points. But love you? I don’t know.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Conversion and the Other

Perhaps because individualism is such a big part of the American ethos, American Christianity is often highly individualistic. Yes, people come together in church congregations for worship, fellowship, mission, and community. But faith and salvation are often understood in a very personal, even private sort of way. In the stereotyped version of this, I am saved because of my interior, personal disposition toward Jesus. No other person required.

This stands in rather stark contrast to the biblical witness. Certainly scripture shows a personal encounter with God in Christ, but it does so in a very corporate context. Some of the conversions reported in the book of Acts speak of a person's entire household being saved. This includes spouse, children, in-laws, servants, and slaves. Many of these people made no personal decision. They simply found themselves caught up in a corporate salvation event.

The gospel reading for today does not feature conversions, but it does speak of repentance, of turning toward God and being forgiven. But when John the Baptist speaks to those coming to him for baptism, he insists that their repentance doesn't count for much without a corporate element.

Every one of the "fruits worthy of repentance" that John describes is about others, about helping them or refusing to harm them. And this should hardly surprise us. Today's reading is part of Jesus' story, the same Jesus who cannot separate love of  God from love of neighbor. For John the Baptist and for Jesus, faith may be personal, but it is never individualist. It never exists apart from the Other.

I've recently been inspired by a colleague, Steve Lindsley, to preach a sermon series based, in part, on a book titled Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations. And just this moment it struck me that all but one of the practices are directed away from self. Passionate Worship is directed toward God. Extravagant Generosity is toward God and others, and Radical Hospitality and Risk-Taking Mission and Service are directed toward other people. Only Intentional Faith Development has a prominent inward focus.

Most all of us have heard people speak of "going to church." And indeed that describes the primary activity that sometimes marks individualistic, American Christianity. Much like going to the movies, people go to church and get something that they like, that makes them feel better, etc. But John and Jesus keep asking us, "What about the Other?"

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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Embracing Paradox

"The LORD is king; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!"  So begins Psalm 99, speaking of God's grandeur, of God's otherness and transcendence.

In today's gospel, Jesus speaks quite differently when he prays for his disciples just prior to his arrest. "The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one... I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” Here God is not distant, other, or transcendent but indwelling, imminent.

Transcendent and imminent pictures of God present us with a paradox. Is God distant, awe-inspiring, holy, other, unknowable, and even a bit frightening? Or is God close, knowable, intimate, lovable? Our human nature is inclined to choose, to answer "Yes" to only one of these questions and not both. We want to resolve paradoxes when we encounter them, or at least we modern, logical, Enlightenment types do.

(For a great discussion of this you might want to read Richard Rohr's meditations for the last few days. Here's a link to today's.)

One of the ways I'm prone to create God in my image is by requiring God to conform to my notions of what is possible, of what makes sense, etc. It's a remarkable arrogance on my part when you think about it. I want God to be understandable and comprehensible to me, yet I am aware of numerous everyday things far beyond my comprehension. Who fully comprehends love? Who can truly fathom the vastness of space? We struggle even to know ourselves, much less other people. Yet God should not baffle me? God should be as simple as 2 + 2 = 4?

And unfortunately, this desire to flatten God and make God comprehensible is more than my personal faith problem. It is a huge problem for institutional religion. Institutions desire clarity and order, and so religious ones inevitably tend to flatten God into some sort of reasonable, clear-cut, well-ordered construct. Paradox and ambiguity don't reside easily in institutions.

Perhaps that is why mystics have always lived on the margins of institutional religion, and why institutional religion has never quite trusted mystics. And perhaps some of the fascination with spirituality in our day is people longing for a God bigger than the ones we have confined in our institutions.

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Monday, April 8, 2013

Is God To Be Trusted?

Is God to be trusted? And if so, to what extent? Those are pretty fundamental faith questions, even if you are not particularly religious. To the agnostic or atheist, the question might become more sensible if rephrased, In what do you trust, and to what extent do you trust it?

A likely reason that religion is so easily dismissed by some lies in the puniness of many of our gods. We may proclaim with the psalmist, "The LORD is king! Let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad!" But in reality, our God doesn't even rule over our little lives, much less the earth. We may "believe" in God, but it often has little impact on what we do. We don't love neighbors as much as we love self, not unless they are really good neighbors and we really like them a lot. Loving bad neighbors, neighbors in the next school district, or neighbors who view the world differently than we do is another story. We'll be decent to them if it doesn't cost us much, but we won't put their needs on par with ours. We don't trust Jesus enough to go by him on this one.

