Thursday, August 29, 2013

Gettysburg, Justice, and Lost Causes

My wife and I just got back from a short vacation. It was just the sort of vacation I like, one without an itinerary. The day often got off to a very late start, which is not to say we didn't do anything. We went to Gettysburg, PA (less than a 2 hour drive from the DC area), and one can't possibly spend time there without taking in some of the history of that place.

I'm something of a history buff, and I knew the outlines of the three day battle at Gettysburg pretty well. But it is hard to visit the battlefields and museums without picking up new insights and information, or without being moved by the level of suffering and death that came to that little town some 150 years ago.

As I said, I'm a history buff, and I know the Civil War story fairly well. I'm also a native southerner, although I somehow failed to acquire that same level of veneration and worship of southern Civil War heroes as many of my neighbors. I've long thought that southern attempts to recast the war so that slavery played little part to be misguided. But in a way that I never had before, I found myself more and more troubled as I visited the various Gettysburg memorials. It worked on me to the point that I almost became angry. What bothered me so was the notion, one that found occasional support in the various interpretive exhibits, that both sides, north and south, were somehow fighting in service to a noble cause.

I have no trouble honoring the sacrifices of soldiers on both sides. It is highly likely that, had I been alive at the time, I would have ended up fighting for some regiment from NC. But the simple fact is, the cause of the south was not just. Apologists may insists that the south fought for the noble cause of "states' rights," but of course the right they were primarily concerned with was that of maintaining the institution of slavery. That was conveniently forgotten by southerners after the war, but it was made clear at its beginning. Speeches and documents from the formation of the Confederate States of America make quite clear that the primary reason for its existence was the preservation of slavery.

And southern churches joined right in. As denominations split north and south right along with the nation, southern denominations often made a point of saying that the heretical views of northerners required them to break away. That heretical view was denying that the Bible sanctioned slavery, even demanded it.

That southerners wished to see themselves as members of a noble, lost cause rather than defenders of the horrific institution of slavery is easily understood. None of us wants to think of ourselves as in league with evil. Our enemies perhaps, but not us. Still, it is a bit surprising the degree to which the official view (in service to reconciliation?), has tolerated and even embraced the noble, lost cause language of the south.

I've already noted that I was emotionally affected by all this during my Gettysburg visit, so that more than likely colored my reading of the lectionary today. But as I read the famous story of King Solomon deciding who was an infant's true mother via the threat to chop the child in two, I was seized by the story's assessment of Solomon as one who had the wisdom "to execute justice."

American Christianity's obsession with individual salvation very often covers over the Bible's insistence on justice, especially for those on the bottom. Couple that with the Bible's and Jesus' repeated talked of releasing the captive and lifting up the oppressed, and it is hard to think of a cause more contrary to God's than the southern one during the Civil War.

Now all this may seem nothing more than an academic, historical exercise, but I think not. Our remarkable skill as humans at recasting injustice into something excusable, even noble, is hardly restricted to southern apologists for the Civil War. Point to any systemic injustice or oppression in our own day, and there is no shortage of people who can explain why it is not injustice or oppression, and why it is even in the best interest of those who seem to be oppressed or denied justice. (I find that arguments for not raising the minimum wage are often examples of this.)

Not that I am immune from this tendency. If correcting injustice or oppression means any sort of difficulty or, worse, suffering for me, then I may well find myself trying to minimize the problem or, at the very least, minimizing my contribution to it.

But as a follower of Jesus, I am called to something different. Jesus says I am to deny myself, to be willing to lose myself, even my life, for the sake of a new day where the poor are lifted up and the oppressed are freed. I am to become something new, a new creation who loves God and neighbor and even my enemies. Surely this requires that I worry much less about my reputation or about casting my own or my own group's failings in the best possible light. Surely it demands that my ways become transformed by God's ways as Jesus has shown them to me. That's probably why both Jesus and John the Baptist begin their ministries with a call to repent, to turn and begin to learn a new way. But we love the old ones, don't we.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Church Budgets and the Greatest Commandment

Not yet in Virginia, but across the country, many students have already returned to school or college. Summer isn't officially over, but it's nearly done. At church, that means we're gearing up for fall. Classes and choir rehearsals will resume. At this church, and at many others, fall also means "Stewardship campaigns." Theologically, this is about how we utilize what God has given us to do God's work. Practically, it's often mostly about church budgets.

