Sunday, December 28, 2014

Sermon: Into the Light

This Advent, we began using Brian McLaren's book, We Make the Road by Walking, to shape sermons and worship, a pattern that will continue through Pentecost. This sermon connects to the chapter meant for Christmas Eve, "The Light Has Come."

 John 1:1-5, 9-10; 3:19-21
Into the Light
James Sledge                                                                                       December 28, 2014

If your neighborhood looks much like mine, the Christmas lights are everywhere. The house around the corner from me brings in a bucket truck like the power company uses to hang lights along the roof line. In another yard nearby there’s a huge tree that has lights at the very top. I have no idea how they get them all the way up there.
Lights have been big at Christmas for as long as I can remember, although they have gotten a bit more “over the top” in recent years. When I lived in Columbus, OH, one of the radio stations sponsored a “tacky tour.” You could join them on a chartered bus that drove around to some of the gaudier displays that listeners had recommended.
As I understand it, the whole Christmas light thing evolved from an old German custom of putting candles on evergreens at Christmas time. The custom came to America with German immigrants, and when electric lights became available, they replaced candles on the trees. Then they began to migrate to other places.
It’s hardly surprising that Christmas became associated with lights. What with Christmas Eve services held at night and Bible verses that tell of Wise Men following a start and that speak of Jesus as the light that shines in the darkness, how could it not have?
Of course our modern world is brightly lit up all the time. The electric lights of our culture shine in the darkness and practically overwhelm it. You have to find some desolate wilderness to experience real darkness, to see the Milky Way and the stars and planets in all their glory on a moonless night. Even when we go to bed at night, little lights stare at us from TVs and chargers and clocks and cable boxes. We could use a little more natural darkness in our nights.
But if our electric lights have all but banished the night, we have plenty of the darkness John speaks of in our gospel reading.
A lot of people did not want the recent Senate report on torture to see the light of day. Some were genuinely concerned it could incite violence, but I suspect that most simply didn’t want it public. There are disturbing things in the report that many of us would just as soon not know. They run too counter to our self-image. Even those who support “enhanced interrogation techniques” still want them confined to the shadows.
When Congress passed a spending bill earlier this month, I was happy we didn’t have another government shutdown. I was less happy to hear of the things that always get tucked into such bills, statutes and pet spending projects that would never make it through if they had to be discussed in the open, in the light.
The recent hacking of Sony’s Hollywood studios has revealed the seamy underside of that business. Sony is probably no worse than other studios or many corporations. There is much in the corporate world that no company would want to become public. And at the intersection of the corporate and political worlds there is surely a “land of deep darkness,” to borrow a phrase from Isaiah, a realm that truly loves darkness and fears the light.
There is much in our world that loves darkness rather than light. It likes to stay hidden in the shadows, but we have glimpsed it. We know darkness well, and many of us have become numb to it and cynical about it. It is just the way the world works, we say.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Drawn to the Story

At churches all over the country, everything is almost ready for the special services tomorrow evening. Choirs are set to sing. Boxes of candles are ready. Special music has been prepared. And big crowds will come, even if the weather isn't great.

People come for a variety of reasons. For some, it may be their only visit to a church this year. Perhaps it's just a matter of tradition or nostalgia. Perhaps it's something more. Maybe people want to be reminded, need to be reminded, that there is another possibility, another way besides that of the world we live in.

Some of those ways are on vivid display of late. Whether the issue is normalizing relations with Cuba or the tragic murder of police officers in New York City, it somehow always ends up about sides and polarities and power. Almost any event can be mined for partisan advantage in an attempt to gain the upper hand. Some attempts are more brazen and unseemly than others. (Rudy Giuliani and the Baltimore TV station that edited protest footage to make it seem a crowd chanted for police to be killed come particularly to mind.) But amassing power and advantage is the way of our world. If we have power we seek to maintain and increase it. If we don't, we covet it. In our world, if you don't have power you get taken advantage of.

Yet our world is still enamored by an ancient story with a very different take on power. In the story that will be rehearsed and retold tomorrow evening, God's power takes on the most vulnerable pose imaginable. God comes as a helpless baby, dependent on the kindness of strangers even for a place to be born.

