Sunday, June 30, 2013

Sermon: Succession Issues

2 Kings 2:1-14
Succession Issues
James Sledge                                                                                       June 30, 2013

Even if you are not a techie and care little about computers or the latest smartphone, you probably still have heard of Apple. From iPods to iTunes to iPads to iPhones, plus computers and other products, Apple is everywhere. They have a well-deserved reputation for innovation and for developing the latest and greatest cutting edge technology, and much of that reputation is connected to one individual, Steve Jobs, the inventor and entrepreneur who founded Apple, left it, then later returned to rescue it from near bankruptcy.
Jobs died in 2011 from complications connected to cancer, but there had been a great deal of speculation about his health for many years prior. I suspect that Apple’s employees and investors did a lot of worrying about what would happen after Steve Jobs. And now, in the post-Jobs era, many worry that his absence is being keenly felt, that the company is losing its edge in innovation and technology.
When companies, organizations, movements, sports teams, and so on lose a powerful, charismatic, visionary leader, it is not at all unusual for things to founder. Indeed some never fully recover. And so succession issues can make people very nervous.
You can see that in our scripture reading this morning. We’re not told how it is everyone seems to know that Elijah is about to be  taken away, but they do. Elisha silences the prophets who speak of the impending departure. Why is not clear. Is he in denial? Does he think his repeated refusals to let Elijah go on alone will somehow forestall a future that frightens him. After all, Elijah is his mentor and like father to him. Surely the thought of what it will be like without Elijah was frightening to Elisha and many who were followers of Yahweh.
At times, Elijah had single-handedly seemed to keep the faith alive. He has stood against corrupt rulers who not only exploited the people but gravely damaged the faith. He had been willing to stand for Yahweh when almost no one else would, and he had revived faith in Israel when he bested the 450 prophets of Baal in a huge contest on Mt. Carmel. What would happen when he was gone? No wonder Elisha sticks with Elijah, following him as he seems to wander aimlessly around the countryside, repeatedly trying to ditch his younger protégé.
When the big event finally arrives and Elijah is scooped off the earth by God, not dying but transported away by fiery chariot, Elisha watches in amazement, not averting his eyes until there was no longer the faintest glimpse of the great prophet. And then, realizing that Elijah is gone, he tears his clothes in mourning and sadness. What will he do now?

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Someone to Fight Our Battles

In today's Old Testament reading, the people of Israel demand that Samuel give them a king. Samuel is getting old and his sons have not proven fit to succeed him as priests and judges over Israel, and so the people ask to be like all the nations around them and have a king.

Samuel warns them of the ways of kings and how it will lead eventually to their enslavement, a prophecy fulfilled in the time of Solomon. But the people are insistent. “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”

For some reason I have always zeroed in on their desire to be like other nations, but today I was struck by the last of the people's three reasons for wanting a king, that he would "go out before us and fight our battles."

I am part of the baby boomer generation, but I came late enough in it that I was too young for Vietnam, and I never was eligible to be drafted. I am part of an America that is increasingly the norm, people who had others to go out before us and fight our battles. Fewer and fewer leaders in our communities and our nation have ever served in the military. It is now the exception for members of Congress to have done so. It was once not unusual at all.

Never having served in the military myself, I am not pointing any fingers at anyone. I'm simply reflecting on the implications of having others who will go out before us and fight our battles. I think some of these implications were particularly troubling during the Iraq war. Not only did we have others to fight, but we were not even asked to sacrifice at all with them, to give up something to support them, not even to pay extra taxes to pay for the war. It was as though the war had no connection to us unless we knew someone involved.

I don't know if it's connected at all, but many have noted and written about the loss of community and a sense of  unity in our culture. Much mitigates against such unity from a highly mobile culture to strident individualism to sharp partisan divides. But surely the lack of a shared calling to something bigger than ourselves, something that asks us to give and even to sacrifice for it, makes unity even more difficult. And it isn't just national unity that's difficult. Unity among Christian denominations and even in congregations is often difficult.

