Thursday, February 27, 2014

Crying to a Hidden God

It is striking how frequently the psalms cry out in anguish to God. By most counts, the "psalms of lament" are the largest single category of psalms, and in these prayer/song/poems, it is often God Godself who is longed for. Some verses from today are a good example.

Answer me quickly, O LORD;
     my spirit fails. 

Do not hide your face from me,
     or I shall be like those who go down to the Pit. 

It seems a bit strange to think that the God who comes to us in Jesus, who desires relationship with us, nonetheless hides from us. Perhaps it only seems that God hides, but I've not know many people whose faith I admire who do not admit to experiencing God's hiddenness. In fact, I doubt that it is possible to enter into a serious life of faith without occasionally encountering this absence, this experience of a hidden God.

On the one hand, this may sound terribly distressing. From time to time I speak with folks who assume that pastors don't have faith doubts and struggles. They think that faith sufficient to draw one to seminary surely insulates pastors from such difficulties, and to hear that their pastor is struggling in a manner similar to them is not at all comforting.

But on the other hand, knowing that one's pastor struggles with faith - not to mention people whose faith is in an entirely different league from this pastor - can be liberating. To realize that struggling to find God is not necessarily a sign of failed faith can be a tremendous relief, one that may allow people to cry out with the psalmist, and so to share in the psalmist's hope that God will indeed respond to such cries.

I have discovered in my years as a pastor that some people need permission to cry to God or to yell at God. They have somehow learned that faith is about proper decorum, and so they dare not speak in an unseemly way toward God. Yet the psalms are full of such cries, and in some of these psalms, decorum gets lost in anguish. "My God, my God, Why have  you forsaken me?" comes to mind. Indeed, that huge collection of lament psalms seems almost tailor made to encourage those struggling with God's hiddenness to demand that God show Godself.

I wonder if it does not take a faith of some depth to speak so to God. Even though some people think yelling at God inappropriate and even sacrilege, such speech makes little sense in the absence of faith. If faith has been lost, there's little reason to expend energy crying out or yelling.

So... yell at God any lately?

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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Idolatry and Income Inequality

This blog is an outgrowth of my own devotional practices, a private practice of reading the lectionary passages and journaling on them that "went public." As I recall, I thought making it public would be added motivation for me to maintain this discipline. And so most of my posts are still reflections on the lectionary readings for that day. This one is not.

I woke up this morning with this post already bouncing around in my head. I'm not sure why. I had not been thinking about it yesterday nor had I read or watched anything on the topic. Nonetheless, I awoke to thoughts about income inequality, "the market," and idolatry.

For those not overly familiar with Presbyterian/Reformed theology, idolatry is a big one for us. When the Presbyterian Book of Order outlines the basic tenets of our faith documents, the last bullet point reads, "The recognition of the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny, which calls the people of God to work for the transformation of society by seeking justice and living in obedience to the Word of God."

Idolatry is not understood as worshiping statues or other cultic objects. Rather is describes anything other than God in which we place ultimate trust or give ultimate authority over out lives. In this sense, all manner of things can become idols, even things that are not necessarily bad. Some Christians make an idol out of the Bible or the church itself. Country or family can also become idols. That is not a statement about some latent problem lurking in such institutions. Rather it is a statement of the human tendency to put inordinate trust and authority in things that do not deserve our absolute loyalty and obedience.

This morning I awoke thinking about the loyalty and authority some people accord "the market." I'm thinking of phrases such as "the invisible hand of the market." Some people use the phrase in an almost religious manner, and some seem unable to imagine any higher authority.

The phrase itself came from Adam Smith more than 200 years ago. I'm no economist, and I don't know much about the level of authority and trust he had in markets. But I do know that in our country's history, we have often felt the need to intervene in the market in order to restrain it and make it accountable to our values of fairness and moral obligations to care for those the market seemed willing to trample over.

The "trust busting" that happened 100 years ago in this country (hard to imagine a Republican president leading such things as Teddy Roosevelt once did) put significant restraints on the market, on our capitalist system. I see a fundamental theological truth here. No human institution can operate without restraints and checks on its power and authority. But in our day, many seem able to see this only with government institutions. For some reason, they place remarkable faith in business, capitalism, and the market to solve our problems, and that sounds like the start of a great idol to me.

The yawning and growing income gap between hourly workers and their bosses, between CEOs and regular employees, has entered uncharted territory in this country and shows no sign of abating. And I am convinced that those who think this is simply the market determining what people are actually worth, who imagine that the market can be trusted to do what is best for our society, have placed their trust in a pernicious idol. Pernicious, not because the market is inherently evil, but because, as the saying goes, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

I regularly hear conservative Christians lament the loss of our Christian values, but often these seem restricted to a few social issues. In Luke's gospel, Jesus begins his ministry by saying he fulfills these words from the prophet Isaiah. "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

This year of jubilee (see Leviticus 25) was a time when all debts were to be forgiven. I'm guessing the the market and those beholding to it are not much interested in such a practice. There was actually an attempt to encourage such a practice with the debts of some third world countries back when we crossed into the current millennium, but business interests would have nothing of the sort. In fact, the market has little inherent interest in Christian values or principles at all.

Thus it would seem that Christians should be heavily invested in reigning in any idolatrous bowing to the forces of the market, yet I see little evidence that Christians as a group are much worried about such idolatry.