Not that church budgets are unimportant. It takes a fair amount of money to fund all the activities and ministries at the typical church, and I make no apologies for expecting church members to make sure that money is available. But as many have said before, budgets are more than spending plans. They are also "moral documents." They declare our priorities and reveal what we truly stand for.

“Which commandment is the first of all?” Even those who are not part of a church have likely heard some form of Jesus' answer to this question. In today's reading from Mark he says, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Curious that Jesus is unable to answer the man's question without offering two commandments, both lifted straight from what we Christians now call the Old Testament. Love God, and love neighbor, says Jesus. Now you've covered the essentials. Everything else is secondary.

That brings me back to budgets as moral documents. If love of God and love of neighbor are the essentials then surely church budgets would reflect this. Alas, this is often not the case.

Now I'm happy to acknowledge that defining exactly what it means to "love the Lord your God..." is complicated. Surely worship would fit into this, but worship also tends to be designed in order to please those doing the worship. And so worship usually reflects the musical tastes and styles preferred by the worshipers. Given that we have no explicit information on whether God prefers organs to pianos or rock 'n roll over classical, perhaps this is the best we can do. Still, I have my suspicions that a revelation that God actually loved Gregorian chant but hated Bach would not change the music selections in many congregations.

Regardless, for the moment I'll take it as given that the big chunk of the typical church budget going to worship is fitting. But what about the loving neighbor part?

Rare is the church that does not do something to live out this commandment. Many congregations take it to heart in significant ways. Yet I have rarely come across the church budget that elevated love of neighbor to the status Jesus does. Rarely does is look like an absolute essential. It's more often one of those minor expenses along with "Christian Education" or "Fellowship."

In his daily devotion for today, Richard Rohr talks about how prayer in the Western church became something functional as opposed to the transformational thing it should be (a transformational possibility some have recovered via contemplation and meditation). This problem of functional versus transformational extends well beyond prayer and includes church budgets.

As soon as you make prayer a way to get what you want, you’re not moving into any kind of new state of consciousness. It’s the same old consciousness, but now well disguised: “How can I get God to do what I want God to do?” It’s the egocentric self deciding what it needs, but now, instead of just manipulating everybody else, it tries to manipulate God.
This is one reason religion is so dangerous and often so delusional. If religion does not transform people at the level of both mind and heart, it ends up giving self-centered people a very pious and untouchable way to be on top and in control.
What sort of moral statements are embedded in your church's budget? In what sense do they exhibit priorities that have been transformed from those of the world to those of Jesus? In what sense are they primarily focused on "keeping our members happy" and providing them with what they like or want?

Love God; love your neighbor as yourself. Sounds pretty clear, but I wonder if anyone would deduce this as the central core of my life from observing how I live and how I spend my money?

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Doing Justice

The Lord builds up Jerusalem;
    he gathers the outcasts of Israel.
He heals the brokenhearted,
    and binds up their wounds.
   Psalm 147:2-3

Our congregation has a ministry called Welcome Table that offers a free meal along with gift cards for a local grocery store. Currently this happens on the third Wednesday of each month, but we will add a second Wednesday in September. We are going to cut back on the number of gift cards, however. The numbers have begun to overwhelm our resources.

My volunteer slot at today's Welcome Table proved to be a repeat of last month. I had to tell people the bad news that we were at the building's capacity. If they waited for an hour or so, we would give them some food, but we had used up all our gifts cards, 290 of them.

I began to get more and more depressed as I told person after person, many with young children, that they could not come in. I'm sure that some had been counting on a few of those $10 gift cards to get groceries for the coming week. Most of them were very understanding, but I'm sure that many were brokenhearted. According to the psalmist, that the sort of thing that stirs God, and so surely it should stir God's people, the body of Christ.

The existence of Welcome Table says that the people of Falls Church Presbyterian have been stirred to action by this situation. (This ministry actually began during the interim time between my predecessor's retirement and my arrival.) The huge numbers of hungry and homeless in the very well-to-do area has moved people to do something, and Welcome Table is a tremendous ministry. It is, however, only a band-aid. It does nothing to solve the underlying problems that lead to the huge numbers of people who need such assistance.