Again this is a complex sociological phenomenon, but I suspect it has some connections to our Old Testament readings. The people of Israel insisted on a king to do their fighting for them because, as God says, "They have rejected me from being king over them." They want what they want, not what God wants.

The world is full of idols, not little statues, but things good and bad that we give stature, influence, and import that should only be given to God. And my own wishes and desires, my own certainties about what is right, or my own group or cause, all make splendid little idols. And they never ask me to give of myself for sake of the whole community or for those others who have different idols.

The question today's Old Testament reading asks, and indeed much of the Bible asks, is, "Who or what will we serve?" There is a pervasive human tendency to choose something smaller than we should, to put our own interests over the good of the community, and even over the call of God. Fortunately, God seems infinitely patient with us, and keeps calling us back, keeps inviting us to find our true purpose. As Jesus says to those who would follow him, "Let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."

Now that's giving and sacrificing for something bigger than self.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

DOMA, Love, and Getting Right with God

O LORD, who may abide in your tent?
     Who may dwell on your holy hill? 
     Psalm 15:1

In poetic form the psalmist asks, and then answers, who is welcome in the Temple. Such a question is not primarily concerned with the Temple. Its chief concern is what God expects of us, how we are to live, what puts us right with God. The psalmist's answer is surely not meant to be exhaustive, and it includes things hard for modern folk to comprehend; not lending money at interest for instance.

As a Presbyterian, a Protestant out of the Reformed tradition, I tend to think of this question in what might seem reverse order. My motivation for living as God desires is not so God will admit me, but my gratitude that God has admitted me. In this understanding, seeking to please God is more a matter of loving God back than it is fear of what God might do to me if I'm bad.

But regardless of one's approach to the psalmist's question, answering the question poses some problems. It seems that people of faith can't agree on what's included in the list. No one argues much about "Love God and love neighbor," but we can get pretty bogged down in the details.

If you've not yet heard, the US Supreme Court today struck down DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act that denied federal benefits to married, same-sex couples. It was a much anticipated decision, one that brought joy and delight to some but deep sadness to others.

My Facebook timeline is filled with celebratory comments from pastors I know and from groups I am a part of. For them, and for me, this is a joyous day, another step in relegating the scant biblical condemnation of same-sex relationships to the same category as the much more widely attested biblical ban on lending money at interest. (John Calvin made the definitive argument for ignoring the interest ban. He concluded that the ban no longer served its original purpose of keeping the poor from being subjugated. With the right guidelines in place, lending money could allow businesses to be built that would employ the poor, not something the Old Testament writers ever contemplated.)

But as I and some of my colleagues celebrate today's decision, I know many others who do not. Reading today's decision on the NY Times website, I saw a picture of a priest walking away dejectedly from the Supreme Court building. I don't know that it was really needed, but the caption noted that he was an opponent of same-sex marriage.

I think the reason my joy today feels a bit muted is that today's decision reminds me how much the church is defined in our time by struggles over issues of sexuality and reproduction. I suppose it's no surprise that we get caught up in the same issues our culture does, but it is a sad commentary on the church that we cannot handle our disagreements over such issues any better than we do.

I'm not claiming any moral high ground here. I'm simply lamenting how often the witness we offer the world falls so short of the love Jesus says is to define us.

I do not think Jesus' command to love in any way cancels out the psalmist's question about how God expects us to live. We should seek to know God's standards and God's expectations. We need to answer the psalmist's question, and it can't simply be that everyone gets his or her own answer. (Too often such attempts become the religious analogue of families where parents won't discipline their children in any way.) Yet we are called to seek such answers without ever abandoning Christ's standard that we love one another.

