Wednesday, April 30, 2014

What Is This Abide?

The other day someone asked the question, "Does anyone use the word abide anymore?" Most of us agreed that the word had fallen into disuse and that many probably did not know its meaning. Yet it is a wonderful word, and I'm not sure there is an adequate substitute.

I've always loved the hymn, "Abide with Me." Being and "evening hymn," it doesn't get sung much in worship so I'm not sure how I came to appreciate it. I enjoy the tune, but I especially like all the abiding that goes on in the verses. I suppose it could be rewritten, "Remain with me," but somehow that wouldn't seem the same.

Today's gospel reading is overflowing with "abide" on the lips of Jesus. The popular NIV translation uses "remain," so I've very grateful that my NRSV sticks with "abide." Perhaps it is just me, but there seems something a bit more complex and mysterious about "abide" than "remain."

I think we in the church could use some more complex and mysterious abiding. I know I could. "Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing." I in Christ and Christ in me, abiding in one another. I'm not sure "remain" quite covers that, but then again, I'm not always sure I quite understand what this "abide" is either.

I'm not sure I understand it, but I worry that I spend far too much time not abiding. Worse, I do so in my work as a pastor. Sometimes I think that it is very hard to do much abiding when you are straining or busy or working hard. It is even harder to do much abiding when you are worried and anxious. We live in an anxious world, and the church world is pretty anxious, too.

If you're not a church person, you may not know that most denominations and very many congregations are struggling with declining membership and giving. Compounding this, the average age of members is getting older and older. Survival concerns have become a driving force for many, and it is hard for anyone to completely ignore the numbers. But I'm not sure that institutional survival and abiding are compatible.

I wonder what people would think if one Sunday worship was given over to quiet reflection on abiding. Maybe we would read all the New Testament passages containing "abide" (it wouldn't take all that long), sing "Abide with Me" between the readings, and pray for Jesus to abide in us and help us abide in him. And we could just sit there and wait and wonder, and perhaps even experience a tiny bit of abiding.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Gift of Not Knowing

Earlier today, I was thumbing through Graham Standish's book, Humble Leadership, looking for some quote that I had mis-remembered. (Not only had I remembered it incorrectly but it wasn't even in this book.) In the process, I stumbled onto something I had highlighted a number of years ago. we join God in an ever-deepening relationship, two things consistently happen. First, joining God in God's work leads us to a crisis of belief that requires faith and action. Most of us are under the assumption that the more we act in faith, the easier things should get. ...the opposite generally happens. Things don't get easier. Instead we end up coming to a point where we aren't sure what to do. There's little clarity. We are faced with decisions that might lead to something positive or negative, and we have no guarantees. We have no choice but to act on faith. We have to trust in God and trust in our discernment of God's will. (p. 153)
I hasten to add that "discernment" is not the same thing as our deciding something. It is a spiritual process of listening for and to God, one with which many of us in the Church have precious little experience. I know I don't.

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. - John 14:26-27

So says Jesus to his disciples shortly before his arrest. It is a remarkable promise. The Spirit will teach us everything we need to know, and we will have true peace. I'm reasonably certain that this teaching is of a very different sort than is so stressed in my faith tradition. We Presbyterians have long demanded a highly educated clergy, well versed in theology, Bible, and so on. But this often sees being a pastor or church leader mostly as a  matter of training and education, something that is almost entirely a human endeavor. Indeed at times, there is no room at all for us to be taught by the Spirit.

Our culture values accomplishment, expertise, skill, and production. But Christian faith and life in the Spirit are more about surrender and trust than they are about our abilities. Not that abilities and training don't matter, but I'm not sure they are of all that much good without the realization that, finally, God's work is beyond all our skills, demanding faith and discernment more than any expertise on our part.

This can be terribly deflating to me. I so want to be the "resident theologian," the one with clarity born of my understanding of theology and scripture. And yet the more I claim such a role for myself, the more likely I am to reinforce the culture of expertise and skill that makes it so difficult to trust in God rather than our own abilities. Not to mention how frustrated I can become if others don't trust my expertise.

At the same time, it is interesting to think that reaching a point where I don't know what to do, where I cannot find clarity, may be the very point I must come to if I am to live the abundant, Spirit-filled life Jesus wishes for me, and for all of us.

