Wednesday, July 31, 2013

That Could Never Happen

In yesterday's gospel, Jesus fed thousands with five loaves and two fish. Today he walks on water, and I love how nonchalantly the narrator reports this. "When he saw that they (the disciples) were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea." Well of course. How else would he have done so?

Some years ago I recall reading a Bible commentary that suggested this episode might be a misplaced resurrection story. I don't recall details, but this scholar seemed to think that such an event couldn't have actually happened with the actual person Jesus.

Scholars have given similar treatment to the feeding of the 5000, with that miracle cast as one of sharing. Jesus got all those folks to share what they had hidden under their robes in something akin to the folk tale, "Stone Soup."

Such biblical scholarship has largely fallen out of vogue in recent decades, but it is easy to see its attraction. Most all of us have notions regarding what is and isn't possible, along with ideas about what God is like and how God does or doesn't act. Most all of us have some sort of boundaries which we don't expect even God to violate.

Perhaps your or my boundaries are fairly accurate, but perhaps they are not. And I can't help wondering what sort of God it is who is fixed by my boundaries, who is not free to surprise me or act contrary to my assumptions.

I suspect this is particularly a problem for people like me who like to figure things out and understand how they work. I like things to be explained with a fair amount of precision and clarity. I'm very much a product of and comfortable with Enlightenment logic. Only in recent years have I begun to get more comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty, and it is still easy for me to slip into old patterns of right and wrong, possible and impossible.

I'm not suggesting that one must read everything in the Bible as a real, historical occurrence, far from it. But I do wonder how much we constrain God from being at work in our lives and in our congregations by our certainties about what can and can't happen.

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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Gospel We Live

In the gospels, Jesus is often portrayed as needing to get away, to spend time in retreat and prayer. In today's gospel reading, he sees that his disciples need some time to rest as well, and he takes them to "a deserted place by themselves." The ministry that Jesus calls each of us to does require times of rest along with times of personal, spiritual nourishment. We cannot be the body of Christ without sabbath, without rest and retreat and prayer.

But neither can we be the body of Christ without giving ourselves to others. When Jesus and his disciples head out on for sabbath and retreat crowds discover them, and Jesus "had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things." And before he is done, Jesus will also feed the thousands who have gathered around him.

Yesterday on my Facebook page, I shared a status from James Kim, a colleague and seminary classmate. It read, "To be about Christ's mission, get your eyes off your church and make your neighborhood the focus of the gospel." I'm pretty sure James was not saying that the life of discipleship requires no attention to self, no attention to the spiritual needs of the congregation. But it is all too easy, and all too common, for church congregations to become so focused on self that ministry to others receives scant attention. "Mission" too often becomes small acts of charity that comprise a minimal part of a congregation's life. The gospel proclaimed by the lives of some congregations looks like today's gospel reading, but without teaching or feeding the crowds.

What gospel do people who aren't a part of your congregation encounter because of the life of your congregation? To what degree is James Kim's Facebook status helpful advice for your congregation?

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Monday, July 29, 2013

Strange Rewards

Even in denominations like my own Presbyterian Church, which emphasizes salvation by God's grace and not human effort, it is hard to get away from the notion of punishment or reward based on how we live our lives. The phrase, "There's a special place in hell for people who..." speaks to this expectation that people should get what they deserve.

Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, we like to think this about the success and good fortune in our daily lives. People who are successful tend to think they earned it. And there is a companion tendency to think people are responsible for their own bad predicaments. Not that personal initiative and effort don't count, but they are hardly the only variables involved. Working hard and doing the right thing do not always lead to rewards as we tend to think of them.

Take John the baptizer (that's what Mark's gospel calls him) in today's gospel reading. John's reward for doing just as God wants him to do is arrest and then execution. In Mark's gospel, this clearly foreshadows what will happen with Jesus, and no doubt there were people who said of both men, "Well when you go around challenging powerful people all the time, you can't be too surprised when they take offense and do something about it."

Jesus expects that those who follow him will run into many of the same problems he and John did. We will be rejected, hated, and will suffer. But that is the rarest of experiences for American Christians. If anything, we tend to think that church membership gives us an air of respectability. And though not as common as it once was, politicians and business people still join churches to gain contacts and project the right image.

The interesting question for me is, "What changed?" Did the world change so much that Jesus' message is no longer problematic or offensive? Or did we change Jesus' message to make it more compatible with the world? The answer likely includes some of both, but clearly there's been a great deal of domesticating and ignoring some things Jesus said. We keep trying to squeeze Jesus into our view of how the world works or should work. We keep trying to squeeze Jesus into our notions of reward and punishment. To lesser or greater degrees, we all do this because, to lesser or greater degrees, we all put ourselves and our direct interests at the very center of our lives.

