Monday, March 31, 2014

Misunderstanding Freedom

"All things are lawful," but not all things are beneficial. "All things are lawful," but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.  1 Corinthians 10:23-24

Why on earth would I want to do that? What could possibly make me seek the good of the other rather than my own? That is not how the world works. When I fly on an airline, I try to check in early so I can get the best possible seat on the plane. Let a latecomer have the bad seat. America is all about competition, about using whatever advantage I have at my disposal to make it to the top.

Much of life is about accumulating advantages. My denomination's health plan negotiates rates with medical providers so that I get a cost advantage over someone without good insurance. If I have sufficient money, I have access to a different legal process than a poor person. And I don't want my taxes going to give that poor person the same advantages I have.

When Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth, he is upset with them because they take advantage of their "freedom in Christ" without regard for others. According to Paul, they fundamentally misunderstand what it means to be free a. It's not about being able to do what ever they want or whatever they like. Rather, they have been freed to become more Christ-like.

But that's not what freedom looks like to the Corinthians, or to very many present day Americans. Both groups tend to think that freedom makes us our own gods. We get to decide what is best; not anyone else. No one should be able to tell us what to do.

But we aren't gods. We are creatures, and creatures make terrible gods. When we attempt to be gods, we end up slaves to our wants and desires, easily manipulated by advertisers and cultural standards of success and achievement. No wonder so many of us are stressed out and worn ragged by such freedom. Bob Dylan got it right in the old song, "Gotta Serve Somebody."
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.
I think that on some level, many of us know this intuitively. Such knowing is in that question many have asked, "What am I supposed to do with my life?" "Supposed" is not about whatever I want. It's about what I am fitted for and meant for. It is about what God means for me, about discovering God's purpose for me. And Paul says that God's purpose is not just about me. It is also about the other.

"Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other" That can't be right, can it?

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Can't Keep 'Em Away

In case you somehow missed the news, traditional church congregations are struggling in the US. There are many individual exceptions, but on the whole, denominations and congregations are shrinking. Worship attendance is trending downward in the typical congregation, and the average age of those in attendance is trending upward. And study after study affirms that Millennials are much less likely to be part of a church that previous generations.

I'm not trying to be depressing, I'm simply setting some context for thoughts on today's gospel. If today's churches struggle to get people to show up, Jesus and his disciples have the opposite problem. So many people are showing up that they can't get a break. In today's reading, Jesus suggests they get away for some well deserved R and R, but eager crowds figure out the location of their weekend retreat and ruin this plan.

I'm struck by the contrast of Jesus' situation and ours. Granted we aren't Jesus. The wow factor is surely much less. But we do speak of ourselves as "the body of Christ." And so if Jesus still offers something the world desperately needs, shouldn't the world be beating a path to our door?

I saw this quote bouncing around Facebook yesterday. (Thanks to Jenny for sharing the source with me.) "Like a jagged rock thrown into a flowing stream, the church once 'troubled the waters.' Now, however, it seems as if the church has slowly, often imperceptibly been worn so smooth by the culture that it no longer creates any disturbance at all." 

I doubt that Charles Campbell had church attendance in mind when he said this. Presumably he was talking about the church making a difference and witnessing to the ways of God's coming rule in the world. But I suspect that our indistinctness, our inability to "trouble the waters," makes us equally easy to ignore on Sunday mornings.

Jesus is a distinctly counter-cultural sort of guy, and the Church had strong counter-cultural tendencies when it was young and new. But as the Church merged with the prevailing culture (Thanks for that, Constantine, although I suppose it would have happened eventually regardless.) it became more and more conventional. When I grew up in what I now realize was the end of the Christendom era, there was nothing more conventional than church. But if church and culture are virtually indistinguishable, then there is bound to come a point where people realize they can be conventional without bothering to do church. We seem to have arrived at that point for many in our world.

Do we in the Church have some clear message and some clear purpose that are distinct from the culture around us? Do we have some good news that cannot be found in that culture? If not, I think we ought to stop delaying the inevitable and simply shut our operations down. And if the only thing we have to offer is heaven when you die in exchange for believing the correct things, I'd recommend the same plan of action.

Yet we say that we are the body of Christ, followers of the risen Jesus. We claim that by the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus abides in us and in the Church, that he empowers and equips the Church to do all that he calls us to do. And when the power of the living Christ is present - at least if you go by the gospel stories - you can't keep people away.

Maybe our problem is: We've made this church thing way too much about us, and not nearly enough about Jesus.

Click to learn more about the lectionary. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Wagging the Dog

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.  - 1 Corinthians 1-3

We Presbyterians are big on knowledge. We expect our pastors to be well educated, with at least a masters degree. Those with doctorates usually wear the associated chevrons on the sleeves of their robes. By the way, the robes Presbyterian pastors wear are not priestly garb. They are academic gowns, pointing to our special training rather than our ecclesiastical status. Like I said, we are big on knowledge.

It doesn't stop there. As a denomination, Presbyterians tend to be an educated sort. Traditionally, Presbyterian congregations have had more than our fair share of doctors, lawyers, bankers, teachers, professors, and such. As a result, Presbyterian worship sometime tends a bit toward the elitist side. We love pipe organs and Bach and Christmas cantatas. Our go-to Bible translation is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) which is written at an 11th grade reading level, one of the highest among the English translations. By comparison, the more popular New International Version (NIV) is written on an 8th grade level.

I, along with many others, think of knowledge and education as generally good things. Yet Paul speaks of a problem with knowledge. Paul is a reasonably well educated fellow himself, but he criticizes his Corinthian congregants for their attachment to knowledge, urging them to be shaped more by love.

