Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Praise the Lord! But What Have You Done for Me Lately?

If my Facebook page is any guide, there are a lot of people terribly upset by plans at Macy's, K-Mart, and other retailers to begin their Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving Day, but I'm struggling to come up with much outrage of my own. No one is required to shop at these establishments, tomorrow or on any day that follows. And what is so sacred about gluttony, parades, dog shows, and football that it is somehow sullied and profaned by this service to the almighty dollar?

Thanksgiving certainly has its religious connections and roots, though they have receded so far as to be nearly invisible. Some faith communities still hold Thanksgiving services, but rarely on the actually day. No sense trying to compete with the primary events of Thanksgiving. No complaints from me on that. Thanksgiving as a practice is essential to Christian faith, but Thanksgiving Day isn't.

It is possible, however, that Thanksgiving's being invaded by the spending frenzy of Christmas does speak to issues facing Christian faith, namely the difficulty we contemporary Americans seem to have being truly grateful (see Monday's blog). We are anxious people who struggle with being content. And so we quickly forget past accomplishments and gifts. We want to know, "What  have you done for me lately?" We all know stories of a very successful football coach who was fired after a single losing season.

Both of this morning's psalms call the faithful to praise, song, and thanksgiving for all God's graciousness, saving acts, and wonderful works. But such songs of thanks and praise require a longer memory than tends to be our wont. God is a remarkably patient and non-anxious deity, but our anxieties make patience, waiting, rest, and Sabbath very difficult for us. If God hasn't done something for us very recently, we may have a hard time finding it on our ledgers.

I wonder if one of the most profound things Christians might do as we move into Advent, something that might also allow for a more genuine giving of thanks, would be to slow down. What if, in this season of hectic busyness, we entered into an Advent discipline of rest, of stopping long enough for our fields of view to grow a little larger and lengthier? What if, in our recalling old, sacred stories of God's entering into human history at Bethlehem, we were able to remember and rest in the grace of God, allowing us not to worry so much about tomorrow, to be a little less anxious? What a witness that might be.

Grace and blessings to you for Thanksgiving. And may you find in it rest and space and sabbath to see beyond tomorrow's anxieties and to glimpse the goodness of God.

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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

If Jesus Got Ahold of Christmas

As surely as bad Christmas music is blaring in the stores and malls, so too the posts have begun to appear on Facebook from those upset over "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas." It seems like so much manufactured upset to me. Is it really a significant concern for the faith if Target tries to whip people into a seasonal spending frenzy without using the word "Christmas?" For that matter, does the Messiah really want his title attached to our rampant consumerism?

That said, I understand some Christians' frustration with what they see as a gradual erosion of respect for the the church and religion. And even if the mall version of Christmas is largely devoid of any religious content, it was still connected in some way and still shares a date and a name. In minimalist fashion, Christmas keeps a very small bit of the Christian story before an increasingly nonreligious population. "Happy Holidays" make the tenuous linkage seem even more precarious. But even if I can understand some of their fear and frustration, I think the "Keep Christ in Christmas" crowd terribly misguided.

As this morning's psalm opens, I imagine some of these folks would nod in agreement with the psalmist's lament.
      Help, O LORD, for there is no longer anyone who is godly;
         the faithful have disappeared from humankind.
      They utter lies to each other;
          with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.

"Yes indeed... the world is going to hell in a hand basket."

But as the psalmist continues, we discover that this terrible situation has nothing to do with keeping up good, religious appearances. It has nothing to do with whether or not merchants have signs with Christmas, God, Lord, or Yahweh in their stores.
    “Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan,
        I will now rise up,” says the LORD;
        “I will place them in the safety for which they long.”

Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan... The American version of Christmas is about conspicuous consumption, about an orgy of buying and spending. To that we sometimes sprinkle in some toy drives for poor children and some turkey dinners for the hungry. But at the same time we cut food stamp programs and refuse to set a liveable minimum wage.

If Christ truly were to enter into our Christmas, it might well have all the warmth of when he lost it in the Jerusalem temple. "This is what you do in my name!?"