Diane (the other pastor here) and I were talking the other day about the ministry of the Church, speaking beyond just this congregation. She noted that the Church is called to ministries of compassion such as Welcome Table, but we are also called to ministries of justice that address systems that lead to poverty and suffering.

Unfortunately, it is much easier to do compassion. Ministries of compassion are immediate. There is an obvious good that is done, and doing it often feels good. Justice is much more complicated. It usually means taking on entrenched systems, speaking truth to power, and long efforts that do no bear immediate fruit. Almost everyone will compliment ministries of compassion, as they well should. But people will often criticize ministries of justice. I wonder if it isn't at such moments that we truly experience what Jesus meant we insisted we must take up our cross. Jesus says that following him will cause others to hate us and work against us. Never is that more true than when attempting to doing ministries of justice that challenge and change the world around us.

As someone who was raised in a comfortable, suburban setting and is totally at home in a consumer culture, there is something in me that chafes at the notion that following Jesus will lead to personal discomfort and suffering. That somehow feels backwards. Jesus is supposed to make my life better.

To the degree that I am in any way typical, it's no wonder that our country has lots of shelters and food pantries, but struggles to tackle the deeper problems of affordable housing, education, living wages, and more. I do, however, take some comfort in the statement by Martin Luther King, Jr. one that seems to reflect Jesus' teaching on God's in-breaking kingdom. "We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Softening Jesus' Image

Maybe I'm just in a phase, or perhaps a rut, but I keep bumping into images of Jesus and God that run counter the benign, sweet and kind image that is more prevalent. These less benign pictures found their way into last Thursday's blog post and yesterday's sermon. Today I read the lectionary passage from Luke where Jesus "cleanses" the Temple. It's a little more of an angry picture of Jesus as well, but that's not what caught my eye. Instead it was where the chief priests and scribes begin to plot against Jesus, "for they were afraid of him."

They were afraid of him. How often does that get said about Jesus? I've known my share of "Christians" who were genuinely frightening, but I really don't think of Jesus as much of a threat.

There is gubernatorial race underway in Virginia right now, and that has prompted some articles about the different tactics and strategies employed to win primaries compared to general elections. The need to "play to the base" often requires more strident rhetoric, but when the general election comes around, a broader electorate comes into view. Then the political strategists advise softening the image from the primaries. Don't want to appear frightening to any of those undecided, middle-of-the-road voters.

As one who is often bothered by the extremes of both left and right, I'm happy to see candidates move toward the middle. But such moves sometimes make it hard to know where a candidate really stands. I don't think that was much of a problem with Jesus, at least not the one in the Bible. But the Church has done its share of softening Jesus' image over the years.

Jesus has some pretty uncomfortable things to say about wealth, about absolute loyalty to his cause, about loving your enemies, and about a willingness to suffer. But down through history, Jesus' image-makers in the Church have felt the need to make Jesus compatible with empire and war, slavery and oppression, colonialism and genocide, the American dream and suburbia, and on and on. In the end, about the only thing distinctive about Jesus is that you're suppose to believe he died for you in order to get a heavenly reward. Hardly something that sounds very frightening.

Considering the domesticated, nationalized, softened, etc. images of Jesus that the Church has peddled over the years, a lot of folks in a lot of church congregations might be downright terrified if the real Jesus ever showed up.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sermon video: Cardboard Jesus

Audios of sermons and worship available on FCPC website.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Sermon video: To Glorify God

Sermon from from August 11.
Audios of sermons and worship can be found on the FCPC website.

Sermon: Cardboard Jesus

Luke 12:49-56
Cardboard Jesus
James Sledge                                                    August 18, 2013