Knowledge, it seems, can easily become the tail that wags the dog. Our worship - the sermons, liturgy, and music - can become more a statement about us than a genuine encounter with God where we offer ourselves and are equipped and nourished to be Christ's body in the world. Worship easily becomes about the preacher's fine preaching, the choir's great singing, and so on. Worse, we sometimes erect barriers to those who aren't as educated, musically sophisticated, etc. as we are.

We Presbyterians say that our congregations are supposed to be provisional manifestations of God's kingdom, that day when all divisions end and people of every race, clan, and tribe join together as one. Yet too often our congregations simply mirror the divisions - ethnic, cultural, economic, educational, style, etc. - that are found in our world.

The Apostle Paul insists that love must take precedence over knowledge. Puffed up knowledge says, "This church is for people like us, who understand like us and appreciate the things we do." But love says, "How can I help you encounter the love of God that embraces all?" regardless of who that "you" is.

Now it turns out it is very difficult to do church without doing it in some particular way. Having a worship style and musical preferences is unavoidable. Every church has them, and a pipe organ or a choir that sings Bach is not, in and of itself, a problem. The issue is, what drives our decisions about style and liturgy and so on? Is it self giving love? Or is it a puffed up sense that our way of doing things is smarter and better and the right way?

In another or his letters, Paul writes, "As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of your are one in Christ Jesus." Paul names all the big divisions of the world he lived in, then insists that we who are joined to Christ in baptism have no part in these.

Knowledge sometimes puffs up by clinging to the very things that divide us. Love, on the other hand, builds up because it is focused on ending divisions. Like Martin Luther King Jr's dream, it sees a day when divisions end and it actively works for the coming of that day. And when the Church fails to work toward that day, it forgets who it is, becoming a parody of itself, the tail wagging the dog.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Leaving Jesus Amazed

In today's gospel Jesus makes his triumphal return to his hometown. He's begun to make it big out in the world, to draw crowds and collect a band of followers, and now he makes a visit back to Nazareth. It seems to go well at first. Folks are "astounded," and they wonder where he got all this. But then it kicks in. Wait a minute. We know Jesus. We know his family. His brothers and sisters still live here. "And they took offense at him." That's what my translation says, but the word translated "took offense" more literally means "to stumble," and it's the root of our word "scandalize." After the hometown crowd stumbles, the gospel story ends with, "And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief."

I am struck by this picture of Jesus, amazed and scratching his head at how people cannot see him because he does not fit into what they already know about him. What is more, his power is constrained by their inability to see him for who he really is. And I can't help but wonder about the ways I box Jesus into a picture that I have of him.

Like Jesus' homies in Nazareth, I grew up with Jesus, too. My parents read my Bible stories and I saw pictures of him and heard more stories about him in Sunday School and in worship. Jesus was also hard to miss in the southern culture of the 1960s where I grew up. And so I "know" Jesus quite well. But what if the Jesus I "know" is, in some ways, like the Jesus those in Nazareth knew, a stumbling block to encountering the real grace and power of God in my midst.

I wonder how often the conventional and, too often, trite images of Jesus we traffic in at the church are as much problem as help. I wonder how often Jesus looks at me and those like me and shakes his head, amazed at how clueless we can be, how oblivious to the power of God seeking to work with and through us, simply because it does not fit into the pictures of Jesus we carry around with us.

It is incredibly difficult to know when we have failed to notice something. If Jesus was there and we missed him, how can we be aware of our having failed to be aware in the first place. If there is a burning bush on the roadside as I drive home tonight but I don't see it, I have no way of knowing I missed it, unless someone tells me about it. And if there is no one to tell me I missed Jesus, how am I to know?

At least today's gospel does alert me to the very real possibility that I might miss Jesus, obscured in the assumptions and preconceived notions of him that I've acquired from church and culture. It warns me that the Sunday School Jesus, or any other number of Jesuses, might become for me a pair of blinders that hide the presence of the living Christ that is right beside me.

I hope that I don't amaze Jesus, at least not in the manner the folks at Nazareth did, too frequently. And if I do, it sure would be nice if someone would tell me.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sermon: On Knowing, Not Knowing, and Journeying

John 4:5-29
On Knowing, Not Knowing, and Journeying
James Sledge                                                                                       March 23, 2014

It has been twenty years since the genocide in Rwanda that, by some estimates, killed more than a million people. A long, complicated history of animosity and discrimination lay behind the genocide, but the events of 1994 were unprecedented. One group decided simply to wipe out the other. During the slaughter, many took refuge in church sanctuaries, only to be killed there, often hacked to death by machete. If you go to Rwanda today, there are stark memorials to this tragedy in some of those churches. In one, bloody clothing lies draped over pews, and skulls are arranged on shelves. Many of these memorials display a quote from a young survivor of the genocide that reads, “If you really knew me, and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me.”
It is easy to hate the other that we do not know. I’m convinced that dramatic change in acceptance of gays, lesbians and same sex marriage in our country is largely about knowing. When gays and lesbians were seen by many as a strange and scary other, not like anyone they knew, it was easier to hate. But as more and more people came out and became known, the ignorance allowing such hate became harder and harder to maintain.
Still, it is remarkably easy to encounter another without actually knowing her or him, and our tendency to cluster in like groups makes this even easier. I see this all too often in the church. Some liberal/progressive Christians refer to conservative counterparts as dim-witted, ignorant Neanderthals. And some conservatives speak of liberal counterparts as heretics who reject Jesus and the Bible in favor of the latest secular fads.
If you’re on Facebook, you see the posts where one side blasts the other. And whether the divisions are religious, political, ethnic, or economic, the language is remarkably similar. The other is demonized. Name calling is the norm, and “idiot” is the tamest word used. When one of these posts about “those idiots” is made, an online echo chamber ensues, as one comment after another weighs in on how “those idiots” are totally lacking in any redeeming quality or human decency. And woe to the well-intended person who tries to introduce a bit of restraint or calm consideration of “those idiots’” point of view.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Funeral for Fred Phelps

Unless you've been offline all day, you probably are well aware of the death of Fred Phelps, described in the NY Times headline as a "Virulently Antigay Preacher." Not surprisingly there has been plenty of reaction on Facebook and Twitter, everything from "Ding, dong the witch is dead" to much more measured responses. (I apparently don't follow anyone who wants to praise him.)