I read something the other day in Brian McLaren's book, Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? where he spoke of a conversation with a friend who is an imam. Discussing the different ways they understood Jesus, McLaren was struck with how his Muslim friend thought of Jesus as a great prophet, meaning that God would judge us by how well we followed Jesus' teachings. Meanwhile Christians, who claim Jesus is much more than prophet, often feel little need to follow Jesus' teachings. As long as we "believe in him" and think rightly about a few doctrinal points, doing as Jesus says is not really a core Christian expectation.

In most Christian denominations, proclaiming Jesus as Lord is a basic faith affirmation. The religious symbolism of the word "Lord" sometimes blots out its actual meaning, but it is fundamentally a statement about loyalty and authority, one insisting that Jesus alone is owed ultimate allegiance, loyalty, and obedience. Such allegiance loyalty, and obedience demands that Christians struggle against idolatries and work for a just and better society, not leaving people's fates in the hands of the market.

I'm not suggesting any particular plan of action. I appreciate that people of faith can legitimately disagree about the best ways to bring good news to the poor and restrain idolatries that lead to tyranny, poverty, and a situation where working hard for 60 hours a week may well not provide an income adequate to live on. But I do not see how Christians can ignore growing income disparity and suffering by "the least of these." Even more, I do not understand how we can fail to see the blatant idolatry that is a significant part of this problem.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Resurrection Now

Very often the first words I speak at a funeral service are, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die." These words come from today's gospel, a portion of John's account of the raising of Lazarus. Their reading at a funeral means to recall our hope of resurrection in the face of death. In fact, the official name for a funeral in the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship is "A Service of Witness to the Resurrection."

Curiously, however, when Jesus first speaks this words, he is not speaking of a hope for life after death. He is talking to Lazarus' sister, Martha, who laments that her brother would not have died if Jesus had been there. Assured by Jesus that her brother will rise again, she responds, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day."

Martha already believes in a resurrection. Her hope of resurrection is similar to that found in Paul's letters, where he also speaks of the resurrection of the dead when Jesus returns. But Jesus seems to want Martha to see something more. Resurrection is not just some far off hope. It is present to her now, and so Jesus says, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die."

John's gospel, here and in other places, insists on a resurrection that is both future promise and current reality. There is a new quality of life that manifests itself in believers. Jesus speaks of the Father and himself coming and making their home with believers, leading to an abundant life marked by love, a Spirit guided life marked by truth.

It is surprisingly easy to forget the witness of John's gospel, to turn the Christian life into a belief system (sometimes with and sometimes without a life of following Jesus' teachings) that gets one a ticket to heaven when we die. But in Jesus' words today, he speaks of something more.

What are the signs of new life, of resurrection, that manifest themselves in your life and in the life of your faith community?

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Sunday, February 23, 2014

Sermon: Odd Like God

Matthew 5:38-48; Leviticus 19:1-2
Odd like God
James Sledge                                                                                       February 23, 2014

There’s a Stephen Colbert quote about the US  being a “Christian nation” that shows up regularly on the internet. Unlike some internet quotes, this one is genuine. I know because I happened to be watching his show the night he said it. It was the very end of one of his hilarious bits, this one a Christmas piece that took on some comments by Bill O’Reilly about the right way for Christians to help the poor. In the course of the segment Colbert gets worked up over the possibility of Jesus actually being a liberal Democrat, leading him to the disturbing conclusion that it might indeed be necessary to take Christ out of Christmas. “Because,” he says, “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it.”
Colbert offers a scathing commentary on the ease with which the label “Christian” is applied. In this case, he skewered conservative hypocrisy, but I think that his commentary cuts both ways. In fact, he might well have aimed his words at the church itself, saying something like, “If this is going to be a Christian church that expends most of its resources on itself and never risks its institutional life for those in need, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as self-centered as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love our enemies, care for anyone who asks our help, and be willing to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of God’s new day and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”
All too often, Christian churches have provided easy targets for those who label us “hypocrites.” At times we have even led people to believe that belonging to or going to church makes one Christian, regardless of whether their lives demonstrate Jesus’ commands.
I’ve actually heard sermons and read commentaries on today’s scripture saying that we don’t need to do what Jesus says. They suggest that Jesus gives us an impossible list of commands so that we will despair and turn to God’s grace and mercy. I’m a big fan of God’s grace and mercy, but I’m still quite sure that Jesus is serious when he calls us to love enemies, not resist the adversary who strikes us, and give to all who ask our help. He is serious when, as the Sermon on the Mount continues, he says that we cannot serve both God and wealth. He is serious when he says that what really matters is not whether or not we call him Lord, but whether we do God’s will.
Nothing in Matthew’s gospel indicates these teachings are not exactly what Jesus says they are. Jesus makes no apologies for the fact that following him is hard. And in the very last words he speaks in Matthew’s gospel, he commands his original disciples to go into all the world to make more disciples by baptizing them and by “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
Now some care is needed here. It is easy to make it sound as though Jesus tells someone being abused to stay and take it. It is easy to take Jesus’ words and create a faith community that beats up on those who don’t meet certain rigorous standards. But neither of these honor what Jesus is actually teaching: a way of life befitting a member of God’s kingdom, a life modeled on the one Jesus lived.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Signifying Nothing

"If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly." Jesus answered, "I have told you, and you do not believe." So goes a conversation between Jesus and some "Jews." Of course Jesus is a Jew, as are both the writer of John's gospel and the community of Jewish Christians for which the gospel was originally written. But in this gospel, the term "Jew" usually refers only to those Jews who oppose Jesus or do not accept  him as Messiah. John's gospel has likely been used more than any other New Testament writings to justify anti-Semitism, even though the community receiving this gospel considered itself to be Jewish.