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Monday, April 28, 2014

Fearing the LORD

Back in my days as a pilot, I would frequently see the same poster in the airports I visited. I'm not talking about airline terminals but the part of the airport where general aviation aircraft, from little two-seaters to big corporate jets, were located. This poster was more prevalent in smaller airports where flight instructors plied their trade, teaching would-be pilots how to fly. It featured a picture of an antiquated craft from the days of bi-planes stuck in the top of a solitary tree with this quote. "Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect."

 The origins of the quote are a bit obscure, though it may well be from the 1930s, spoken by a British aviator, Capt. A. G. Lamplugh. But regardless of who said it, the saying remains popular because of its truth. Aviation can be terribly unkind to those who do not treat it with a great deal of respect. As was once said to me when I was a young and invincible pilot. The are bold pilots, and there are old pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots."

In the Exodus story, God saves the Israelites from Pharaoh's army by creating an escape route through the sea. But when Pharaoh, the leader of the ancient world's greatest super power, attempted to follow, the army was swallowed up in the waters. "Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the LORD did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the LORD and believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses"

Interesting how the story links fear and belief, though this is far from unique. The term "fear of the LORD" occurs repeatedly in the Old Testament and a couple of times in the New as well. Perhaps the best known occurrence is from Proverbs. "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge." (Writing the word LORD in this all caps fashion is how many Bible translations continue the Jewish practice of taking great care not to speak God's personal name unless absolutely necessary. This practice uses the Hebrew word for "Lord" rather than saying YHWH, the pronunciation of which is not certain.)

This notion of fearing God is quite unnerving to many modern Christians. Yet when the book of Acts speaks of the thriving New Testament Church it says, Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers." (Acts 9:31) As with Exodus linking fear and belief, Acts links fear with the comfort of the Spirit. Perhaps we should pay more attention to this fear of the LORD.

Many have pointed out that this "fear" is not about simply being terrified of God. The Hebrew word speaks of awe and respect, but that does include an element of fear. When I look upon the raging rapids of a great river surging through a canyon, I may be moved to awe and wonder, but if I get too close to the edge, fear is there, too.

I sometimes think that our being troubled by notions of fearing God is less about that being contrary to the intimacy of God's presence in Jesus and more about our very tame and domesticated ideas of God. God is often seen as a totally benign presence who give us stuff but makes no hard demands on us. In our consumer oriented society, God become a spiritual shop keeper whose job it is to give us the spiritual goodies we want, a post-modern, consumer version of what Bonhoeffer labeled "cheap grace."

But the living God is no shop keeper. Jesus tells us as much, saying that it costs us our very lives to follow him. We must deny ourselves and take up the cross. "For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it." (Matthew 16:25)

I think that the Church in our day desperately needs to discover a God who can prompt some real awe, maybe even a bit of fear. The Living God is a wild and free power who seeks to transform us, not simply to give us what we want. Writer Annie Dillard keenly observes this problem in her famous quote from Teaching a Stone to Talk.
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does any-one have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge;
     fools despise wisdom and  instruction.   - Proverbs 1:7
 Lord, help me wise up.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Winners and Losers

God's delight is not in the strength of the horse,
     nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner;
but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him,
     in those who hope in his steadfast love.
   - Psalm 147:10-11

God may not delight in the strength of the horse or the speed of the runner, but most of us do. We are impressed with winners, and we don't have a lot of patience with losers. I went to Washington Nationals baseball game the other day. It was a close, low scoring affair until a relief pitcher "blew the game," giving up 4 runs in quick succession. This relief pitcher had been loudly cheered when he entered the game, but he left it to similar level of boos. He had lost. He had failed. Booooo!!

This is nothing new, of course, but I think it has taken on additional intensity in recent decades. Our world seems more and more competitive, more and more anxious, more and more stressed out. In such a setting, people are terrified of failing, and we worship those with superhuman focus and concentration, who flourish in the face of pressure, who "come through in the clutch."

In our hyper-competitive world, appearing weak is a cardinal sin. It's no wonder church folks prefer Palm Sunday and Easter to Good Friday. A cross is a place for losers, and we've never gotten completely comfortable with it. Some even go so far as to see it in "no pain - no gain" terms, as an extreme act of athletic accomplishment on the way to a remarkable victory. But that's not the picture in the gospels (at least not the synoptic ones). And it's not the picture Paul has in mind when he says Christ crucified is "a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles..." (Jew and Gentile covers all humans for Paul, and Jesus on the cross doesn't make sense from either point of view.)