I don't feel much need to add my comments to the mix, but as a pastor who from time to time is asked to do funerals for people I do not know, and for people I know to be rather unsavory, I wonder how I would respond if a family member asked me to do a funeral for someone like Phelps.

One of the things I vividly recall from my seminary days are words spoken by my theology professor and mentor, Doug Ottati. I believe it was during a discussion about Calvin's Institutes, but I'm not certain. Somewhere in the discussion, Dr. Ottati remarked on how there is no such thing in God's creation as pure, unadulterated evil. God is the only Creator, and God has not created evil. The worst that could be said about anything or anyone, even the devil himself, is that it is a corrupted good; demonically corrupted perhaps, but a corrupted good nonetheless.

Not many of us are inclined to speak of Fred Phelps, not to mention someone like Hitler, as good. Yet my brand of Christianity insists that despite layers of distortion and corruption that may mar and all but completely obscure any goodness, all humans are part of God's good creation. That, of course, means that all humans have some inherent value in God's eyes, that all are, in some way, redeemable.

None of that means to gloss over the terrible pain that Fred Phelps has inflicted on others out of hatred rooted in a perverted understanding of God and the Bible. But if in fact one of God's good creatures lurked somewhere beneath all that putrid hate, shouldn't I do his funeral if asked? And would I hold out some hope that God's love could embrace even him?

Whose Are You?

"Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body." (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

It is a statement that runs counter to much of modern, Western thought. "You are not your own." How dare you say that to me. I am my own. "I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul." That is from a poem I had to memorize as an eighth grader, the lasts lines of "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley. The poem is quite famous, and it has been used by people in dire circumstances as motivation to carry on; Nelson Mandela while in prison for example.

When taken simply to mean, "No other person shall be my master," the poem may indeed be a great source of inspiration. But when taken beyond that and understood to speak of ultimate things, it is fundamentally at odds with  Christian faith.

A favorite hymn of mine ends each verse with the refrain, "We belong to God. We belong to God." And the first question in the old Heidelberg Catechism asks, "What is your only comfort, in life and in death?"  The answer begins, "That I belong -- body and soul, in life and in death -- not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ..."  Or as Paul says, "You are not your own."

Paul is addressing an issue of little concern in our society, that of "fornication." But even if we do not share all of Paul's cultural values, mores, and taboos, perhaps our world would still be a bit better if we agreed with him that we are not our own, that God has brought us into the household of God as beloved children at great cost to Godself. If I understand myself to be a beloved and valued child of God, bought at great price, then surely I would want to live in ways that are pleasing to this God. And if I understand the other, be she friend or enemy, also as beloved and valued by God, then surely I would treat her differently that we often treat one another.

"You are not your own." If I am not my own, then living my life is not simply a matter of pleasing myself, of doing what I want. I am not "free" in the sense most people use the word, because I cannot act in ways that dishonor this one to whom I belong. And if I did act in such ways, it would cause me great pain.

I wonder how different my life might be if I did not so regularly forget, "You are not your own." I wonder how different our world might be if large numbers of people lived their daily lives in the full awareness of, "You are not your own."

The witness of the Bible from beginning to end, and the foundation of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths, is that we are creatures created by our Creator. When we fail to realize and acknowledge this, we get confused about who we truly are. We fail to understand and know ourselves, and so our lives become distorted and askew from their true purposes.

"You are not your own." I'm going to keep repeating that and hope that it sticks with me.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

O Lord, It's Hard To Be Humble

I will bless the LORD at all times;
    his praise shall continually be in my mouth. 

My soul makes its boast in the LORD;
    let the humble hear and be glad.

Psalm 34:1-2

Let the humble hear... Why the humble? Why not everyone? Is the psalmist discriminating against the non-humble? Or is it only the humble who can hear?

Our society does not really honor humility. We pay lip service to it at times, but we value impressive résumés. We value people who know their stuff and who are assertive. If someone is overly arrogant, it may turn us off, but we're happy with those who are strong, decisive, and make no apologies for it.

This is true in the Church as well. My own Presbyterian denomination has long demanded that its clergy be highly educated. Ordination as a pastor is reserved for those with a college degree and a seminary degree. There are good and sound reasons for this, but it does mean that, as a group, Presbyterian pastors are not necessarily the most humble lot. More often than not, we know a great deal more about the Bible, theology, and doctrine than most members in the congregations we serve. It's not much of a leap from there to thinking that in matters related to Bible and theology - a big percentage of matters in a church - we are the ones who know best. "If only the congregation would do as I say, everything would be wonderful."

Pastors sometimes have a hard time hearing God's voice or sensing the movement of the Spirit when such inklings come from people other than them. This difficulty may be magnified when such inklings don't immediately enthrall the pastor. After all, said pastor likely has all sorts of great ideas he or she has been struggling to disseminate to the congregation's members and leadership. 

Of course this isn't just a problem for pastors. Congregations often come to view their particular way of doing things as "the right way." They may even come to view their way as sacrosanct and see any sort of significant change as bordering on sacrilege. 

All this can make for a most unhappy mix: pastors who are sure they know a better way and congregations certain they have already found that better way. It can get difficult for one to listen to the other. 

And what about listening to God? It isn't that people of faith don't want to listen to God, but when we presume we already know what God will say, we are likely to dismiss anything that we don't already agree with. How can God possibly get a word in edgewise if we will only listen to a voice that confirms what we already "know?"