"Believing in Jesus" is often seen as a dividing line between Christians and Jews, along with other religions. It is also seen by many as what makes someone Christian. But I would suggest that the believing and disbelieving in John's gospel is of a different sort than some in our day.

The Christians who first read John's gospel were Jewish in every sense of the word, and they had no  intention of giving up that identity. But some of them were being told to keep quiet about Jesus at the synagogue. If they wanted to participate in the customs and rituals of their faith, if they wanted to remain members of their home church, so to speak, they would need to tone down the Jesus stuff.

In John's gospel, believing in Jesus and saying so out loud could be quite costly. It would likely require people to give up things they cherished dearly. This led some Jewish Christians to rethink their belief in Jesus, and it made it difficult for other Jews to embrace Jesus. No wonder they wanted absolute proof before making such a move. I often do something similar. I can think of plenty of times when I've failed to speak or act as I should because "I'm not sure what God wants me to do." But more often, it's simply a matter of not liking what God would have me do, but I nonetheless claim ignorance.

I believe in Jesus. It's remarkably easy to say, but all too often a statement "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing," to steal a line from Shakespeare. We Christians are far too practiced at believing in Jesus in ways that signify little and amount to nothing. Our belief is often at no cost to self and of no good to the world, and that is not at all the situation for the Jewish Christians addressed by John's gospel.

In Luke's gospel, Jesus asks, "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do what I tell you?"Jesus clearly is describing an empty sort of belief in him that is all "sound and fury, signifying nothing."

In our time, questions about belief in Jesus are often of little significance. People claim to believe in all manner of things without it mattering much in their daily lives. Belief in Jesus is only significant if it impacts how I act and live. Would those first-century Jewish Christians risk being tossed from their long time faith community because of their belief? Will I risk being belittled or hated? Will I change the way I interact with others, the way I allocate my income, or the way I vote? Will I live and act in ways that reflect Jesus' teachings because I believe in him? If so, that might describe a faith and a life that is more than "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound a fury, signifying nothing."

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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Powerball, More, and God's Subversive Narrative

In case you missed it, the value of the winning Powerball ticket has now surpassed 400 million dollars. That prompted a Facebook "friend" to post this. "How would $400 million change your life?" The responses were fairly predictable and covered a wide gamut, from the money changing "everything" to "nothing," from the good a person would do with the money to all the goodies that money would buy."

I thought of that question when I read today's verses from 1 John. "Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world - the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches - comes not from the Father but from the world." 1 John may not be the same person that wrote the gospel of John, but if not, they very much share the same point of view. And so 1 John surely knows of God as the one who "so loved the world." That means some nuance is required when understanding today's commands.

In John's gospel and 1 John, the world is less a place, the planet, than it is a term for that arena where God is resisted. (We can use the term in similar ways with the phrase "the ways of the world" or someone who is "worldly.") Such Bible passages speak of a "world" that  has an agenda that runs contrary to God's, and following Jesus is therefore about choosing God's agenda over that of this "world." Such a choice seems no easier today than it was in biblical times.

In yesterday's blog, I wrote of our culture's dominant narrative, an individualistic one marked by the belief that "more" is the answer. But Jesus presents a subversive, counter-narrative where God's special blessing is with the poor, those who mourn, the oppressed, those who work for peace, and those who ache and long for a world set right. This counter-narrative seeks to undo the dominant narrative, the ways of the world, but that requires people to embrace it.

To say that "The love of the Father is not in those who love the world," is not calling us to an otherworldly faith, one focused on getting from this world to heaven through believing the right things. Rather it is saying that to be filled with a love like God's is to see things differently, in a totally new way. The promises of the world that happiness will come when we get enough of everything are seen for what they truly are: a false narrative that enslaves us to endless striving and an insatiable addiction to "more." Over and over the world promises that all will be well when we get just a little "more," but as will all enslaving addictions, it is never enough.

I'm not suggesting that everyone needs to take a vow of poverty, but I am suggesting that many of us Christians have fundamentally misunderstood the faith. The blessings of Jesus, of faith, are not about getting more of what the world values. They are about discovering our true identities as children of God, an identity most fully demonstrated and lived out by Jesus.

Jesus could enjoy a good party, a nice meal, and good glass of wine. But the life he lived did not look much like the one the world recommends. He did not use power the way the world does. He did not respond to hurts or opposition the way the world does. He was not impressed with status the way the world is. He was not motivated by any of the "more" that motivates much of our lives, and he invites us to discover a wonderful joy and freedom in the sort of life he lived.

It's a hard sell, because the world makes a very good case, and its promises are very enticing. At least they are to me. But Jesus continues to invite. He does not demand or threaten. He invites, never giving up hope that we will finally see that he knows the way better than the "world" does.

