Thursday, January 30, 2014

When Life Gets Hectic, Whom Do You Serve?

Did you ever have one of those days or weeks that simply overwhelmed you? Of course you did. It's a near universal experience. So, when you have found yourself in a moment where life overwhelms you, what do you do? How do you respond when there is more to deal with than is possible, when the plate is too full and something has to fall off of it?

When life gets crazy, it often reveals something about the priorities that govern our lives. There's no easy and simple calculus here. Doing something in order to remain employed may require diminished time with loved ones who cannot be supported absent that employment. But success in one's career may simply be a higher priority than family, and it is remarkably easy to deceive oneself about such things.

A similar sort of self-deception often is at work in lives of faith. It is easy to fancy oneself faithful even when faith becomes one of those things that gets dropped when life is too busy or demanding. Pastors and other religious professionals have even more opportunities for self-deception because our "jobs" are connected to faith. However, that in no way means that doing our jobs is actually an act of faith or that serving God is even remotely connected to what we are busy doing.

Much of the Bible is about a covenant relationship between God and humans, a covenant relationship that is almost always understood to be communal or corporate in nature. This covenant relationship is there in the call to Abraham. It is there in Jesus' call to follow him. And it assumes significant responsibilities on both sides of the relationship. But as with human relationships, self-deception is often a problem.

Just as a career minded spouse may convince himself or herself that all that time at work is somehow about supporting a marriage relationship, people can delude themselves into thinking that their loyalties and passions are about their faith. How else to explain some people championing the right carry concealed weapons and "stand our ground" as Christian causes. This seems to me little more than projecting one's personal passions and causes onto one's God and faith. And the political right has no monopoly on such behavior. Liberal Christians often make liberalism their god.

That brings me back around to questions of what remains and what gets dropped when life gets too hectic to handle. Are the things remaining truly important things? Are they truly God's things? Or are they simply my things, things which may or may not really be faithful to the relationships and commitments I claim are priorities in my life?

There's an old Bob Dylan song with a line that says, "You gonna have to serve somebody. Well it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you gonna have to serve somebody." When self-deception gets involved, I pretty sure it's usually the former.

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Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sermon: Transforming Love

Matthew 4:12-23
Transforming Love
James Sledge                                                                                       January 26, 2014

How many of you think that everything in the world is just about as it should be, with no real problems to fix or issues to deal with? Everything is fine, right?
I suspect most anyone here could rattle off a long list of problems, troubles, horrors, and more that desperately need straightening out. Civil war continues unabated in Syria with an obscene death toll among civilians and refugees in the tens of thousands. Things are only slightly better in South Sudan, and Iraq seems to be descending into anarchy.
Brutal, gang rapes occur with staggering regularity in India, but the brutalization of women is hardly confined there. Sex trafficking and slavery, fed by crippling poverty, is a worldwide problem, including in our own country and in the DC area. Meanwhile income inequality continues to grow in this country. In a nation where everyone once claimed to be middle class, a smaller and smaller percentage of the population controls a larger and larger percentage of the wealth. And of course there was yet another shooting yesterday.
I’m sure we could add plenty of other examples of problems in our world, but let me shift the focus a bit. How many of you think that everything is fine, with no real problems to fix or issues to deal with in your own life?
Most of us have personal lists of things we’d like to change about ourselves. We want to exercise more or volunteer more. We need to lose weight or stop smoking. And many of us having bigger issues than self-improvement lists. We lead harried, hectic, and anxious lives that are good for neither our health nor our relationships. We hurt others, including those we love, far too often. We have been overly conformed to our culture’s narcissism and consumerism, and so we chase after stuff thinking it will make us happy, and we obsess about self and our need to be happy and fulfilled. It’s a stressed out environment that is toxic for us and for our children.
Of course there is much that is good about the world and about our lives. The world is God’s good creation, after all. But even the most Pollyanna among us know there is much that needs fixing and changing in our world and in our lives.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Jesus begins his ministry with words every bit as appropriate today as they were nearly 2000 years ago. It is a message about change, change for the world and change for us personally.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

God Remembers

On Sunday I preached a sermon entitled "Faithful Remembering." As the title perhaps suggests, it was about remembering who we are in our baptisms, about recalling the new identity we receive when we are joined to Christ and given the Holy Spirit.