In your mind, what does Jesus look like and act like? What sort of mental image do you have of him. Diane commented to me a while back that we don’t really have many pictures of Jesus around FCPC. I’m not sure what, if anything, that means, but I doubt it means that no one has an image of Jesus. So what is yours?
Growing up, I suppose that my image of Jesus came from Sunday School artwork. Considering how long ago that was, that meant a very European looking Jesus. Maybe not blond haired and blued eyed, but close. As I grew older, I shifted away from that image, and mine continues to evolve.
I went online and looked at the depictions of Jesus I found there, from famous masterpieces to modern cartoons. This vast array of images looked very different, but they tended to have a common feature. Jesus looked kind and gentle in the vast majority. There were some pictures of a suffering of stoic Jesus. There were some of a laughing Jesus, but almost none of a frustrated or angry Jesus. I found one picture of Jesus arm-wrestling with the devil, but he still had a sweet, kindly expression on his face.
Perhaps your mental image is different, but prevailing images of a sweet and kindly Jesus make today’s gospel reading a little jarring. “You hypocrites!” Jesus yells at the crowd. Jesus isn’t talking to opponents, to people trying to trip him up or trap him. He’s talking to the people who have come out to hear him, the people who are attracted to him and want to know him. But he seems beyond frustrated with them. And his words about being a source of division rather than peace don’t make this picture of Jesus any more palatable.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Little Frightened of God

The LORD is king! Let the earth rejoice;
     let the many coastlands be glad!
Clouds and thick darkness are all around him;
     righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. 

Fire goes before him,
     and consumes his adversaries on every side.
His lightnings light up the world;
    the earth sees and trembles.
The mountains melt like wax before the LORD,
     before the Lord of all the earth.   
            Psalm 97:1-5

Despite the mention of rejoicing and gladness in the opening verse, the God depicted here is a little frightening. Clouds and thick darkness, consuming fire, lightening that causes the earth itself to tremble, and mountains melting like wax... it all sounds a bit scary.

A scary God is not real popular these days. Many of us who are Christians are downright apologetic about passages in the Bible where God is frightening, and I can't begin to count how many times I've heard someone explain that "fear of the Lord" means awe rather than actual fear. Well... perhaps.

When I look back on the adults who I admired and who were most formative for me growing up, they did instill at least a bit of fear in me. That includes parents, and especially one coach in high school. I would have done absolutely anything for him, and I knew he cared deeply for me. But he still scared me more than a little.

I don't know that my experience is universal. I do know parents who do everything they can so as not to give their children any cause to fear them. Usually this takes the form of being friends with their children. I know that such efforts are done out of love, but very often, such children are not only horribly behaved but also miserable. I'm not speaking in favor of corporal punishment and such, but even the most gentle discipline will evoke respect and a small measure of fear in a small child.

I take it as a given that God is quite a bit more beyond my comprehension than a parent is to a two year old. And so any god that doesn't evoke respect, awe, and yes, some measure of fear, is likely no god at all, certainly not the God of the Bible.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The One Thing That's Needed

The violence and bloodshed in Egypt today is horrific. The last report I saw spoke of chaos with nearly 300 deaths, a number that seems likely to climb. When the so-called "Arab Spring" began over two years ago, many had hopes for something new and better in the Middle East, but such hopes have gone largely unfulfilled.

What went wrong? I'm no expert on the Middle East or foreign affairs. There are clearly many others who can better explain the historical, cultural, sociological, and systemic roots behind the depressing situation in the news today. But I do feel qualified to say something about the one thing that is needed.

That one thing is at the root of many troubles and problems in everything from personal relationships to national and international events. Almost all individuals, and all institutions, organizations, movements, governments, nations, and so on have at least one thing, often many things, that they cannot even contemplate giving up. The very idea of losing it creates tremendous anxiety and fear.

I moved to the DC area a little over a year ago, and I've never lived in a more anxious place. There are a lot of powerful and influential people and institutions around here, and there are even more people who work with and for them. And like the wealth of the man whom Jesus speaks to in today's gospel, power and influence and importance are terribly difficult to give up. And wanting to hang on to them or to acquire them make people act in ways that are toxic to good relationships, to building community, to creating trust, or bringing hope and peace.

Diana Butler Bass, who lives in this area as well, once commented on her Facebook page about returning from conferences in other parts of the country where things seemed much more civil and genteel. Her status update spoke of returning from the land of "Aloha" to the land of "Get out of my way, I'm more important than you." And I think that about sums up the anxiety I see here.

As I've too often experienced through my own actions, anxious people behave badly. That's why neither political party can stop trying to maintain whatever power it has even if the country suffers as a result. It's why nations do ridiculous things that lead to wars when their sovereignty or "national interests" feel like they have been threatened in some way. And it's why the Egyptian military felt it had to clamp down on protestors so its power and control would not be jeopardized.