Sometimes I wonder if the New England Puritans didn't have it right. They celebrated Easter, but they completely forbade any celebration of Christmas. Except when it fell on a Sunday, a person could be arrested in colonial Massachusetts for not going to work on Christmas day. I'll admit such an approach is a bit severe, but they had come from England where Christmas wassailing often resembled a rowdy, drunken version of Halloween. Seeing no connection to such activity and a life of following Jesus, they banned the practice.

Actually, I have no desire to ban Christmas, I enjoy it, even those many aspects of it that have  nothing to do with Christian faith. But I don't see much call to "keep Christ in Christmas," at least not as that is usually understood. However, I wouldn't mind if Christ entered into our Christmas, at least the Christmases of those of us who claim to be his disciples. Surely the one who comes "to bring good news to the poor," who is celebrated in the Magnificat with "He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty," would put an entirely different spin our our notions of Christmas.

Enter into our Advent, O Lord. Transform our preparation for another Christmas into preparations for a new day, that kingdom you proclaim is drawing near.

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Monday, November 25, 2013

"House Porn" and Other Longings

Truly God is good to the upright,
    to those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled;
    my steps had nearly slipped. 

For I was envious of the arrogant;
    I saw the prosperity of the wicked. 

For they have no pain;
    their bodies are sound and sleek. 

They are not in trouble as others are;
    they are not plagued like other people.      
Psalm 73:1-5

I've noted before that we live in anxious times. We enjoy luxuries and comforts that could not have been imagined a generation or two before us, yet all this has not put us at ease. If anything it has done the opposite. Flip through the offerings on your television and you will find all manner of shows that will "help" us get better. Our homes need a make-over, our wardrobes, our bodies, our looks, and on and on.

I occasionally enjoy the home makeover shows on TV. I like to think of myself as handy around the house, so this is right up my alley. I've heard a number of folks refer to such shows as "house porn." I suppose the term comes for lusting over construction and fixtures and amenities that are better than we have or are likely ever to have in our homes. Such "porn" can create a longing that isn't really healthy, that leaves us perpetually unsatisfied with what we have.

As Thanksgiving approaches, I've noticed a number or articles and posts about how people in our world are less and less practiced at gratitude and giving thanks. Perhaps our unhealthy longings make it difficult for us to be grateful. Why would I say thanks for something that is so far removed from those things I fantasize about? Like the psalmist, I know how to be envious rather than grateful. And that line from the psalm, "their bodies are sound and sleek," fits perfectly into a "porn" like longing.

There is a famous line written by St. Augustine more than 1600 years ago that says, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you." We are indeed restless, but often it appears that our restlessness cannot be cured. It can only be temporarily sated, like a fix does for an addict. How strange to think that much of the anxiety of our age might be a misplaced religious striving, an ill fated attempt to calm a holy longing with the pursuit of more tangible desires.

There is a Christmas themed commercial for Audi running right now that features luxury car owners tossing their car keys into a Salvation Army type kettle. Having glimpsed an Audi, their Lexus or Mercedes no longer satisfies them. Their restlessness kicks in, and they must pursue it. I wonder if the advertisers realized the near parody of Jesus' call to leave everything behind and follow him.

During these seasons of Thanksgiving and Advent, prayers for all of us to discover a true resting in God that cures our restless longings.

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Sermon video: It Starts Today

Audios of sermons and worship available on FCPC website.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sermon: It Starts Today

Luke 23:33-43
It Starts Today
James Sledge                                                   November 24, 2013, Reign of Christ

This is the King of the Jews. So says the inscription above Jesus as he hangs dying on a cross. His Roman executioners put it there for two reasons. First it is a horrific warning. This is what happens to those who would dare claim such a title. The emperor is king, and him alone. Any who would challenge that will meet a similar, horrible fate.
Along with this grotesque warning to those who might defy the power of Rome, the inscription on Jesus’ cross is also a mocking taunt directed at Jesus himself, as well as those who had so recently been enthralled by him. Here is your king. Doesn’t he look impressive now?
Crosses were not the standard mode of execution in the Roman empire. If you simply needed to kill a criminal, there were easier and much more efficient methods. A sword would do just fine. John the Baptist is dispatched in such a fashion. The order is given to kill him, and it is immediately carried out.
But Jesus’ death is a show, an event orchestrated to frighten would-be revolutionaries and insurrectionists. This is what happens to pretend kings. The real king squashes them like bugs. Look here on this cross. Take a long, hard look at your king.
I suspect that most all Jesus’ followers got the message. They had been sure that he was the Messiah. The power of God had seemed to flow out from him. Repeatedly they had seen that power displayed. But whatever power Jesus had, it clearly was no match for the power of Rome. Jesus had turned out to be one more in a long line of messianic pretenders. Maybe it was time to let go of such foolish hopes for an anointed one who would set things right.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Remembering and Hoping