And it isn't just a humble beginnings for a great man sort of story. It is the way the story ends as well. God confronts God's enemies, those who resist the ways of God, by suffering and dying, by being vulnerable even when it leads to death. It is a sort of power that makes no sense to us, this power "made perfect in weakness," as Paul calls it. The idea is totally illogical, yet still we can't turn away from its story.

But we're drawn to the world's notions of power, too. And so we keep trying to adapt Jesus to our ways. We enlist him on our "side" in attempts to gain advantage over those we disagree with. In our more brazen and unseemly moments, we implore him to help our side win, even to defeat those who are our enemies, viewing him as an implement of worldly power. But the story we tell tomorrow night is hard to enlist in such schemes.

Maybe that explains part of the Christmas story's enduring appeal. It is difficult to appropriate for my side. Babies don't take sides.

We do, of course. It's no wonder that religions of all stripes are forever getting off track and messed up. We keep trying to get God to conform to our ways. But then the story reminds us that it doesn't work like that. And we sense, deep in our bones, that the story knows something we long for, something the ways of our world don't understand.

Too bad the story's pull is so fleeting for most of us. If only we could fully embrace the ways this baby longs to show us. But we keep coming back to hear the story. Maybe some day we will.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Hoping in Poetry

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
     and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
  Isaiah 11:1

A stump, a remnant of something good and grand, little more than a memory; from this something new will come. So says the prophet. Not how things typically work. King David had his day. Jerusalem had flourished for a moment, in a brief period when the empires around it were weak. But that was over. Israel had split into two nations when Solomon died. Jerusalem was now capital of Judah only, and it was a vassal state to more powerful empires. How could anything of much significance ever come from there?

We are well schooled in how the world works. We have a pretty good idea of what is possible and what isn't. Stumps don't become great trees. The world is filled with great suffering and evil, and it's hard to imagine that ever really changing.

But still we trot out the words of ancient prophets every year about this time. We hear once more their absurd notions of stumps reborn, of at time when
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
     the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
     and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
     their young shall lie down together;
     and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
     and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.
They will not hurt or destroy
     on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
     as the waters cover the sea.

 It all sounds so nice, and we love to hear it. But we know it couldn't possibly happen.

In my sermon for the second Sunday in Advent, I borrowed quote from Walter Brueggemann, who spoke of a way that sees things most of us, with our certainties about how things are and what is and isn't possible, can't see. To us who know all about cause and effect, but whose imaginations are captive and constrained, Brueggemann said,
 Mostly unnoticed and not taken seriously, mostly under the radar in this adult world of control and order, there have been Jews. For the most part Jews have not committed to reason and logic and memo and syllogism and brief. Because the Jews came with their peculiar stories of odd moments of transformation, all about emancipation and healing and feeding and newness, all under the rubric of “miracle.” And behind the stories there were poems…lyrical, elusive, eruptive, defiant. Jews have known from the outset that a commitment to memo and syllogism will not make things new. Jews have known all along that in poetry we can do things not permitted by logic or reason, because poems never try to sound like memos. Poetry will break the claims of the memo. Poetry will open the world beyond reason. Poetry will give access to contradictions and tensions that logic must deny. Poetry will not only remember; it will propose and conjure and wonder and imagine and foretell.
 "Poetry will break the claims of the memo. Poetry will open the world beyond reason." Lord, I hope so. Lord, I hope so.

For a child has been born for us,
     a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
     and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Might God,
     Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Light, Darkness, and Expendable Children

It's happened again; children slaughtered. This time it was a Taliban terror attack at a school in Pakistan, but it's an old, old story. It's part of everyone's least favorite "Christmas story," Herod's killing the children of Bethlehem in an attempt to preserve his power. And terrorists and militias still use such tactics today. It's a time honored way to gain power, or to cling to it.

The powers that be in our world, from the most violent and inhumane to the most benign, are generally willing to sacrifice others to gain or maintain what they desire. The Taliban are an obscene, extreme version of this, but even in our country you can see the pattern at work. Corporations pay wages that no one can live on, and children of unskilled workers are sacrificed into poverty and hopelessness at the altar of greed and profit.

