Monday, September 30, 2013

Go Ahead; Cut the Baby in Half

In this space, I normally post sermons and reflect on the daily lectionary passages. But today a scripture passage not from the lectionary readings keeps popping up in my head. It's the story of King Solomon judging the case of two mothers who each claimed an infant as her own. There were no witnesses, nothing but each woman's word, and so Solomon famously ordered the child cut in half with each mother would receiving a share. Of course the true mother could not bear to see this happen, and offered to give the child up, thus revealing to Solomon who she was.

What calls this story to mind is the current situation in Washington, DC. The difference is that the two quarreling parties both seem willing to let the child be cut in two. In the current situation of an impending government shutdown, I have no problem labeling Republican behavior the more egregious. But while the Democrats and the president have the moral high ground on this one, I don't have much more confidence in them when it comes to the life of the child. Both sides are so intent on winning, so concerned about how everything might play in the next election, that no one seems much concerned with what is best for all.

Many like to say that this is a "Christian nation." Republicans seem especially fond of the designation. But at the very core of being a Christ follower is the notion of self-denial and concern for the other. Being a disciple has always been about us becoming servants in God's work, and such work is always marked by love. Speaking of such love, the apostle Paul writes, "Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth."

These words are not about romantic love and weren't intended for weddings. (Such love is most beneficial in a marriage however.) These words are about the costly self-giving that Christians are called to live out. They are about a concern for the other and the community that is willing to subvert my own desires for the good of the other. And at this moment, it is hard to imagine such a pose describing many involved in our national governance.

This is not an indictment of politics per se. Politics can be a high calling, but few in our current political climate seem to regard it as such. It has devolved into polarized sides of remarkable arrogance and certainty, each willing to resort to almost any sort of distortion and outright lying to achieve victory. No one seems the least bit interested in truth, much less love.

Unfortunately, those of us in the church aren't necessarily in a position to show our nation, as Paul says, "a more excellent way." We have our own examples of sides, of arrogance and certainty, of distortion and lying in order to win. As with much of the political bickering in our country, we often seem to be better at demonizing and hating than we are at loving.

So what to do? This may seem simplistic and trite, but most of us need to become less certain of our stances, while getting to know Jesus much better. Yes, there are times when we need to make judgments, to say something is wrong or even evil. But we also need to know Jesus on a deep enough level to realize that our positions are not simply the same as his. Many of us who claim to be Christian are far to quick to enlist Jesus in our causes, yet inclined to ignore him when he says things we don't like.

A bit more prayer wouldn't hurt either.  May I suggest, "Not my will, but yours."

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Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sermon: Healing the Blind

Luke 16:19-31
Healing the Blind
James Sledge                                                                                       September 29, 2013

We’ve been hearing a lot of parables from Jesus lately. Many of Jesus’ parables are beloved stories, but I rather doubt today’s is anyone’s favorite. The basic story is not original to Jesus. Most all cultures have folk tales celebrating reversals of fortune, and this one resembles an Egyptian tale. Its outline was probably familiar to Jesus’ original audience. The images of Hades and such were stock ones, and so they would not have thought that Jesus was teaching anything new about life after death.
Surely, however, they were surprised to learn the poor man’s name.  No other character in Jesus’ parables is named, and this fellow seems a most unlikely candidate for such an honor. Wealthy people get their names on things, not some homeless, poor person who sleeps under a bridge.
That first audience may also have puzzled over the lack of details about the rich man. Along with us, they probably would have liked to know more, to hear about his sweatshop that took advantage of poor people like Lazarus, to know that he was some heartless corporate bigwig who put profits over everything else. But Jesus says nothing of the sort. For all we know, he tithed at his church, ran a foundation that funded worthy causes, and donated money for the new wing at Jerusalem Memorial Hospital.
All Jesus says is there was a very rich man, and poor one in terrible distress. It’s just how things are. No blame is assigned; no fault. It just is.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

If You Love Jesus...

There are an awful lot of "Christians" on Facebook who seem not to have read Jesus' words in today's gospel passage. He warns his followers, "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them." Of course a certain amount of judgment is required here. After all, Jesus also talks about not hiding your light under a basket. But when it comes to such judgments, it seems to me that we often get them exactly backwards. Trivial displays like those on Facebook are commonplace, but sharing the light of Jesus by living as he did is more of a rarity.