Jesus says that his followers must take up their own crosses. In other words, they must embrace what the world sees as failure, becoming entirely dependent on God's care and grace. Yet even in the church, we tend to love winners and hate losers. "Successful" pastors and congregations often embody all the best leadership and business practices of our secular world, the things that will make us winners. At times we are so afraid of being losers that we become incredibly risk-averse, attempting nothing that could end in failure. We know better than to go to Jerusalem, raise a ruckus at the Temple, and challenge the authorities. What was Jesus thinking?

In my denomination, successful pastors - winners - get paid a lot more and have bigger pensions than those who are less successful - losers. In this we are little different from any other denomination. Not that I take much comfort from that. Part of our calling is to be like Jesus, to be different from the world that loves winners and hates losers. After all, Jesus spend a great deal more time with the losers than the winners. The losers tended to love him, the winner much less so.

When I think of the trouble I get myself into as a pastor, a husband, a father, a person, the lion's share of it comes from wanting so badly to be a winner and fearing so much being a loser. I don't want to admit failings of failures. I don't want to appear weak. I want to impress. I want to win. I want to be the reason things turned out well. And I think that the fear of losing is even more powerful and motivating than my desire to win.

I wonder how different my life might be, my relationships might be, if I wasn't so terrified of losing, of looking weak, of failing.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Did Anything Really Happen?

O sing to the LORD a new song,
    for he has done marvelous things. 

His right hand and his holy arm
     have gained him victory.
The LORD has made known his victory;
     he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness
     to the house of Israel. 

All the ends of the earth have seen
     the victory of our God.        
Psalm 98:1-3

For pastors and other church professionals, the week following the celebration of the Resurrection may feature more of a collective sigh and collapse than the days right after Christmas. Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday (and for some a vigil on Saturday) is followed by special music and fanfare for Easter Sunday itself, complete with sunrise services and other extras. Liturgically speaking, we go wild for Easter - and not without good reason - and then...?

On Easter I preached about how resurrection was so much more than butterflies and natural processes, so much more than the promise of life after death. I said it was about God intervening in human history to do something wonderfully and frighteningly new. But in the post-Easter letdown, things can seem terribly "back to normal."

Traditional Christian theology has spoken of the cross and resurrection as marking the close of an old age even though the age to come has not yet fully arrived. And so we live in "the time between the times," an interlude in history between how things have always been and how they will be in God's new day, what Jesus called the Kingdom. During this between time, we experience God's new day only provisionally, in the community of faith as it becomes the body of Christ, and within us through the presence of the Holy Spirit. But I must confess that the world/age that is passing away often seems much more real to me than that day that is coming, that Kingdom and newness that I proclaimed on Easter. And the post-Easter letdown only aggravates such feelings.

I sometimes worry about the future of the Church and my own Presbyterian denomination because it seems so institutional, so far from a Spirit filled beacon of God's new day. Over the years many have written about congregations and denominations that depend solely on their own resources, rarely doing anything that would be possible only with God's help. Such writings resonate with me, but if I am honest, I have to say that I'm as caught up in such patterns as anyone. I'll work hard and urge others to do the same, but I doubt anything significant will happen beyond our efforts.

Did anything really change because of the resurrection? It apparently did for those first disciples. The contrast between those who so regularly failed to understand and who scattered and denied when Jesus was arrested compared with the disciples who spread the gospel all over the Mediterranean at great personal risk and even death is remarkable. And they didn't have any of the books and consultants and resources and conferences that are available to me.

Sometimes I think the greatest challenge facing pastors like myself is not the need to figure out all the management, leadership, or programmatic tricks to help churches do well. Rather it is living as though something really happened nearly 2000 years ago that changed everything.