I've been teaching a weekly study on the book of Genesis this winter/spring. I've taught it before, and I find that some of the most educated Presbyterians struggle to take it seriously. Its stories seem primitive, quaint, and sometimes patently offensive. Our modern conceit sometimes imagines ourselves too sophisticated for such stories, and in our "sophistication," we often fail to notice the texts wrestling mightily with those fundamental questions. Is God to be trusted, and if so, to what extent?

Today's reading from Daniel begins setting up a story about someone who trusts God to a ridiculous degree. Surely it is just a story, a tale. Our gospel reading is setting up a very similar story. Jesus trusts God to a ridiculous degree, so much that he will face a brutal execution that he could have avoided. Surly it is just a story, a tale. And even those of us who insist it is true often make the story about something other than, Is God to be trusted? We make it a formula. Believe this happened and get a prize.

Jesus calls those who would be his disciples to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him. In other words, he says to trust that the path he walks is the right one. That's asking a lot, as Jesus well knows. We peddlers of religion know it, too, and so we try to make faith easier, simpler. We're frightened to raise big questions of trust. What if people just want a little religion? We might scare them off.

Sometimes it seems to me that those primitive, ancient folks who wrote the Scriptures had a lot more religious sophistication than we do. At least they understood what the real, fundamental religious questions are.

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Sunday, April 7, 2013

Preaching Thoughts on a Non-Preaching Sunday

During worship today, members of our confirmation class will make their public professions of faith.  And the gospel reading will include a story about "doubting Thomas." Sounds about right.

Now I don't begin to know the minds of our confirmands, and I am very impressed with the confirmation process this congregation has developed. (It runs from beginning of the school year to now, includes adult "companions," and so on.) But I have to assume that there are more than a few doubts floating around. And there will likely be more. They are, after all, only in their early teens.

To some degree, confirmation has long been an expectation in Presbyterian churches. When children reach a certain age (that age varies from congregation to congregation), there is some sort of programed experience which leads to young people making professions of faith and so becoming full-fledged, adult members of the congregation. Some young people feel a great deal of pressure to take part. And after all, once complete, there are no other requirements. And indeed, quite a few graduates of confirmation class graduate from church altogether before long.

(There is an old joke about a group of pastors meeting for lunch, each of them offering helpful suggestions to the pastor whose church attic has become infested with bats. Seems that all the suggestions have already been tried without success. But then the Presbyterian pastor says that she had all the bats graduate from confirmation class, and she hasn't seen them since.)

The disciple Thomas has been through a lot more than a confirmation class. He has been taught by Jesus, been there for it all, including seeing him hauled off by the authorities and then executed.  But now he hears that others have seen the risen Jesus. First Mary had seen  him. Now some of the other disciples have, and they tell Thomas about it. But Thomas needs more. "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."

It's a bit of hyperbole. When Thomas does actually see Jesus, he passes on Jesus' offer to touch his wounds. But it raises the very legitimate question of what is needed for faith. Based on the number of confirmation class graduates who leave the church by early adulthood, I'd say that going through confirmation class isn't enough. Regardless of how sincere those young people are today when they promise to follow where Jesus leads and to fulfill their "calling to be a disciple of Jesus Christ," if something does not make it real for them, there are far too many cultural forces pulling them in other directions.

The term "doubting Thomas" is often used pejoratively, but Thomas' statement upon seeing the risen Christ, "My Lord and my God!" is one of the faith highlights of John's gospel. And I suspect that a great deal of the church's malaise in our day is the result of too few Thomases in our ranks, not too many. Without wrestling with the issue Thomas raises, church easily becomes a social convention without much solidly behind it. Church as social convention only works when the society actively encourages it. But as that societal encouragement has disappeared, often replaced with societal pulls away from church, the habit of church is slowly disappearing.

What does it take for someone to say to Jesus, "My Lord and my God!" my master and the center of my life? It certainly would seem to require more than good information. Surely there has to be some sort of encounter, maybe not as impressive as the one Thomas had, but an encounter nonetheless.

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Thursday, April 4, 2013

Wasting Time

Earlier today, I had a wonderful visit with an older church member who is not able to attend worship very often. We had the most delightful conversation, such that an hour passed in what seemed the blink of an eye. This person knew I had another appointment, and upon realizing that our allotted time was over and then some, apologized profusely for "wasting my time."

Church congregations are supposed to be and do many things. We are to proclaim the gospel, nurture people in the faith, worship God, and more. And in today's gospel, we are commanded by Jesus to "love one another," to be a community of love. Earlier in John's gospel Jesus says this love for one another is what will make us known as his followers. As the song says, "They'll know we are Christians by our love."