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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Commandments and Counter Narratives

Too often, I think of what I should have said long after the conversation is over. It happened again on Sunday. A church member spoke with me regarding the reading from the Sermon on the Mount. In it Jesus works his way from the commandment against murder to saying that being angry is equally problematic, and he says that calling someone a nasty name makes you liable to hell.

Diane, the other pastor here, had preached what I thought was a very well done sermon that was gentle yet also called people to embrace Jesus' call to live differently. But I don't think this person I spoke with was reacting to her sermon. Rather, he seemed to be focused on the scripture itself and on what seemed to him the near impossibility of its demand.

I took various approaches to helping him take Jesus' call seriously without being driven into some sort of despair, none of them very successful. Only later did it occur to me that Matthew's gospel also reports Jesus saying, "For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." Surely that means Jesus does not expect us to despair about his call not to be angry, to reconcile with any who have something against us, not to look with lust at women (I take that in part to mean not viewing women as objects.), etc. I don't think Jesus is simply heaping up demands on us. Rather he is describing what life looks like when it is motivated fundamentally be love.

That point is really hammered home in today's epistle reading. "I am writing you a new commandment that is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says, 'I am in the light,' while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling."

Neither Jesus nor the writer of 1 John expects that we will never fail as we seek to be faithful. 1 John says as much at the opening of today's verses. But both expect that our lives will be transformed when a divine-like love motivates and undergirds our lives.

There has been an unfortunate tendency, especially in Protestant Christianity, to view God's commandments primarily as things that drive us to despair and into the arms of God's mercy. I don't want totally to discount this, but I do think we horribly overemphasize it. Jesus clearly thinks his commandments are in some way doable, and he expects that we will discover a new way of life as we seek to embody them.

In my own, Reformed Tradition, John Calvin spoke of something called the "third use of the law." He was adding to Luther's idea that the law first restrained evil and secondly caused us to despair and turn to God's grace. Calvin accepted both of these, but added that when we are brought into new relationship with God through Jesus, the commandments become for us a guide be becoming more holy. They are not things by which we are judged for doing or failing to do. Rather they are a road map for the life we long to live.

I've always been fond of this third use of the law, but I wonder if Calvin went far enough. Beyond simply being a map to get us somewhere we long to be, God's commands might also be seen as a way of living, or of trying to live, that have power to shape and form us into people who long for the same thing God longs for.

Compare this, for instance, to the way of living, the practices, that our society encourages. Above all, our culture calls us into practices of consumerism, practices that form us as people who think that happiness and fulfillment come from acquiring "more." Even much of the hunger for spirituality in our culture is understood out of this consumer model. And you don't need to be a perfect consumer to be powerfully shaped and formed by its teachings. It is enough that this striving for more becomes the dominant narrative of people's lives.

I his teachings, Jesus tries to instill in us a counter-narrative. He understands the law and commandments not as restraints on aberrant behaviors like murder, but as practices that shape us for life in God's new day, practices that embody God's mercy and love. It is not necessary for us to keep his commandments without fail for his narrative to shape and form us in powerful ways. Indeed, Jesus becomes transforming for us when his narrative becomes the dominant one of our lives, when we aspire, above all else, to the sort of life he envisions for us.

What is the dominant narrative that drives, motivates, and makes sense of life for you? And to what degree is that narrative compatible with what Jesus taught and the life he invites us to live?

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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Preaching Thoughts on a Non-Preaching Sunday

If you've ever given much thought to the meaning of Christian faith, you've surely encountered the idea that you must accept Jesus as your Savior or you cannot make it to heaven. "Accept" is defined in various ways, but it usually has something to do with a faith statement or requirement to "believe in Jesus."

The notion that believing in Jesus equals faith, and that such faith gets you to heaven, has often led Protestants to act as though what we do is of little matter. There are certainly Bible passages that emphasize the need to "confess Jesus," but the Sermon on the Mount is not one of them. In the preaching lectionary, this "sermon" gets broken up over the course of many weeks, but none of the readings focus on what one believes. Instead Jesus hammers at what we must do. Today, speaking of the commandment against murder, Jesus says, "But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire."

If we're going to quote Scripture about what gets a person into heaven, this is a most troubling verse, straight from the mouth of Jesus. If you call someone a "fool" (I'm assuming that other disparaging terms are included), no heaven for you. Ouch.

 If you sit down and read the Sermon on the Mount, it is difficult to walk away thinking Jesus doesn't care that much about what we do, only what we believe. (Not that I'm discounting belief. If I believe Jesus is God incarnate, presumably I would think him the ultimate authority and want to do whatever he says.) The Sermon on the Mount is full of what we are to do, and that doing seeks to form a very different sort of community, on that is shaped by God's will. As today's reading makes clear, this requires taking the commandments more seriously, not less. It means putting away the things that lead to conflict, not simply refraining from violence. It means going far beyond the bare requirements of the law and living in ways that bring reconciliation and work for peace.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lays out a dream for a new and transformed world, and he calls his followers to begin showing the current world what that looks like. This is why the petty divisions and squabbles that so often mar congregational life are such a huge problem. They undermine our core calling as Christians, the call to walk the narrow and difficult way of Jesus, the call to aspire to and bear witness to God's new day. And I'm not sure that anything so undermines this calling as the idea that Christian faith is primarily about me getting my ticket punched for heaven.