Hear my prayer, O LORD;
    give ear to my supplications in your faithfulness;
    answer me in your righteousness. 

Do not enter into judgment with your servant,
    for no one living is righteous before you.

For the enemy has pursued me,
    crushing my life to the ground,
    making me sit in darkness like those long dead.
Therefore my spirit faints within me;
   my heart within me is appalled.

I remember the days of old,
   I think about all your deeds,
   I meditate on the works of your hands.
I stretch out my hands to you;
    my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.           
Psalm 143:1-6

There are a lot people who think of the church as an anachronism, an aging institution caught up in the past, with little or no relevance for present or future. There are faith communities who do little to disabuse people of such notions. Even those of us who dearly love the church and anticipate a vibrant future for it are all too familiar with Christians and church congregations who seem to worship the past. They look back and long for former glory, for Christian hegemony, for a full sanctuary, for cultural status, etc. When such folks remember, it often serves to deepen their despair.

As this morning's psalm begins, its author is clearly in a bad place. Things are not going well, and the psalmist seems near hopelessness and despair. Such psalms are surprisingly common in the Bible, and by some counts, psalms of lament are more numerous than any other type. I say "surprisingly" because I have met so many people of faith who think it irreverent or inappropriate to speak to God in the raw, straightforward manner of these psalms.

In psalms of lament, the dire circumstances almost always provoke a remembering, but this remembering is often little like that of present day Christians who lament and long to turn back the clock. In the psalms, remembering is done in order to hope for the future. "I remember the days of old, I think about all your deeds, I meditate on the work of your hands," says the psalmist, and this is no longing for the good 'ole days. Rather it is recalling and rehearsing the character of God who has acted in certain ways in the past and so can be counted on to act in those ways now and in the future.

That someone would remember in order to hope is hardly earth shattering. We don't go into a panic when the sun disappears and the world goes dark each night because we know - actually, remember - that we will see it again the next morning. Some of the wisdom that comes with age derives from a greater repository of remembrances. Great losses and tragedies have occurred, but life has somehow continued and been filled with things to be grateful for. Broken relationship that seemed beyond repair have been reconciled. Terror and evil have seemed to hold the upper hand, but then have faltered and ultimately failed. It makes me wonder if optimists, at least the non Pollyanna sort, aren't simply good and practiced rememberers. 

I've been thinking about remembering a lot as we draw near to the seasons of Advent and Christmas. Christmas and Advent, which has unfortunately turned into little more than pre-Christmas, feature a great deal of remembering. We remember and rehearse old stories along with old songs. It can and sometimes does devolve into little more than nostalgia, but it can also be a sacred remembering that allows for hope in something new. It can be faithful wisdom that sees clearly the world's darkness yet knows the light that cannot be overcome by it. It can be the source of a holy longing that hurts for the pain and brokenness of this world yet still calls out with hope and anticipation, Come quickly, Lord Jesus!

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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

I'm Not Who You Say You Are

The daily lectionary has been working its way through the book of Revelation. (Notice there is no "s" in the book's name. That' a pet peeve of mine.) Revelation or, more properly, The Revelation to John, is a most interesting work. Its imagery is quite odd to modern readers, though its style seems to have been well known and much more accessible to Jews and Christians at the time of its writing. And while it is understandable that many modern folks might struggle with the book, what I find most intriguing about it is how Revelation seems to have become the sole property of one wing of the Christian faith.