Jesus puts God there, and he calls us to do the same. But look where that got Jesus.

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Sermon video for 7/21: Martha and Mary Problems

Audios of sermons and worship on FCPC website.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Preaching Thoughts on a Non-Preaching Sunday

I confess that I've often struggled with the whole prayer thing. Not only am I terrible about letting other things crowd out time for prayer, but I also wrestle with the very notion of prayer. Or perhaps my wrestling is with notions of prayer I've picked up over the years.

I've long been troubled when I hear people tell of how God answered their prayer and let them survive or their house be spared when nearly everyone else perished or had their house destroyed. Did no one else pray for the same thing? Was something wrong with their prayers so that God didn't listen to them.

Very often I've heard praying described in ways that sound much like a child asking Santa for presents at Christmas. And at first glance, Jesus seems to be encouraging such a thing when he encourages persistence in prayer saying, "For everyone who asks receives.."

But perhaps it matters that the gospel reading brackets this call for persistence with the Lord's Prayer and with the image of God as a good parent who gives good gifts to children. Good parents don't always give children what they ask for, and indeed, the only gift actually promised by Jesus is the gift of the  Holy Spirit. I assume that those who receive the Holy Spirit learn to pray as Jesus does, "Not my will but yours be done."

I suppose there are ways in which I'll always struggle with prayer, but there are two things I feel fairly confident about regarding it. One is that prayer has to do with the reality of God. Prayer, especially the non-Santa Clause sort, is conversation with another, connecting with the Other in whom my life becomes fuller and more complete. The second is that prayer, at least the sort Jesus teachings in his model prayer, forms me in ways that are quite different from the ways of the world around me. Praying for God's rule to govern all the world, that I would be totally dependent on God for my daily needs, and that I would forgive as freely as Jesus does; that is not our culture's model of how to get ahead.

A thought just occurred to me. Perhaps one of the reason I so often let other things crowd out prayer is that I realize deep in my bones that prayer can change me, and some of the changes Jesus asks of me are just a bit scary.

Not my will but yours, Lord.

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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Confining Jesus to Heaven

One of the things I greatly appreciate about the emergent church movement is a reemphasis on the kingdom of God, the rule or reign of God. Somewhere along the way, Christianity got so focused on personal salvation that it developed a very other worldly tint. God's reign and heaven began to be thought of as synonyms, and salvation was about being there in heaven rather than here on earth. Brian McLaren calls this a "gospel of evacuation." But Jesus speaks of God's kingdom drawing near, and he instructs us to pray for its coming, that time when God's will is done here as it is in heaven. In other words, we are to pray for salvation coming to earth.

It's easy to see how heaven got substituted for the kingdom. It's hard to imagine the world getting straightened out and becoming an ideal place. It's simpler to locate an ideal world somewhere else, some place totally unlike here.

I also wonder if placing the kingdom beyond our lives on earth doesn't allow us to keep our distance from Jesus and his call for radical change in anticipation of a new day drawing near. Jesus tells his followers to turn, to live now by the ways of God's coming dominion. But those ways are very different from the ways that govern  much of our daily lives. They call us to live out of synch with much that the world values, and almost all of us are significantly captive to the values of the world.

I started thinking along these lines after reading today's gospel where Jesus heals the Gerasene demoniac, allowing the spirits that possess him to go into a herd of pigs which then charge into the sea and are drowned. After this amazing event, people come out to see what has happened, and they respond in rather odd fashion. "Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood."

Strange that when people encounter the power of God at work in their midst that they want it gone. It's certainly true that modern people often underplay the frightening aspect of God's presence, but I think the story speaks of more than that. I think the people in the story correctly realize that God's presence will radically reorder things in ways they do not want. So best to send Jesus on his way.

I wonder if we don't do much the same thing when we try to keep him cooped up in heaven, the changed life that he calls us to safely delayed until after we are dead.

In the gospel reading, only the former demoniac wants to stay with Jesus. Perhaps it is necessary to experience Jesus' healing and transforming power in our lives before we are quite ready to let him tell us how we are to live.

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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Who Is This Jesus? And Who Am I?

One of my all-time favorite quotes is the opening line from John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion. It reads, "Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves." Calvin thinks the two sorts of wisdom deeply intertwined, as most religious folk likely do. Insomuch as this is so, our lives get distorted from what they should be whenever we misapprehend who we are or who God is.

Another quote I've used often comes from Mahatma Gandhi. "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." But how could this be? If Christians are those who have been transformed by being joined to Christ, who have become a new sort of human because they have come to know both God and humanity in Jesus, then how can it be that Gandhi observed such a disconnect between what he saw in Christ and what he saw in Christians?