When you look at your congregation, your community of faith, how does it show the hope of a new day? In what ways is it a community of peace and reconciliation where concern for the good of the other matters as much or more than one's personal good, wants, or desires? Do our churches and congregations offer real hope to the world, a better way that leads to something new? If not, then maybe we all need to sit down with the Sermon on the Mount for a bit.

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

No Earthly Good

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.  Romans 12:1-2

I've quoted this before. The late southern comedian and devout Southern Baptist, Jerry Clower, has a chapter in one of his books entitled "Some People are so Heavenly Minded, They Ain't No Earthly Good." In his folksy way, Clower identifies a common problem with religious life, at least some Christian versions in modern day America. Many Christians seem to think that faith's sole purpose is to get people into heaven when they die.

Viewed in this way, Christian faith becomes about checking off the right boxes so as to get on the heavenly guest list. Exactly what is required can vary from one group or denomination to the next. For some it's "accepting Christ as personal Savior." For others it is "having faith," which may or may not mean "believing the right things." For still others it is about living a good enough life. There are doubtless many variations on this, but they all proclaim some version of what Brian McLaren labels "a gospel of evacuation," meaning that Jesus came to get us from here to some place better.

Trouble is that the Jesus we find in the gospels almost never speaks this way. He much more routinely speaks about the kingdom that is drawing near, a day when God's will is done on earth, when earthly life conforms to God's design, as is already the case in the divine realm. Consider the Lord's Prayer if you think I'm making this up.

And so when the Apostle Paul calls us to offer ourselves to God, not being conformed to the world but transformed so we can do God's will, he has in mind something other than making it to heaven. This is, after all the same Paul who speaks earlier in Romans about creation waiting "with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God," and also how "the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now." (8:19-23) In Christ, God is not planning an evacuation but the redemption of the entire creation. In the meantime, the followers of that Christ are called to model that new day for the world.

But all too often, those in the Church appear more conformed to the world than transformed. Observed at work or play, they are indistinguishable from the rest of the culture. Some decades ago, when there was something of a general agreement that ours was a "Christian nation," this could be viewed as unimportant. If we claimed that our culture was in some way Christian, then there was no real need to worry about being conformed to it. But it has gotten more and more difficult to say our culture is Christian. Indeed I doubt that it ever was in any sort of deep and meaningful way, but to claim that today's prevailing culture of consumerism, narcissism, and greed somehow embodies Christ's commands borders on the absurd.

And so to follow Christ, to be transformed in the manner Paul recommends, is to be different and odd in ways that show the world around us a new possibility. To a world obsessed with looks and appearances, we are called to value all people as beloved children of God. In a world obsessed with money and wealth, we are called to measure worth in the manner of Jesus, who was so often found among the poor and the outcast. In a world obsessed with status and prestige, we are called to honor "the least of these" and to live as servants who offer ourselves for the sake of others. In a world obsessed with performance and efficiency and busyness, we are called to take time for prayer and worship, to keep sabbath, and to "Be still."

In short, we are called to live in ways that make us very "earthly good." We are called to a peculiar style of life so that others who might peek into one of our congregations would get a palpable sense that we know something about earthly life, relationships, and community that the world does not. They should see us living in ways that offer a clear model for a renewed and reborn society, something that only happens when we are not "conformed to this world" but instead transformed so that our lives conform to God's will.

As we seek to live such lives, we have a template provided for us, a clear model to emulate. Jesus has already shown us what it looks like to live according to God's will. But it seems that we are still not quite convinced that he got is right.

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Monday, February 10, 2014

Not What I Want To Hear

As readers of this blog might surmise, I have a (sometimes) regular discipline of reading the daily lectionary passages. In fact, this blog is an outgrowth of private reflections on those readings. It started as  journaling meant to encourage me in the regular reading of Scripture. Even in this more public forum, my posts are usually reflections and musings on these readings.

As with all practices and disciplines, I sometimes struggle with my daily readings. At times I let other things that I need or want to do take precedence, crowding them out. And sometimes I open up the readings but find them incredibly difficult. I will begin reading one of the passages and quickly find myself frustrated and eager to try the next one. Some days all of the readings have quite the opposite impact I hope for. They do not make me feel closer to God or show me what I should do. Instead they grate on me and make me want to turn away.

Sometimes the verses feel like empty platitudes that fly in the face of reality. Sometimes they describe a God and a life of faith that seems little like my current experience. Sometimes they make promises that seem terribly hollow in light of struggles in my life or those close to me, or in light of the horrors facing to many in our world.

What happens when the presumed or hoped for promises of faith don't materialize? What should one do when God does not come through as expected? I am prone to wax theological as such moments. It can be an interesting, even satisfying exercise at times. But working on a better, more nuanced theological construct of God doesn't always do much to address feelings of resentment or abandonment or anger that may be simmering.

I also have a suspicion that many efforts to "explain" those situations where God fails us or the world leave us without much of a God. The God who is encountered in many Mainline, progressive, or liberal congregations (a grouping of which I am a part) seems not to have much sway over things other than my interior life. Many such congregations are terrified at the prospect of doing some of the bold things Jesus calls us to do because we cannot imagine we have the resources to do them, and neither can we imagine that God will provide what we are missing. 