I'm not suggesting that everyone go around acting like they don't know anything. That would create an entirely different sort of mess. But I don't believe that much of the conflict, struggle, and bitter partisanship afflicting both Church and society are the result of humility in some unhealthy extreme. More often, they are the result of our proud insistence that we are right and others are wrong.

Perhaps a worthwhile Lenten reflection would be simply to meditate on this notion that only the humble can hear God. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Image Problems and Christ-Shaped Lives

If Paul were alive today, I'm not sure his technique would work so well. As he tries to correct his Corinthian congregation, he draws this contrast between them and himself.
We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless, and we grow weary from the work of our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day.
The sarcasm is pretty thick here, but even so, I'm not sure Paul would gain many points with a modern audience by touting his weakness, disrepute, and suffering. We are a results and success oriented people, and Paul's points don't speak to either.

That Paul thinks this argument has force speaks to some picture or the Christian life that he assumes he and the Corinthians share. He expects they will pick up on the contrast he is making and see how they have gotten off track. But I wonder how many of us would.

When we picture it in our minds, what is the shape and form of the Christian life? What are the marks that one could reasonably expect to be exhibited by anyone seeking faithfully to follow Jesus? 

Considering the variety of Christian denominations and groups, a variety of answers to such questions is to be expected. Still, I think a great deal of the Church's current image problems come from such answers, and from the lack of them.That is because those with clear-cut, well-defined pictures of what the Christian life looks like more often define it in ways that are hostile toward those who aren't part of their group. Meanwhile, those Christian who are more open toward others and interested in relationship with those different from themselves often have only the vaguest picture of the Christian life. (Brian McLaren explains this much better than I do in his book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World.)

Quite often, especially for more moderate and liberal sorts, "Christian" defines a very narrow slice of people's lives. It is private and personal, more about internal beliefs than daily living. Our day to day lives are shaped much more by cultural values and forces than they are by following Jesus. We are consumers focused on pursuing the American dream, or a number of other possible identities, with a dash of Christian faith sprinkled in.

That makes Paul's argument to the Corinthians far from compelling to us. It also means that the image of the Christian life, as far as outsiders are concerned, is shaped primarily by those who do have a strong notion of what that life is. Therefore many outside the Church see us as focused on personal salvation and a few social issues such as banning abortion and fighting against LGBT rights.

What does it mean to follow Jesus? How does that make you and your faith community a light to the world and a beacon of hope? How does it broadcast an alternate portrait of the Christian life to the prevailing one that drives so many away from church and from Jesus?

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Preaching Thoughts on What to Preach

A children's musical liberated me from the pulpit in our traditional worship service today, allowing me a bit more unstructured thoughts on the gospel for our early, informal service. One of those thoughts had to do with  what to preach on in the first place. In this congregation, we typically utilize texts from the Revised Common Lectionary, a three year cycle of readings that list an Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle, and Gospel reading for each Sunday. I like using the lectionary. It helps music folks do long range planning, and there are many resources for interpretation and worship that are tied to it. It is not a perfect resource, however.

There are quite few important passages that never appear in the lectionary. The editors of the lectionary also make choices that seem strange to me regarding where a particular reading begins and ends. Today's gospel is a good case in point. It is the account of Nicodemus visiting Jesus as night, a visit that leaves Nicodemus terribly befuddled, prompting Jesus' famous words about how "God so loved the world..." The lectionary passage ends with, "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." This ending comes mid-paragraph. Perhaps that is because the following verse contains this line. "But those who do not believe are condemned already."

It seems highly likely that the lectionary editors left the last three verses of Jesus' speech out because they didn't like the sound of them. Jesus had this nice thing going about love and not condemning but saving. Then comes this harsh stuff about condemning and people who are evil preferring darkness over light. Let's just leave that out.

In a way I understand such thinking. Jesus words do sound harsh. His words sound incongruent with our image of him, and so we, or in this case the lectionary editors, simply excise those words.(However, I'm not sure Jesus is speaking about ultimate categories of in or out, heaven or hell, and hearing him this way may cause us to miss what he's actually talking about).

In defense of those who set the lectionary, there are many times when it is a difficult editorial decision  to determine the precise place to begin or end, but this is not one of these times. This is simply taking the easy way out and avoiding verses that seem difficult to handle, and it's something we all do.

Most people who read the Bible, as well as those who preach from it, tend to embrace certain sorts of passages over others. Often these choices vary along the conservative-liberal continuum. Stereotypically, those who are more liberal may accuse conservatives of ignoring passages where God or Jesus speak to social-justice issues, or to a special concern for the poor, oppressed, and marginalized. At the same time, conservatives may accuse liberals of ignoring those passages where God or Jesus speak of religious purity, right belief, and high moral standards. These are stereotypes, but there is a hint of truth on both sides. Both liberals and conservatives tend to ignore God/Jesus when it suits us. We just ignore different things and emphasize different things.

In all such instances, we end up creating God in our own image. We expect God to cohere to our notions of what God should be like or how God should act. We take our religious knowledge and certainty and demand that God abide by these. That, by the way, is precisely what gets Nicodemus so confused. He is a learned religious man who thinks he knows how God works. He says as much when he comes to Jesus. "Rabbi we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." Nick knows about God, and so he already has Jesus slotted into his religious knowing. Unfortunately that leaves him little room maneuver, and he makes absolutely no progress in understanding Jesus during his visit.

(Actually, Nicodemus seems to disappear in the middle of today's reading. In verse 11, Jesus' shifts from saying "you" to saying "y'all," a shift not apparent in English but quite clear in the original  Greek. It's as though Jesus has given up trying to explain anything to this one who already knows, and so he shifts, speaking to some unseen audience, perhaps to us.)