Today's Old Testament reading also speaks of remembering, but this remembering is not ours. It is God's. The reading comes from the conclusion of the Noah story. The flood has ended. The very real threat that creation might return to the pre-creation chaos of Genesis 1:1-2 is over. The blessings of creation have been reissued with the call to be fruitful and multiply. And God covenants with all creation, with humans and animals, never again to bring a flood to destroy. Human creatures may have gone their own way, rejecting who God created and called them to be, but God is committed to them.

As a seal on that commitment, God places a bow in the clouds. The sign is the rainbow, but it is also God's bow, a weapon of war. God has hung up God's bow. It will not be drawn in anger again.

I've often heard reference to the rainbow as a reminder to us of God's covenant, but that is not what the story says. In the story it is a reminder to God. "When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh." For good measure, God repeats this assertion almost verbatim. "When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth." Everything, it seems, hangs on God's remembering.

This is not isolated to the story of Noah. Repeatedly the Bible speaks of the need for us to remember, and of God's remembering. Because God remembers, Israel is rescued from slavery in Egypt. And as Mary says in her "Magnificat," Jesus is born because God remembers, because God will not forget or give up on creation, including those troublesome human creatures.

In his letter to the church in Rome, the apostle Paul writes of Jesus "who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us." (Rom. 8:34) Perhaps one way to understand Paul is to think of Jesus saying to God, "Remember, remember." Or, to put it in more Trinitarian terms, withing the divine, loving relationship that is God, the call to remember echos always.

God remembers. In today's gospel that is expressed as "For God so loved the world..." Amidst all the difficulties understanding how God works, what God is up to, and how we are called to be a part of it, it is good to stop and remember a central core of our faith. God is committed to all creation, and to us. God will remember; God will not forget us.

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Sermon video: Faithful Remembering

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Sermon: Faithful Remembering

1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Faithful Remembering
James Sledge                                                                                     January 19, 2014

As a pastor, I have lots of “friends” on Facebook who are also pastors. The same goes for people I follow on Twitter. Some of these folks are always posting effusive, over-the-top praise of the churches they pastor, the committees they serve, and so on. “First Presbyterian’s Christian Education Committee rocks!!!” “So and so presbytery’s Committee on Ministry Committee is the best committee ever!” “I’m so incredibly lucky and blessed to serve here!”
Maybe it’s just my age or where I grew up, or maybe I’m just weird, but such praise sometimes feels a little bit much to me. I like an “Atta boy” as much as the next person, but when it goes way beyond that or goes on and on, I get a tad uncomfortable.
Of course it could be that these Facebook friends are actually serving in the best church that ever existed, where every member tithes or more, and every member volunteers in some ministry activity at least once a week. Maybe they are serving on a committee that puts every other committee in every other presbytery to shame. Who knows?
Speaking of over the top praise, if all I knew about the church that the apostle Paul founded in Corinth came from the verses we heard this morning, I might think Paul is a bit like some of my Facebook “friends.”  He gives thanks to God always for these folks who are not lacking in any knowledge or spiritual gift. He speaks of them as being “sanctified,” in other words, “made holy,” and of how they are called as “saints.” Wow, this must be some congregation. Either that or Paul is getting a little over the top with his praise.
But as it turns out, I’ve read the rest of Paul’s letter, and I know he doesn’t think they are the best congregation out there. Quite the opposite. He is upset and angry with them. He will call them immature, unspiritual, and still caught up “in the flesh.” In short, the church we meet in Paul’s letter looks like a total disaster with all sorts of divisions, arguments, fights, and messed up theology. Paul warns them they had better straighten up before he returns to deal with them. And yet, Paul opens his letter with these words about being made holy, called to be saints, given every necessary spiritual gift and all wisdom.
Maybe Paul is just following social convention and opening his letter with the expected pleasantries, but I don’t think so. Not only do we have another letter of Paul where he dispenses with such pleasantries, but there is something more. All of those wonderful things about being made holy and called to be saints are not specific to the Corinthian Christians. Rather, they express Paul’s understanding of what it means to be “in Christ.” It is not praise for anything they have done. It is their identity, who they are, the new thing they become through the grace of God in Jesus and the gift of the Spirit, even if they are currently living in ways that obscure their true identity.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Sermon video: Endings, Beginnings, and Pilgrim Journeys

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Able to Love

We humans struggle to entrust ourselves to others. Life teaches us to be wary. Most of us have walls that we can hide behind, and even those who know us most intimately may never see us fully exposed, all the walls and protections gone. "Will she still love me if she knows this about me?" "Will he still love me if he sees this ugliness that is part of me?"