In reading the gospels, one thing I never observe Jesus doing is manipulating people. He is much more straightforward than that. He speaks hard truths that many do not want to hear, but these truths are not about the things religious folks tend to find important. Jesus is much more concerned about healing the sick and proclaiming good news to the poor than he is with religious observance. I have to think that Jesus would get very tired of folks who post on Facebook about how much they love him, right next to their posts about cutting food stamps or how they have a gun and aren't afraid to use it. Along with today's verses on public practices of piety, they might want to also recall Jesus words about loving enemies. Even more, recall these words. "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven."

And lest this seem to be a rant against more conservative Christians, I should add that Christians right and left tend to find something about Jesus that is easy for them to do. For some this might be more overt language about loving a personal savior, but for others it might be about loving everybody. Many liberal Christians reduce Jesus to a message of tolerance and charity because those are things they already like doing.  Our public piety -- or light on a lamp stand if you prefer -- is almost always something that is easy and comfortable for us and our group. Christians on the right and the left often find it impossible to leave their camp even if following Jesus seems to require it. All too often we are virtually indistinguishable from the political company we keep, and loving Jesus rarely calls us to risk anything, to step out and deny ourselves for the sake of God's new day, what Jesus labeled the kingdom.

If you love Jesus... What does loving Jesus really require of us? And before we answer with the stock phrases of our particular group, we would all do well to take a long hard look at what Jesus says, paying special attention to those words we like to ignore or explain away.

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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

On Being Different

What is it that makes Christians distinctive? Some may think this an odd question. Obviously Christians believe in Jesus. But while this is true, is it what primarily sets us apart? Jesus does not seem to think so.

Jesus raises this very issue in the teachings found in today's gospel. Some of these teachings are well known -- turn the other cheek, love your enemies, etc. -- but they have precious few practitioners. We find it much easier to "believe in Jesus," be reasonably good and moral, and do a little charity, than we do to take up the radical commands of Jesus.

There is something downright strange about the term "Christian" coming to signify little more than beliefs. The term originally implied becoming Christ-like. It expected that people would get a glimpse of Jesus by looking at us. But the image of Jesus reflected from us often looks little like the biblical Jesus.


Lately Pope Francis, the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church, has made quite a splash in the news. He's become something of a sensation, even a media darling. He has done so by calling the church to be more Christ-like, and by practicing some of what he preaches. He drives around in an 80s model Renault and lives a quite simple life. This sincerity and integrity have impressed people, both Catholics and others, which says something about how unusual it is.

I have to imagine, however, that there are many in the church hierarchy who are not happy with him. I mean no slap at the Catholic Church by that. The institutional structures and functionaries in most denominations and many if not most congregations would be less that thrilled with a leader who emulated the radical ways of Jesus too closely. "Bad for business," they might say.

Curious how most of us feel the need to domesticate Jesus, removing his more radical tendencies, presumably to make him more palatable. And yet there is more excitement and interest in the Catholic Church right now than in quite some time, all because of a pope who decided not to play that game.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Help from God

Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
     for in you my soul takes refuge; 

in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
     until the destroying storms pass by.            Psalm 57:1

Today has had lots of phone calls, the sort that are familiar to all pastors. People call looking for food, help paying rent, a hotel room for the night, and more. Some days I get no such calls, but today there have been many.

These calls always leave me feeling inadequate and uncomfortable. I want to help, but I rarely have enough for the help to be sufficient. I want the limited funds I do have to go to those who are truly needy, but I have no sure-fire way to determine whose needs are genuine or most pressing. Often I find myself doing a lot of apologizing.

As happenstance would have it, today I also received an email containing a draft of the church's 2014 personnel budget. It's a lot of money, a great deal more than the small amount in the overall budget to help people with food or rent. For that matter, it's a great deal more than all the money budgeted for mission and outreach.