I wonder what Jesus would say to Egyptian generals or Democratic and Republican officials or CEOs of large corporations or feuding spouses if any of them were to ask him what it was they needed for eternal life, good life, a better world, peace.  I suspect he'd say that they needed to let go of the one thing they are most terrified of losing.

And so we just keep doing things our way. Never mind what Jesus said. Perhaps that's why Jesus, in another place in Mark's gospel, quotes the prophet Isaiah. "This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me."

What's the "one thing" Jesus would say that you need?

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Too Busy to Listen

When I first began writing this blog, it grew out of my own spiritual practices. Reflections that came to me as I read the Daily Lectionary and spent time in prayer formed the basis of most blog post, and, to a large degree, continue to do so. But "going public" with these reflections changed them on some level. Not only are there some personal things that I'd rather not share, but just knowing that others may read them changes the process.

Just as teaching and preaching are often the most beneficial to the one preparing to preach or teach, writing this blog often opens my eyes to something or provides me with a helpful spiritual insight. But the blog also intrudes on my time of reading scripture and praying. Too often, I find myself thinking about what I might say in the blog as I am reading the lectionary. I am formulating my post even as I read, as well as when I "pray," and as I imagine many of you have discovered, it is quite hard to listen when you are talking. That's just as true for the mental talking I find myself doing as I read.

When I read today's gospel about Jesus welcoming the children and saying, "Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it,” I found myself thinking about how I would need to explain that children were viewed very differently today than in Jesus' day. People might not hear Jesus anything like the people in the day of Mark's gospel without knowing that. But of course I had stopped listening at that point. I was so busy thinking about explaining what Jesus meant that I wasn't actually hearing him at all.

One of the great spiritual discoveries for me was learning the ancient practice of lectio divina, a prayerful reading of scripture that does not so much seek to understand it as to hear where and how it is speaking to me at that particular moment. It is so different from traditional Bible study or from methods of exegesis I learned in seminary to help me dig into a passage of scripture. Those have their place, but they also can sometimes encourage me to hurry to an understanding rather than simply to listen.

I read somewhere that the typical attention span of American adults is less than 30 seconds. That probably explains the way my mind can wander even in the midst of reading a passage from the Bible. But how are we to hear God speak to us if we cannot listen for more than 30 seconds without beginning to formulate our opinions and responses, or just letting our attention wander off somewhere else?

Sometimes the greatest spiritual gift I can receive is the ability to listen. That is why both lectio divina and contemplative prayer have been so helpful to me. (They were also something of a revelation to me in that I was unfamiliar with either a decade ago.) And my own spiritual life never gets so askew as when I am "too busy" for such practices, "too busy" to listen.

What is it that helps you to listen? What is it that keeps you from listening? Lord, help us to listen.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Libertarianism, Freedom, and Servanthood

On today's Renovaré Facebook page, a status update included this quote from Martin Luther. "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all." I suspect that this statement is befuddling to many, but it probably feels totally true to those who've experienced what Luther was talking about.

Unfortunately, American Christianity has often been marked by an embrace of the "perfectly free" but not the "servant of all" side of faith. Thus it is not unusual to hear Christians in America insist that no one can tell them how to live out their faith. Only those habits that feel right to them are valid. Indeed some Christians sound as if Jesus' message was primary message was one of personal freedom and libertarianism.

Today's gospel reading surely sits uneasily with such notions. Jesus makes perfectly clear that following him is a narrow path, one the from which the world frequently tries to deflect us. That is why Jesus uses graphic imagery to demand that we be careful about those things that would trip us up, as well as things that might trip up "little ones," presumably referring to people who are new to faith. What Jesus describes here is the absolute antithesis of unbounded personal freedom. Rather it is a path of great discipline for the sake of others and for ourselves.

In The Presbyterian Hymnal on my desk there's an old hymn entitled "Make Me a Captive, Lord." The verses are by George Matheson, and here are a couple of them.
Make me a captive, Lord,
And then I shall be free;
Force me to render up my sword,
And I will conqueror be.

My will is not my own
Till Thou hast made it Thine;
If it would reach a monarch's throne,
It must its crown resign.
I don't know that anyone can be convinced of the truth of such words. It is a gift of God's grace, an experiencing of the new creation we become in Christ. But it does not help create a climate open to such transformation when religion in America is so often hyper-personalized and individualized, when it celebrates personal freedom for the sake of personal freedom. I've even heard people proclaim that their right to bear arms and defend themselves is a part of their Christian freedom.