I celebrate the court's decision today. I see it as a victory for civil rights, in keeping with the witness of scripture, and I look forward to a day when this is no longer a topic of debate. Still, I worry about how to stay in loving relationship with those brothers and sisters in Christ who do not agree with me.After all, Jesus calls me to love, not just my brothers and sisters, but even my enemies.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Church, Incarnation, and Politics

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
     whose hope is in the LORD their God,
who made heaven and earth,
     the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
     who executes justice for the oppressed;
     who gives food to the hungry.
    Psalm 146:5-7

I've been thinking a lot lately about call, not so much in terms of individuals' calls, but rather the corporate calling God gives the church. One of the concepts I've been mulling over as a part of this is incarnation. The incarnation is mostly used to speak of Jesus enfleshing God, the Word that became flesh. But I've been prodded by Fr. Richard Rohr to see another side of the incarnation, that of the church incarnating God.

Most church people are familiar with the biblical idea of the church as the body of Christ. It's a very popular idea with a number of songs and hymns that celebrate it. But I've never really understood this as anything more than metaphor, and I've not heard others suggest something beyond metaphor, at least not until I read Rohr's words. And if Jesus could make God fleshy, and the church is given the gift of the Holy Spirit, can we not then incarnate God as well?

I take the answer to be yes, which is not to say that we always do enflesh God to and for the world. In fact, it is not something we can do on our own, it can only happen as the Spirit works in and through us. Still, we can probably devise some measures that help us recognize when God present in us, moving and empowering us. Surely we would start to look more God-like that we otherwise would.

Which raises the question of what it means to look God-like. All of us are quite capable of imagining a god who generally agrees with us on most issues and who disagrees with those we disagree with. So one measure of becoming more God-like would be that such a move would challenge our own conceits and assumptions, of whatever their stripe. But beyond that, there must be particular characteristics of God that we could point to and say, "We would become more like that."

That brings me to the phrase that jumped out at me when I was reading Psalm 146 as lectio divina or spiritual reading, listening for a word or phrase that might touch my heart. I heard "executes justice," a phrase connected to God's deep concern for the hungry, the poor, the vulnerable, and the oppressed.

It strikes me that the church is often reasonably good at doing some things to help the poor and hungry. Congregations often run or support food pantries, clothing drives, homeless shelters and such. We are adept and comfortable doing good for those in need. But the phrase "execute justice" speaks of something more, something that is more challenging for many of us.

Executing or bringing about justice for the oppressed is bigger than assistance. It is about creating a more just society. In our country, that is the arena of politics, and entering that arena makes a lot of Christians and a lot of churches very nervous.

Faith has been very much personalized in America, often focused primarily on one's personal standing with God, not the stuff of politics. Interestingly, when Jesus begins his earthly ministry, he announces it with the political term, kingdom. Perhaps he would have used a different term had he first come in our day, the government of God or the dominion of God. Regardless, Jesus shows up proclaiming an alternate ordering of things on earth, one that has very different ramifications for the poor and oppressed and for the rich and powerful.

And if God in the flesh unnerves the rich and the powerful, then it would seem that any current incarnation embodied in the church, would have similar effects. Which brings me back around to the question of the church's calling, any congregation's calling. If we are to embody and enflesh a God who "executes justice for the oppressed," what does that look like?

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Monday, June 24, 2013

Tension with the World

The other day I received a gag gift from a colleague. It's a print of a rather cheesy painting entitled "The Rapture." (You can still order prints of it online.) The painting was commissioned by a group called the Bible Believers' Evangelistic Association. This group offers tracts and eight foot long "Bible Maps" depicting the the various "dispensations" or periods of history that have happened and will happened. The rapture, the return of Christ, and the earth's destruction happen in three of those yet to come dispensations, the rapture being next on the calendar.

I've not heard much conversation on the rapture in this or any other congregation I've served. The notion of dispensationalism and the rapture were invented in the late 1800s, and after a brief period of respectability, have been a fringe theology for many decades. Not something we Mainline types mess with.