We also struggle to entrust ourselves to others because we worry about their ugliness. "If I give my life over to him, will he abuse my love and trust?" "If I become totally vulnerable to her, will she take advantage of me and hurt me?" Many of us, perhaps most, overcome such trust issues; not entirely, but enough that we can participate in loving, intimate relationships.

Such trust issues carry over into relationship with God, with Jesus. No matter how much the Scriptures reassure us that God is our surest hope, a God who loves and protects us; no matter how much we read that Jesus is the one who can guide us to true life and love, we aren't quite sure. And so we need to protect ourselves. We dare not give ourselves entirely over to God.

For some reason, this trust issue, which causes enough trouble for our human relationships, is even more problematic in the human/divine relationship. God is unknown enough, distant enough, that we hesitate to go "all in." We keep guarding and protecting ourselves.

Insomuch as this is true, the fundamental faith problem is not about getting one's theology correct or about trying hard enough to believe in Jesus. The fundamental problem is not having experienced God's love sufficiently to trust it. "If I give my life over to God, will God abuse my love and trust?"

Religion often tries to turn faith into morality, keeping rules, and believing the right things. Nothing wrong with morality or getting our theology straight, but those are all best understood as attempts to love God back. They are responses to having been loved by God.

All this means that for many of us, our greatest need is not trying harder at faith. Rather it is becoming vulnerable and letting go. It is allowing ourselves to fall into God's love. I suppose this is that classic, leap of faith, something not unlike the letting go that must happen in order to fall in love with another person.

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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Will God Give Up On Us?

The story of Cain and Abel is a familiar one to many, though I don't know that it is much appreciated. It is a very complicated story in which God precipitates a crisis between the two brothers by accepting one's offering and rejecting the other's. No reason is given. Both seem to have offered their best. But God does not act as one might expect, or even hope.

The crisis is of God's own making, but God offers Cain a way out. He can still do well. Sin may be lurking, but it can be mastered. As Walter Brueggemann has noted, God does not speak of Cain as under the curse of any "original sin." He still has the power to do well and master sin, but of course, he does not. And God's wonderful new creation seems to be spiraling out of control.

As had happened with his parents in the garden, Cain must now deal with God. He receives punishment for his crime, punishment he fears is too much to bear. His own life now seems in jeopardy.

At this point the story engages in a bit of absurdity. Cain fears others will kill him, but the story has told us the Cain and Abel are the first children born on earth. Exactly who is it that Cain fears? But the story uses this absurdity to speak beyond the issues of any primal humans, to wonder what happens when when we refuse to do the right, when we earn God's ire and threaten to engulf our world in conflict.

God puts a mark on Cain. The mark, no doubt, reminds him of his guilt, but it also serves to protect him. God will not allow Cain's crime to provide an excuse for others to do to him as he has done to his brother.

Will God give up on us? Will God finally leave us to sleep in the bed we have made and suffer the full consequences of living at odds with God's plans for us? The opening chapters of Genesis wrestle with such questions at some length. Cain receives a provisional answer, an answer that will become final following the Noah episode. God remains committed to Cain, to creation, and to the human creature.

That is something that needs recalling from time to time, perhaps most especially when we despair that things are spiraling out of control, that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. God is not done with us. God is not done with creation. God will bring this story to a good ending, even if we keep messing it up along the way.

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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Distraught and Longing for God

I didn't attend seminary until I was 35 years old, and so I have a pretty good sense of how easy it is to feel disconnected for faith and from God in much of day to day life. Our culture encourages us to divide things up between the spiritual world and the real world, or as a theologian might say, between the sacred and the profane.