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Sermon video: All Heaven Breaks Loose

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

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Sermon: All Heaven Breaks Loose

Matthew 28:1-10
All Heaven Breaks Loose
James Sledge                                       April 20, 2014 – Resurrection of the Lord

If you’ll pardon the expression, there’s a whole lot of shaking going on in Matthew’s account of Holy Week and the Resurrection. It started on Palm Sunday although it’s easy to miss that in the English translation. There it says that when Jesus had entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, but the word more literally means “shaken,” a word most often associated with earthquakes and the root of our word “seismic.”
The same shaking occurs when Jesus dies on the cross, an earthquake that leads the centurion and those with him to say, “Surely this man was God’s son.” And now on Easter morning, the shaking continues. An angel comes down from heaven to roll back the stone, setting off a great earthquake. This angel causes the guards to shake as well and become like dead men. Like I said, there’s a whole lot of shaking going on.
All this shaking is Matthew’s way of saying that something of cosmic proportions is happening. Earthquakes and angels are about the power of God bursting forth, about all heaven breaking loose. 
A lot of you may not know about it, but our denomination recently put out a new hymnal. I love it. It has a lot more music than our current one, including lots of different kinds of music, music from the Iona and TaizĂ© communities and from different world cultures. It’s a great hymnal, but when I was looking through the hymns and songs it has for Easter, I was a bit surprised, maybe even disappointed, to find one called “In the Bulb There Is a Flower.”
Some of you may know it. It’s a nice, pleasant tune that is easy to sing, but I’m less sure about its theology. “In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree; in cocoons, a hidden promise: butterflies will soon be free! In the cold and snow of winter there’s a spring that waits to be, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.”
It is true that bulbs turn to flowers, cocoons hold fledgling butterflies, and winter gives way to spring, but none of that has much to do with resurrection, to God’s power bursting forth and all heaven breaking loose. When two women named Mary go to a graveyard early one Sunday morning, they do not find spring, or butterflies, or daffodils, and if they had, it would not have been big news.
When Mary Magdalene and another Mary go to the cemetery, they expect nothing more than any of us do when we go to a cemetery to pay our respects. As Barbara Brown Taylor says in one of her Easter sermons, “When a human being goes into the ground, that is that. You do not wait around for the person to reappear so you can pick up where you left off—not this side of the grave, anyway. You say good-bye. You pay your respects and go on with your life the best you can, knowing that the only place springtime happens in a cemetery is on the graves, not in them.”[1]
But as Matthew has already alerted us via earthquakes and angel, something cosmic and unnatural is happening. God is doing something completely new and unprecedented. This has nothing to do with natural processes, nor with eternal souls that continue on after death. It is about heaven erupting on earth. When Jesus bursts from the tomb, it’s not about creating an escape route from earth for believers. It is the opening event in heaven’s invasion of earth, the first act in the coming of God’s new day, that event we pray for each week saying, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
When we gather to celebrate the resurrection today and on every Sunday, on every day of resurrection, we proclaim so much more than life after death. We proclaim heaven breaking loose, God’s resurrection power shaking things up. It is something so different and new and powerful that it is more than a little frightening for those who encounter it, which is why both the angel and Jesus must say, “Do not be afraid.”  This power can be especially frightening to religious folks because it cannot be controlled, and we do like things controlled.
But God’s power that shakes things up is also a power that makes all things, including us, new. It is God’s wild and free power to make us truly alive. It is, writes Walter Brueggemann, “…new surging possibility, new gestures to the lame, new ways of power in an armed, fearful world, new risk, new life, leaping, dancing, singing, praising the power beyond all our controlled powers.” [2]
It is the cosmic power of heaven, of God, breaking into our lives and into our world, and that is even more wonderful than it is frightening.

Christ is risen! Alleluia! Thanks be to God.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Unnatural Truth,” in Home By Another Way (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1999), 110.
[2] Walter Brueggemann, “The Surge of Dangerous, Restless Power” in The Threat of Life (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1996), 157.

Friday, April 18, 2014

God's Absence

I just returned from our local, ecumenical Good Friday service. We followed the same format as last year (my first at the service) where pastors from various congregations reflected on the "seven last words of Christ." We each were assigned a verse relating something Jesus said from the cross. My verse was the one where Jesus quotes today's  morning psalm, Psalm 22. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

I can only imagine that what Jesus experienced was a terrifically amped-up version of something many of us have felt, the absence of God. I've certainly experienced it, as have many I've talked to: those moments when life seems to be falling apart, when everything has gone wrong, when the world seems hopeless and hell-bent on self destruction, and God is nowhere to be found. When it happens to me with enough force, it can make me doubt my previous experience of God and make me wonder about the faith I profess. But how about Jesus?

Jesus' sense of God's presence, his intimacy with God, surely made the experience of God's absence even more terrifying. Given who he was, could he doubt God's very existence? And if he could not, what conclusion did that leave. Had God abandoned  him? Was he now alone and on his own? As I said, I can only imagine what might have gone through Jesus' mind, and I don't care to experience such depth of suffering myself.

