Thursday, May 30, 2013

Not So Bold

Just before his death, Moses gives the same command to both the people of Israel and to Joshua, who will now lead them. "Be strong and bold." This strength and boldness does not come from Israel being particularly powerful or impressive, or even from Joshua being a brilliant leader. Israel and Joshua can be bold and strong because God goes with them.

The Apostle Paul speaks in the same manner in today's passage from 2 Corinthians. He speaks of a competence that comes, not from himself, but from God. He has a confidence he has received through Christ. And so, he writes, "Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness."

I've done a few risky things in my life, but I'm not sure that I much inclined to be bold. I tend to have lots of doubts, and when I analyze the complexities of something I think needs to be done, I can feel overwhelmed. Surely I don't have what it takes to tackle it.

Very often I lack the boldness to take on big problems because they seem too big for my abilities and competencies. I don't know that there is anything all that peculiar about me on this. Lots of people, lots of organizations, lots of church congregations, are constrained by whatever estimates they make of their talents, abilities, resources, and competencies. And while this might seem to be a fairly prudent way to operate, followers of Jesus are supposed to have resources much greater than those we possess naturally. We are supposed to be gifted with and empowered by the Spirit.

If everything I attempt is something I deem within my natural abilities, what room do I leave for the Spirit? And how am I to bear witness to the power of Christ in my life if I do nothing more than I could already do all by myself?

Your thoughts?

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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Older Siblings and a Prodigal God

Today's gospel is the famous "Parable of the Prodigal Son." It's one of those bits of scripture that many people who were raised in church can recall as soon as they hear the word "prodigal." That is certainly the case for me, but I confess that while I've long known this parable by its designation "prodigal," for many years I had no idea what the word "prodigal" meant.

The word is nowhere to be found in the parable itself. It is a label affixed centuries after the story was first written down. For that matter, the word "prodigal" occurs nowhere in the entire New Testament translation sitting on my desk.

Just in case you're a bit like me and never thought very much about the meaning of this rarely used word, one definition of "prodigal" reads "wastefully extravagant." Easy enough to see how such a word got attached to the younger brother who blew through all that money he had demanded from his father. But I wonder if the label "prodigal" might not just as easily be affixed to the father in the parable. The older brother certainly seems to think so.

This parable is a favorite bit of scripture for many Christians, for obvious reasons. Of course this generally requires us to identify with the younger brother. Some of us may have a history not so unlike this fellow, but the fact is that church congregations are heavily populated by older brother and sister types. And like the parable's older brother, we sometimes chafe at the prodigal nature of God. We imagine that God should pay more attention to us, those who have kept our noses clean, supported the church budget, and been good little boys and girls.

Jesus tells this parable to older sibling types, those who've worked hard at being good church folk and resent Jesus' prodigal sharing the wealth with those who've not made near the effort they have. And I think it is helpful for those of us who've been reliable church sorts for many years to hear Jesus address us in the same manner with this parable. If you hear Jesus speaking this parable to you as and older sibling, what sort of response does he seem to ask of you?

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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

About "Those People"

Today's gospel reading is familiar to many church folk, the parable of the lost sheep where the shepherd leaves 99 sheep alone in the wilderness to search for the one who is lost. There is great rejoicing and celebration with the single lost sheep is found, something Jesus says mirrors events in heaven over a single sinner who repents. In fact, Jesus says, heaven gets much more excited about the one sinner who comes into the fold than the 99 who never left it.

Rarely have I heard church people take issue with this bit of Scripture. It is a favorite passage for many. Who doesn't like the idea that when we go astray, Jesus drops everything and comes looking for us? But when it comes to actual practice, I've heard a lot of people take issue with the sort of behavior this parable recommends.

Jesus tells the parable because people were upset with him for spending so much time with "sinners." Many evangelically minded pastors have found themselves in a similar position with their own congregations. When a pastor spends too much time with unchurched folk, especially if those folk look a little unsavory, complaints from the congregation are likely to follow. (Jesus and his opponents don't quibble over the use of the term "sinner." They all seem comfortable with the idea that some - including Jesus' opponents - are trying much harder than these "sinners" to be right with God.)