Today's slaughter in Pakistan happens just days after the two year remembrances of the killings at a school in Newtown, Connecticut. That shooting was the work of a deranged individual and not an attempt to grasp or maintain power and control. Yet our nation seems fully willing to permit such events in order to maintain a "right" to weapons. Why on earth would we elevate a right to bear arms over the life of children? But of course that old, old story has always seen children as expendable. Even in our culture, where children are so celebrated, we still are more than willing for large numbers of them to languish in poverty, to be abused in poor foster care, or to die in order to preserve "my rights."

That this is so should be no real surprise to people of faith. At Christmas we celebrate the coming of the "light that shines in the darkness," a darkness that is very real. As Jesus himself says in John 3, "And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil." Faith has no illusions about the shape of the world and the evils that those who prefer darkness can do.

But faith also has hope because of the light. Jesus shows us and the world another way, a way that is not willing to sacrifice children or anyone else to maintain our good. The way of Jesus, the way of life and light, will not torture, ask another to endure poverty, value Americans over foreigners, ignore violence against minorities in the name of order and safety, or keep one group down in order that another can enjoy their bigger slice of the pie. The light of Jesus is the way of love, love even of enemies.

"That will never work," say many. It is pure foolishness, at least in the eyes of the world. That's an old, old story, too. As the Apostle Paul said nearly 2000 years ago, "But we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength."

Let us walk in the light of the Lord.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Multi-Directional Jesus

For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. 2 Peter 1:5-7

Unlike some of my colleagues, and even a few church members, I've never felt any animosity toward those people who show up in the sanctuary on Christmas Eve but rarely at any other time. True, I'd be thrilled if they became active in the worship and ministry of our congregation, but I see no reason to be angry over their casual relationship with us. At least they feel some sort of pull toward God. That seems to me a good thing.

Jesus always seemed very charitable toward the crowds who showed up when he was around. The only thing close to a negative is his sometimes feeling sorry for them, viewing them as sheep without a shepherd. On the other hand, Jesus could get irate toward those who were supposed to be shepherds. Makes me wonder sometimes what sort of words Jesus might have for us pastors and church leaders.

Jesus' harshest critiques are leveled at religious leaders. And the problem wasn't that they were Jewish. Jesus was also Jewish, after all. The problems were elsewhere.

Jesus clearly thought that the religious leaders of his day had gotten off track. They had focused on things that were not central, which seems to be a perennial problem for the spiritual life. When I read the list of things that give support to faith found in today's reading from 2 Peter, I found myself contrasting this advice with religious voices that get loud this time of year. I think of all the animosity and bitterness I see and hear from people who want to make sure we "Keep Christ in Christmas," and I wonder about any hint of self-control, mutual affection, and love.

I also wonder about the curious companions to religion in America. Religion and guns, religion and the military, religion and discrimination toward those who are different, religion and conspicuous consumption, religion and torture; the list is as long as it is strange.

One of the reasons that the current pope enjoys such popularity is that he speaks for faith in a manner that seems to cohere with words like those in 2 Peter and those of Jesus. But why is it that religion so often ends up looking like it's at odds with Jesus and Peter and Paul?

Let me be quick to recognize that I'm dealing in stereotypes here. There are a great many Christians who don't run around using faith to justify hate or get mad at people who wish them "Happy Holidays." But to a degree, this only makes my consternation greater. How is it that people who claim to follow Jesus can end up on opposing sides of so many issues? Are we that unclear on what Jesus commanded us to do? Are we that confused about what the Kingdom of God is supposed to look like?

I think that we often are confused. We've picked up assumptions and notions of what faith is, but we've not necessarily rooted this in much knowledge of Jesus' or the first apostles' teachings. We've often assumed that how we do church is somehow what we're supposed to do. I've occasionally asked congregational leaders and members what it means to be the Church, and they sometimes look at me like I'm crazy. If I press, they struggle and say something like, "You know, be a church. Believe in God and do some good stuff."