There's nothing unusual about this. Church budgets are usually dominated by personnel and building costs. Sometimes staff and buildings make direct contribution to helping people who are hungry or poor or homeless, but that tends to be a minor role for staff and structures


I did not read today's morning psalm until the afternoon, and so I heard the words about taking refuge under God's wings as a person feeling inadequate and troubled at my inability to help people. People come to churches looking for help because they have some notion that we do God's work. We say we are the body of Christ, and people were always clamoring around Jesus looking for healing or help. And I can't recall a gospel story where Jesus said, "Sorry, I'm all out of assistance cards," or "You're too late, there's no more food."

I'm realistic enough to know that some people abuse the help this congregation and others offer, but that doesn't change the fact that I turn away people who are genuinely in need, and neither I, nor scarcely any member of this congregation, are worrying about our next meal.

I don't really have any keen thoughts or observations about any of this. I'm just having one of those existential faith crises that hit me from time to time. What does it mean to follow Jesus? What does it mean to be the church? And is it reflected in my personal budget or our church budget or that personnel budget, my own salary eating up a big chunk?

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sermon video: The Crisis of God's New Day

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sermon: The Crisis of God's New Day

Luke 16:1-13
The Crisis of God’s New Day
James Sledge                                                                           September 22, 2013

Jesus has just finished telling three parables about God’s desire to seek out and welcome the lost, parables about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a prodigal son who has squandered his father’s wealth. These parables were directed at the good, religious folks who complained about Jesus hanging out with undesirables and riff raff.  But now the audience changes.
Jesus now addresses his followers, who presumably includes us, and we meet another character who has squandered someone else’s money. This fellow is a manager who works for a very wealthy man, presumably an absentee landlord. There is some sort of arrangement with tenant farmers who owe a portion of their crop to the landlord, and the amounts here are quite large. The manager is the one who keeps watch over all this, and there were surely many opportunities for him to cook the books or skim off more than the cut that would have been considered his share. Or maybe this manager isn’t a crook but simply bad at his job.
Lots of commentators and interpreters want to rehabilitate this manager in some way, for pretty obvious reasons. Not only does this manager get commended by his master at the end, but Jesus tells us to be more like him. So surely he cannot simply be some bad guy.
This is a difficult bit of scripture, made more so by the sayings joined to the parable. Trying to tie it all together in a way that makes good sense has troubled people this the earliest days of Christianity, and has provoked all sorts of creative efforts.
Some suggest that the manager doesn’t cheat his master when he reduces the amount of wheat or olive oil owed, but takes it out of his own cut. Some even suggest that the manager is simply removing interest charges, ones that were forbidden by the law of Moses. Thus he was righting a wrong and not committing one.
The wide variety of opinion on this passage makes me cautious about speaking with much certainty, but still I doubt that the disciples would have listened as creatively as later scholars feel the need to do. Presumably they would have heard a more obvious meaning, especially since the praise from the master and Jesus urging us to be more like the manager are surprise twists that come at the end.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Doing as Jesus Says

At various times in my life I have found myself searching for clarity, for certainty. Was I supposed to attend seminary? Should I leave one congregation and go to another? Were the things church leaders were talking about doing the things God wanted us to do? For those seeking to lead lives of faith the question, "What does God want me to do?" is a huge one, one that demands prayer and careful discernment.

There are times when what God expects is not clear, but more often than not, clarity is not the biggest hurdle to my following Jesus. Jesus is remarkably clear about many things, about how to respond to my enemies or to people in need. He pulls no punches regarding the danger of money and possessions to the life of faith. Clarity is not the issue here, but rather an unwillingness or inability to trust that Jesus knows what he's talking about.

In today's gospel, Jesus calls the first disciples. "Immediately they left their nets and followed him... Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him." Immediately. That doesn't happen all that often among people of faith. In the gospels we hear that the winds and the wave, demons, and evil spirits all obey Jesus, but people often don't. For various reasons, we're not quite ready to acknowledge his authority over our lives.

The first question of the Heidelberg Catechism, one of my denomination's foundational creeds, begins thus. "Q. 1. What is your only comfort, in life and in death? A. That I belong--body and soul, in life and in death--not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ..." But such a statement is fundamentally at odds with the norms of our culture. I may be convinced of the rightness of some of Jesus' teachings if they are explained in a certain manner. But I, and I alone, am master of my own life, captain of my soul.