Today's gospel reading contains the famous story of Jesus stilling a storm on the Sea of Galilee. It ends with a question from the stunned disciples. “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Mark's gospel is terribly interested in this question, one that cannot really be answered short of the cross. But despite Mark and other gospel writers addressing this question of who Jesus is, it seems we're still struggling to answer it. How else to explain the experience Gandhi has, not to mention all the different and contradictory images of Jesus that are presented by those who claim to be the "body of Christ."

Thinking of this problem from Calvin's perspective, I wonder if it arises more from faulty knowledge of God, faulty knowledge of self, or perhaps from a misunderstanding regarding how the two relate and where we get such knowledge.

On the question of where we get such knowledge, we run into a significant problem, one that seems particularly acute in 21st Century America. We are prone not to trust any source of knowledge that does not accord with what we already feel or think. Thus we are inclined not to accept knowledge about God that is contrary to our existing ideas about how a god should be and act. To an even greater degree we are inclined not to accept any outside critique that suggests we have misunderstood what it means to be human. And the more captive we are to such inclinations, the more we will know a god of our own construction and a self validated by this self-serving god.

I suspect that the reason Gandhi found the Christians he met so unlike the Christ he read of in the Bible was that so many of us, despite our professions of faith, refuse to let Jesus redefine our notions of God or our notions of self. Instead we try to shoe-horn Jesus into faulty images of God and self that we will not abandon, not even for Jesus.

And so it seems to me critically important that those of us who in some way claim the name "Christian" to continue wrestling with the question the disciples raise for us today, and that we be open to that redefining who we think God is, as well as who we think we are.

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Monday, July 22, 2013

Getting Off Center

My wife and I recently bought a house that needed a bit of work. We've been fixing it up ourselves, including tearing out and redoing the kitchen. We got a good bit of work done before actually moving in, but we still don't have a kitchen. Things connected with the house have started to feel a little all-consuming. Every moment of spare time gets devoted to it, and both of us are looking forward to the day when it is not so much the focus of our lives.

Most all of us have times in life when something so dominates our routines that other things get squeezed out. When a child is born, life sometimes get turned upside down. A new job can do the same. Depending on the circumstances, these instances of our lives being reordered can be rewarding or frustrating, perhaps both. At times, we may even question our sanity in ever ending up in such a place.

Yesterday in my sermon, I asked the question (as much to myself as to anyone), "What is the one thing at the center or your life?" It came from Jesus' comment to Martha, "There is need of only one thing." And I thought of that question again as I read today's gospel parable where some seed produces abundantly while other does not.

A house does not really deserve the sort of attention and devotion that ours has been receiving of late. But at least that is something that will end in time (I hope). Other things need to be at the center for life to be what it should be, but we humans are very good at putting the wrong things there. As today's parable suggests, even when we put the right things at the center, we are easily distracted by "the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things," and our centers get all askew.

Our current focus on the house (however necessary for the moment) has left me feeling askew, and it is starting to wear on me. But other things that get us off center are more subtle and seductive. They play into the fact that more often than not, I make myself the very center of things. Never mind Jesus' insistence that God needs to be in that spot, with neighbor sharing a place with me.

I suspect that much like the strain I have felt from being so focused on a move and renovation, a great deal of the anxiety in our society today arises from an off centered focus on self that won't allow for a truly good and just society. After all, Jesus comes proclaiming a kingdom, a new social order, and it is built on lives that push self off to the side - Jesus says his followers are to "deny themselves" -  and are recentered on love of God and neighbor.

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Sunday, July 21, 2013

Sermon - Martha and Mary Problems

Luke 10:38-42
Martha and Mary Problems
James Sledge                                                                                       July 21, 2013

Here at the church we have a staff meeting every Tuesday morning, and twice a month we have what we call an extended staff meeting. In it, we spend a significant period of time meditating on a scripture passage. Usually we do something called lectio divina or divine reading, an ancient practice that has been described as praying the scriptures.  The passage is read with each of us simply listening for a word or phrase that strikes us. Silence following the reading allows us to simply be attentive to the passage touching us in some way. 
Then the passage is read a couple more times, each time with additional times of silence to contemplate why that word or phrase touched us and how God might be speaking to us through it. It’s quite different from the more typical practice of reading the Bible and trying to understand what a passage or story means. Lectio divina is less Bible study and more a form of prayer.
A couple of weeks ago, as we finished our time of silent reflection and began to share with one another what each of us had heard or experienced, I was struck with what an odd practice this might seem to someone who walked in on it. Here we were, a group of employees “on the clock” if you will, and other than occasional breaks in the silence for the scripture to be read aloud, no one appeared to be doing anything, at least not as doing tends to be thought of.
In terms of the typical workplace, our times of lectio divina are indeed an odd practice. I cannot imagine such a thing going on in many places of employment. For that matter, I don’t know that it happens with that much regularity in churches. After all, churches are busy places. There is a lot to do, and there is limited time to sit around being “unproductive.”
Mary is rather unproductive herself when Jesus drops by to visit with her and her sister Martha. She also steps out of the normal role of women at that time. Sitting at Jesus’ feet is the stereotypical pose of a disciple studying under a rabbi, and that was only done by men.
Meanwhile, as Martha does all those things that need to be done when company comes, as she follows the biblical injunction to show hospitality, she gets more and more frustrated with Mary sitting there, not offering to help.
This is a simple little story, but it wrestles with some difficult issues. There’s an unfortunate tendency to reduce the story to either/or, good or bad choices, but as many have pointed out, “If no one gets dinner ready, what will Jesus and Mary eat?” And I’m pretty sure there was no take out or fast food available.
Our Bible translation doesn’t necessarily help on this as much as it might. Speaking of Martha as distracted by her many tasks has made it easy for some to portray her as a harried, Martha Stewart type, overly obsessed with getting everything just so. But in fact her “tasks” are more normally translated as “service” or even “ministry,” and the word is the root of our word “deacon.” And our Bible translation misses a second chance to note this by not translating Martha’s complaint to Jesus in what seems to me a more straightforward, word for word fashion. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me alone to serve?”