I've never been a very good evangelist, so I've not gotten in any real trouble for spending too much time reaching out or ministering to non-members who are unsavory to boot. But on more than one occasion I've heard people declare, "We need to be more worried about our own members and not those people." ("Those people" covers a wide swath. It could be a missing demographic group the church hopes to connect with, the people being reached out to with an on-site mission activity, a group that a differently-styled worship service hopes to attract, etc.)

In his devotion for today, Richard Rohr writes on the meaning of the communion of saints. "Living in the communion of saints means that we can take ourselves very seriously (we are part of a Great Whole) and not take ourselves too seriously at all (we are just a part of the Great Whole!) at the very same time." I wonder if we in church congregations don't need to do a better job of embracing both sides of this. (I'll leave it to each individual to consider which side of this she or he needs better to embrace.) 

I think that being a follower of Jesus requires a sense of what the Great Whole is, and it also requires some realization of what part I am called to play in that Great Whole. But one thing is certain, the Great Whole is not all about me or my congregation. And God seems to get downright giddy over connecting with those outside those little communities we sometimes make the centers of our religious universe.

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Sunday, May 26, 2013

Sermon - Risk-Taking Mission and Service: Use Your Talents Foolishly

Matthew 25:14-30 (Romans 5:1-5)
Risking-Taking Mission and Service: Use Your Talents Foolishly
James Sledge                                                          May 26, 2013 – Trinity Sunday

There’s a TV commercial for a bank where someone with a brief case full of money goes up to strangers and asks them to hold it for a while. The commercial shows a man sitting next to the brief case, nervously touching it and looking around. Imagine someone asked you to take care of his brief case full of money. What would you do? How about if he asked you to watch it for six months, or a year, or five years?
If we eliminate “I’d just keep it for myself”–let’s say the person who gave it to you is a mobster – what are your options? You could take it to the bank and put the cash there, or perhaps put it in a money market account where it would earn a little interest. But I doubt many of you would do any speculative investing with a mobster’s money. No way I would risk losing a big chunk of that money and having to tell him, “I tried to make you some big money, but it didn’t work out, and most of it’s gone.”
If you’re like me and not inclined to speculate with a mobster’s money, then you should have no trouble relating to the third slave in Jesus’ parable. He did just what we would do. In Jesus’ day there were no banks as we know them, no investments that were really safe, and if you wanted to be certain you wouldn’t risk losing it, you hid money, which is exactly what the third slave did.
The first two slaves, on the other hand, managed to double their master’s money. Even today, with regulators and laws to protect investors, you don’t double your money without taking some significant risks. In Jesus’ day, the risks would have been phenomenal. 
In popular thought, and often in sermons, today’s parable gets treated as a fable with a moral that says, “Use your talents wisely.” Trouble is, the third slave does what most folks considered wise and prudent, while the first two slaves do what is risky and foolish.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Isn't That Special

I don't think I'd ever noticed this line from today's reading in 1 Timothy. "For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe." I'm not exactly sure what it means for God to be Savior of all people and especially of believers. Can someone be especially saved? If God's saving activity with believers is somehow different than the saving of people in general, what is it that makes Christians special?

These words on God as Savior of all and especially of believers occur in the context of a call to godliness and as motivation to toil and struggle. So perhaps our specialness is supposed to be there, in the rigorous work of godliness that others can see.

 Such a notion would certainly fit into the idea that the Church is the body of Christ in the world, and there are  many ways that church congregations show Christ/God to the world. Once a month this church welcomes 200 or so of our poor or homeless neighbors for a delicious home-cooked meal, to receive gifts cards for the local grocery store, and more. It is admittedly a drop in the bucket compared to the magnitude of the hunger, poverty, and homelessness problems of this region, but it is also an activity that is largely restricted to shelters and other faith communities. And it strikes me as an act of godliness, a moment where we show God and the saving nature of God to others.

When we show God to the world, in many a varied ways, we live into a specialness that is our calling as believers. Unfortunately, there is much in our culture that tries to draw us away from this. Our culture of consumerism has done a good job of turning Americans into religious consumers. People often come to churches looking for something to make them happy, perk them up, help them through the week, and so on. I don't think there is anything wrong we that per se, but when church members began to see themselves primarily as consumers, judging pretty much everything in their congregation based on how well it suits them or impacts them, our special godliness can get obscured.