One way to talk about being "free" is to speak of being able to do whatever it is I want to do. Such freedom is only problematic when what I want to do is problematic. A classic understanding of God's grace, going all the way back to Augustine, is that God transforms our wills so that we want to do what God wants. This is pure freedom, but it looks totally different from freedom where our will has not been made God's own.

"A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all." I think Luther really knew what he was talking about.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Sermon: To Glorify God

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 (Luke 12:32-40)
To Glorify God
James Sledge                                                                                       August 11, 2013

Being a pastor, it should come as no big surprise that I have lots of books on worship. One of them opens with this little anecdote.
One Sunday morning, a mother went upstairs to her son’s room to wake him for church.  Slowly opening the door, as it softly squealed in protest, she said, “Dear, it’s time to get up.  It’s time to go to church.”  The son grumbled and rolled over.  Ten minutes later his mother again went up, opened the door, and said, “Dear, get up.  It’s time to go to church.”  He moaned and curled up tighter under the blankets, warding off the morning chill.  Five minutes later she yelled, “Son! Get up!”  His voice muffled by the blankets, he yelled back, “I don’t want to go to church!”  “You have to go to church!” she replied.  “Why?  Why do I have to go to church?” he protested.
The mother stepped back, paused, and said, “Three reasons.  First, it’s Sunday morning, and on Sunday mornings we go to church.  Second, you’re forty years old, and you’re too old be having this conversation with your mother.  Third, you’re the pastor of the church.”[1]
The author, a Presbyterian pastor, shared the story to speak of the ambivalence many pastors feel about worship. I’ve noticed over the years that even those pastors who love preaching can still have very mixed feelings about worship. And I read somewhere that many pastors derive a kind of perverse pleasure from reading today’s scripture in worship. That’s rather odd when you think about it, what with pastors leading worship and all. But I suppose that most pastors worry at times about being complicit in worship that God doesn’t particularly appreciate; or worse,  complicit in worship that God hates.
Those of you who’ve been around the Presbyterian Church for long enough may recall the catechism that used to be taught to children and youth. The Shorter Catechism, which I received in a little pink booklet as a fourth grader, begins with a question about “the chief end of man.”  Written in the mid-1600s, the language is a bit dated, so I’ll paraphrase. Q. 1. What is the primary purpose of human beings? A. Humanity’s primary purpose is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever.
From a Presbyterian perspective, I think it’s kind of hard to argue with that. It makes perfect sense that Christians who have experienced God’s love in Jesus would want to live in ways that glorified God. But just what does it mean for us to glorify God? What does that entail?
No doubt worship is a part of this. The very term “worship service” speaks of our worship as serving God in some way. Which is not to say that God necessarily appreciates such attempts, not if today’s scripture is any guide.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Talking about Hunger to Hungry People

Today's gospel reading is Mark's account of the Transfiguration, where Jesus' appearance is transformed and Moses and Elijah join him for a little conversation, all in front of an awestruck Peter, James, and John. The three disciples are terrified and unsure what they should do. That must be why Peter grasps for something from the religious playbook. “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

These "dwellings" or booths would have likely been some sort of religious memorial to commemorate the event. Had Peter actually constructed them, they undoubtedly would have become shrines at some later date, and people would have come to worship there.

There is a religious tendency that wants to mark things and label them as significant. Then we can venerate them, meditate on them, talk about them, explain their significance, and so on. Sometimes this sort of tendency gets in the way of simply experiencing the thing. That seems to be the case for Peter. His desire to do something religious interrupts and gets in the way of the actual event. Fortunately Jesus, Moses, Elijah, and God all seem to ignore him.

I thought about the way our religious stuff sometimes gets in the way when I read Richard Rohr's meditation today. (I hate for this blog to sound like an ad for Fr. Rohr, but he has become a real spiritual guide for me.) He speaks of about the Lord's Supper or Eucharist and how we spend so much time trying "to 'understand' and explain presence. As if we could." He goes on to add, "Despite all our attempts to define who is worthy and who is not worthy to receive communion, our only ticket or prerequisite for coming to Eucharist is hunger. And most often sinners are much hungrier than the so-called saints."