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Uncertainty, Forgiveness, and Healing

Like a lot of pastors, I mentioned Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman in Sunday's sermon, although these were  more asides than the focus. To be honest, I'm not sure I have a lot to add to all the other voices seeking to explain what it all means.

I'll freely admit which camp I inhabit. I'm one of the people who had a hard time understanding why it took so long for Zimmerman to become a suspect, and who believes that Martin's race made his death more "acceptable" to some. If I were African American, I'd likely have a hard time not concluding that the life of a young black male is less important than the life of others, and that gun rights matter a lot more than Trayvon Martin's right to grow up.

That said, a lot of comments on all sides are pretty predictable and often knee-jerk. The terrible and troubled legacy of racism in this country is very much alive, but it is also very complex, and every event connected to it cannot be reduced to simple, clear-cut motivations and causes.

I have little doubt that race played a role in this sad affair. If George Zimmerman had not regarded a young black male as both suspicious and threatening, things would surely have turned out differently. For that matter, if people's lives grew out of reflections on loving neighbor and the parable about a Samaritan Jesus told to address that issue (one of my sermon asides), our world would be a very different place, regardless of whether or not it wore the label "Christian."

And so, while I don't have much to add to the commentary on the Trayvon Martin case, I find myself wondering - with some prodding by today's gospel - about which it is that America needs more, forgiveness or healing. Many people get irritated when hearing of the sins of slavery or racism. "That was long ago," they say. It has nothing to do with me. But as William Faulkner once said, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

The wounds and scars of the past are far from fully healed, and the fact that I never owned a slave doesn't change that at all. And the all too frequent desire to minimize those wounds and scars only rubs salt in them. There is something therapeutic about naming and claiming sins, but we are often loathe to do so. As a child of the South, I heard often the absurd claim that the Civil War wasn't caused by slavery, a denial of sin that is still popular no matter how often it is debunked.

Regardless, there has been much progress in the area of racial reconciliation. Events from my childhood seem almost ancient when I see them in news footage. Maybe we simply need to focus on getting past race. Let's forget about sin and move on with the healing.

I've often been troubled by today's gospel  reading which seems to imply that Jesus only healed a paralytic to prove he had authority to forgive the man. But today I am appreciative of the passage's unwillingness to completely separate the two things. Not that sin caused the man to be paralyzed, but sin is a fundamental problem for human beings, and any healing that deals with physical healing without dealing with sin is at best a partial healing. And our difficulty with sin in matters of race makes full healing difficult.

And this is not simply a call for all those racists out there to confess their sins. I hope they will, but confessing other people's sin is part of the problem. I tend to imagine my lingering tinges of racism as benign. Only other, more virulent forms are a problem. Of course that's not so different from someone who looks like a racist to me talking about how he never owned slaves or barred people from his establishment on account of race.

And so in my uncertainty about just what to say about George Zimmerman or the meanings to be drawn from the verdict in his trial, I'll simply pray for forgiveness and healing. We still need both.