I share my painting and my very limited understanding of dispensationalism (premillennial or otherwise) because the minute you start talking about the end times or anything "apocalyptic," you enter into a territory that Mainline Christians have generally seeded to rapture types. Just mention the book of Revelation, and many Mainline folks get nervous.

In truth, Revelation is not a book of strange predictions but a word of promise to early Christians who were in great distress. And our fear of talking about end times and Jesus' return has too often spiritualized Jesus' gospel, removing the promise of a new day with a new social order.

In today's gospel, Jesus is talking about the coming of that day, and he warns us, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap." Jesus clearly thinks that the patterns of this world do not fit into the new society he anticipates, and he calls his followers to conform now to the new ways.

One place the rapture sorts are more faithful to Jesus than Mainline folks regards Jesus' unease with the ways of the world. They get off track when they start thinking God hates creation or is going to destroy things, but they are right that Jesus sees a fundamental problem with how the world operates. That's why he talks about the poor being lifted up and the rich and powerful being pulled down. But many of us Mainliners are quite happy with the world. Ours works well enough for us, so we'd like to keep Jesus focused on recharging spiritual batteries and filling the void that seems to remain no matter how many wonderful consumer goods we acquire.

But Jesus keeps talking about the Kingdom, that new day when things get remade. And he calls us to start living by Kingdom ways now. That doesn't mean believing in a rapture, but it does require a bit of tension with the ways of the world.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sermon video: Depressed Prophets and God's Call

Audios of worship and more sermons on FCPC website.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Sermon: Depressed Prophets and God's Call

1 Kings 19:1-16
Depressed Prophets and God’s Call
James Sledge                                                                                       June 23, 2013

It isn’t that unusual for people who feel a strong sense of call in the work they do to become cynical, burned out, jaded, or depressed over time. Teachers, social workers, community organizers, and others who begin careers filled with a passion and zeal to make the world a better place, sometimes get worn down by the difficulties of the work. If you feel called to your work but start to think your work isn’t making the difference you hoped it would, it is easy to become disenchanted and depressed.
Clearly the same sort of thing happens with prophets. The Elijah we meet in today’s scripture is thoroughly depressed, and not without reason. After all that he  has done for Yahweh, after many impressive, even miraculous, accomplishments, the same corrupt regime is in power, and is seeking to kill him. It’s more than Elijah can take. “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life.”
If you’ve ever talked with someone who has become disillusioned and depressed about the work she is doing, you likely know that it can be hard to break through that depression. The teacher who has made a difference in the lives of countless students may still think he is doing little good, and the person who reminds him of all his successes often makes little headway. When people who are passionate about their call get burned out and depressed, the failures seem monumental, that the successes minimal.
Elijah is no different. Firmly in the grip of depression, he’s sees nothing good. All Israel has abandoned God. No one lives in the ways Yahweh commanded. No one is faithful. Everyone has embraced the corrupt rule of Ahab and Jezebel. All the true prophets besides Elijah are dead. What’s the point. It’s all useless.
Of course none of this is totally true. All the prophets are not dead. Everyone has not abandoned Yahweh. There are faithful people who long for an end to the rule of Ahab and Jezebel. But in his depressed, burned out state, Elijah cannot see this.
Remarkably, even God cannot break through Elijah’s depression. Divine messengers speak to him. Food is miraculously provided for him. God is vividly present to him. But none of that matters. Elijah can see no sign of hope, nothing but gloom.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Seeing as Jesus Sees

Walk around any college campus, big hospital, or even many church campuses, and you are likely to see signs and plaques with people's names on them. These sometimes belong to greatly admired people who served there in the past, but more often they belong to people who made big monetary contributions allowing new buildings to be built, teaching positions to be endowed, or new programs to be started. But though there are many reasons for someone's name to make it onto a plaque, it seems quite certain that no one like the poor widow in today's gospel has her name so inscribed.