It's actually quite easy to maintain such a division while working in the church. A great deal of what pastors and other church professionals do can be understood as work without much of a spiritual connection. Even preparing a sermon can become simply an exercise that is part academic study and part creative writing. And should a pastor become so spiritually dry that even this becomes impossible, there are tons of sermons floating around on the internet, there for the taking. (I've always wondered how much of that happens with the sermons I post here. My blog site's statistics often show a small run on my three year old sermons just prior to their texts showing up again as a Sunday reading.)

One of those things they teach you in seminary is how Jesus sanctifies the mundane. In Jesus, God gets seen in the day to day, eating and drinking, walking along the road, talking to the people he meets, going to a dinner party. But we keep trying to put God back in select, special places and moments. Not that sanctuaries and retreats and special times of prayer aren't important. But when God is only at church or in set aside devotional times, very little of our lives are lived with God, or with much awareness of God.

Today's psalmist seems to have lost any sense of God's presence. The writer is nearly distraught, speaking of a cast down and disquieted soul..
   As a deer longs for flowing streams,
          so my soul longs for you, O God.
    My soul thirsts for God,
          for the living God.
    When shall I come and behold
          the face of God?
    My tears have been my food
          day and night,
    while people say to me continually,
          “Where is your God?”
Is it possible that our neat separating of spiritual life from the rest of life helps insulate us from what the psalmist feels? If God is only at church or in those times we may set aside for prayer and devotion, then there is no reason to expect God in the day to day, and no reason to be upset when God cannot be found there. Perhaps we protect ourselves from the pain the psalmist feels if we confine God to a few spiritual or sacred venues. But in the process we quite likely insure a relationship with God lacking in any real depth and substance.

Anyone who has ever been in love with another person and had that relationship go awry likely has felt something akin to what the psalmist feels. I've known a few people who "protected" themselves from such suffering by never getting too close to anyone. But even though they may indeed avoid some of the suffering that afflicts others, I think that most people pity them.

Have you ever been distraught like the psalmist over your relationship with God? As strange as it may sound, I really hope so.

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Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sermon: Endings, Beginnings, and Pilgrim Journeys

Matthew 3:13-17
Endings, Beginnings, and Pilgrim Journeys
James Sledge                                                   January 12, 2014 – Baptism of the Lord

Roger Nishioka, professor of Christian Education at Columbia Theological Seminary and former director of youth and young adult ministries for our denomination tells a story that I assume comes from his time as a youth worker in a congregation.
Kyle was nowhere to be found, and I missed him. In the weeks following his baptism and confirmation on Pentecost Sunday, he was noticeably missing. Several other members of the confirmation class asked about him too, as did his confirmation mentor. Kyle and his family had come to the congregation when he was in the fifth grade. They attended sporadically, so I was more than a little surprised when I asked him and his parents if he was interested in joining the confirmation class and they responded positively. In this congregation, the confirmation class happened during the ninth-grade school year (as if God calls all ninth-graders simultaneously to be confirmed, just because they are in the ninth grade). Kyle and his parents came for the orientation meeting and agreed to the covenant to participate in two retreats, a mission activity, work with a mentor, and weekly classes for study and exploration. Kyle was serious in attending and missed a class or event rarely. He quickly became a significant part of the group and developed some wonderful friendships with other ninth-graders who had barely known him. Since Kyle had not yet been baptized, he was not only confirmed but also baptized on Pentecost Sunday. It was a marvelous celebration for all the confirmands, their families, and their mentors.
That is pretty much where it ended. That is when I knew we had done something wrong. When I checked in with Kyle and his folks, they all seemed a little surprised that I was calling and checking up on them. I distinctly remember his mother saying, “Oh, well, I guess I thought Kyle was all done. I mean, he was baptized and confirmed and everything. Isn’t he done?”[1]
Kyle’s situation is far from unique. It’s so common there’s even a joke about it. Several pastors are having lunch together when one of them shares that they have an infestation of bats in their steeple. The other pastors suggest a variety of things that might rid them of this problem, but it seems they’ve all been tried without success. Finally the Presbyterian pastors says, “We had that problem and solved it. We enrolled all the bats in our confirmation class, and once it finished, we never saw them again.”
For some reason, church folks are often good at mixing up beginnings and endings. It happens with confirmation. It happens with Christian education/formation where people “graduate” from Sunday School when they graduate high school. And more than a few parents come to have their children baptized – I’ve heard them refer to it as “having the baby done” – then disappear entirely, another beginning that got changed into an ending.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Our Refuge and Strength Is...