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Sermon video: Getting Straightened Out

Audios of sermons and worship service are on FCPC website.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Sermon: Getting Straightened Out

Amos 7:7-17 (8:4-8b)
Getting Straightened Out
James Sledge                                                                                                   July 14, 2013

When I was a kid, my family often took camping trips in the North Carolina Mountains. We mostly did the Blue Ridge Parkway and National Parks sort of thing. We went to Tweetsie Railroad on occasions, but my parents weren’t so big on the touristy spots, much to the chagrin of my brother and me.
We lived in Spartanburg, SC at the time, which is quite close to the mountains. One of our “local” TV station was in Asheville, NC, and so we often saw commercials for mountain attractions. And beside TV ads, the drive into the mountains was peppered with billboards advertising all sorts of tourist traps. One that fascinated me as a small child was a place called Mystery Hill. The billboards spoke of defying gravity and showed people standing normally but at odd angles to the walls. It looked magic to me, but we never convinced our parents to go there.
I did once go to a place called Gravity Hill. There are actually a lot of places by that name around the country, places where things seem to roll uphill. When I went, we rode in the car down to the “bottom” of a hill, put the car in neutral, released the brake, and lo and behold, the car began to back up the hill on its own.
Places called Gravity Hill are optical illusions created by some confluence of terrain features that tricks your mind as to what is truly vertical and horizontal. Mystery Hill was apparently as even more elaborate optical illusion created by disorienting you as you were taken into a room where walls and furniture and everything else actually leaned to one side.
Under the right conditions, optical illusions can be so convincing that you can’t help but see them, even when you know they are not true. Our eyes cannot always be trusted, and so there are times when it is very helpful to have some outside reference by which to test what you think you see. And so when carpenters are building a wall, “Does that look straight to you?” isn’t going to cut it. Something more reliable than eyesight is needed.
And so all decent carpenters and builders have a level, probably several of them, to show for certain if that wall is really running straight up and down. An older and simpler device, one that is still very useful in situations where a level won’t work very well, is a plumb line. All it takes is a string with a weight tied on the end of it. Hold the string, wait for the weight to stop swinging, and you have straight up and down clearly shown. If I had had one with me when I went to Gravity Hill, it would have clearly exposed the optical illusion. And in those rooms at Mystery Hill, it would confirm that the walls that are off, not gravity.
In our Old Testament reading today, the prophet Amos seems to say that God holds up a plumb line to Israel, and finds them horribly askew, not at all what they are meant to be. Amos spoke in the time after Israel has split in two. The smaller kingdom of Judah, with its capital in Jerusalem was to the south, and the much larger, wealthier, and more successful kingdom of Israel was in the north, with its capital in Samaria.
This was a time of relative peace and prosperity for Israel. Things were going very well, at least for wealthy. These seem to have been heady times for the rich who were building fine homes and expanding their estates. The poor were not doing so well, however, when Amos arrives to confront both the religious and political leaders of Israel.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Inner Change - Outer Change

Here is the opening paragraph of Richard Rohr's meditation for today. "Bernard McGinn says that mysticism is 'a consciousness of the presence of God that by definition exceeds description and . . . deeply transforms the subject who has experienced it.' If it does not deeply change the lifestyle of the person—their worldview, their economics, their politics, their ability to form community—you have no reason to believe it is genuine mystical experience. It is often just people with an addiction to religion itself, which is not that uncommon."

Not only have I learned much from Rohr over the years, but I love the name of his organization, the Center for Action and Contemplation. That name, along with today's devotion, speaks to a false dichotomy between the inner and outer life, between contemplative spirituality and lives of active service. And I think today's gospel lesson chimes in on this as well.

As the gospel of Luke nears its end, the risen Jesus appears to his disciples, and he speaks of the mission they will soon undertake, proclaiming the message of Jesus "to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem." But this mission, all those things they will do that are recorded in the book of Acts, must await "power from on high." And so this great mission to all the world begins with,"So stay here in the city." It begins with waiting, a waiting that Acts tells us is spent in time devoted to prayer.

In Presbyterian circles, there are many who seem a bit suspicion of "spiritual types" with their candles and silences and focus contemplation. The reasons for this are many, but some of it is rooted in examples spirituality that look nothing like the mysticism Rohr recommends. It is more of an addiction to religious experience itself, with little evidence that this experience makes a great deal of difference in how a person lives.

But their is a counterpart in some Presbyterian churches where social activism is highly valued but without much sense of a spiritual basis to it. Outside of Sunday worship, such activism may be so indistinguishable from similar, secular activism that volunteers may be unaware of any Christian underpinnings.

The false dichotomy I mentioned earlier may well arise from these two distorted examples of spirituality and activism, and both of them help to project a false picture of what following Jesus really is. Religious or spiritual experience that does not transform people's outer lives, "their worldview, their economics, their politics, their ability to form community," as Rohr puts it, is not the sort of new life Jesus calls us to. But social activism that is rooted merely in our own innate political or social tendencies, without being profoundly shaped by the Spirit's presence, is little better. Even when it does some of the very things Jesus asks us to do, it has no power beyond that of those involved. As such it struggles to maintain energy. The disparaging term, "a tired '60s radical," speaks directly to this energy problem that arises when we are dependent solely on the energy of the cause itself or our own personal stores, and we receive no "power from on high."