Who wants to suffer or wishes suffering on themselves? Certainly much suffering is pointless and destructive, but by no means all of it. I've been touched of late by David Brooks' NY Times column "What Suffering Does," as well as Barbara Brown Taylor's recent work on darkness. Add to that  books such as Richard Rohr's Falling Upward and the writings of other spiritual giants who do not wish suffering on anyone but who also know its potential to be grace filled. As Julian of Norwich once wrote, Firsts there is the fall, and then we recover from the fall. Both are the mercy of God!"

As David Brooks says, we live in a culture obsessed with happiness, yet we know, deep in our bones, about the power of suffering to shape and mold us, to help us "fall upward." I don't know if any of this applies to Jesus on the cross, but I find such a notion much more palatable than some of the brutal, substitutionary atonement posts by some of my Facebook friends. If Jesus had to suffer and die - and it seems he did - I hope it was not because God had to kill someone. Even if Jesus did jump up and take the bullet for us, we're still left with a terrible sort of God who must have blood.

And so I find myself looking upon Jesus, reflecting on the abandonment he felt, the suffering he endured, and wondering about if or how it changed him, wondering about its necessity and if that is so far removed from the fact that all human life entails suffering.


We'll have our own Good Friday Tenebrae service at this church tonight. We'll hear once more the story of betrayal, arrest, trial, and execution. We'll sing mournful songs and sit in silence, reflecting on the deepening darkness. ...And we'll hope, as does the psalm Jesus quotes from the cross, that all this leads somewhere good.

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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Part of Salvation History

This evening our congregation will gather for a Passover meal, a Seder, something that has become rather popular in churches, though not everyone is happy about it. A blog post entitled "No 'Christian Seders,' Please!" has popped up a good bit on Facebook lately. At the same time, there is a book on my desk subtitled A Passover Haggadah for Christians that is co-authored by a rabbi and a pastor. There is no clear-cut guidance on such things it would seem.

Christian Seders or not, all the gospel accounts want to connect the events of Holy Week to the Passover. But I do not think they do so in any attempt to take over or supersede Jewish faith or practice (something the aforementioned blog post worries about happening with Christian Seders). Rather they want to connect the events of Jesus' death and resurrection to God's saving acts, and number one on that list is God rescuing slaves from Egypt in the Exodus.

To my mind, a grave mistake made by many Christian traditions is spiritualizing "salvation," transforming it from concrete, historical acts of rescue into a ticket to heaven when you die. The salvation of Exodus rescues the Hebrews in order to form them into the people of Israel, a peculiar community ordered very differently from the kingdoms of the world. And Jesus' own teachings about the kingdom of God are very much in keeping with this, about God's continuing work within history to create a community that reflects the ways of God rather than those of "the world."

One of the reasons I am okay with "Christian Seders" (done with care and sensitivity) is that we need to locate Christian notions of salvation within the larger scope of salvation history. Doing that is not about taking over or superseding Jewish practice. It is about letting such practice reeducate us on just what salvation is about. (I got this notion of being "reeducated by Judaism" from Walter Brueggemann in his book Sabbath as Resistance, where he says, "As in so many things concerning Christian faith and practice, we have to be reeducated by Judaism that has been able to sustain its commitment to Sabbath as a positive practice of faith." And I think salvation is one of those "so many things.")


Presbyterians don't use the language of "personal salvation" as much as some other Christian groups, but the idea has profound impact on us nonetheless. Many of us think of salvation as a personal, individual thing, even if we never speak of "being saved." But neither the Exodus nor the kingdom of God can happen to individuals. Such events in salvation history are profoundly corporate. God rescues people, not individual souls, and it would do Christians a world of good if our understanding of salvation was, in large part, defined by Passover and the events of the Exodus.

I take it that the gospel writers share such notions. That may explain why "Passover" is spoken four times - with "Unleavened Bread" thrown in for good measure - in the opening of today's reading from Mark. Jesus' salvation must be a lot like that one.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Serving the Owner

Today's lectionary readings contain Jesus' last parable in the gospel of Mark. The parable itself is told to opponents of Jesus, in this case chief priests, scribes, and elders, on the day after Jesus has "cleansed the Temple." Following an exchange with them about the nature of his authority, Jesus tells of a man who planted a fine vineyard and added all that was needed for producing wine. He then leased it to tenants. This lease involved the owner receiving a percentage of the wine the tenants produced. This would have been typical practice in the ancient Middle East, but in the parable, the tenants refuse to pay up. They beat or killed servants sent to collect the rent. They even killed the owner's son.