Aside from some of today's verses making an occasional appearance at a funeral, I don't know that I ever heard a word from Revelation as I grew up in the church, and that includes both worship and Sunday School classes. That is not to suggest all Christians share my experience. In some congregations it appears with much more regularity, but those are generally not Presbyterian congregations, certainly not moderate to liberal ones.

Somewhere along the way, presumably with the advent in the 19th Century of Dispensationalism, the strange theology that brought us the notion of a rapture, Revelation was ceded to those Christians who saw the book as a cryptic manual outlining details of how and when the world would end. Because these rapture folks liked Revelation so much, differently minded Christians said to them, "You can have it."

Simply on its own, the loss of Revelation is a significant loss to the liberal end of the faith. The book is a book of hope written to people going through great difficulties, and there are many times when it speaks a word we desperately need to hear. But even more, the abandonment of Revelation is part of the larger practice of defining ourselves as "not like them," a practice that undermines the very faith we claim to profess.

Think of all the things more liberal Christians don't do because they don't like the way conservative Christians do them. Your list may be a bit different from mine, but mine includes, "We don't do evangelism. We don't talk about Jesus as Savior. You can't take the Bible too seriously," and so on. I think you can see the trajectory. All this is quite understandable, but it also means that liberal Christians often know much more about what they are not than about what or who they are.

Brian McLaren's latest book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World, sees this as perhaps the biggest challenge facing Mainline and liberal churches. In response the the strong, but largely hostile Christian identity of more fundamentalist Christians, we have created a very open and friendly, but at the same time, very weak identity. And in a post-denominational, some would say post-Christian culture, this identity is nearly impossible to pass down to those who come after us. It has nothing particularly compelling or distinctive. It only makes real sense in a world where everyone "has" to be Christian, and there are large numbers of people who don't want to be "like them." McLaren argues that the future of groups such as Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, etc. depends on our discovering our own strong yet benevolent identity.

I couldn't agree more, and perhaps one small step in building such an identity is to reclaim Revelation for ourselves, to trust that it has much to show us, and that God can and does speak through it. Revelation does not speak of a rapture, or of the destruction of the world for that matter. But it does speak good news, and we would do well to listen to it rather than simply rejecting what someone else says the book is about.

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Monday, November 18, 2013

You Never Listen to Me

A common lament among couples regards not listening. When complaints about listening are offered, a distinction is often made between "hearing" and "listening." These words can function as near synonyms, but to listen usually implies more active intent of the listener's part. I may hear the loud noise of a car crash, even if I was busy concentrating on something else. But I may not understand what someone is saying if I do not listen. I may only hear that person's words as so much extraneous background noise.

Today's gospel reading features Matthew's account of the Transfiguration, where Jesus literally glows and Moses and Elijah join him for a chat. In the midst of this remarkable event, the divine voice speaks, terrifying the Peter, James, and John. “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

If you are a person of faith, you may know first hand that divine speech is frustratingly infrequent. God apparently does not feel the need to speak all that often, at least not in a manner that is unmistakeable. But God speaks here with great clarity and brevity. Jesus is God's special, beloved Son, requiring a single, simple imperative. "Listen to him!"

Jesus says quite a lot, much of it repeatedly. It is perhaps to our benefit that those first disciples were a bit slow on the uptake. In reading through the gospels, Jesus makes many of his points over and over. On a number of topics it is hard to miss what Jesus wants us to do, but if Jesus suddenly appeared in my office, he might be justified if he complained, "You never listen to me!"

If Jesus did offer that complaint, I think he'd only be partly right. Often we have listened a bit, enough to discover that Jesus says some really troubling or difficult things. And so we in the church often focus on other things to the extent that they drown out what we don't want to hear. We worry about how we worship, the music we sing, the buildings we build, getting our doctrines correct, and most of the hot button social issues of the day. These things are not unimportant, but all too often they become so much extraneous noise, drowning out teachings on loving our enemies, denying ourselves, not worrying about wealth, or being willing to suffer for the gospel.

I think that much of the fascination with the new pope in Rome, all those #popecrush hashtags on Twitter, is about a church leader who seems to have done some listening. By many of his statements and actions, he gives the appearance of someone who puts what Jesus says above institutional agenda items that tend to drive many denominations and congregations. And in the process, Pope Francis has made the church attractive to many who had written it off. Who knew that might happen, if only we listened to Jesus.