The world is full of hungry people, both literally as well as figuratively or spiritually. And sometimes we religious sorts are more practiced at talking about  hunger than actually doing anything about it. I wonder if those who say they are "spiritual but not religious" are saying something about being hungry but not interested in talking about it.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

So When Did You Receive the Holy Spirit?

Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you first joined the church? That's a question no one has ever asked me, nor have I ever heard it asked of anyone else. But Paul asks such a question in today's reading from Acts.

I'm not sure what prompts Paul to ask. The persons in question are called both "disciples" and "believers." We are told nothing about them that would indicate any sort of deficiency. Did Paul ask this a lot, or was there something about these particular believers that gave Paul concerns?

If you went around and asked this of everyone in a church congregation, what sort of response would you expect? In my own church experience, I can't imagine people saying they had never heard of the Holy Spirit, as those believers tell Paul. The congregations I've been a part of used the Apostles' Creed with some regularity, and so people hear about the Spirit frequently. But I would not be at all surprised if quite a few people answered with the same "No" that Paul heard.

I have heard the Spirit mentioned in Trinitarian formulas all my life. I've heard the story of the Spirit coming at Pentecost countless times. But as I was growing up in the church, I heard very little about the Spirit connected to the personal experience of anyone I knew. In the brand of Presbyterianism I grew up with, we pretty much left the Spirit to Pentecostals and other more "enthusiastic" sorts.

I'm not sure that the Enlightenment and the Holy Spirit play very well together. The Enlightenment is all about logic and reason, and Enlightenment forms of Christianity tend to explain and make sense of Christian faith. It isn't clear what to do with the unpredictable wind of the Spirit, swirling around where it may, stirring things up and prodding people to do things that don't always seem very reasonable or logical.

I think one of the inherent problems with liberal Christianity, a child of the Enlightenment if there ever was one, is a tendency to proclaim a belief system that is sometimes more philosophy than faith. It is a well thought out and helpful philosophy in many ways, but it may not really be alive. It may not be inhabited by the breath of God.

Did you receive the living breath of God when you became part of the church? If not, when did you? And if you didn't receive the Spirit, or if you just aren't sure, what does that mean?

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Sermon video: Trembling Home

Audios of worship and sermon available on FCPC website.

Monday, August 5, 2013

False Selves and Slamming Doors

Today's meditation from Richard Rohr begins with this. "We don’t teach meditation to the young monks. They are not ready for it until they stop slamming doors. — Thich Nhat Hanh to Thomas Merton in 1966"

Rohr is talking about how religion and spiritual practices can be places where the "false self" our egos construct can hide. All faiths and spiritualities are misused and abused by people who employ them to justify and support who they already are and what they want. One of the reason religion and faith is responsible for so much trouble in the world is that its adherents have very often not experienced the move Rohr is recommending, the experience the Apostle Paul describes as, "our old self was crucified with (Jesus)."

I know that in my own attempts at spirituality, very often I'm after spiritual validation and reassurance. Less often am I looking to be transformed, to have my true self uncovered. Despite the fact that Jesus insists on the need to deny oneself (I assume he's speaking of that false self),  I and many others vigorously protect and defend that self. And we who are practiced in the arts of faith and the church have learned how to use these in this project.

This morning's psalm opens, "For God alone my soul waits in silence." Perhaps I might restate this, "For God alone my self waits in silence," but in truth that's more rarely the case than I like to admit. More often, I want to enlist God in supporting and blessing what my self has decided. And on the corporate level, this tendency is even more problematic. God gets enlisted in the self-protective impulses of groups, organizations, movements, and nations. And there is little more dangerous than an ego-driven group, movement or nation that thinks God is on its side.

For God alone... Perhaps I could use this as a corrective mantra, spoken anytime I am feeling anxious about plans or ambitions I have, anytime I feel tempted to slam a door.