Believe in God and do some good stuff. That leaves room for almost endless variety. It's also hard to square with Jesus' own words in the Great Commission. "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them... and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you."

Are there really infinite versions of Jesus from which to choose? Or do we who are church leaders need to get serious about the work Jesus gave us to do?

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Sermon video: Keeping Herod in Christmas

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sermon: Keeping Herod in Christmas

This Advent, we began using Brian McLaren's book, We Make the Road by Walking, to shape sermons and worship, a pattern that will continue through Pentecost. The book's chapter for the third week in Advent is entitled, "Keep Herod in Christmas."

Matthew 2:1-18
Keeping Herod in Christmas
James Sledge                                                               December 14, 2014 – Advent 3

At the church I previously served, we held a “Hanging of the Greens” service on a Sunday evening early in Advent. Between Scripture readings, Advent hymns, and Christmas carols, we decorated the sanctuary, and those decorations included a full-sized, wooden manger.
During one of those services, I invited the children to gather around that manger as I offered a short message about the child whose birth we would soon celebrate and about why he was born. As I spoke, I brought out a four foot tall, wooden cross that we typically used during Lent. I leaned it against the manger and talked about this Savior who first slept in an animal feed trough and who would die on a cross. A few among the small group that attended the service remarked on how moving the message of manger and cross was. But most seemed bothered by it.
I left the cross against the manger for the rest of Advent. It was not well received. Some complained that it sapped the season of its joy, and that cross may have generated more complaints than anything done in worship during my eleven years there. I never tried it again.
For centuries Christmas was a rather minor event on the Christian calendar, but, for a variety of reasons, it has gradually eclipsed most everything else, with the possible exception of Easter. It certainly is worth celebrating God’s entry into human history through the birth of Jesus. But as Christmas has gradually become so associated with joy and good cheer, with warmth and family, the “Christmas spirit” sometimes crowds out the Christian message. And if we won’t allow the cross to intrude on our happy, joyful Christmas, even during the reflective season of Advent, I wonder if we’ve gotten a bit off track.
Matthew’s gospel certainly won’t let us linger for long at the manger. In truth, the manger only appears in Luke. In Matthew, we hear of an angel appearing to Joseph in a dream and telling him to take the pregnant Mary as his wife. The birth itself receives only a scant mention at the conclusion of that story. (Joseph) took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Matthew doesn’t linger at the birth, but he immediately introduces foreboding. The birth of a king, a Messiah, may be good news to some, but it is not for many. Word of a new king does not sit well with the current one. The possibility of a new order sounds dreadful to those heavily invested in the present one. The possibility of a world organized around the ways of God prompts the powers that be to do all they can to cling to power. Herod will enlist the Magi as his spies to deal with this usurper to the throne. And when that doesn’t work, Herod will simply kill all the babies in Bethlehem.
Jesus may be a year or two old by then, but this story is the only one Matthew connects to Jesus’ birth. And so most of us have associated Wise Men with Christmas, and if the crèche at your house is like the one at mine, those Wise Men are already at the manger, or close by awaiting Epiphany on January 6. I wonder if anyone has ever made a King Herod figure for their nativity set. After all, he is just offstage, awaiting word from those Wise Men.
The slaughter of children like that described in Matthew occurs with appalling regularity down through history. Pharaoh once ordered the slaughter of Hebrew infants to preserve his power. Dictators, despots, and militias still kill children as easily as Herod did. In the most recent fighting between Israelis and Palestinians, Hamas launched their missiles from sites chosen so that retaliation by Israel would kill civilians and especially children. Israel obliged, and children were a majority of the casualties.
In the chapter that provides this sermon its title, Brian McLaren writes, “The next war— whoever wages it— will most likely resemble every war in the past. It will be planned by powerful older men in their comfortable offices, and it will be fought on the ground by people the age of their children and grandchildren. Most of the casualties will probably be between eighteen and twenty-two years old— in some places, much younger. So the old, sad music of the ancient story of Herod and the slaughter of the children will be replayed again. And again, the tears of mothers will fall.”[1]
Matthew interrupts our Advent planning and our Christmas merriment with the inconsolable weeping of mothers. We do well to pay attention, for Matthew insists that the arrival of Jesus will force us to make decisions, to choose our loyalties. Writes McLaren, “We do not live in an ideal world. To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to face at every turn the destructive reality of violence. To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to side with vulnerable children in defiance of the adults who see them as expendable. To walk the road with Jesus is to withhold consent and cooperation from the powerful, and to invest it instead with the vulnerable. It is to refuse to bow to all the Herods and all their ruthless regimes— and to reserve our loyalty for a better king and a better kingdom.”[2]