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Thursday, November 14, 2013

Signs of the Times

There's an old saying that goes, "Red sky in morning, sailor take warning, Red sky at night, sailor's delight." This is folk wisdom rooted in sailors' observations, but there's a sound meteorological basis for the saying. Jesus and the people of his day clearly knew about this significance of red skies, and Jesus uses this to chastise his opponents. "You know how to read weather signs in the sky," says Jesus, "But you are oblivious to the signs of the times."

I and most people reading this are not opponents of Jesus, at least not intentionally, but I wonder if we are any better at reading signs. Like Jesus' opponents there are many signs we read quite well. We can predict weather in a manner unimaginable in Jesus' day. Many are expert in reading the political winds and trends. In just about any given field there are experts and consultants who can tell you how to prepare your business or institution for the future, find new customers, or increase your market share, etc. Not all such knowledge is correct or helpful, but there is a great deal of wisdom  and knowledge in our world about a great deal of things. But what of those signs of the times?

Jesus is, of course, speaking of what God is up to, of the kingdom drawing near with an attendant need to make changes accordingly, just the sort of things we in the Church will soon begin to focus on for Advent. In today's culture of experts and consultants, we in the church should be the go-to experts on signs of the times, on seeing what God is up to. Yet very often, our expertise seems not to extend into this area. We know how to do worship, run Christian education programs, study the Bible, and so on. But if you ask leaders in congregations to figure out what God is up to right now, what God is calling that congregation to do at that moment, many will look at you like you just asked them to read tarot cards.

My denomination's foundational documents include this statement.
In the power of the Spirit, Jesus Christ draws worshiping communities and individual believers into the sovereign activity of the triune God at all times and places. As the Church seeks reform and fresh direction, it looks to Jesus Christ who goes ahead of us and calls us to follow him. United with Christ in the power of the Spirit, the Church seeks “not [to] be conformed to this world, but [to] be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds, so that [we] may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2).
We say that we are a Spirit led people moving toward God's newness in Jesus. So... what are the signs in God's sky say, "Not this way, but that?"

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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Taking God to Task

Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us,
     for we have had more than enough of contempt.
Our soul has had more than its fill
     of the scorn of those who are at ease,
     of the contempt of the proud.
     Psalm 123:3-4

More than enough... I can imagine all sorts of situations that might prompt someone to cry out, "I've had more than enough." Most of us have probably felt this way at times. And then there are those unimaginable events that are hard to comprehend. Think of people in the Philippines at this moment with loved ones dead and missing, with all their possessions gone, with no food or safe water to be found. "Have mercy, God, have mercy. We cannot go on otherwise."

When the psalmist pleads for God to have mercy, I wonder what emotions were churning. Was there anger at God for allowing so much "more than enough?" Was there bewilderment that God was not doing anything to help? Clearly the psalmist looks longingly to God for something that has not been forthcoming. The psalmist knows God in some sense, and God is not acting like God's character would suggest.

When I read this psalm, I hear a cry for God to be God. God is a God of mercy who comes to those in distress, but that has not happened. Perhaps someone without the poetic sense of the psalmist would simply have cried, "Dammit, God! Act like God!"

No doubt some find it offensive to address God this way, but I have always thought that anger at God requires a significant amount of faith. It is hard to be angry with a notion of God or a general concept of goodness or morality. To be angry at God is to have expected God to behave in some manner. Perhaps this expectation was wrong (mine often are), rooted in a misunderstanding of God's nature, but even if we don't know God like we think we do, to know God at all is to expect God to be God. And when God does not, that is a moment of crisis.

Anger at least acknowledges that. Far worse is the sort of numb, resignation that cannot be upset by God. Then God may become little more than nostalgia, a childhood recollection of Santa Claus, a lingering warm feeling but not someone I expect anything from. If I do not get any wonderful presents for Christmas, I will not be the least bit disappointed in Santa. Is it the same if I find myself in a prolonged bought of spiritual dryness, if I cannot glimpse some sign of a renewed and reconciled creation, or if I despair that the world is horribly lost? Is my God as impotent as Santa?