I'm not sure that world knows us Christians primarily by our love. Congregations are often better known for their buildings, their children or youth programs, music program, or a special ministry or mission. At times, sadly, we are known for our fighting and bickering. Now some of our programs and ministries are about love, but it is easy to get caught up in our culture's focus on productivity and efficiency. And so today was far from the first time I've had a church member apologize for wasting my valuable time, time that I could surely being using more productively than just sitting and talking with them.

I told that church member today what I have told others. Moments like the time we shared are the very best part of this job. I could have added that in addition, they are an absolutely essential part of this job, time that can't be evaluated by typical measures of efficiency or productivity. That time, time without agenda or goal to be completed, time simply to be with someone, seems to me essential to being a community known for and rooted in love.

But there is often so little of this sort of time. So much conspires to prevent it. Sunday mornings, the time when I see the most members of the community, is least conducive to spending time with anyone. Sometimes I get so focused on getting the sermon right, on preaching and leading the worship service, I scarcely notice the people around me until they are shaking my hand on the way out.

Perhaps this is why large congregations, who are able to do some things much better than smaller ones, must work very diligently if they are to be communities of love. It is difficult to scale up the sort of loving that can happen in a smaller and more intimate community.

Meanwhile - and I say this as an introvert - I just wish a few more people would "waste my time."

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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Doing Nothing

(If you're expecting something on Sabbath, my apologies.)

A seminary classmate and colleague, James Kim, tweeted this earlier today. " 'Apart from me you can do nothing' (Jn. 15:5). If you're interested in nothing, do it your way, do it without God." He was obviously referring to a portion of today's gospel reading. Here's the entire verse. "I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing."

When I was a kid, it was common practice for parents or other adults who suspected we children were up to something to ask, "What are you doing?" To which the stock reply was, "Nothing." Even as an adult, it still makes for a nice evasive answer. Of course most of us know that it's evasive. Whose suspicions are not aroused when they are told that someone is doing nothing?

It's really hard to do nothing. It's not impossible, but it's hard. I find it very difficult to keep from thinking, to stop the mental wheels from turning. So when I answer, "Nothing," I'm rarely being completely honest.

And Jesus said to his Church, "What are you doing?" Churches tend to be fairly busy places. Even very small churches often have lots of meetings and groups that use the building and choir practices and Sunday services and classes and so on. But I'm not sure how much of this is related to our abiding deeply in Jesus and him in us, to our bearing the fruit he would have us bear. If so, then perhaps there are multiple reasons for us to answer, "Nothing."

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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Capitalist Heresies

If you follow the news, you likely know that the stock market is soaring and the housing market seems to be rebounding. But you probably also know some less encouraging bits. In recent days I've seen articles on how our Great Recession has and is hurting young people disproportionately and how the earnings gap between regular workers and top tier folks such as CEOs continues to grow at a tremendous pace. And just this morning, I read how unemployment has reached a record 12% in the Eurozone.

I'm no economist, and I have no idea whether the economic future for young people, regular wage earners, or the Eurozone unemployed will improve or continue to follow current trends. That said, it certainly seems that our economic system is working much more successfully for folks at the top than it is for folks at the bottom. That leads to the question of what to do about this situation.

Obviously there are wildly divergent ideas and suggestions. One thing is clear to me, however. Any real challenge to basic free market or capitalist principles will get you labeled a wild-eyed, lunatic revolutionary with no legitimate place in the discussion. 

Actually, lunatic and revolutionary might not be the best terms. Heretic might be more appropriate.

On this point, I'm reminded of the attacks that some folks fling at Barack Obama. With no thoughts as to how fringe or mainstream they are or to who believes them, it strikes me that the label of "socialist" is far more damning than the label "Muslim," even with the terrorist ties some folks read into the latter.

I raise the term "socialist" both because it is often hurled at the president and also because it seems to be featured in today's reading from Acts. "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need." That sounds quite socialist. And if you're thinking I might suggest this as a current day model and already raising the objection that this behavior is restricted to "believers," well that would still include a majority of Americans, at least according to what they tell pollsters. And for those intent on this being a "Christian nation," then presumably the pattern in Acts might well become a model for everyone.

Prior to the Cold War, it was not all that uncommon for Christian thinkers to discuss "socialism" as having merits to consider. But no more. That is capitalist heresy. Which says something about what our true religion is in America.

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Sermon video: A Victory Parade

Better late than never, here's the Palm/Passion Sunday sermon. Other sermons available on YouTube. Audios of sermons and worship can be found on the church website.

Sermon video: While It Was Still Dark

Other sermon videos available on YouTube.