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Sunday, August 4, 2013

Sermon: Trembling Home

Hosea 11:1-11
Trembling Home
James Sledge                                                                                       August 4, 2013

Nowadays they’re as likely to be on our smartphones or tablets as they are to be in an actual album with real pages, but wherever it is they’re located, most of us have had the experience of thumbing through a photo album. We’ve done a little reminiscing via photographs, have looked back and remembered a time when things were different, when we looked different, when the future perhaps looked different.
Now that both of my children are officially adults, having finished college and gotten jobs, it’s a bit more poignant for me to view pictures of them as babies, toddlers, or children. Different photos can evoke very different feelings, feelings of warmth, joy, and  happiness, as well as feelings of sadness and regret. On the child rearing front, Shawn and I were quite fortunate. We experienced the typical difficulties, but our daughters arrived at adulthood without a huge number of missteps on their part our ours. There were ups and downs, but still, things seem to have turned out pretty well.
On that count I feel quite lucky because I know that is not always the case. Things can and do go horribly awry in the course of raising a child. For those who’ve had such an experience, thumbing through those photos must be a great deal more difficult than it is for me. And when a child or parent has gotten caught up in their bad choices, and when this has led to estrangement, looking back at pictures from before all that, at a time of happiness, of great hope and promise for the future, must be terribly painful.
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son… it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms… I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.
God thumbs through the divine photo album and is distraught. God has loved and tenderly cared for Israel. The picture Hosea paints seems feminine and mothering. God has lavished Israel with affection and done everything a parent possibly could, but Israel has been a rebellions child from the beginning. The more God called, the more they went the other direction. They seemed hell bent on self-destruction and oblivious to all that God had done for them.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

How Things Got Like This

Save me, O LORD, from my enemies;
       I have fled to you for refuge.
Teach me to do your will,
       for you are my God. 

Let your good spirit lead me
       on a level path.                
Psalm 143:9-10

Though I've not lived there in over a decade, I think of myself as a North Carolinian. So I have been distressed at some of the goings on in my homes state as the legislature has sought to curtail funding for education and make voting more difficult, along with other things that have greatly damaged NC's reputation as a "progressive southern state."

I try to make room in my worldview for a wide range of political ideas, and I have often times discovered some treasured position of my own to be ill-informed or incorrect. Yet I find myself dumbfounded by the mean-spirited tone, the outright lies, and the seeming lack of concern for others that has been spewed by some NC politicians. And as probably happens with anyone who worries about the state of the world, I wonder how it is things get this way. How is it that people can act in such ways without even a hint of remorse or self-doubt?

Such a question can be extended to all sort of areas. Just this week an FBI sweep arrested 150 pimps and rescued over 100 children used as prostitutes. The FBI called child prostitution as "persistent threat" in our country. How can this be? How can so  many seemingly normal people be involved in such reprehensible behavior?

I'm not comparing NC politicians to people involved in prostitution. These are two very different things. The only commonality I'm thinking about is one that all humans seem to share, a capacity for excusing the unsavory things we are inclined to do. Those engaged in child prostitution obviously have this capacity in grotesque proportions, but the capacity itself is regularly on display in all sorts of smaller ways. The amount of hate and violence that has been perpetuated over the centuries by those professing Christian motivations is an all too common, and often all too grotesque, example.

All of this may seem totally unrelated to the verses of Psalm 143 that open this post, but it was those verses, along with a little prod from Jesus in today's gospel reading, that got me thinking about NC legislators and pimps.

The psalmist seems to expect a couple of things from Yahweh because Yahweh is God. The first is salvation. No surprise there. We religious sorts are forever asking God to rescue us for all manner of things, some major, some minor, some beyond trivial. But the psalmist expects something else because God is God. "Teach me to do your will, for you are my God."

In my experience, we Christians are often more inclined toward trying to convince God to do our will than we are at wanting to be conformed to God's. And so we more liberal sorts expect God to have liberal leanings while conservatives assume God is a conservative sort. This of course means that we think fixing the world is about enough people seeing things the way we do.

But the psalmist wants to be taught God's will. This would seem to presume we don't simply know it on our own. We need to be taught it and led into it. Jesus says much the same thing, and he cautions us about how easily religious traditions substitute our own will for God's. According to Jesus, that's because we all have a "defiling" capacity within us. Yet most of us would like to think that such a capacity is only a problem for those other folks.

"Teach me your will, O God. Show me your ways." Surely a prayer that all of us should pray, as well as a reminder that our own ways need adjusting if they are to conform to God's. As the late cartoonist Walt Kelly said all too well, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

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