O God, are you there in the Philippines? O God, are you there in the brokenness and hurts of so many? O God, show yourself. I implore you. Be God!

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Sermon video: Seeing Something New

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Sermon: Seeing Something New

Luke 20:27-38
Seeing Something New
James Sledge                                                                           November 10, 2013

This may seem a stupid question, but why do people ask questions? Quite naturally people ask question when they are seeking information they do not have. If I’m lost and ask someone, “Can you tell me how to get to Rustico in Arlington?” I’m hoping that person knows something that I don’t. But very often, questions are not that simple.
Some questions are really looking for confirmation or validation, not information. Questions about whether or not a dress looks flattering or a completed project is well done may or may not be genuine. And then there are religious questions.
If someone comes up to me on the street and asks, “Is Jesus Christ your Lord and savior?” it’s certain that no simple exchange of information is about to take place. If I answer “No,” the questioner will not respond with a “Thank you,” and then walk off.
Some of the worst religious questions are those from people who disagree with you. Christians who fancy themselves smart and sophisticated will sometimes ask more fundamentalist friends questions designed to point out what uneducated dolts these friends actually are. Atheists will sometimes ask Christian friends questions about some facet of faith that seems particularly ridiculous to them. “Do you really believe Jesus did miracles like casting out evil spirits?” At least that question lets you know ahead of time that to answer “Yes” means you will get laughed at.
The Sadducees in our gospel ask just such a question to Jesus, a complex, trick question meant to make Jesus look foolish. Then they can laugh at this country rube of a rabbi.
It may help to know that the Sadducees were well-to-do elites with quite a bit of power and influence. Religiously they were rather conservative. Unlike the Pharisees, they held that only the books of Moses, the first five books in our Old Testament, were authoritative. And since there was no mention of resurrection in those books, they dismissed belief in resurrection the way some of us might laugh at the Rapture.
Their question is rooted in an old practice called levirate marriage. For ancient Hebrews, this was a kind of social safety net for widows. In a time when women were not full citizens, a widow without male children was terribly vulnerable. Requiring her brother-in-law to marry her not only provided a measure of protection for a widow, it also was a way of keeping the deceased brother’s lineage going.
And so this question about a widow with seven husbands. The actual scenario is perhaps implausible yet still possible. I wonder if the Sadducees could refrain from snickering as they sprung their little trap. Wouldn’t it be fun watching Jesus tie himself up in knots with this.
Interestingly the Sadducees, who do not believe in resurrection, seem to have a remarkably conventional notion of it. Resurrection is a lot like things are now, it’s just somewhere else and sometime else. It’s a view a lot of modern day Christians share: resurrection as an upgrade of sorts. There’s the Family Circus version of this with Grandpa in his white robe, looking down to check on Billy and his siblings. And there’s the Greek philosophical version of an immortal soul whose essence somehow persists.
But Jesus has no trouble navigating the Sadducees’ trap, in large part, because he does not have a conventional understanding of resurrection. It is part of something new, so new that it is almost unimaginable. It will not really fit into conventional notions of how things are.
Jesus’ comment about being “like angels” in the resurrection has nothing to do with people becoming angels when they die. In the Bible, angels are not former humans. They are an entirely different sort of creature, not at all like us. And that is precisely Jesus’ point. The hope of a new day that Jesus proclaims is not at all about an upgrade or progress or advancement. It is about something so new only eyes of faith can even begin to glimpse it.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Hearing Creation's Song

The view last evening from the church's fellowship hall.
 The LORD is king! Let the earth rejoice;
     let the many coastlands be glad!
Psalm 97:1

I wonder how many of us who grew up in the church give much thought to the oddity of lines like those in today's morning psalm. Can the earth rejoice? Can the coastlands have emotions? Seems a rather odd notion.