That's hardly surprising. How would a college or hospital or church even know that someone's very small gift was almost all she had? And I have no real issues with wealthy donors being recognized when their generosity helps things that could not have happened otherwise take place. (Even Jesus doesn't disparage the wealthy givers in this story.) But as I read this story, I found myself wondering how Jesus sees, and how that is different from how I and the world sees.

I wonder about this precisely because of how unnoticeable the giving Jesus points out is to me. And while Jesus doesn't disparage the sort of giving that makes me take notice, neither does he praise it, saving that for the widow's gift. Jesus seems to see things through a very different lens that many of us tend to do. Yet I assume that to be "in Christ" is to begin seeing the world more as he does.

There's an old adage about perception being reality which suggests that when my perception changes my reality will begin to change as well. But can I see as Jesus sees? The classic theological answer is that I cannot. At least I cannot on my own. But a new me, born in the power of the Spirit, where "in Christ there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" that is something altogether different.

God who makes all things new in Christ, help me to see as Jesus sees.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Restlessness and Longing

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
    so my soul longs for you, O God. 
Psalm 42:1

Some years ago, a spiritual director recommended a book she thought would resonate with me. It was The Holy Longing, by Ronald Rolheiser. Its first chapter begins, "It is no easy task to walk this earth and find peace. Inside of us, it would seem, something is at odds with the very rhythm of things and we are forever restless, dissatisfied, frustrated, and aching. We are so overcharged with desire that it is hard to come to simple rest. Desire is always stronger than satisfaction... We are driven persons, forever obsessed, continually dis-eased, living lives, as Thoreau once suggested, of quiet desperation, only occasionally experiencing peace."

Rolheiser goes on to say that the much misunderstood term "spirituality" is about what we do with this burning desire. In that sense, everyone has a spirituality, which is not to say that everyone pursues their desires in ways that are helpful. Indeed many spiritualities may be destructive and pathological, but they are the way in which people's souls attempt to quench their desire.

My own restlessness is often quite close to the surface. At times this longing has been, to use Rolheiser's language, holy. It has drawn me toward God and toward God's will for me, a longing like that named by today's psalmist. But at other times, my longing and restlessness seeks an outlet in other places and is far from holy. This can be particularly problematic for a pastor because my longings for success or affirmation or accomplishment can easily be dressed in religious garb.

I suspect that the spectacular moral failings and scandals that too often plague religious leaders have to do with this easy confusing of a personal desire with a holy one. I suspect a number of such folks fooled themselves long before they ever fooled others. That surely happens in the non-religious arena as well, any time people decide their desires and longings are valid and legitimate, if not actually holy.

In the aforementioned opening chapter, Rolheiser also uses a famous quote from Augustine. "You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you." Success and accomplishments are fine, up to a point, but they never completely fill our emptiness, although our frenzied, anxious, rat-race of a world indicates we're still hoping they may. At the same time, the current fascination with the topic of spirituality suggests that many have their doubts.

What is the object of your deepest longings? And as Sarah Palin might say, "How's that working out for you?" I know that for me, it's easy to get off track, and every so often, I need to make sure my deepest longings are actually about God.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Not Much Action

Today the lectionary takes up the book of Acts. Acts is short for "The Acts of the Apostles," though some have suggested a better name would be The Acts of the Holy Spirit. Regardless, the apostles are a little short on action as the book opens. The disciples watch Jesus ascend, they wait, and they "were constantly devoting themselves to prayer."

Not that waiting and devoting themselves to prayer are the sames as doing nothing, but they are not the sort of action that will mark much of the book following the events of Pentecost. And they are certainly not the sort of thing that counts for action in our world.

I'll confess that waiting and devotion to prayer are not things that come easily to me. I want to feel like I'm "doing something," and even wasting time on Facebook feels like busyness, even if it is totally unproductive busyness. But waiting and prayer...