Jesus says, "Follow me." My response: Send me a proposal, Jesus, with a clear-cut explanation of the costs and benefits, and I'll get back to you. As I said, clarity is not the issue here.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Overwhelmed by Brokenness

I've been clicking on The Washington Post website with much greater frequency today, checking for the latest updates on the horrific shooting at the Navy Yard in DC. Nothing is known about possible motives as I write, but there is a sickening regularity regarding such events. "Not again," people are saying, and not for the first time.

Today's lectionary readings did not feel particularly comforting or  helpful in today's context. A story of a corrupt royal couple abusing power to get what they want, the church in Corinth split by divisions, and Jesus tempted to be a different sort of Messiah than God would have him be. At least Jesus stays true to his call.

The world daily reminds us that all is not well. For all the modern (and perhaps receding) faith in progress, ancient stories about corrupt power or nasty fights in churches don't feel ancient at all. On some level, nothing much has changed. Despite frequent claims that the US is a "Christian nation," the rich are doing splendidly while the poor are struggling mightily. The gap between rich and poor is growing rapidly, but Jesus said he came with good news for the poor. He speaks regularly about wealth as a curse. People laughed at him when he said such things. We don't actually laugh at him, but our actions and the way we structure our society do. Nothing much has changed.

I occasionally find myself thoroughly depressed by the brokenness that is so apparent in the world, and I think that being a pastor sometimes accentuates that. After all, I am supposed to have "good news" to proclaim. On days like today, that seems more difficult. That difficulty is only made greater by the suspicion that many people are seeking "good news" that will somehow drown out days like today, that will let us return to our happy, suburban illusions that all is well.

The extreme individualism that marks American culture only adds to this problem. We tend to view all things through the lens of self, and so religion's job is to make something better "for me." There are many different spins on that, from more successful to more fulfilled to more spiritual to happier to a reward after death and so on. But "make my life better" seems so shallow on a day like today, and a faith so narrowly focused seems totally inadequate to the broken world that cannot be denied right now.

My own Reformed/Presbyterian tradition has a long emphasis on a doctrine of vocation. The term has sometimes been perverted to mean "occupation," but I'm using in the sense of a calling. Our doctrine says that all Christians are called, we have vocations or callings that are given to us that further the work Jesus came to do. Calling may indeed be fulfilling, but they are not primarily about personal fulfillment. (Jesus' own wrestling with his calling in today's gospel and in the garden of Gethsemane makes that clear.)

Today's devotion from Richard Rohr ends with this. He doesn't speak of calling or vocation, rather of "choosing," but I think he is talking about something similar.
God is always choosing people. First impressions aside, God is not primarily choosing them for a role or a task, although it might appear that way. God is really choosing them to be God’s self in this world, each in a unique situation. If they allow themselves to experience being chosen, being a beloved, being somehow God’s presence in the world, they invariably communicate that same chosenness to others. And thus the Mystery passes on from age to age. Yes, we do have roles and tasks in this world, but finally they are all the same—to uniquely be divine love in a way that no one else can or will.
This is the best answer I have to the world's brokenness. God has better dreams for the world, but God (for reasons I cannot fully fathom) gets incarnated, gets en-fleshed by those who are called to work for God's new day. And if the churches that claim to be the body of Christ will not live into this calling, then we well deserve the insignificant and irrelevant status we increasingly enjoy in our society.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sermon video: The Jesus Pub

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

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Sermon: The Jesus Pub

Luke 15:1-10
The Jesus Pub
James Sledge                                                                           September 15, 2013