If we don't want to be as befuddled as Nicodemus, we will do well to become a bit more humble about what we know. If God is going to speak to us, if Jesus is going to breathe new life into us, we need room to move and grow in the encounter with a God who almost always challenges what we think we know.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

God's Wish List for Me

I've long been intrigued by the way the story in today's gospel unfolds. When friends of a paralyzed man go to extraordinary lengths to get their friend close to Jesus' healing power, he is impressed with their faith. And so he says, "Son, your sins are forgiven."

We are told nothing about how these friends react. Presumably they were seeking a physical healing for their companion, and so they might well have initially been disappointed. Would Jesus have also healed the man if some of the scribes had not objected to his pronouncement of forgiveness? The story does  not tell us. It simply says that Jesus heals the man in order to confirm his authority to forgive sin. Perhaps I make too much of a dramatic literary device, but it appears that Jesus thought the man's primary need was forgiveness. The healing was simply a nice bonus.

I imagine that most folks who believe in God, and even those who merely suspect there might be a God, seek something from God on occasion . Perhaps it is a healing. Perhaps it is something less dramatic. But what if God thinks we most need is something else?

There is a perpetual temptation afflicting religious people that seeks to enlist God in doing what we want rather that letting God tell us what we need and what we should do. All too often, we view God as a resource we can draw on in fulfilling our plans and our desires. And it may never occur to us to consider whether or not our plans and desires cohere with God's.

When Jesus teaches his followers to pray, giving them that very Jewish prayer we call the Lord's Prayer, he does encourage us to ask for our basic needs, our sustenance for the day. But that comes after first asking that God's will be done. This is, of course, precisely the life Jesus models for us. He will pray to avoid the horror of the cross, but only if that is in keeping with God's will.

Like many people, I occasionally come to God with my wish list. I have plenty of things I would like God to give me, do for me, or explain to me. But very often, I think I get this praying thing backwards. What I most need is for God to show me what I should want, what I really need, and so what my deepest prayer should be.

O God, what is your wish list for me?

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Ministry of Healing

Today's gospel is from the beginning of Jesus' public ministry. The passage features Jesus healing people of many different diseases and conditions. For those who know their Bible at all, these are familiar accounts, though I wonder if they don't sometimes become so much background noise. Jesus did healing miracles. We've heard all that before, and besides, we're a little nervous about miracles. They seem so... primitive.

And so it is easy for us to forget how much of Jesus' ministry was about offering people practical help. He healed people who were sick, cured people of mental illnesses, and fed people who were hungry. This was central to who he was.

Diana Butler Bass posted this on her Facebook status today. "In the 19th century, Christians founded hospitals as way to embody Jesus' call to heal. Why, in the 21st century, isn't every denomination starting a health care exchange as the contemporary form of Jesus' healing mission?? As genuine non-profits, they could act as counter-cultural examples of providing for human health, and even offering alternative sorts of services involving the spiritual dimension of healing. Come on, smart mainliners (and you are really, really smart and well-educated people -- can't fool me!). You can do this."

Such a thought had never occurred to me, but it is an intriguing one. And it got me to thinking about that label we throw around so easily: "the body of Christ." 

Mainline denominations such as my own Presbyterian Church (USA) have struggled quite a bit in recent decades. Our membership is in steep decline, and the average age in our congregations is getting older and older as younger adults reject the church we have made. But even in such times, Mainline denominations have tremendous resources. Many have huge foundations and endowments, and the value of our church properties is astronomical. Some of these properties are scarcely used, their former congregations having died or being well on their way to death.

When I think of all those church assets, along with all the budgets of those congregations that are in good shape, I wonder to what degree they represent the body of Christ in terms of the Christ of Scripture.  

In the opening pages of my denomination's Book of Order is a section entitled, "The Church Is the Body of Christ," and its description of what this looks like begins, "The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life." That certainly fits with the biblical Jesus. Perhaps we could try to be a bit better at imitating him.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

God's Foolishness

"But we proclaim Christ crucified..." So says Paul in today's verses from his letter to the Corinthian congregation. Paul is not simply rattling off a faith statement. He is emphasizing what a seemingly ridiculous notion this is. He says that according to your worldview, it is either scandalous or absurd. "Stumbling block" and "foolishness" are the actual words he uses as he says that a crucified Christ is scandalous for those who come at things from a Jewish/religious point of view and absurd for those with a Greek/Gentile/logical view.

It is interesting that Paul speaks as he does. He does not "proclaim Christ risen," but rather proclaims the crucified Christ as the power and wisdom of God, something inconceivable from a human point of view, either religious or otherwise. Not that Paul doesn't insist on Jesus' resurrection. He does. But he does not view the cross as a little difficulty along the way. It is the very center of his message.

He needs to reiterate this to the Corinthians because they have gotten a little too exuberant and triumphalist in their faith. They are apparently speaking of already experiencing resurrection themselves, something Paul understands as a future event. Worse, because they do not understand the power of the cross, they do not seek to live cross shaped lives.

There is much that feels modern about these Corinthians. Modern American Christianity is filled with triumphalism and often devoid of the cross. It easily turns faith into another consumer item that will make me happier or more fulfilled. It becomes one more item in a long list of "mores" that I think I must have. But Paul insists that real faith reorients us away from typical human thinking, either the religious or the secular kind.

Because Paul sees the crucified Christ as God's fullest expression of power, Paul comes to a whole new understanding of what it means to be human. To be fully human is to be animated by love. This is not romantic love, but like that, it is a devotion to the other that will risk suffering and even death, even when that other is an enemy. It is a power few in the world understand, but we are drawn to those who do.

Martin Luther King, Jr. clearly understood what Paul was talking about. That is why he can say, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." This sort of love is not sappy or easy. It is risky and costly. But for Jesus, for Paul, and for Dr. King, it is more powerful than all those powers that the world leans upon for hope and security.