There's a famous quote from the great reformer, Martin Luther, that says, "I have so much to do today that I'm going to need to spend three hours in prayer in order to be able to get it all done." But that is pretty much the opposite of my natural tendency. The busier I am the less time it seems I have to pray. And I don't think I'm all alone on this.

In my own life, one of the real problems with "not having time to pray" is that my actions and busyness become more about me than about God. I'm busy doing things, but that's not necessarily the same as God at work in and through me.

One of the crazy claims of Christian faith is that through the power of the Holy Spirit, followers of Jesus incarnate him in and to the world. That's a whole lot bigger than helping others and doing good things. It is about becoming the living body of Christ. The book of Acts is pretty clear that such a thing requires something from outside of us, the power and gifts of the Spirit. And apparently, that requires waiting and devotion to prayer.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sermon video: Bad Shepherds and Mr. Rogers

Sorry about the voice; had a bit of a cold.
Audios of sermons and worship can be found at FCPC website.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Sermon: Bad Shepherds and Mr. Rogers

1 Kings 21:1-10, 15-21a
Bad Shepherds and Mr. Rogers
James Sledge                                                                                       June 16, 2013

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, says Psalm 23. God says to King David, “It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel.” Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Not surprisingly in a culture where sheep herding was common, the metaphor of shepherd was applied to God, to kings, and to Jesus as Messiah, an image drawn from shepherds protecting their flocks from predators, and guiding them to good pasture and water to drink.
Few of us have much familiarity with shepherding, but we still use the metaphor, at least in the church. In the service where John Ohmer was officially installed as rector at The Falls Church Episcopal, the bishop carried a shepherd’s crook , a symbol that he is called to shepherd the diocese.
In the Old Testament, the kings that follow after King David are also supposed the shepherd Israel, to watch over God’s flock. Some of them do, but a lot of them don’t. Prophets lament the lost sheep of Israel burdened by their bad shepherds. The prophet Ezekiel says, “Ah you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.”
In much the same way that Jesus speaks centuries later, the prophets judge kings by how they care for the sheep, especially the most vulnerable. And God’s judgment is especially on these “false shepherds” who enrich themselves at the expense of the flock.
King Ahab and Queen Jezebel certainly fall into the category of false shepherds. Their story opens with this ominous note. Ahab, son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him. And in our reading this morning, Ahab and Jezebel engage in a textbook case of bad shepherding, murdering Naboth in order to get what they want.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

When I Am Weak

The Apostle Paul is an intriguing character. His writings are the basis of much of Protestant Christianity's particular emphases, but we know him primarily from his occasional letters. (The book of Acts also contains a great deal of material about Paul, although it is sometimes difficult to reconcile with what Paul himself says.) Reading Paul's letters if often a bit like listening in on one half of a phone conversation. It is not always clear what's on the other side of the discussion.

For the most part, Paul's letters address issues and concerns in congregations he has founded. Often, Paul is quite exasperated with the situation and is attempting to correct it. That seems to be the case in the readings from the last couple of days. For some reason, Paul feels compelled to argue for his authority, and it is in that effort that he gives one of his famous lines, a response from God to his prayers to remove a "thorn" that was given him. "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness."

Paul says this thorn keeps him from being too elated because of the spectacular revelations he has received. It forces him to rely on God's grace alone, giving him a remarkable outlook on things. "So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong."

 I don't know many people who boast in their weaknesses. As I mentioned on Monday, many of us aspire to self-sufficiency and abhor the notion of being dependent on anything. But Paul says that it is when he is weak that he discovers strength.

I think that one of the most difficult things for me is to be confident is something other than my own strengths and abilities. If I'm facing something difficult and I do not feel competent or well-equipped to handle it, I may despair of not having what it takes to do the job. But Paul seems to take the exact opposite view.

Over the years, people have often spoken of Presbyterians as the "frozen chosen," referring both to our belief that God reaches out to us in a freely offered gift, and also to our staid nature. We often work so hard to get everything neatly and well ordered that the whole thing can feel a bit dry. And I wonder if we don't have a tendency to trust too much in our own strength of intellect, leaving scant room for the sort of strength and power Paul speaks of.