The Christian life must have significant inner and outer components. However, I suspect that most all of  us have a tendency to get overly focused on one or the other. When we do, our faith gets distorted. To make matters worse, we tend to notice the distortion of those whose focus is opposite ours while tending to miss our own.

Are you more inclined toward the inner or outer aspects of faith? Which sort of distortion are you more prone to experience? Where do you need to grow in order to experience a fuller and more balanced life of faith?

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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Idle Tales

While reading today's gospel using the practice of lectio divina - divine reading or praying the scriptures - I found that the phrase "idle tale" seemed to smack me upside the head. The phrase occurs in Luke's story of Easter morning as the women return to tell the eleven about the empty tomb. But the story is too outlandish for the disciples. They can't bring themselves to believe such an "idle tale."

Interesting that the very people who had been with Jesus during his ministry, who had heard him speak of being crucified and then rising on the third day, seemed so unreceptive the this tale from the women. If they didn't believe it, who would?

Fast forward to our day, and there are many who still think the story an "idle tale." Devout Christians have not always been very charitable to such folks, which is odd when you think about it. If Jesus' own disciples could not believe such a story, even when told them by eyewitnesses, why would modern Christians think poorly of people who, without the aid of any eyewitnesses, judge a story from the book known as the Bible an "idle tale."

As for me, I grew up with this tale. I have heard it so many times, that the outlandish nature of such a tale has perhaps been obscured. All those folks around me seemed to believe it and repeat it. It must not be an "idle tale," even if those first disciples thought so.

So why did the phrase "idle tale" grab me so this morning? As I reflected on that, it occurred to me that my faith is often constrained by what seems reasonable, logical, or possible. The Easter story may have had its audacity wiped away by its familiarity, but its not like I really expect to see Jesus walking around. And I often leave the Holy Spirit to more pentecostal types. And so very often, my faith seems to be more in a memory of Jesus, in his teachings and sayings and wisdom rather than in any living being who may call me or send me somewhere I don't want to go. Come to think of it, sometimes I worship a very dead Jesus, so maybe the women's tale is more idle than I've realized.

Sometimes I think that the biggest obstacle in my life of faith is a difficulty being open to what I cannot understand, explain, or control. It is not trusting that God can do things through me and through a church congregation that I or we cannot logically do on our own. Because that means trusting that a living Jesus is truly present in the transforming power of the Spirit, and not simply as a memorial of long ago events.

God really present, and the Spirit really whirling around in the church, pushing and moving things. Now that really is an idle tale.

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Monday, July 8, 2013

How to Love God

Many church people would likely nod in assent if someone spoke of faith as "loving God and loving neighbor." Loving one's neighbor may be difficult at times, but it's fairly easy to come up with a long list of things that fit into that category. I'm not sure the same can be said for loving God.

What exactly does it look like to love God? What things count for and against it? Those who speak of Christians as hypocrites suggest we think attending worship and believing in Jesus suffice. Churches certainly have their share of hypocrisy, but many people diligently seek to live their faith. Even so, they may struggle with what it looks like to love God.

Thoughts on what loving God looks like arose for me after reading Fr. Richard Rohr's daily devotion. He tells of a sidewalk frequented by the homeless of Albuquerque, NM, where he once observed something written in chalk. “I watch how foolishly man guards his nothing—thereby keeping us out. Truly God is hated here.”I thought of all the church congregations in this country, many of them segregated by income level as well as race, and pondered that phrase, "thereby keeping us out."

But Rohr's quote wasn't nearly so troubling as the lectionary verses from 1 Samuel. There the newly anointed King Saul is rejected by God. Here loving God is equated with obedience, and Saul's failure is not bringing total destruction on the Amalekites. He was supposed to commit genocide as well as kill every animal, but Saul spares their king and keeps the good animals and other booty. (He later claims he is bringing them as a offering for God.) Issues of compassion are not raised here. Saul kills all the women and children. The only issue is his absolute devotion to God, or the lack of it.

This is not the only time genocide is commanded by God in the Old Testament. Historically speaking, this was a violent time and it was not uncommon for conquorers to wipe out entire towns, but I don't know that context makes God come off much better. 

Strangely enough this story may be, in part, Israel wrestling with questions about what it looks like to love God. When Jerusalem was destroyed and its leaders and intelligentsia taken into exile, much soul searching took place about how Israel had failed to be the covenant community God had called them to be. They had loved God when it was easy and convenient and ignored God when it suited them. One way they had been "unfaithful" was in hedging their bets by dabbling in the religious practices of their non-Israelite neighbors. The local Canaanite gods and goddesses were of the fertility variety, and fertility is a big issue in agriculture. So a sacrifice here and there to Baal was a bit of crop insurance. 