A few weeks ago, Shawn and I decided to take a little getaway, and so we headed up to Gettysburg. We got there in the afternoon and decided to walk around a bit in the town. By the end of our walk it was past supper time, and so we looked for somewhere to eat, nothing fancy, just a place to eat. We peeked into a few places as we passed by and finally settled on a place right on the square.
It was called the Blue & Gray Bar and Grill, so it obviously catered to tourists. We didn’t want to wait for a table, so we grabbed a couple of seats at the bar which turned out to be populated more by locals. They seemed to be regulars, carrying on a lively conversation with the folks working behind the bar.
I’m not sure if it’s because of alcohol, or simply the nature of bars, but we eventually found ourselves included in the lively conversation. There wasn’t really anything in the way of formal introductions, but somehow we ended up as just a couple more in the fellowship at that end of the bar.
A few years ago the New York Times travel section had a piece on the pubs of Oxford, England. In the intro it said, “A good pub is a ready-made party, a home away from home, a club anyone can join.”[1] I think that applies to a lot of bars, too, and Shawn and I experienced a bit of that “ready-made party, club anyone can join” feel in Gettysburg.
Jesus apparently gives off a very similar vibe, a “ready-made party, club anyone can join” feel that, well, gets the religious folks’ noses bent out of  joint. For some reason, religious people often think unkindly about bars. Sometimes it’s an objection to alcohol, but it’s also a suspicion about people who frequent bars. Bars can have their share of unsavory sorts, and bars tend not to be judgmental places. Most anyone is welcome.
But Jesus is a religious person. Followers call him Rabbi, and he is teaching about how to live as God wants us to live. So what’s with the bar vibe? Why is he hanging out with and embracing these folks who’ve not seen the inside of a church in years? Why is he having a beer and a burger with them like they were his best buddies?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

How to Remember

I've not really done much to remember 9-11. I don't mean that I somehow missed that today was the 12th anniversary of those horrible terrorist attacks, but so much of the remembering seems to get politicized and caught up in different agendas. I still feel a great sadness connected to this day, and I can only imagine how hard it must be for people who lost loved ones at the twin towers, the Pentagon, or in a field in Pennsylvania.

I appreciate the honoring of first responders that happens each 9-11. Some of the formal, somber recollections seem quite fitting. But there is a lot of strident and angry remembering. There is a lot of us-versus-them remembering.

Here in Washington, DC, along with numerous official ceremonies, there were dueling, angry ones. Dueling is the wrong word. The so-called Million Muslim March - its official name was long ago changed to "Million American March Against Fear" - struggled to make any sort of showing, managing a few hundred people at best. And while I have some sympathies for their cause, their timing was simply abysmal.

The "Two Million Bikers to DC" rally, conceived in part as a response to those million Muslims, managed a bit better showing. While some conservative news outlets spoke of 800,000 bikers, realistic estimates were closer to 8000, enough to cause a few traffic snarls, but not the traffic paralysis that nearly a million motorcycles would have caused for the area's already gridlocked highways.

To be honest, I'm less certain of the exact cause championed by the biker rally, perhaps because there seemed to be a lot of different ones. Officially it was about remembering those who died and who served in the military after 9-11, but their Facebook page is filled with talk of taking back America, defending the Constitution, and a few anti-Obama rants. I should add that the group was well behaved, apologized in advance for any traffic tie-ups, and urged their riders to obey all laws and be respectful. Still, I think their timing was also abysmal.

Both groups obviously have every "right" to do as they did, but I think this sort of remembering dishonors those who died, people of different nationalities, politics, religions, and viewpoints. When remembering gets caught up in a particular agenda, when it becomes a means to further someone's cause, it co-opts other people's pain and sadness, a pain and sadness that belongs to all Americans and many beyond America. And for me, at least, it adds a sadness to this day that has nothing to do with the events of 12 years ago.

That's probably why I found today's reading from Philippians so striking. Paul borrows words from an early Christian hymn to reinforce his exhortations to Jesus' followers. The words are very familiar to me, but some of them caught me differently today.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
   who, though he was in the form of God,
          did not regard equality with God
          as something to be exploited,
   but emptied himself,
          taking the form of a slave,
          being born in human likeness. 
Regard others as better; look to the interests of others; be like Jesus who took the form of a slave. Surely remembering looks very little like some of the events commemorating this day when done from this point of view.

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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

What Are You Afraid Of?

What are you afraid of? I don't mean that as a challenge but a genuine question. What are the things that worry or frighten you? It seems to me that we live in a culture that is often driven by fear. Advertising on TV plays on our fears: fears about not enough to retire, homes being robbed, not getting into a good college, not getting a good  job, not being popular enough, not being in control, not being successful, getting old, getting sick, being alone, etc.

Sometimes it is difficult to know where the line is between reasonable caution and fear that keeps us from living the lives we should. I fasten my seatbelt in the car and wear a helmet when on my motorcycle. Both these seem reasonable to me, but I also get stuck in comfort zones that feel safe to me. I sometimes won't try something new and exciting because I fear it won't work, that I will look stupid, appear foolish, or seem not to know what I'm doing.