I'm critiquing myself as much or more than anyone else. I struggle to see myself as able to do anything more than what I already have the talent, personality, disposition, and inclination to do. Perhaps if I got some more training and developed some more expertise, I could do more, but I don't expect more or new to happen because of God.

And so when I open the morning psalm and hear once again about God's promises to protect and shield, when I read of assurances that the gift of the Spirit will transform believers' lives, I start to get irritated. I'm not entirely certain, however, if my irritation is with God or with myself for the fear that keeps me from testing such promises and assurances.

I've said this before, but it bears repeating (if only to remind me). Sometimes such moments can be openings and opportunities. They can create a kind of crisis that requires action. Granted, one such action could be to abandon faith altogether, but I have a hard time imagining myself going all in on that option. Another action might be to try on a deeper and fuller faith, one that actually takes the risk that God might come through when I do as Jesus says. I think maybe that's why they call it "a leap of faith."

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Preaching Thoughts on a (sort of) Non-Preaching Sunday

Today is "Youth Sunday," and in a little while the middle and high school youth in this congregation will lead all the elements of worship. It's a much anticipated service where everything from liturgy to music to sermon are prepared and done by the youth. I'll be sitting in the pews with the rest of the "adults."

But our early, informal service is new, and is not a part of the Youth Sunday tradition, meaning that I still have a sermon of sorts to do there. It is actually a wonderful opportunity to do a more conversational reflection on today's gospel reading, one for which there is no written text.

Today's gospel continues reading from Matthew's "Sermon on the Mount," a reading begun last Sunday. Today's teaching speaks of our need to keep God's law, to be salty salt and light that shines. Salt was essential to life in Jesus' day, absolutely necessary for preserving meat and other foods. Jesus might well have told us that we must be life and light.

It is something that the Church too often forgets, turning its attention inward. There a myriad ways to do so. Faith can become an exercise to get me and others like me into heaven. It can become an obsession with getting beliefs and doctrines worked out to a "T." It can be about a distorted spirituality focused almost entirely on stoking an inner warmth. Any faith tradition, conservative or liberal, Catholic or Protestant, can turn in on itself and forget that Jesus calls disciples and Church to bring God's love into the world, to help bring light and life.

I think that one of the things that is so captivating about the new pope, Francis, is that he seems to be more focused on the light and life part and than on the doctrinal and institutional maintenance part. Only time will tell if these words fully pan out, but it is heartening to see non-Catholics and even people of no faith drawn toward the pope's words. Seems like maybe Jesus was on to something with this light and life thing.

According to Jesus, regardless of our particular theologies, regardless of our particular ways of being church, if we aren't in some way providing light, if we aren't in some way life-giving, then we are about as useless as salt that isn't salty.

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Thursday, February 6, 2014

Running the Race

If you are at all conversant in church-speak, you have probably heard some version of this. "Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses... let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us" It's part of a famous quote from "The Letter to the Hebrews," which is more of a sermon than a letter.

The writer has just finished rattling off a long list of impressive accomplishments that biblical heroes managed "through faith." But then the writer addresses the reader saying, "Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect." It seems God has an ongoing, long-term project that joins Jesus followers to the work of Abraham and Sarah, David and Solomon, Isaiah and Jeremiah, and so on. Presumably present day Jesus followers are also joined to this long line of the faithful, our work building on the faithful of the past and somehow pulling the whole, long line forward into God's wonderful future.

However, I'm not quite sure how to fit this idea into some notions of Christian faith. In some of the very individualized and personalized understandings of faith popular in America, the entire operation seems to be about getting my name on the right list: heaven or hell, salvation or damnation. But how does my being on the heavenly guest list help Abraham in any way? If faith is about whether or not I'm saved, what difference does that make to King David?

Jesus talked a lot about a kingdom that had drawn near, something tiny and nearly invisible that would, with our faithful participation, grow into something wonderful. That seems to fit well with what the writer of Hebrews is saying, but I'm not sure it does with some current versions of faith and church.

Some evangelical versions of personal salvation as escape from this rotten world to wonderful heaven are easy targets, but personal, immediate gratification versions of faith are everywhere. They're prominent in therapeutic versions of Christianity where faith and church are about making me feel better about myself, and they're sometimes featured in popular forms of Christian spirituality where faith and church are primarily about feeding my soul and warming my spirit.

I'll admit to being a rather impatient person. I'm very much a part of our immediate gratification culture. Still, one of my great frustrations with church in general is that it so seldom seems connected to God's big, long-term, grand project for all creation. It is too busy "meeting members' needs" to actually work on the kingdom project, the dream of God's new day.

Very often, church congregations are most heavily invested in maintenance, in "how we've always done it." And when churches do have bigger and grander visions of the future, these are often about bigger buildings and facilities, about grander futures for themselves.

Not that church congregations don't do a great deal of good in the world, but all too often, this is simply a slightly enlarged version of the charity practiced by many Americans regardless of faith. It is great that individuals volunteer at soup kitchens and homeless shelters, and it is wonderful that churches run food pantries and operate tutoring programs for needy children. But these things often aren't really central to the lives of individual volunteers or to the lives of congregations. They are a little something extra that we do, but not what we are primarily about. But if a church isn't primarily about God's big project, is it really the body of Christ it claims to be.