I often marvel at how conventional, risk averse, and like the world that Church is. I suppose this was inevitable after Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire, and the faith came to occupy a central place in Western culture. But I'm pretty sure Paul would say that we got a bit "off message" as a result. We accommodated our faith to those worldviews that see a crucified Christ as either scandal or foolishness. In the process, we robbed the faith of some of its power.

But the power of love, of light, of a crucified Christ, is still there, waiting for us to entrust ourselves to it. "But we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God."

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Peace vs. Speaking the Truth in Love

Growing up in the Presbyterian Church, I encountered the letters of Paul mostly as snippets of scripture read from the pulpit. Paul was a favorite of us Protestants, and sermons from his letters were preached with great regularity. Unfortunately, this gave me the impression that Paul had written general religious treatises rather than letters directed at particular congregations dealing with particular issues.

Today the daily lectionary begins to read through  Paul's first letter to his congregation in Corinth. There are a number of famous passages in this letter. Paul's words on love in chapter 13 get trotted out all the time at weddings even though  Paul isn't talking about romantic love. (The sort of love Paul does talk about is probably essential for a lasting marriage though.) And the so-called "words of institution" used during the Lord's Supper come from this letter as well. As with the love passage, it is usually divorced from the situation Paul addresses.

As Paul opens his letter, we find this. "I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind - just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you - so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ." If you're unfamiliar with the overall letter, you may see nothing particularly significant here. But read a little farther and you'll learn that Paul is angry, upset, and exasperated with the Corinthian Christians, and I've often wondered if Paul means what he says here or if he is simply offering a polite greeting before he gets to what he has to say.

I suppose there is some small comfort in realizing that congregations almost 2000 years ago had problems with petty divisions and arguments. This isn't a problem peculiar to the divisive, highly-partisan culture that we live in. As with modern day church leaders, Paul has his supporters as well as his detractors. He has folks that trash him and talk about him in his absence, and that clearly bothers him. But Paul is even more upset at how badly the Corinthians have distorted what it means to be the church, the body of Christ.

Yet still he opens his letter with what seems like genuine warmth. In some ways I picture Paul not unlike a parent who is devastated by the bad behavior of his children. And so it is out of his love and concern for them than he works so hard to get them to understand how badly they have strayed and need to change their ways.

I have a colleague in pastoral ministry who recently made the difficult decision to leave the congregation he served without having any immediate prospects for employment as a pastor or otherwise. I'm not revealing any private or personal information here. I actually have multiple colleagues who have gone through this, and I've seen it happen because people thought the person too conservative, because people thought the person too liberal, and because people objected to the changes that the pastor brought. The common denominator was a small group of fearful people who were willing to resort to almost anything to rid themselves of a pastor they didn't like.

In the process, any semblance of Christian love got tossed out the window. Events were exaggerated or sensationalized, and outright lies were told. It was usually a fairly small minority that engaged in such activity, but rarely, if ever, did the members who weren't upset or angry say or do anything to help the situation. In fact, congregations regularly empower agitators and trouble makers with their almost absolute adherence to that commandment, "Be nice." This commandments seeks to deal with problems, even ones that are tearing apart a congregation, by smiling and acting as though all is well. To criticize those misbehaving wouldn't be nice. Never mind Jesus' command to correct those who stray. Never mind the harsh language Paul has for those damage the body of Christ.

I can't help recalling the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. who wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, "First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice." I think something similar can be said about those good members of congregations who stand by while the worst sort of members wreak havoc.

However, the pastor who does confront troublemakers in his or her congregation - never mind how lovingly - may not be there for much longer. The Apostle Paul has a real advantage here. He is not physically present in Corinth, nor is he dependent on the Corinthians for his livelihood. In my denomination, there is really no one who stands in such a position, and rarely do any troublemakers get taken to task until it is far too late, if ever.

In another of the Pauline letters is found the words, "speaking the truth in love." Even though Ephesians is likely not written by Paul, I suspect he would approve of this phrase. That seems to be what he does with the Corinthians. He speaks hard truth to them because his love for them demands it, and because his authority as an apostle and his lack of financial dependence on the Corinthians allows it.

By contrast, I know more than a few pastors who feel they cannot speak this way. Sometimes they have been so beaten down that it is no longer possible for them to love their congregations. More often, financial self-preservation is the culprit, and so they join with those other, non-trouble making members who smile and try to keep the peace. But speaking the truth in love is not about conflict avoidance.

One of the nice things about this blog is I can address issues beyond the congregation I serve. I'm free to write more like Paul does because I'm speaking to - or at least about - people on whom I am not financially dependent. Unfortunately, I speak with no real authority. Indeed, pastoral authority has all but disappeared in 21st century America. People aren't much swayed by "the pastor says so," or by "the Bible says so" for that matter. No doubt such authority has been misused and devolved into abuse, but when the only authority becomes one's own judgment or conscience, there is next to no chance of building a community that mirrors the kingdom of God.

Speaking the truth in love... I wonder if it might be possible to reclaim this in its fullness. At present the tendency is to sacrifice truth for the sake peace, with peace mistaken for love. The truth gets spoken, if ever, only at the point of detachment or anger, as parting shots over the bow.

I wonder... What might congregations look like if we became communities of loving accountability who were  clear about what we mean by the Christian life (See Paul's letter to the Corinthians here.), and, out of love, held each other to such standards?

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sermon video: Temptation, Trust, and Identity

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

Sermon video: To Whom Shall We Listen?