God is our refuge and strength,
     a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
     though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
 though its waters roar and foam,
     though the mountains tremble with its tumult. 
Psalm 46:1-3

We will not fear even if the very foundations of the earth are shaken. So says the psalmist. Rarely do I live as though it were true. I wonder how many people do. I wonder if the psalmist did. Was that poet a person of rare faith? Or did she write these words in one of those rare moments when faith feels sure and certain? Or did he simply churn out a hymn that said the right words without really believing them himself? (Perhaps you've seen those articles about atheist pastors who continue to serve congregations and preach sermons calling people to faith.)

I'm no atheist, but I have a long list of fears and anxieties. In many Presbyterian and other Mainline congregations, fear and anxiety are pervasive: fear of not meeting the budget, fear of losing members and wasting away, fear that conflicts within congregation or denomination could rip things apart. The list goes on, and as the surrounding culture seems to be fleeing traditional churches in ever increasing numbers, the anxiety increases.

God is our refuge and strength,
     a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear...

The institutional church faces real threats. Attending seminary is a much more risky proposition than it was when I enrolled some 20 years ago. Small churches are closing and larger churches are calling fewer pastors. There are many more people looking for church positions that there are positions. Of course many people who work outside the church, in the "real world," have dealt with this for decades. But at least in the church, shouldn't we be less afraid, less anxious?

God is our refuge and strength,
     a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear...

We will not fear because of God. God... I wonder if some of our fear and anxiety, especially in the church, comes from getting this mixed up. Speaking of us pastors, we have often counted on the church or the denomination to provide for us, to have good positions with good health care and pensions. But the church isn't God, and if the church is our refuge and strength, no wonder we are caught up in fear and anxiety. We've put our trust in an idol.

We pastors sometimes trust in our own abilities, in those seminary educations we received and our (presumed) stellar preaching skills. When things don't go well we attend seminars and conferences to improve our skill set. Then if things still don't get better, we may be filled with self-doubt, we may blame the congregation, or we may do some of both.

Congregations often do something similar. They have many gifted and skilled lay leaders and volunteers who know how to be successful. But when things don't go well they may bring in an expert consultant or hire a new pastor. Then if things still don't get better, they may be filled with self-doubt, they may blame the pastor, or they make do some of both.

But neither the pastor's nor the congregation's gifts and intelligence and abilities are God, and so when we put our trust in such things, when they become our refuge and strength, no wonder we end up in fear and anxiety. We have put our trust in idols.

Perhaps this pattern becomes more inevitable the more institutional faith becomes. When church becomes more about buildings and worship styles than following Jesus, we are bound to stumble. Maybe the travails facing many congregations these days are wake-up calls from God, invitations to refocus our trust on something other than institutional things or human skills.

God is our refuge and strength,
     a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear...

God... Dare we let God/Christ become the very center, the very core? Dare we trust in the way Jesus calls us to walk over the ways of the world, over our own logic or intelligence, over our own skills and abilities, over the images of God we create for ourselves that have all the same opinions and biases we have?

God is our refuge and strength,
     a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear...

God... Not us, not the church, but God. I wonder if I can do that.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Certain We're Not Certain

I've long been fascinated with how what we "know" can be in impediment and stumbling block to us. It happens in all fields and walks of life. People "know" that someone is no-good because of their appearance, race, nationality, etc. A record executive once refused to sign the Beatles to a contract because he "knew" their sort of music was a passing fad. All learned people once "knew" that the sun revolves around the earth.