Fear figures prominently in today's gospel, Mark's story of the resurrection. Serious students of the Bible likely know that verses 9-20 in today's reading are not from the same hand that wrote the rest of Mark's gospel. Perhaps the original ending was lost or perhaps the writer intentionally left us with one that just hangs there. "So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." (The ending is even more awkward in the original Greek, ending with the word "for.") Regardless, we're left with a most unsatisfactory ending, one that later writers attempted to rectify. (These are often labeled "The Shorter Ending of Mark" and "The Longer Ending of Mark" in Bibles.)

"And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." Entrusted with some of the most wonderful news ever spoken, these witnesses kept it to themselves because they were afraid. Presumably something eventually helped them overcome that fear, or the story of Jesus would have ended there.

In my experience, church congregations are often rather timid places. They tend not to do much that looks bold or risky. They want assurances that any new program or effort will be successful and not fail. Here again, it can be difficult to know exactly where the line is between reasonable caution and fear that keeps us from living out our call to follow Jesus, but I think it clear that we often go way beyond caution. Very often, we act as though we have no resources beyond ourselves, no Spirit or spiritual gifts. Perhaps herein lies one of our greatest fears, that we can't actually count on God to come through when we seek to be faithful.

So what are you afraid of?

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Sunday, September 8, 2013

Sermon: Membership Class

Luke 14:25-33
Membership Class
James Sledge                                                                                       September 8, 2013

Next Sunday we begin a new worship schedule and Christian Education activities resume. The beginning of a new program  year means the start of a new Confirmation Class, and we’ll have a New Member Class later in the fall as well.
Classes for confirmation or new members have some similarities. In a way, both are about what it means to be an active, participant in the Jesus movement as that is lived out at Falls Church Presbyterian. At their conclusion, many in both classes will decide whether or not to “join,” to make a profession of faith, perhaps be baptized, and promise to be a faithful disciple here.
Given this, now would seem a perfect time to share with potential confirmands and members some of Jesus’ thoughts on joining him. In our gospel reading, a crowd is following along with Jesus. They are clearly intrigued. They’ve signed the “Friendship Pad” and checked that they are interested in membership. Jesus says to them, “If you don’t hate your mother and father, your siblings, your spouse and children, and even your own life, you can’t come with me. If you don’t carry your own cross and go wherever I go, you can’t come with me. If you don’t give up all your  possessions, you can’t come with me.”
Come to think of it, maybe we don’t want to use this with a new member or confirmation class. I’m all for full disclosure, but come on, Jesus. One of my favorite preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor, in a sermon on today’s gospel said, “After careful consideration of Jesus’ harder sayings, I have to conclude that he would not have made a good parish minister.”[1]

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Non-violence, Just War, and Impossible Questions

Yesterday a church member asked me if I was going to be preaching on the situation in Syria and the President's request that Congress authorize military action against the Assad regime. I told him that I was genuinely unsure of what to say, that I have some very conflicted feelings about what, if anything, can be done to help end the terrible suffering there.

Based on the Facebook and Twitter posts of my friends and colleagues, I seem to be in a minority, at least in the sense that I do not dismiss any possibility of military intervention out of hand. At the risk of getting my liberal credentials revoked, I have to admit that I have considered whether or not notions of "just war" might apply in this case. Not that I have concluded that is the case (as I said, I'm conflicted), but I do find myself wondering whether it is right to stand by as thousands of Syrian civilians die because I believe in peace.

I probably should back up and say that on this last point, the use of chemical weapons is less the "red line" for me. My issue is that some 100,000 have died without America, or anyone else, feeling much need to do anything significant about it. And while there are Christian relief agencies doing difficult and dangerous work with refugees from the Syrian violence, a fair amount of Christian concern only seems to have emerged over the possibility of US intervention.

US intervention might indeed be a fool's errand, one that makes things worse instead of better. But I confess to being a tad suspicious of peacemaking and non-violence that consist of nothing beyond saying "No" to military intervention. Jesus says I must not strike back at the one who strikes me. But that is a witness that I choose to take up. But as a follower of Jesus, what responsibility do I have to those being oppressed and killed by a brutal dictator? Can I appoint them the sufferers who pay the price for my non-violence?