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Torture and Self-Deception - Confession and Hope

"A Brief Statement of Faith" is the newest creedal statement in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A)'s The Book of Confessions. This book is a collection of eleven creeds, confessions of faith, catechisms and such. In the Brief Statement's section on human rebellion against God it says that we "accept lies as truth, exploit neighbor and nature, and threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care."

In the first church I served, there was a prominent member who objected strenuously to this line, especially the part about threatening death to the planet. He was a horticulturist who had spent much time developing beautiful new varieties of flowers. Perhaps some people threatened the planet, but certainly not him. He loved the natural world and spent his entire professional life cultivating it.

I pointed out that he drove a car that burned fossil fuels and lived in a very nice home that also consumed large amounts of energy. The very horticultural work he so loved made liberal use of pesticides and fertilizers. Many of these had been found harmful to the environment, and even the most benign of them create problems such as nutrients concentrating in watersheds.

None of this changed his mind one iota. He loved nature and the planet and would never do anything to hurt them. His sense of who he was would not allow him to see any other possibility. In theological terms, he was too certain that he was good to consider himself a sinner.


A piece in today's Style section - yes, Style section - of The Washington Post began with this. "Our belief in the national image is astonishingly resilient. Over more than two centuries, our conviction that we are a benign people, with only the best of intentions, has absorbed the blows of darker truths, and returned unassailable." ("Senate report's real question: Who are we?") The piece wonders whether our self image of a good and noble nation can survive the unveiling of the torture and brutality we are willing to inflict on others for our benefit.

Clearly some will have no trouble holding on the best image of America. Fox News' Andrea Tantaros became something of an internet sensation with her response to the Senate report. "The United States of America is awesome! We are awesome!" But such a response does seem more difficult if you actually read parts of the report, when you realize that torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners that could actually cause death were sanctioned and approved by our leaders (and is still defended by some). This was not a rogue event of something from the pages of  history.
We have come to a critical moment in the debate about torture. It’s no longer possible, as it was when the images of Abu Ghraib emerged in 2004, to pretend that these events were rare, exceptional or the work of a few rogue agents. Nor will it be easy to assimilate them into that beloved average image of our national goodness. We are confronted with our own barbarity, as we have been confronted with the barbarity of the Islamic State. We torture, they behead. We beat men senseless, slam their heads into walls, strip them naked and leave them to die, while they march men into a field and put bullets in their heads. We might still cling to the idea that our crimes are not quite so bad as theirs. But to quibble over the degree of cruelty we tolerate is to acknowledge that cruelty is now standard practice.
And if cruelty is now standard practice, if this is what we've become, surely we must take a fresh look at ourselves and see that we are not who we imagine.

Philip Kennicott, the writer of this piece, thinks so. I am not so sure. I agree with his assessment that this should force us to rethink our "awesome" self image. But then I remember that member from my first church. And I recall Reinhold Niebuhr's words about "immoral society," that I referenced just two posts previous. The self-deceptive power of sin is even more problematic for societies than for individuals. And if we have been able to continue thinking of ourselves as good, noble, champions of democracy and all that is right despite slavery, genocide against native Americans, systematic racism, and a long running willingness to prop up the worst dictator as long as it serves our strategic interests, surely we can manage to absorb this news about torture without abandoning our carefully guarded self image.


If this is starting to feel depressing, I apologize. But let me also hold out a bit of hope. It is not a hope rooted in our goodness, but in God's. It is a hope that believes God does work in history, even if much more slowly than I would like. It is the hope that "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." It is a hope rooted in the certainty that God loves us despite our inhumanity and cruelty, and that we draw closer to that love when we are honest about who we are. As it says in 1 John, "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all righteousness."