The realm of faith is perhaps especially prone to problems rooted in what we "know," in our certainties and assumptions. Religion has given its approval and blessing to all sorts of evil as a result, from crusades to child abuse to slavery. Many people still "know" that a female pastor or a gay pastor is abhorrent to God. And the religious leaders in today's gospel reading "know" that the Messiah cannot possibly come from Galilee. They even have scriptural proofs. (The gospel of John makes no mention of Jesus' birth and seems totally uninterested in his human origins. He is the word made flesh, and he comes from God.)

Religious certainties - I include many atheist certainties in this category - are often some of the most unattractive forms of things people "know." Some of the most ardent Christians and atheists are the worst possible advertisements for what they "know" because their certainties are so arrogant and divisive. Most people reading this probably don't fall into such extremes, but we still are often better at skewering others' problematic certainties than we are at recognizing our own.

In my own faith tradition, and especially in the more "progressive" wings of it, we have a kind of certainty about uncertainty. We are, understandably, suspicious of people who sound very certain about religious and faith things. We are rightly troubled by all those bad advertisements for our faith from Christians who would happily send everyone who disagrees with them to hell. And so we become certain that we can't say anything for certain.

A certain level of skepticism about our own certainties, an awareness of the limits of knowing, along with some healthy self-examination, are good things, but this can go too far. At some point, being certain that certainties are impossible makes it as hard for us to see Jesus for who he is as it was for those who were certain he couldn't come from Galilee.

I've recently started reading Brian McLaren's Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World. The book is in large part a challenge to the church to develop a "strong-benevolent Christian identity," and McLaren's categories of "strong/hostile" versus "weak/benign" Christian identities line up well with my division between arrogant and divisive certainties versus fear of any certainties. And if I were to restate his project in the terms of this post I might say, "How are we to claim Christian certainties that are neither arrogant nor divisive?"

If our answer is, "We can't," then I fear that this certainty is every bit as harmful to Christian faith as those folks who are certain about who is in hell.

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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Tourists, Pilgrims, and 40 Year Journeys

Frederick Buechner once said something about coincidences being a way God gets our attention. In the coincidences, or perhaps providences, of this day, I found myself thinking about faithful, life-long obedience, which then spurred me to look for a quote in a book by Eugene Peterson's A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. Then, when I looked at today's lectionary passages and read from Moses' words to the Israelites as they prepare to cross the Jordan River and enter the land of promise, I found myself again thinking of long obedience.

Deuteronomy is as "second" hearing of the Law, a reminder to Israel of who they are and what their calling is. Moses instructs them one last time before his death, and in today's passage he says, "Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments." A long, forty years way to an unseen and unknown destination, a destination of great hope and promise, if you could trust what God had said.

Peterson's book speaks of our world's aversion to such long journeys. He writes, "Religion in our time has been captured by the tourist mindset. Religion is understood as a visit to an attractive site when when have adequate leisure. For some it is a weekly jaunt to church. For others, occasional visits to special services. Some, with a bent for religious entertainment and sacred diversion, plan their lives around special events like retreats, rallies and conferences."

Speaking of the people he has pastored, Peterson continues, "They have adopted the lifestyle of a tourist and only want the high points. But a pastor is not a tour guide... The Christian life cannot mature under such conditions and in such ways." Finally, as a setup to developing images of disciple and pilgrim as preferable alternatives to tourist, he draws on Friedrich Nietzsche. " 'The essential thing in heaven and earth is... that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which made life worth living.' It is this 'long obedience in the same direction' which the mood of the world does so much to discourage."

I recently had a conversation with a Christian who is a recent immigrant from Africa. He was talking about the similarities between worship in this congregation and what he knew back home. It was all quite familiar, he said. The order of worship and such was much the same. "Except it is much shorter here," he added. He went on to talk about how people often walked for hours to attend worship, and how such an effort demanded more than a brief interlude of worship. "People are always in a hurry here," he said. They don't have time, and so they squeeze in a bit of worship. And in a turnabout that had never occurred to me, he spoke of how, prior to getting a car, it took a very long time for him to make his way to our church site, and how it didn't seem worth the effort required to get here for our brief, "touristy" worship.

He didn't use that word. I'm thinking of Peterson's term, but I think it fits perfectly with what this young, African man was describing when he spoke of people in his home country having "the gift of time," something we have lost, leading to the tourist forms of religion and faith necessary for people with no time.