Figuring out exactly where the line is that divides those engaged in the call to be Christ to the world from those simply wanting to get into heaven, be made happy, or have their needs met, is no easy task. Transforming individuals so that they become new in Christ and follow where he leads requires inward work, both as an individual person of faith and as a congregation. Still, there must be some tipping point beyond which "serving the members" largely obscures a church's true call.

This problem has no doubt existed as long as the Church has existed. But I can't help wondering if our age of immediate gratification hasn't greatly magnified it. The simple fact is that Jesus' message does not fit well into an immediate gratification mindset. But that's actually true of a lot of things such as raising children, building a successful company, or running a marathon.

People don't train for marathons just to get the tee shirt, and according to today's reading from Hebrews, faith is more like a marathon than it is dropping into Starbucks for a quick caffeine fix. Sometimes I wonder if one of the big problems facing the church in our time isn't that we folks who are running churches are trying to be a Starbucks rather than a training club for marathoners.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Lost in Praise

  O sing to the LORD a new song;
     sing to the LORD, all the earth.  
Psalm 96:1

I admit it. I'm not overly good at praise. Not that I don't sing in worship or anything like that. I enjoy singing hymns on Sunday, but I'm not sure that's the sort of revelry that the psalms so often speak of. The "joyful noise" of Psalm 66 seems to suggest a bit more abandon than is typical of traditional Presbyterians. And today's morning psalm gets so carried away that it expects nature itself to join in.

  Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
     let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
     let the field exult, and everything in it.
  Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
     before the LORD

 (Just as an aside, a lot of worshipers seem worse at praise than me, at least the sung kind. As a pastor, I look out at the congregation while we're singing, and I've always marveled at the number of people who never sing at all, who don't even mouth the words.)
When I think about praise and adulation that gets carried away and lost it the effort, sports fans come to mind. Joyful noise is an apt description of what comes from the stands when our team is winning. The other place I've seen and experienced this is at a political rally. Strange to think that it is easier for me to get all fired up about my team or my candidate than it is to get excited about God.

I'm not sure I would ever want to turn worship into a pep rally or a political one, but I still wonder about the difficulty of actually offering myself to God in worship. (There's a striking picture of King David totally losing himself in worship from 2 Samuel 6. He gets so carried way that he not only leaps and dances, but he strips down to only a little ceremonial apron.) I've mentioned before how God can sometimes seem more a concept than a real entity who is encountered. Perhaps that is why we tend to measure our worship by how well we like it. Strange that we would do worship to please ourselves rather than God if we really thought God was the audience for our worship.

The closing verse of the hymn, "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" speaks of the final consummation of our lives, anticipating the day when "we cast our crowns before Thee, lost in wonder, love, and praise." It's an old Charles Wesley hymn, the sort I associate with the rather staid worship I grew up with. But it surely speaks of what worship should be, as well as what the psalmist describes.

Oh, to be lost in wonder, love and praise.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Sermon video: Don't Worry, You Are Blessed

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

Offensive Jesus vs Cultural Christianity

Today's gospel reading is one of many places in the Bible where Jesus upsets and offends people. And it's not just his opponents. His own disciples were often taken aback by what Jesus said. In fact, if you read the entire episode which begins with today's gospel (the lectionary will do so over the next two days), you will see that many of Jesus' disciples abandon  him over today's difficult teaching.

Growing up in Presbyterian congregations, I somehow missed the fact that Jesus could be troubling and offensive to those who encountered him. I saw Jesus along the same lines that a lot of people see the late PBS icon, Mr. Rogers. And while I happen to think of Mr. Rogers as an exemplary Christian, he didn't make those in power so angry that they wanted to kill him. Jesus clearly did, though the thoroughly domesticated and saccharine-sweet image of him often peddled in church makes that hard to comprehend.

Still, some Christians reach a point where those Sunday School portraits of Jesus no longer work for them, and they look for something a bit more realistic. The dissonance between the churchy Jesus and some of the stories of him in the Bible has long sent people on quests for "the historical Jesus." I think the quest itself is usually well intended but often misguided. That's because people may suspect - not without reason - that the Church is presenting a less that accurate picture of Jesus. Feeling misled by the Church, they look for non-churchy insights into Jesus. And because they think of the Bible as the Church's book, they look outside scripture.

Unfortunately, this effort immediately encounters a problem. Aside from the biblical texts, there is very little information about Jesus, and what there is often appears further removed from the historical Jesus than what is in the Bible. This means that most quests for "the historical Jesus" are efforts to distill from the biblical texts a historical kernel, a most inexact exercise, to say the least.

The current best seller, Zealot, by Reza Aslan, is the latest in a long line of such historical quests. Some of its scholarship is a bit suspect, but it does invite people to meet a very undomesticated Jesus. I'm all for that. I only wish that the Church would help people find the very undomesticated Jesus who is right there in the Bible and readily available without any need for wild speculation or intellectual flights of fancy.

Admittedly, this is a problem of the Church's own making. We sold our soul all those centuries ago when Constantine made us the official faith of the empire. When Christ gets enlisted in propping up empires and cultures, domestication is a must. Faith gets watered down, relegated to a private, spiritual sphere. The Jesus who came to bring good news to the poor and release to the captives still shows up here and there at Church, but rarely as the centerpiece. When God and Jesus are supposed to bless America, Jesus can be offensive only in very small doses. That doesn't mean Jesus actually gets wrapped in the American flag. That's a bit too unsubtle for most churches. But the same flag at the front of the sanctuary is fine, and any attempt to remove it may get labeled sacrilegious.