Most people have some familiarity with Alcoholics Anonymous. You likely have seen an image of someone getting up to speak at a meeting and saying, "Hi, my name is Joe, and I'm an alcoholic." It is a statement that most alcoholics initially resist, an admission that is contrary to a better sounding self image. But it is the opening to a better life when it is finally claimed, which is why it is so frequently reclaimed.

Christians have long known something similar. It is our willingness to accept an identity as sinners, as those inclined to act in ways contrary to God and God's will, that opens us to new possibilities. And so perhaps it falls to people of faith, to those who hope in God's grace, to call on the nation, to insist that the nation, call itself to confession. "If we as a nation say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess...


We Christians are preparing to celebrate the arrival of one who comes to break the power of sin and death. "Break the power" is forceful phrase, speaking to the hard work involved. It speaks of a cross, and also of our call to become part of Christ's body, those who still work to break sin's power.

The famous hymn in Paul's letter to the Philippians speaks of this hard work, of Jesus' willingness to suffer the cross and then says, "Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on hearth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Paul's words have little to do with how often one spouts "Christ is Lord," and nothing to do with whether or not it says "Merry Christmas" rather than "Happy Holidays" at your local Target store. Rather it is a statement about all people and nations bowing before the rule of Christ. It is about individuals and nations saying, "We have sinned. We have not loved our neighbors, much less our enemies. We have treated those whom God loves as less than human. Out of fear, we have been willing to let others suffer and die for our sakes. Forgive us."

I wonder what new thing might be possible, if all of those who do claim to bow before Jesus called on our nation to humbly confess its sins.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

No One Gets What They Deserve

"Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." John 8:7

I wonder if this really would have worked. Surely some sanctimonious SOB would  have picked up a rock and hurled it at her. Jesus is awful trusting that every member of the crowd was self reflective enough to pause, consider, and then reconsider.

Not that it would ever happen, but if I were in Jesus' shoes, I would have tried to convince the scribes and Pharisees that they were wrong. I would carefully and skillfully show them the error of their ways. I would have engaged in mental combat, a tactic that requires my being convinced that I am right, or at least that I have superior mental combat skills.

Jesus does sometimes match wits with his opponents, but here he does not, at least not directly. Instead he hands their question, "Now what do your say?" right back to them. Not how I, we Presbyterians, or many other Christian groups address issues of scriptural interpretation. We're partial to the mental combat tactic. If we're playing nice on that day, perhaps it will only be a spirited discussion.

Jesus essentially concedes to his opponents on the scriptural interpretation question. "Yes, you are correct. The Law says to stone her. Go ahead." But then that caveat about who gets to toss out the first pitch.

Christians are all over the map on this, but quite a few of us seem to view God as a rather harsh judge. We're sinners and so God has to nail us. Thank heaven God came up with a strategy to circumvent this requirement. God will nail Jesus instead, and those smart enough to grab one of these "get out of jail free" cards will be able to dodge to rocks God going to throw.

But in this one story from the Bible, Jesus embodies a very different picture of God. To the woman he admits is guilty he says, "What? Everyone else admitted to being guilty, too? Fine, you can go." Jesus won't condemn the woman because no one else is in a position to do so.

It is just one story among many, but it is remarkable nonetheless. The crowd ends up being generous to the woman because they need the same generosity. And Jesus says, "Fine. I'm good with that." There's something profoundly hopeful here, something I need to remember this Advent. At a time when our failings as individuals and as a culture are so vividly on display, from Ferguson to Staten Island to our willingness torture other human beings and more, it is good to recall that God still sees us as worth saving in some way, if only because we all seem to need it.

What good news. God looks at us, at the messes we've made and the ways we treat each other yet still dreams of a day when,
  The wolf shall live with the lamb,
     the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
  the calf and lion and the fatling together,
     and a little child shall lead them...
  They will not hurt or destroy
     on all my holy mountain;
  for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD
     as the waters cover the sea.

Thank God; thank God.