I realize this is a complex and nuanced question, but I'll ask it anyhow. Are the things that make your faith community special things that show God to others or things that you enjoy and make you happy? Of perhaps better, how do the things that make your congregation special balance out between these two poles? Is it more about nurturing a special godliness for the sake of the world or about providing the religious goods members like and want?

So what is it that makes your group of believers special?

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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Insiders, Outsiders, Judgment, and the Kingdom

I often don't quite know what to make of a Scripture passage when I first read it, and that is the case with today's gospel reading. I don't do any research or study with my devotional readings, and so sometimes I simply tumble things around in my head without any precise meaning. Today I'm thinking about the kingdom, mustard seeds, leaven, narrow gates, insiders who are locked out, and the last who become first. It's quite a mixture.

An uncomfortable piece to this reading is the notion of judgment. Like a lot of people, I'm much bigger on forgiveness, grace, and unconditional divine love than I am on judgment. But today's reading clearly speaks of a narrow gate and people who thought they had an invitation to the party but were told, "I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!"

I've read Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship, and I'm familiar with his warnings against "cheap grace," forgiveness without repentance and grace without obedience. But I still have trouble reconciling notions of love and grace that nonetheless insist we be changed by that grace.

Perhaps part of my struggle with judgment arises from the Church's all too common practice of speaking judgment against outsiders, those who aren't Christian or not the right kind of Christian. But Jesus' words of judgment are most often aimed at religious insiders, not outsiders. And that seems to be the case today where insiders are locked out and watch as all manner of folks " from east and west, from north and south," get welcomed into the party. It is insiders, it seems, who most need to be reminded of the requirements of obedience and discipleship.

I'm not about to make any clear-cut doctrinal statements about judgment based on my brief, devotional meditation on today's gospel. I'm not entirely clear whether Jesus is speaking of an ultimate, final judgment, or simply doing what prophets have long done, warn people that they need to change. Regardless, it is abundantly clear that the call of Jesus is to a very particular way of living in the world, one that requires faith, obedience, and assistance from the Spirit. And I can always stand to be reminded of that.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Questions, Anger, and Hope

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
    so my soul longs for you, O God. 

My soul thirsts for God,
    for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
    the face of God? 

My tears have been my food
    day and night,
 while people say to me continually,
    “Where is your God?”       
Psalm 42:1-3

There are a lot of "Where is God?" type questions floating around today in the aftermath of the tornado in Moore, OK. And as troubling as it is to admit, there are times when the best answers we have are not very satisfying. Quite often, the cheap platitudes offered by some people of faith are as unhelpful as the absurd comments of those who blame such events on toleration of gays or some other presumed sin.

Some church folk are terrified at the prospect of questioning God's role in yesterday's events. They view questioning God as a lapse in faith, as evidence of doubt that they will not admit to. But the psalmists have no such qualms. That's true of today's psalm and of many other psalms of lament. Jesus borrowed one while on the cross. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

I've always thought that a fist shaken at God is more an act of faith than is found in any act of stoic resignation. Certainly the psalmists are acting on faith when they question God, even demand of God. And they most often proclaim hope in the midst of their upset. Today's psalm ends with the psalmist counseling himself.

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you disquieted within me? 

Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my help and my God.

Sometimes the best thing we can do in moments of hurt and pain that cannot be explained is to cry out, yet somehow still hope. This moment is not one for complex theologies. It is a time to weep, to pray, even to shake a fist. It is a time to remember that Jesus experienced this, too. He felt abandoned and wondered where God was. And it is a time to recall the promise that God brings life out of death, that even in the face of death, we can still hope.

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Monday, May 20, 2013

Graduates: Go Out To Live

I attended one of those watershed events this weekend, the college graduation of our younger daughter. It was a big milestone for us because we are now officially empty-nesters, but I'm sure it was a bigger milestone for our daughter.

We actually attended two separate ceremonies, a commencement for the entire student body in the football stadium followed by a commencement the following day for her particular college where she crossed the stage and received her diploma. Thus we had the opportunity to hear a number of people attempting to send the graduates out into the world with appropriate advice and wisdom to guide them.

This advice was varied, but one theme popped up a number of times, that of passion. The grads were encouraged to pursue careers or activities they were passionate about as well as to develop passion for some aspect of whatever they found themselves doing. 