However, recent decades have seen the culture call off its cozy relationship with Christianity. It's not as though faith is persecuted (unless you consider "Happy Holidays"somehow to be akin to imprisonment), but it has lost some of the highly favored status previously granted it in exchange for religious sanctioning of the culture. I see this as a tremendous gift. It is a gift that may well be squandered, but it is a gift nonetheless.

The Church now finds itself in a position where it must stand on its own merits. Freed from the job of blessing prevailing culture, we have a very real opportunity to hear an undomesticated Jesus inviting us to new life in the act of following him. We may well decide that Jesus' call is more than we can manage, more than we're willing to do, but if that happens, at least we will have encountered something of that first century Jew whose presence demanded people make such hard choices.

The days when church pews filled on Sundays because the culture expected and coerced people to be there are fast fading away. (Good riddance, I say.) Not surprisingly, young adults are a rapidly shrinking part of congregational life in America. But who can  blame them. If the only Jesus they find at church is a benign, domesticated figure who only wants us to believe in him and be good little boys and girls, why bother? If they simply meet a religious sanction for prevailing cultural mores, prejudices, or hatreds, why bother?

But if they meet a Jesus who challenges them, even rattles them to their very core by calling them to follow him on a path that is not easy, that might be different. But of course that would seem to require church folk who were shaped and formed by the patterns of a dying cultural-Christianity to discover that Jesus themselves.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Sermon: Don't Worry, You Are Blessed

Matthew 5:1-12
Don’t Worry, You Are Blessed
James Sledge                                                                                       February 2, 2014

Are you familiar with the catchphrase, “First world problems?’ It’s something added to a complaint, a light hearted acknowledgement that someone’s whining or fussing is not about anything all that significant. It’s popular as a “hashtag” on Twitter. Here are some actual examples. “Trying to find a way to make my snow boots look cute with every outfit is getting really old #firstworldproblems. I think every town in America should have free Wi-Fi all throughout. Would make my life so much easier. #firstworldproblems.” And I love this one. I’m pretty sure it’s a joke. “My phone died and I can't tell the time from my wrist watch because of all the diamonds. #firstworldproblems.”
Even if you’re not familiar with the hashtag, you’re likely familiar with something similar. Many of us have said something such as, “I locked my keys in my car and had to call AAA to unlock it. So I missed my doctor’s appointment and have to reschedule. But then I came and volunteered at Welcome Table and realized that my problems aren’t all that big.”
When we agonize over our cable service going out just before our favorite show comes on, we know such issues are relatively minor and trivial. But our problems are our problems. They’re the things impacting us, and so they’re important to us. Nothing surprising about that. But when we worry about such things, there’s a tendency to think they are the things God should worry about as well.
We live in a very individualized and personalized culture. That has led to some very individualistic and personal notions about God and faith. The phrase “Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior,” isn’t part of my faith heritage so I’ve never been exactly sure what it means. Still, I’m reasonably certain that no one in biblical times would have said such a thing. They did not live in an individualistic culture.
Insomuch as speaking of a personal Savior means to convey that God is concerned about each individual person, I think that’s dead on. But that is different from thinking that God is especially worried about whatever I or my culture happens to be worried about. Indeed, such a notion can lead to the trivializing of God and faith.
I’ve seen that happen with the Beatitudes, the opening portion of the Sermon on the Mount that we just heard. There is a book by Robert Schuller called The Be (Happy) Attitudes: 8 Positive Attitudes That Can Transform Your Life. It distills from Jesus’ words a handful of practices that will bring the happiness that many Americans chase after. Blessed are those who mourn becomes “I’m really hurting—but I’m going to bounce back, and Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake becomes, “I can choose to be happy—anyway!”[1]
But this not only trivializes Jesus’ teaching, it misses the point entirely. Jesus is not giving some program for self-improvement. He isn’t telling people how to be happy. He isn’t even giving a list of commands to live by. There are no commands in today’s verses. We may be able to infer some “shoulds” from these verses, but they are primarily a statement of how things are, wildly counter-intuitive statements Jesus makes to those who are drawn to him.
These folks are not the upper tier or elite of society. Instead they are fishermen and sinners, people with diseases and infirmities, people suffering with what we would call mental illness, and desperate family members and friends who have nowhere else to turn. They are Jews who find themselves subject to the might, power and often cruel authority of Rome. There is little about them to suggest that they are blessed or fortunate. But Jesus insists that they are.
Matthew also has Jesus address the author’s first century church community . That Jewish Christian community is most certainly struggling. Some of them have gotten kicked out of their synagogue, their home church, the place they grew up and learned about faith, because they followed Jesus. No doubt this has led some, perhaps many, to question the wisdom of following him. The hoped for new day that Jesus’ resurrection seemed to herald is terribly slow in coming, and it is hard to find much evidence that says they are blessed or favored or fortunate. But Jesus insists that they are.
Jesus isn’t suggesting a way for them to feel fortunate. Rather he is making a statement that despite appearances, even when they find themselves in terrible circumstances, longing for something better, hungering and thirsting for a day when the world is set right, they are recipients of God’s favor and blessing.

Sermon video from Jan. 26: Transforming Love

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.