Learn more about the daily lectionary here.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Sin, Advent, Race, and "Immoral Society"

Many years ago, I typed an agenda for a December meeting of the Session at the church I was serving. (Sessions are the governing councils in Presbyterian churches.) At the beginning I included a verse from an Advent hymn as a way of opening the meeting. I've never been all that good of a typist, and this is what appeared on the agenda.
     Come, Thou long expected Jesus, Born to set Thy people free;
     From our rears and sins release us; Let us find our rest in Thee.

I underlined and bolded "rears" so you couldn't miss it, but I never saw it until we were singing it at the Session meeting. I christened it the dieters version of the hymn, and we all had a good laugh. But over the years, I wondered if we don't see God more as a divine self-help coach than one who releases us from our sins.

Sin has never been the most popular topic, and those religious folks who do talk about it often like to focus on other folks' sins. My own, Reformed theological tradition has tended to view sin more as condition than act, something that makes us especially prone to act in ways detrimental to others as well as to ourselves. But we Presbyterians have not been immune to  consumerist, self-help notions of religion that see God and spirituality as one more item to help us become happier, more fulfilled, and so on. In some congregations, it is much easier to get a Jazzercise class started in the Fellowship Hall than it is to have a serious discussion about sin. From our rears release us, but don't worry about the other.

All this started bouncing around in my head after reading an article entitled "Reinhold Niebuhr, Eric Garner, and White Privilege" in Baptist News Global. If you don't know of him, Niebuhr was one of the more famous theologians in 20th century America, and this article recalled his 1932 work, Moral Man and Immoral Society. It spoke of sin's hold on groups and communities as even more tenacious than that on individuals. Niebuhr saw societies as nearly impervious to moral or rational arguments against such problems and as more selfish than individuals.

He was speaking of economics when he wrote that “it has always been the habit of privileged groups to deny the oppressed classes every opportunity for the cultivation of innate capacities and then to accuse them of lacking what they have been denied the right to acquire.” But even though it was decades before the civil rights movement, he saw how the problem of sin was also at work in that arena, and concluded that society would not change on its own. “However large the number of individual white men who do and who will identify themselves completely with the Negro cause, the white race in America will not admit the Negro to equal rights if it is not forced to do so.”

Forced to do so... That speaks to the reality of sin's hold on social forces, a reality that has spent a great deal of time in the headlines of late. The anger from Ferguson and Staten Island, as well as on college campuses around a "rape culture," is anger at an immoral society that is caught up in the grip of sin, that, in the words of the hymn, needs to be "released" from its grip, being incapable of freeing itself.


As Christians prepare to celebrate the coming of Jesus, it seems an especially fitting time to think about God's Incarnation into a sinful world, an event that evokes quick push-back from immoral society. (Don't forget that Herod's attempt to kill the baby Jesus is a part of the story of the "Wise Men.") But many of us are too busy singing Christmas carols to dwell for long on the problems of immoral society. We may even lash out at those who try to drag us back to Advent, accusing them of ruining the season and undermining the "joyof Christmas."

But the anger over Ferguson and Staten Island, and especially the almost comical blindness of that Staten Island grand jury, remind us that there is a real problem here, one that all the Christmas joy in the world can't quite paper over. And we Christians, those who seek to follow Jesus, can never simply celebrate Jesus' birth. We must also join him in his work, work that terrified the powers that be, the keepers of the status quo, and those who valued peace and order over the needs of the weak, the vulnerable, and the downtrodden.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Sermon - God's Possibility: Poem Versus Memo

As usual in worship, the Scripture readings that preceded the sermon were read from the lectern and pulpit. But on this Sunday Abby Hendricks sang the "Canticle of the Turning," accompanied on guitar by Peyton Jernigan, for the final portion of the reading, Luke 1:46b-55.