I suppose that one could be passionate about that are detrimental to self and others, but understood in a certain way, passion describe what Frederick Buechner says about call in a famous qoute. "The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."

In today's gospel reading, Jesus tells a parable about a fig tree that does not bear any fruit. The parable's notion that our lives are supposed to produce something of value is hardly confined to Christianity,or to religion for that matter. Commencement speakers regularly encourage graduates to go out and do something worthwhile with their lives. But exactly what is a worthwhile life? What thing of value should I or anyone else produce?

My own faith tradition has always placed a great emphasis on the idea of call or vocation, which is likely why Buechner, a fellow Presbyterian, feels the need to comment on it. We have long insisted that any passion which fails to take into account the needs of others, "the world's deep hunger" as Buechner calls it, is a false passion. 

I certainly hope that my daughter and her fellow graduates find careers and others things in their lives that they can be passionate about, but I hope that passion is of the sort Buechner speaks of. In this overly individualistic world of ours, we already have too many people who are passionate about making money, acquiring power and influence, or being top dog. We need people with a passion that blesses self and others. And whhen they find that, they will have discovered what it means truly to live.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Falling in Love

Praise the Lord!
    How good it is to sing praises to our God. 
    Psalm 147:1

I must confess that I have often struggled to appreciate the Psalms, especially those that just go on and on praising God. A lot of them sound a lot alike, endlessly reciting all of God's wonderful qualities. It's a bit repetitive. And what's the point? What is to be gained from saying or singing such things?

One of the places where my faith gets distorted comes from this last question. All too often, I approach faith as a means to get something I want or need. And while it is true that I do need and want God in my life, it is easy to become quite utilitarian in this pursuit of something for myself. God easily becomes an object to my subject, to borrow a grammatical analogy. God is a resource for me to use or employ.

The psalms of praise are pretty good at keeping God subject. In that sense, they look a bit like songs or poems composed by a lover for a beloved. In such outpourings of love, it is the beloved who occupies the center, a sun around which the lover orbits. Love poems have no hesitation about counting the ways they love their beloved or going on and on about the beloved wonderful qualities. After all a lover's life becomes reoriented around the beloved.

I'm of the opinion that deep Christian faith only emerges as we fall deeply in love with God. That, of course, requires a vulnerability and openness to God that can be scary for some of us. But then again, that is pretty much the same that is required truly to fall in love with another person.

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Sermon video - Passionate Worship: How, Why, and the Heart of Worship

Other sermon videos available on YouTube.
Audios of sermons and worship on church website.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Help Wanted

I was really struck by something Richard Rohr wrote for this morning's devotional. He spoke of how Christians have gotten caught up in arguments about the nature of Jesus without paying nearly so much attention to what he lives and teaches. Churches fight and split over trivial matters, neglecting the promise of God's kingdom breaking in here on earth as a present and future reality.

"Despite it all, we turned Jesus’ message into a reward-or-punishment contest that would hopefully come later—instead of a transformational experience that was verifiable here and now by the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). Probably more than anything else, this huge misplacement of attention anesthetized and weakened the actual transformative power of Christianity."

I think it was these words, "anesthetized and weakened the actual transformative power of Christianity," that grabbed me and caused me to focus on a small part of today's gospel where Jesus says,  “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest."

I love theology. I enjoyed theology classes immensely in seminary, and I still get great pleasure from doing theological reflection. But I do worry that the church and therefore Christian faith are too much about words and not enough about actions. Words have transformative power, but only when we stop talking about them and start doing them.

One of the interesting dynamics that has evolved in churches over the years is that of talking and listening becoming the central activity for many. In the typical congregation there are paid talkers, pastors and such, who do a lot of talking in worship while others come to hear. For many, this defines church life, and as a result, the problem Jesus describes, a plentiful harvest with inadequate workers, continues to plague the church. Faith has become so much about believing the correct things that doing the correct things gets neglected. And though we call ourselves "the body of Christ," there is often little about us that proclaims what Jesus did. "Repent, turn, change how you live because God's new realm on earth has drawn near."

Now it certainly is true that people would not embrace some of Jesus' crazy ideas if they did not believe in him, if they did not believe he was the Messiah, the Son of God, etc. But you can also turn this logic around and say that if we do not do what Jesus says, we must not believe in him.

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