One of the growing edges I'm trying to work on is viewing my own weaknesses differently. Rather than as failings or deficiencies that make me feel anxious and not up to the task, I'm trying to envision them as openings for the power that comes only from God. How wonderful it would be to proclaim with Paul, "Whenever I am weak, then I am strong."

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Creating God

It happens sometimes when I'm looking at the scripture passages for an upcoming Sunday sermon, and it happened when I read today's lectionary passages. None of them really spoke to me or moved me. If anything, some of them bothered me a bit.

I think most all folks tend to be drawn to scripture that resonates with where they already are. I know I do. And so I like passages that talk about God's love or about God caring for the downtrodden, but I'm less enamored with passages that speak of judgment or demand I do things I'd rather not. Often I'm better at seeing how others selectively pick and choose what scriptures they want to follow than I am at recognizing the behavior in myself. But then I read the lectionary and can't find a single passage I want to reflect on, and I know I'm doing the same thing.

What happens when the God we meet in scripture is not the God we want to meet? There are certainly passages that don't mean what they at first seem to, and there are passages that need to be considered in the larger context of other scripture. But still, there are many times when I and others simply prefer to create God in our own image. How else to explain the many varied and different Gods one meets in the teachings of various denominations and strains of Christianity?

One thing is certain, when I meet a scriptural picture of God that does not resonate with me or even disturbs me, that is surely something I need to spend some time with, letting it test and refine the God I have built for myself.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Grace Colored Glasses

In today's Old Testament reading, Israel is about to enter the land of promise, but Moses is not going to enter it with them. And so he reminds them of the covenant God has made with them, insisting that it is not too difficult a task for them. "If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess."

It is simple. Do as God has commanded and all will go well. Play by the rules, and you will prosper. But history proves that keeping God's commandments is too difficult, and Israel's history is filled with stories of their failures. Fortunately, God seems unwilling to give up on Israel. True, there are consequences for their failing to live as God's people, but God's grace simply will not leave them to their own devices.

That's encouraging news for me, because I know all about the sort of self-destructive behavior Israel engages in. Most all of us do things we know we shouldn't do and fail to do things we know that we should. I often regret such choices shortly after, but that doesn't always stop me from making the same choices again.

I think my experience may explain why stories of Jesus seeking the lost are so popular. At times, we all can identify with a wayward, prodigal son, a lost sheep, or a fellow like Zacchaeus from today's gospel, whose greed has caused him to hurt others and become despised in his own community.

But Jesus says, "He too is a son of Abraham." Zacchaeus may have betrayed his own people, may have walled himself off by his own, self-destructive behavior. But Jesus simply will not leave him there. He draws Zacchaeus back in, even when it scandalizes the good, religious folk.

It's nice to know that even when I act in ways contrary to what God wants, when I go through the day acting as though God isn't even there, when I put my own petty needs above everyone else's, Jesus refuses to see me as my actions define me. Instead he insists, "You too are a beloved child of God."

That calls for a big "Thanks be to God!"

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Monday, June 10, 2013

Becoming Dependent... in a Good Way

I'm back in the office after taking off most of last week. I'm pretty exhausted, but in a good way. My wife and I finally found a home to purchase after many months of searching, and I spent last week ripping out layers of old kitchen floor, knocking down a wall, refinishing hardwood flooring, and hanging sheet rock. I still have a lot of work to do, but I made a lot of progress.

I come from that "If you want it done right you'd better do it yourself" school of thought, and so I am inclined to do anything I know how to do - or think I can learn to do - on my own. (Only occasionally do I get myself in trouble by attempting something I shouldn't have.) So I am feeling pretty good about myself as a handyman after last week, but there is a downside to my do-it-yourself attitude.