But in light of defeat and exile, Israel contemplated her failure to love God with total devotion. One obvious problem: they had not been pure enough. They had not totally wiped out those Canaanites whose religious practices had tempted them. The Old Testament is hardly of one mind on this. There are regular commands to care for the sojourner and alien, and the book of Ruth celebrates the devotion of a non-Israelite. But clearly there was a school of thought in Israel that equated loving God with a purity requiring genocide.

This school of thought still has its adherents. They don't generally favor genocide these days, but their love of God does come with a fair amount of hatred for the impure, the heretic, the pagan, etc. Such folks usually refuse to acknowledge the varied witness of scripture on this and other issues. The Bible is in full agreement that total devotion to God is required, but just what that looks like is debated within scripture itself. Some of the prophets point to Israel's failure to do justice and care for the poor as the real failure of love. And those who demand covenant purity sometimes seem to forget that the original covenant with Abraham and Sarah promised that through them, "all the families of the earth shall be blessed."

This bedrock covenant of Israel is cosmic in scope, but Israel, just like religious folks today, were prone to narrow its focus and constrict it to their purposes. And the resulting biases find their way into sacred scripture. It is all too easy to spot, both in Old and New Testaments.

Fortunately for Christians, we have a remarkable example of what loving God looks like, namely Jesus. And while this example sets a very high bar, it is amazingly devoid of any zealotry aimed against outsiders (though later followers of Jesus would add that). Jesus' take on devotion and love for God demands much of us, but in service to others and not at their expense. Jesus seems totally to reject the school of thought that would connect devotion and purity to genocide, not that this has always restrained his adherents. 

And so I find myself back at that indictment in the quote from Rohr. "Truly God is hated here." I know people who are very angry with God. I know people who don't believe in God, some whose disbelief is so intense they despise people who do believe in God. But I've rarely met anyone who claimed to hate God other than in a fit of pique. So how should we describe ourselves when we deliberately live in ways we know are at odds with what God wants and expects?

This post is a lot longer, and probably more rambling, than  most. That's a sure sign of my own internal wrestling on this for my own life of faith, including its many failures and refusals to trust that God/Jesus' way is the right one. Do I love God? Do I hate God? Or am I so lukewarm that neither really applies? 

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Sermon video: Learning to See God

Audios of sermons and worship can be found on the FCPC website.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Sermon: Learning to See God

2 Kings 5:1-14
Learning To See God
James Sledge                                                                                       July 7, 2013

My family used to have a dog, a Cardigan Welsh Corgi named Fred. Cardigans are the ones that have a tail. They’re a bit larger and heavier than the better known Pembroke variety, but still, Fred wasn’t even a foot high at the shoulder.
Fred had the best disposition of any dog I’ve ever known. He was always happy, loved everyone, and he didn’t have a mean bone in his body. Nonetheless, at some point he decided that one of his jobs was to make like a fierce guard dog when the mail arrived at the front door. He sounded like a much bigger dog, and if you didn’t know him or couldn’t see him, you might have concluded that he was a real threat. But to us, and to the postal carrier who did know him, it was quite comical. And if the front door was open, leaving only the glass storm door between Fred and the letter carrier, she might say, “Hi Fred,” and he would wag his tail.
As ridiculous as the whole thing was, there was no stopping it. It’s not like you can reason with a dog and explain to him how silly he looks. It was instinct, after all. He was trying to protect his home, going into full aggression mode, hair standing up on his back, making him 11 inches tall rather than 10½. He was simply wired to act that way.
We humans are not nearly so instinctive as Fred. We can look at our behavior and change it when it seems to be unhelpful. But that is not to say that we don’t have some deeply ingrained ways of responding to things around us, and these are more instinctive when we feel threatened or angry.
At such moments we are prone to fight or flight responses, and if we do not flee, the fight response means employing some sort of power or force. It may be physical, verbal, military. It may involve threats and intimidation, like Fred with the mail carrier. But whatever the form, most of us have deeply ingrained assumptions about how power and force work.
You can see such assumptions at work in our reading about Naaman, the Syrian commander with leprosy. When he hears that there is someone in Israel who can heal him, he assumes it must be connected to people with power. It must belong to those with influence and might, and so he goes to his king who provides him with a letter of introduction as well as fine gifts that he can take to Israel’s king in order to get this powerful ability to heal.
Of course the king of Israel knows nothing about healing leprosy, but he does understand power and threat and intimidation. He’s beside himself. He tears his clothes and screams at his advisors that Naaman is seeking to provoke an international incident. Clearly he is going to use this as a pretense for Aram attacking Israel, and only Elisha’s intervention prevents the king from going into full fight or flight mode.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

"God Bless America" and Other July 4th Conundrums

Today's gospel covers the portion of Jesus' trial where he is transferred from Pilate, to Herod, and back again to Pilate. It concludes with this postscript. "That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies." Likely Luke is simply making an allusion to Psalm 2, but I immediately thought of the phrase, "Politics makes strange bedfellows."