Earlier I read these words from famed naturalist John Muir, used by Brian McLaren in his book, Naked Spirituality.
Oh, these vast, calm measureless mountain days in whose light every thing seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God…. These blessed mountains are so compactly filled with God’s beauty [that] the whole body seems to feel beauty when exposed to it as it feels the campfire or sunshine, entering not by the eyes alone, but equally through all one’s flesh like radiant heat, making a passionate ecstatic pleasure-glow not explainable…. A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease. Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life, every fiber thrilling like harp strings, while incense is ever flowing from the balsam bells and leaves. No wonder the hills and groves were God’s first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord himself.
Right now I am looking out my office window at the deep blue sky that emerged following the earlier rains. The parking lot is littered with leaves tossed about by the wind, and vivid fall colors fill the horizon. I'm fortunate I can see it. My office has three large windows, each with four, over-sized panes. However, all but two of those twelve pains are opaque, offering only a hint of the grandeur of God just outside. I wonder if those two panes by my desk were a later modification. The other panes seem older.

Who thought it a good idea to hide my view of creation behind gauzy opaqueness? It is a question easily asked of many sanctuaries. I've marveled at my share of beautiful sanctuaries and found them invitations into God's transcendence, so I mean them no disrespect. Still...

We Presbyterians can be overly head focused at times. Valuing the mind and intellect is not a problem in and of itself, but sometimes this focus makes us suspicious of emotions, of experience, of things we can not explain or control. a rejoicing planet, a gladsome beach, or, for that matter, like God.

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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Anxiety, Addiction, and Gratitude

Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving;
     make melody to our God on the lyre.  
Psalm 147:7

Here in Virginia, I and many others are thrilled that election day has come and gone. No more campaign commercials; no more political signs cluttering the roadside; no more annoying robo-calls. I don't think such feelings are more prevalent in one political party or the other. Regardless of political leanings, it's good that the election is over.

The ads in Virginia's gubernatorial race were particularly nasty. I greatly preferred one candidate over the other, but I found many of my own candidate's ads to be cringe-worthy. Indeed commentators of all stripes wondered if either candidate had anything positive to say.

Like clockwork, Americans complain about all the negative attack ads that fill the airwaves in election seasons. No one likes them, yet they won't go away. The reason is obvious. Such ads work, and they work because most people tend to be motivated by fear.

John Calvin wrote that the motivation for the Christian life is gratitude. An awareness of the incredibly extravagant way in which God comes to us, embraces us, cares for us, and longs for us, no matter what we do to drive God away, issues forth in a new quality of life that wants, most of all, to offer unending thanks to God.

Most of us have witnessed this sort of behavior, if only occasionally. People who have fallen in love will exhibit this toward their lover, becoming remarkably extravagant in trying to make happy and please that person. Sometimes a child will react to an unexpected gift with exuberant gratitude, bursting with joy and lavishing hugs and thanks over and over on the gift giver. But both these examples are more the exception than rule.

Our world is largely motivated by anxiety, by worries and fears that we don't have enough: enough money, things, experiences, faith, happiness, security etc. By and large the entire advertising industry exists to create and feed such anxieties. And when you don't think you have enough, it is difficult to be grateful.

Even worship is impacted by this. The common complaint about not being fed in worship presumes that one goes to worship in order to get something. It sees worship as one more place designed to feed my consumerist appetite, to give me some more of those things I don't yet have in adequate supply.

Worship certainly does uplift and feed. But according to Jesus, this happens primarily when we approach it - and indeed all of life - from a pose of letting go rather than grasping. When Jesus insists that his followers practice self-denial, he isn't calling us to some sort of hermit-like asceticism. Rather he is telling us one of the counter-intuitive secrets to full life. Striving for enough, for more and more, is deadly addiction and not a path to life.

The medieval theologian and mystic Meister Eckhart once wrote, "If the only prayer you said in your whole life was “thank you,” that would be sufficient." Imagine such a notion, that gratitude itself is enough. Then all our worship and singing would truly be "with thanksgiving."

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Monday, November 4, 2013

What's in a Name?

No doubt because I've been re-reading Brian McLaren's Naked Spirituality, I was struck by all the mentions of God's name in today's psalms. Not only were there repeated occurrences of LORD, the NRSV translation's reverential way of rendering the divine name so that it isn't actually said, but there were repeated calls to bless God's name and to praise God's name. There's a lot of fascination with names when it comes to God.