Luke 1:5-55
God’s Possibility: Poem Versus Memo
James Sledge                                                               December 7, 2014 – Advent 2

   It’s a most improbable story. An old woman and her equally old husband, childless for years, long since having given up hope of children, will have a son. Despite the word of the angel Gabriel, Zechariah cannot believe such a thing. And so he finds himself mute, divine confirmation of the angel’s promise.
   A teenage girl, not yet married and still a virgin, visited by the same angel and told she will have a child who will be Son of the Most High and restore the throne of David for all time. “Impossible,” thinks Mary, but the angel tells her that the power of God will make it so, and Mary becomes the model disciple, responding to this improbable story with “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”
   And the improbable story continues. The young girl goes to visit the old woman, and both become prophets, declaring the new thing that God is about to do and is doing. (God) has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.
   Imagine that when Abby got up to sing a few moments ago she hadn’t sung verses from a hymnal but instead startling new words about what God is about to do and is doing. What if she sang of God bringing down one percenters and lifting up minimum wage workers, illegal immigrants, and crowds shouting “I can’t breathe”? What if she insisted that God would do this new thing through her? Who among us would believe her?
   Who is going to take the word of a teenage girl all that seriously? Have you ever been at a school board meeting when a middle school girl spoke. People smile and mentally pat her on the head but don’t pay that much attention. She’s just a middle school girl, after all.
   Of course, many of us don’t take improbable biblical stories all that seriously. Elderly women having children, a virgin birth? Ancient stories from ancient, pre-scientific, unsophisticated people who could believe in gods impregnating young women. And we smile and mentally pat the gospel writer on the head. It’s just an ancient story, after all.
   One of the nasty tricks that the modern, scientific age played on us, from the most liberal Christians to the most literal fundamentalists, was convincing us that “truth” is about facts, figures, logic, and what really happened. 
   Heavily seasoned with Greek philosophy, the modern era elevated science and reason and facts and figures above other sorts of knowledge. Quite a few biblical stories couldn’t be “true” by such standards, and in response, Christians tended to go one of two ways. Some resorted to a fundamentalism that assumes science and history are wrong even while accepting the modern, scientific definition of truth. Others accepted the scientific truth of evolution and the Big Bang while claiming that the Bible and faith dealt with a different sort of truth. I clearly fall more into the latter camp, but this view often comes with some pretty arrogant assumptions.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Grasping for Hope

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

Back during the 2008 presidential campaign, then candidate Obama made a remark about how people in small town, Midwestern communities had endured the loss of jobs, crumbling economies, and other difficulties for many years. He said that considering their struggles it was no surprise "they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them..." I was not a terribly smart political thing to say. Nonetheless, there is a certain element of truth to it. In times of great difficulty, all of us look for something to hold onto.

For those worried about inequality and injustice in America, yesterday was another moment that sent many looking for something to hold onto. Just days before, people were talking about how events in Ferguson would speed up a movement to equip all police with body cameras so that we would have clear answers to questions about what actually happened. Contradictory eyewitnesses wouldn't  confuse grand juries. But yesterday a grand jury decided on a case with crystal clear video. It was also a case where a choke hold prohibited by police department guidelines was employed. And yet there was no indictment.

In such a moment, where do people look for hope? Where do they place their trust? What are people to do when they have no good answer? As a pastor, I must confess that to say, "Trust in God," sounds pretty empty right now, more a salve than a help. Karl Marx's opiate of the masses comes to mind.


I saw this post on Twitter today. "#ThisMustStop if you attend church, STOP SUPPORTING churches that don't support folks in the street. #blacktruthmatters #BlackLivesMatter" Clearly the author was not interested in any religious platitudes. He was looking for real answers, and he suspected that churches, at least some churches, were part of the problem and of little help.

The opening line of today's morning psalm speaks of God alone as fortress and salvation, God alone as solution. But a lot of bad theology and bad religious advice gets distilled from grabbing a verse here and there out of the Bible. The same Bible says, "Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it." We are called to embody the one who embodied God, and if you are familiar with Jesus' story, you know that he was most often found among the down and out, the poor and vulnerable, and those the respectable religious folks of his day wanted nothing to do with.

Before today, I had not heard of pastor Andre E. Johnson, the author of the tweet quoted above, but I am following him now. He has reminded me that my faith is more than something to cling to in moments of great difficulty. Perhaps even more importantly, it is a call to be Christ to a world that has never fully embraced his ways. 

"Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison or saying I can't breathe or frightened for your children's lives and did not take care of you?' Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' "