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

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Sermon: Temptation, Trust, and Identity

Matthew 4:1-11 (Genesis 3:1-7)
Temptation, Trust, and Identity
James Sledge                                                                                       March 9, 2014

How many of you, on a regular and recurring basis, must resist the urge to commit murder or to rob a bank? I hope it’s not very many of you. I know that we can say things such as, “I’d like to strangle him.” But that’s just hyperbole, right?
If you watch the news or read the paper, you know that some people actually are tempted to such things, but they are a very small segment of society. So what are the things that actually tempt us? No doubt some of our temptations are relatively trivial: temptations to have another piece of cake or watch one more episode of “House of Cards.” But I’m interested in more serious temptations. What are the temptations that can actually deflect us from the life we should live? What are those things that might cause us, when we have grown old, to look back and wish we had done things differently?
I think that a lot of people picture Jesus tempted in the wilderness along the lines of me being tempted to murder someone. Jesus can brush off such temptations as easily as I reject robbing a bank as a reasonable solution for dealing with an unexpected expense. But that is not at all the picture Matthew paints for us.
Matthew tells us that the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tested. This testing, these temptations, are necessary in some way. They serve some purpose and so they cannot be foregone conclusions. They must be actual temptations, not unlike the ones that tempt us to be something other than we are meant to be.
Theologian Douglas John Hall says that there are not really three temptations but three variations on a single theme. Echoing the story from Genesis, these temptations are about power. “You will be like God,” says the serpent. [1] Who wouldn’t want to be like God. No waiting for God to provide. You can take care of everything yourself. No need to entrust yourself to God.
What’s so bad about Jesus miraculously providing something to eat when he is starving? What’s so bad about putting on a display of divine power so overwhelming that no one could possibly deny Jesus is Lord? These temptations go to the heart of who Jesus is and what sort of Messiah he will be. Will he trust himself completely to God’s will, or will he be the sort of Messiah people want him to be, the sort many of us still wish him to be? Will he employ divine power on behalf of his people? Will he be willing to use force when necessary? Or will he remain true to God’s call and plan, even on the cross? Temptation will reappear there people taunt him. “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” If many of us were scripting the story, that’s exactly what would happen.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Hunger and Gods of the Belly

"Their god is the belly." It's striking to read that line from Paul as we enter into the season of Lent, a time when so many give up chocolate or the like. I've never been one to give up things for Lent, but insomuch as our god is our desires, it may make sense to tame some of them. Of course most folks will renew their relationship with chocolate come Easter, if they make it that far.

My own Calvinist tradition has emphasized the problem of making gods out of things that aren't, and the belly (especially metaphorically) works quite well. Some folks literally seek fulfillment in food and eating. Many more chase after other sorts of hungers. Trouble is our hungers are not always the most reliable guides. America's struggle with obesity makes that point clear, and the same hold true for other sorts of hungers.

That's one reason I get a little nervous when people evaluate faith practices or worship based on whether or not it "feeds" them. As with actual food, we do have a need to be fed, but when we start to treat faith as a consumer item that we need more of to make our life better, there's a good chance we will misunderstand faith. If our faith practices are ultimately focused on feeding me or making me happy or some other  hunger, that hunger easily slips into God's place, becoming the thing I serve.

The first question in the catechism that Presbyterians used to learn says that the primary purpose of human beings "is to glorify God, and to enjoy (God) forever." The emphasis was on the former, and so there's a story/joke about prospective pastors being examined to see if they were of sufficient faith and orthodoxy to be ordained. The story relates an examination question that asked, "Would you be willing to be damned to hell for all eternity for the glory of God?" The question is admittedly absurd, but it does emphasize a willingness to go to almost any length to fulfill one's true purpose. (In the story the pastor candidate is willing. He is also willing for the entire assembly examining him to be so damned as well if that will help.)

No one would ask such a question today. Not only is it highly likely that the pastor candidate would know the story and so the story's tongue in cheek response, but neither are we inclined to think of ourselves as created for God and God's purposes. We are much more inclined to think - or at least act as though we think - that God was created for us and our happiness. This is a god that the Apostle Paul clearly knew well.

In the gospel reading for yesterday's Ash Wednesday services, Jesus labels as hypocrites those who give alms, say prayers, or fast so as to be noticed and praised. And he tells his followers to practice their piety in secret. I'm not sure Jesus is so much creating more religious rules as he is pointing out how easily our religious practice serves us rather than God. If I engage in faith activities because I think others will be impressed or that it will provide something beneficial to me, am I serving God or simply looking out for myself? But if I do such things in secret, it is perhaps more likely that I am doing them for God rather than some ulterior motive.

Even the best religious rules easily become trivialized, and trying to turn Jesus' words about private piety into a rigid rule of some sort will surely result in such trivial foolishness. One of the reasons I've tended not to give up things for Lent is because the practice often, though by no means always, smacks of such triviality. No doubt there is some benefit to learning any sort of discipline in our lives, but I'm not sure losing a few pounds during Lent really serves God in any significant way.

However, if I were able to find a Lenten discipline that helped me identify those god's of the belly that I serve, that would be another matter entirely. Perhaps it would be helpful to think of those things that I know I could never give up, for Lent or any other reason, and consider whether or not they might be gods of the belly that I actually serve rather than the God I am called to serve.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

What the Bible Says, or Doesn't

When I preach a sermon, I've usually spent a good deal of time preparing it. I have thought carefully about what it is I want to say and how best to say it. Some sermons are a lot better or worse than others. What I'm trying to say may be well thought out and faithful, or it may be wrongheaded, but generally, I think I communicate what I mean to communicate. However, I have learned over the years that this is not so.

It is not unusual for people to comment on sermons, thanking me for something I've said that was helpful to them. But often I can't figure out, for the life of me, what I might have said that caused them to feel this way. Sometimes we've discussed my "helpfulness" sufficiently for me to realize that they heard something I had  no intention of saying. Usually I chalk this up to the Spirit using my efforts to accomplish something more than I intended.