Jesus picks this up in the prayer he teaches his disciples. Not only does he speak of God as Father, but he also says "hallowed by your name" Modern Christians have perhaps over-embraced the term father while, at the same time, losing much sense of reverence or  hallowing of the sacred, divine name.

I don't fall into that group that may have over-embraced "Father" as a way of naming God. I've likely never begun a prayer with "Father God..."I have a different faith problem with it comes to God and names. I've tended to focus on God's otherness and transcendence to the point that God becomes so distant as to be unknowable. If some Christians seem to get so familiar that they invoke God like a personal genie, God can become for me more conceptual than real.

I don't know that the psalmists were worried about that sort of problem when they got so focused on God's name, but still I think they are on to something important. When you know a person's name, you can call them by name, and my faith insists that God has a name that has been shared with us. It's a bit of a slippery name, one closely related to the verb "to be" and to the story of Moses and the burning bush where God, at one point, gives the divine name as "I am who I am," or perhaps "I will be who I will be." It's a name that the tradition is very hesitant to speak aloud, but the name is known nonetheless, and there is something remarkable about that.

Does your god have a name? Too often, I fear, my God remains nameless and therefore unapproachable and distant to a remarkable degree. I'm acutely aware of the problem of making God overly familiar, a personal buddy who likes all the things I like and hates all the things I hate. But my solution to that problem creates a different one: a God who is too remote even to encounter.

O God, Holy One, YHWH, I AM, let me know you by name, even if no single name will quite do. Then with the psalmist, "I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever."

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Sunday, November 3, 2013

Sermon: Oh, I Wish That I Could Be...

Luke 6:20-31
Oh, I Wish That I Could Be…
James Sledge                                                               November 3, 2013 – All Saints

There’s an old Simon and Garfunkel song, based on an even older poem, that some of you may know. It’s called “Richard Corey,” and here are some of the lyrics.
They say that Richard Cory owns one half of this whole town,
With political connections to spread his wealth around.
Born into society, a banker's only child,
He had everything a man could want: power, grace, and style.
But I work in his factory
And I curse the life I'm living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be Richard Cory.
A second verse speaks of the luxurious, even decadent lifestyle Cory leads. And then the song closes with this verse.
He freely gave to charity, he had the common touch,
And they were grateful for his patronage and thanked him very much,
So my mind was filled with wonder when the evening headlines read:
"Richard Cory went home last night and put a bullet through his head."
But I work in his factory
And I curse the life I'm living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be Richard Cory.
Who or what is it you wish you could be? Oh, I wish I could be richer, more beautiful, more accomplished, more athletic, more intelligent. Oh, I wish I could be more like so and so who seems to have it all. Oh I wish I had a better job. Oh, I wish I could get into such and such college. Oh, I wish I lived in such and such a town. Oh, I wish I had a better wardrobe. Oh, I wish I were thinner. I wish I were more popular. Oh, I wish…
What are your “Oh, I wish…” scenarios? What are those things, accomplishments, relationships, abilities, experiences, etc. that you think would make your life grand and wonderful, all you want and hope for it to be?
In our culture there are lots and lots of messages telling people that they don’t quite measure up, that they’d better work harder and smarter and longer or they will be down at the bottom, looking up at others and saying, “Oh, I wish…”
I saw a quote in The Washington Post the other day from a Dr. Richard Leahy, an anxiety specialist. He said, “The average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s.” I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it wouldn’t surprise me. The pressure to perform and measure up, to be accomplished in academics and sports and arts, to go to a good college, get a great job, and make lots of money seems to grow with each passing year. And it is only more intense in areas such as our DC metro region.
These sorts of cultural messages find their way into the church as well. I wish I had a deeper prayer life. Oh, I wish that I could find a spirituality that really worked for me. Oh, I wish my faith was more like so and so’s.
A lot of pastors and other church leaders have a hard time going to something at another church without looking at the bulletin boards and lists of activities and then fretting about whether or not our congregation measures up. There’s almost always something to feed our anxieties, some event or mission or accomplishment that looks impressive and makes us say to ourselves, “Oh, how I wish we could…”