Being self-sufficient is something many people aspire to, although no one is ever totally so. But for me, the desire to be self-sufficient can make me loathe to ask for help. If I need help, then I'm not doing it myself. In fact, I'm dependent on another, and dependent is the opposite of self-sufficient.

For God alone my soul waits in silence;
    from him comes my salvation.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
    my fortress; I shall never be shaken.  
Psalm 62:1-2

At the core of Christian faith is a radical dependence on God, on God's love and grace in Jesus. This is perhaps especially true for Protestants like myself who speak of "justification by grace through faith," the notion that restored relationship with God is a gift freely offered, not something we can acquire by our efforts. There are times when this sounds absolutely wonderful, this promise of God's love extended to us regardless. But it can negate notions of personal merit, accomplishment, etc.

Notions of self-sufficiency sometime lead me astray in church work when I think that "success" is about getting everything just right: the right programs, the right mission activities, the right volunteers, and so on. But when I think this way I view church through a self-sufficiency lens, not leaving much room for God to operate, for the Spirit to move, for more than I can imagine to occur.

And so I need to remind myself to wait for God alone. I need to remember that Jesus promises to be with all who seek to follow him, and we don't need to do it all ourselves. He calls me away from the impossible demand of being self-sufficient saying, "Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

That sounds pretty inviting.

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Sunday, June 2, 2013

Sermon - Extravagant Generosity: Freed from Consumeritis

Luke 19:1-10
Extravagant Generosity: Freed from Consumeritis
James Sledge                                                                                       June 2, 2013

I was in Target the other day, picking up a few small items, and for some reason I walked detoured through the TV section. I didn’t even slow down as I walked by the 26, 32, and 40 inch screens, but I stopped at the 55 and 70 inch TVs. Now that would be nice. Think of the Super Bowl party you could have with a 70 inch television.
That big screen called to me, but I walked on to the checkout with my little basket of items. I wanted it though, and I wished I had it. I even felt a bit diminished by not having it, which is not surprising since I suffer from a disease endemic to our culture. I don’t have a bad case, but I still have consumeritis. Its chief symptom is always needing more in order to be happy: a new TV, new car, renovated kitchen, new smart phone, and on and on and on.
One of the problems with consumeritis is that getting more doesn’t actually help. You still need more. That’s true whether you’re rich or poor. Regardless of income, people say that if they just had 20% more, they’d be happy.[1] Just think, wherever you are, whatever your salary, whatever you have, someone is sure she’d be happy if only she made what you make and had what you have. But you know better.
Consumeritis is a great spiritual malady of our age and the cause of much of our anxiety. It’s true that a bit of dissatisfaction can motivate and drive us, but at some point, this endless striving for more becomes pathological, an addiction that can never be sated. It keeps people in jobs they can’t stand, and it runs them ragged. It consumes people, damaging relationships, ruining health, and more. As someone has said, “We buy things we don't even need with money we don't even have to impress people we don't even know”[2]
Endemic cosumeritis is a modern problem, but the disease itself has been around forever. No doubt Zacchaeus suffered from it. After all, he had pursued riches in a manner that left him hated and disowned by fellow Israelites. Chief tax collectors purchased their position from the Romans, becoming a part of Rome’s hated occupation. And beyond collaborating with the Romans, they got rich by collecting more taxes than were actually owed and keeping the surplus. In other words, Zacchaeus was a traitor and a thief.
I wonder what drove Zacchaeus to pursue wealth at such costs. What about him was willing to become a hated pariah to get wealth? Surely there was some deep, unfilled need that drove him. But I suspect it had not worked out as he hoped. How else to explain his desire to see Jesus, even if he made a fool of himself in the process?
And when he meets Jesus, everything changes. He’s ready to give away half he owns and repay quadruple anyone he defrauded. Whatever it was that drove him to pursue wealth no matter the cost, it is gone, and Jesus says that “salvation” has come to his house. Zacchaeus has been healed, made whole, saved, made new.