That is perhaps even more so when politics gets mixed with religion, which is has as long as both have existed. A perpetual human project is the attempt to manage God for our own purposes. "God bless America" is a fairly innocuous version of this (made less innocuous when in includes the expectation that blessing America means cursing our enemies). Enlisting God in the national cause often seems a good thing for the nation, not always so good a thing for God.

Speaking of alliances between God and country, I'm glad the Old Testament passage I'm preaching on next Sunday didn't arrive on the July 4th weekend. As a preacher, I tend to stay a week or so ahead on sermon preparation, and as I worked on the sermon from Amos 7, I said a little thank you that the text gave me a bit of distance from "God Bless America" sung to accompanying fireworks.

In the passage, Amos, who comes from the southern kingdom of Judah, travels to the northern kingdom of Israel to condemn their king. You can imagine how well that goes over. And so the priest of the sanctuary at Bethel, a sort of northern equivalent of the Jerusalem Temple, tells Amos to get out of town. But as he does so, the strange bedfellows things pops up. He refers to the temple as "the king's sanctuary." Not God's sanctuary but the king's. It's not quite the same as saying the king has commanded God to bless Israel, but the effect is pretty much the same.

When people sing "God Bless America," or when they invoke the phrase in speeches, I don't know what is in their hearts. But sometimes it doesn't sound much like a request or petition. It sound like a demand or an expectation.

I certainly would prefer that God bless America. I also love fireworks and John Philip Sousa marches. But I think it beyond arrogant to imagine that God has to be a loyal member of our team, a notion that worked out rather poorly for the king of Israel and his head priest at Bethel. 

A number of years ago my wife stuck a quote from U2 band member Bono on our refrigerator. Bono said a wise man once told him something that changed his life. "Stop asking God to bless what you're doing. Get involved in what God is doing, because it's already blessed."

I'm pretty sure that applies to countries, too.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Competing Images of God

The Lord is gracious and merciful,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all,
    and his compassion is over all that he has made.

Psalm 145:8-9

If I were going to start a religion from scratch, I think I would devise a sacred text considerably shorter than the Christian Bible. The Hebrew texts alone are far too long, and the New Testament has a great deal of duplication. Why not hone it down to one gospel?

Another issue I would address in my sacred text is a consistent portrait of my divinity, a problem not unrelated to the Bible's lack of brevity. That some people use terms such as "the God of the Old Testament" or "the God of the New" point to this problem. In fact, the uneven pictures of God that lead to such phrases can be found in both Testaments. Many might hear the above verses from one of the morning psalms as sounding more like a New Testament God. Then again, there is something about destroying the wicked near the psalm's end.

Perhaps a short pamphlet or booklet that laid out the attributes of God, the rules God expects people to live by, and how God reacts to those who don't, would suffice. People in the church are always complaining about the problem of biblical literacy. If we cut the sacred text down to 20 or 30 pages, surely that would help with this problem.

We Protestants are heavily invested in the Bible. We say things like sola scripture or "scripture alone." We insist that the Bible is the witness par excellence, trumping all else whether it be church doctrine or human logic. But all too often, we have read it as a source of information, sometimes even as dispassionate history or reporting of events. And read this way, we are often can't handle conflicting pictures of God and so are reduced to cherry picking scripture, lifting up those passages that support our own notions of God. At times this can lead to different groups of Christians whose images of God cannot be reconciled.

I believe the Bible is divinely inspired, but that is a far cry from saying it simply contains accurate and true information. Rather it contains the work of deeply faithful and Spirit filled people who are trying to make sense of God who is beyond full human comprehension. Not surprisingly, their assumptions and biases of what God is like and  how a god should act make there way into these reflections, though inspiration often breaks through such assumptions and biases. And story or narrative is often the only way to convey what is too big a task for theology, logic, or doctrine.

As a preacher, I can go back and look at the Bible passages I use for the sermon on any given Sunday.  On top of that, I tend to preach from the lectionary, a collection of readings for each Sunday. And both the lectionary and I have a tendency to gravitate toward some texts and shy away from others. This of course means that anyone who depends in part on my sermons to help them picture God gets a certain slant. (If they attended some other church they might get a quite different slant.)

This suggests to me that most of us would do well to engage those texts we tend to avoid. If we won't go near a passage that speaks of divine judgment, or if we avoid those that demand self sacrificial giving to those in need, we probably need to wrestle with the picture those texts paint. This God of ours is far too big and too incomprehensible to be contained in any sacred text I would devise, or in any distilled image that fits my preferences. And so the very passage that most frightens, unnerves, or repels me is likely the very passage I most need to expand the constricted view of God I devise for myself from my own personal preferences.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sermon video: Succession Issues

Audios of sermons and worship can be found on the FCPC website.