As I read today's verses from Philippians, I found myself wondering about how it is we hear the things we do. I was prompted by this phrase, " to righteousness under the law, blameless." Paul is describing the reasons he has to be confident "in the flesh." He is a good Jew from a good family who was raised with care under the law of Moses and has followed that Mosaic tradition faithfully. And, as he says quite clearly, he is "blameless" in terms of following the law. "Righteousness" here refers to being right in the eyes of God according to the law.

I was raised as a good Protestant, and so I knew well that being righteous, that is right before God, is a matter of God's grace and not my good efforts. Trying to make it via the law, through good works, would inevitably leave me in despair at the impossibility of such a task. Fortunately, the Apostle Paul had helped us understand about righteousness "that comes through faith in Christ," otherwise we'd know how far we were from God but have no way to close the gap.

Martin Luther got us started down this path. He was a man who was acutely aware of his failings. There are stories of him driving his confessor crazy trying to remember and confess every single sin and misstep. And Luther was mortified that he had forgotten some and so might not be forgiven them. Then he found Paul's words about being justified by grace through faith, and he was freed from his despair. And ever since, we have read the letters of Paul assuming that Paul shared Luther's despair at not being able to keep the law perfectly.

So what are we to do with today's words from Paul saying, " to righteousness under the law, blameless." Paul clearly didn't share Luther's despair about failing under the law. He was "blameless." (In all likelihood what he didn't mean by this that he never failed to keep the law. Rather, he tried to keep the law and sought forgiveness for those times when he did fail.) Paul's rejection of the law isn't because keeping it is an impossible or onerous task, and it is not because Jesus has relieved him of this terrible burden.

In other letters, Paul speaks much more about his issues with the law. There he seems to describe a problem of putting one's faith in the law rather than in God and God's grace. But in today's letter, Paul simply says that everything he once valued has been superseded by "the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord." He has experienced God's love and grace so powerfully in Jesus that all the things he once thought important have receded.

Paul couldn't be more clear about this, but for hundreds of years, we Protestants have insisted that Paul said something quite different. Luther heard something that was immensely helpful and liberating for him, even if it wasn't quite what Paul actually said. And we've been mishearing Paul with Luther ever since.

I wonder how many other places we mishear or misunderstand the Bible and the basics of our faith because we are hear and see through some inherited point of view, distortion, or bias. I've become increasingly aware of one in recent years. Both Protestants and Catholics have often acted as though the whole Christian faith was about getting folks to heaven when they die even though Jesus spoke much more often about God's reign coming to earth. Jesus was trying to transform creation, but the Church often seemed preoccupied with helping us escape it.

I'm thinking that a good Lenten project for me would be reading the lectionary passages while trying hard to let go of any assumptions that I already know what they are about. I have no illusions that I am completely capable of tuning out my own biases and assumptions, but still I suspect this might be beneficial. Who knows? I might hear a word from God I've never heard before because I have been mishearing something God never said.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Sermon: To Whom Shall We Listen?

Matthew 17:1-9
To Whom Shall We Listen?
James Sledge                                                                                       March 2, 2014

Because Lent arrives later than usual this year, we’ve had the chance to hear to a great deal more of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount than is often the case. We’ve gotten to hear him tell us to love our enemies and put anger in the same camp as murder. We’ve heard him tell us to be salt and light to the world, life givers who we show the world a new way. We’ve heard Jesus say that those who mourn, who are meek, who long for a better world, who work for peace, and who are looked down on for doing as he says are those who are closest to God.
Because Lent arrives later than usual this year, we’ve had the chance to hear much of Jesus’ core teachings between Epiphany and Lent, but it’s not as though they are big secrets. Many of us have heard them before. Some of us are also familiar with the events leading up to Jesus transfigured on the mountain. We know that Peter confessed Jesus was “the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” and that Jesus then began to teach his followers that he would go to Jerusalem and be killed. That got Peter so upset he confronted Jesus, and Jesus in turn called him Satan. And Jesus then taught his disciples that any who wanted to follow him must deny themselves, take up the cross, and be willing to lose their lives for Jesus’ sake.
And of course we know that Jesus does go to Jerusalem where he is arrested, tortured, and executed. If we’ve been long in the church and paid attention at all, we know much of Jesus’ story and we’ve heard many of his teachings. But as many parents have said to children, there’s often a difference between hearing and listening.
I’ve been reading Brian McLaren’s latest book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World. It’s a book about the need for Christians to develop a strong Christian identity that is also benevolent, welcoming, and respectful to outsiders. In it, McLaren describes having lunch with a Muslim friend who is an imam. In the course of their conversation, he asked his friend to tell him about how he became and imam and what he loved most about Islam. In turn, his friend asked him about how he became a pastor and what he loved most about Christianity.
McLaren began by telling him what he loved about Jesus. The imam confessed that all he knew about Christianity was what he’d heard from other Muslims, and he was thrilled to hear McLaren speak about Jesus. “When you say that you love Jesus, it fills my heart with joy,” he said. “We Muslims love Jesus, too. We believe Jesus is a great prophet and we love him dearly. So you and I— we have this in common. We both love Jesus.”
McLaren noted that he could, at that point, have engaged in an argument over the need to believe that Jesus was more than a prophet, but instead, he asked his friend what it meant for a Muslim to think Jesus was a great prophet. His friend said that Jesus’ teachings and example must be followed and God would judge us by that measure. As his friend spoke, McLaren was struck by an irony, and he writes,
We Christians believe that Jesus was more than a prophet, but that means, all too often for all too many of us, that his life and teaching can be largely ignored. As long as we believe certain things about his divinity, death, and resurrection, maybe with some auxiliary beliefs about (depending on our denomination) Mary, Peter, or the Bible, we’re Christians in good standing, no questions asked. Then I thought of Jesus’ own words, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ but do not do the things I say?”[1]