In today's gospel passage, Jesus is led off to be crucified, an event we Christians speak of as being salvific in some way. Jesus, the innocent one, takes up that cross, but what of Syrian children or victims of the Holocaust perpetuated by the Nazis in World War II? And if I have the power to stop such atrocities (by no means a certainty or even likelihood in Syria), is the greater evil to take up military force or to let the deaths continue?

For me these are not rhetorical questions to change the mind of someone reading this. They are the questions I find myself wrestling with, questions for which I have no easy answers, and I am suspicious of those who do. I also have this nagging feeling that my discipleship should be more difficult and costly to me than it is to children in the suburbs of Damascus.

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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Stirred Up Crowds

"But the chief priests stirred up the crowd..." and thus ended Pilate's weak attempt to free Jesus. Mark's gospel says nothing about how the priests managed to stir up the crowd, but it's a plausible enough story. We're well aware of how crowds can get stirred up.

Most of us probably have memories of going along with something we never would have done on our own. Perhaps we joined in tormenting some unpopular kid in our class along with "everyone else." Perhaps we tolerated or even laughed at racist jokes in our workplace to go along with the crowd. We often have great disdain for politicians who seem to have no real principles but have to check the prevailing political wind before deciding where they stand on an issue. But crowds are easily stirred and, once stirred, they are difficult to resist.

Of course most of us seem to need a crowd, a group we can belong to. And so we have to find a group, a crowd that we feel comfortable around most of the time. If we can't resist a stirred up crowd, the least we can do is associate with one that shares our morals, convictions, biases, and preferences. Then we can laugh at the foolishness of those others crowds, often without much awareness of our own. Republicans, Democrats, liberal Christians, conservative Christians, atheists, agnostics, Millennials, Gen X-ers, and Baby Boomers, all have things that stir our group up, and we have prejudices about what stirs up those in other crowds.

Right now I'm thinking about the difference between crowds and true community. Community seems to me a much bigger thing than a crowd or group, and so presumably it needs something that binds it together which is larger than the sorts of things that tend to stir up crowds. We Christians speak of a unity "in Christ." In practice, however, we tend to have a different Christ for each crowd, and we  snicker at the other crowds' mistaken image of Jesus.

When Jesus says that those who would follow him must "deny themselves," I wonder if a big piece of that denial isn't letting go of those things that make me part of a crowd rather than member of the human race, a brother or sister to all the other children of God.

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Sunday, September 1, 2013

Sermon: Be a Blessing

Luke 14:1, 7-14
Be A Blessing
James Sledge                                                                   September 1, 2013

In an article on today’s gospel, Emilie Townes, American Baptist pastor and professor of theology at Yale Divinity School, recalls something she heard many times as child from her grandmother. “I just want to be a blessing. That’s all I want for my life, is to be a blessing to others.”[1] Dr. Townes relates how her understanding of what “blessing” means developed as she grew up, evolving from a simplistic notion of rewards given to good little boys and girls to a complex, nuanced, difficult, and deeply theological understanding.
If you are familiar with Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, you may already have some appreciation for the complex and difficult nature of blessing. “Blessed are you who are poor… Blessed are you who are hungry now… Blessed are you who weep now… Blessed are you when people hate you…” And there is a corresponding list of woes or curses for those who are rich, full, laughing, and spoken well of by others. 
When I first read those words from Dr. Townes’ grandmother, I immediately thought of a moment from my time in seminary. I don’t know if this happens with other people, but sometimes when I experience a powerful moment of insight or discovery, it becomes a vivid memory that stays with me. And I have one of those connected to the topic of blessing.
It came in my introductory class on the Old Testament. Our assignment was to translate God’s call to Abram in Genesis 12. If you looked it up in your pew Bible you would find this.  Now the Lord said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”
It was a passage I knew well, and so I was surprised to find that the Hebrew had something very different from the words I knew. Now the Lord said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so be a blessing. “Be a blessing.” It was an imperative command, just like the command, “Go,” a command that Dr. Townes grandmother had somehow taken up as her own.