Many pastors and writers have been working for decades to help people in churches think of themselves as "disciples" rather than as "members." I include myself in that number and long for the day when congregations speak of "disciples" and no longer use the language of "members" and "membership." But today I'm thinking we may need to claim "pilgrim" as well. Both as individuals and as congregations, we need to think of ourselves as people who are headed somewhere, on a journey toward what Jesus called "the kingdom," a journey that will not be done in our lifetimes, a journey that cannot be taken during our leisure time or vacations.

We Americans are in an awful hurry. Living inside the beltway of Washington, DC, this hurry appears even more awful. But it is not at all clear to me where the hurry leads. Sometimes it reminds me of the prophet Amos' famine of hearing the words of the LORD. "They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD, but they shall not find it." (Amos 8:12)

Do you ever wonder where you're headed? Are we headed anywhere, or are we, as the saying goes, simply going nowhere fast? Sometimes all of us who so easily wear the label "Christian" would do well to recall that before that easy label arose, a more descriptive term was used: "The Way." Sounds like people who were headed somewhere.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Monday, January 6, 2014

An Epiphany "So What?"

In the Christian calendar, today is Epiphany, a feast day celebrating the arrival of the Magi or Wise Men who come to see the new king who has been born. This calendar puts Epiphany twelve days after Christmas although, according to Matthew's gospel, the actual arrival of the Magi may have been as much as two years after Jesus' birth. (Speaking of biblical accuracy, Matthew makes no mention of how many Magi there are. The three comes from the gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh.)

The Christian calendar has two distinct feast days of Christmas and Epiphany, but for all practical purposes we have collapsed it all into Christmas. I once served in a church that had an evening Epiphany service on January 6. I'm not sure why we bothered. Some years the choir outnumbered those in the pews. How different from Christmas Eve when we had to drag out folding chairs for additional seating.

I have no desire for Epiphany to get the same star-treatment as Christmas. If anything, I'd like to see Christmas get toned down a bit. In the same way that Hanukkah grew into a bigger Jewish celebration than its religious significance would suggest because of the proximity to Christmas, so too the church's celebration of Christmas has intensified alongside the growth of the secular Christmas celebration. Christmas can sometimes become little more than an orgy of joy, nostalgia, and good feelings without much connection to the significance of Jesus' birth.

Epiphany at least begins to deal with the impact of that birth. As Jesus symbolically is revealed to the world via the visit of foreign, Gentile Magi, the loyalty problems created by Jesus quickly become apparent. King Herod and "all Jerusalem with him" are frightened at the news of a king's birth. As well they should be. If Jesus is king then Herod has a competitor for allegiance and loyalty. If God has come in Jesus to reign, then all those accommodations people in Jerusalem have made in order to live in a world often at odds with God's hopes and dreams suddenly become problematic.

The same can be said for us in today's world, which is a big reason we like to celebrate Jesus' birth and then ignore much that the adult Jesus says. But Epiphany reminds us that the birth of a king is a crisis moment, one where we must decide if we are loyal subjects to this king or not. Too often, our celebration of Christmas raises no such issues. It celebrates and basks in the warmth of the moment, oblivious to this king's call to follow him, to take up the cross, to love enemies, to deny self and be willing to lose our lives for the sake of his kingdom.

When we pull the Magi into our Christmas extravaganza, we simply add the star and camels to our manger scenes, and the Wise Men become little more than additional revelers at the party. We certainly don't include the part of their story where Herod kills all the children under two and Jesus and his family become refugees in Egypt.

But Epiphany begins to raise "So what?" questions regarding Jesus' birth, questions that we'd often like to avoid. And so we ignore Epiphany, folding a redacted version of it into Christmas. But the questions of Epiphany remain. Christ is born; so what? A new king has arrived and has begun to assemble his new dominion; so what? God has taken flesh in Jesus and called us to join him on his way; so what?

In my most recent sermon, I included this quote from C.S. Lewis. "Christianity is the story of how the rightful King has landed and is calling us to His great campaign of sabotage." Called to join the new king's sabotage campaign; now that strikes me as a fitting answer to Epiphany's "So what?"

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