The meaning of the parable is painfully obvious to Jesus' opponents, maybe more so than it would have been to us. After all, the Temple functioned very much like the vineyard in the parable . Priests kept a share of the offerings of money and animals for their own use. Nothing wrong with that. Most church congregations function is a similar manner. Pastors and other employees get a portion of people's offerings. And the offerings also provide members with things they like, which may or may not have anything to do with serving God.

Jesus clearly thinks this sharing of the offerings has gotten out of whack at the Temple. No doubt there were faithful people who came to it and had profound religious experiences, who brought sacrifices and offerings from deep, religious motives. But on balance, Jesus seems to think that things have become hopelessly corrupted, about something other that God and God's will.

I wonder what sort of parable Jesus would tell to the congregations you and I frequent. The parable in today's gospel seems to expect that we will get something out of our work in such congregations, but it also expects that God will get something as well. To push the metaphor a bit, the Church belongs to God, and while we receive something for our service, we worship and work in it for the sake of the owner. Or at least we are supposed to.

Where is the boundary line that separates good tenants from wicked ones? At what point does church become so much about us and what we want that we have stopped serving the owner? It's probably less a bright, clear line than it is an ill-defined transition zone, but at some point a congregation moves out of that zone into the "Well done, good and faithful servant" side or to the wicked tenant side.

I have a sneaky suspicion that figuring this out is largely about who a congregation exists for. What part of what we do is purely for us, and what part is for others, for those Jesus sought out and ministered to? And I am all too aware of how tempting it is to do church for me and others like me. This takes many forms. It is worship designed to please me and my friends and children, programs meant for me and my friends and children, activities for me and my friends and children, etc. And church budgets often provide hard numbers on how much a congregation serves me and mine and how much it serves the owner.


One of the lessons young children must learn in order to grow up and become reasonably well adjusted adults is discovering that they are not the center of the universe. Children who do not learn such lessons are often quite miserable themselves, and they almost always make everyone around them miserable.

When it comes to faith and life with God, I often feel like a child who is still learning what it means to be a mature member of God's household. I'm stubborn and hard-headed, and I've still not quite gotten that I'm not the center and it's not all about me. But deep down I know that in reality, first and foremost, it's about serving the owner, and serving the other.

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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sermon: A Parade from the Underside

Matthew 21:1-11
A Parade from the Underside
James Sledge                                                                                       April 13, 2014

Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! There are no waving palms in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, but that’s a minor detail. Waving our palms seems perfectly fitting when we join the parade as the king, the Son of David, enters into the holy city.
It is a parade, but there are all sorts of parades. We have inauguration parades in DC when a new president takes office, sort of like a new king. But for a modern day example of an ancient king’s coronation parade, I picture a first century version of one of those elaborate military parades in North Korea, where Kim Jong-un watches all the tanks and missiles and high-stepping soldier march by. In Jesus’ day it would have been horses and chariots and Roman legions in finest attire, but it’s the same idea.
But Jesus’ parade looks nothing like that. There is no official entourage. There are no soldiers, no weapons. There are no colorful banners or elaborate decorations. Matthew tells us without question that God is involved, that Scripture is being fulfilled. But beyond that, the whole thing feels impromptu. The crowd, which functions in Matthew’s gospel as a single character, a kind of 13th disciple, covers the road with branches and their own clothes as they loudly proclaim the arrival of this one long promised.
This is parade from the underside, the sort of parade likely to cause trouble because it frightens the powers-that-be. A new king challenges the present rulers and the status quo. In a sense, this parade may feel a bit like an early civil rights march in the deep south. Many of us have vivid memories of how those marchers were greeted with fire hoses and beatings. It was even worse for those who marched against apartheid in South Africa. And so we should know that things will not end well for Jesus.
Jesus’ parade is a counter cultural one because he is a threat to all earthy powers. He is a threat to the powers that many of us serve. This king is a threat to military powers and to those who trust in such power. He is a threat to economic powers that concentrate wealth in the hands of a few, nations or people. He is a threat to the consumerism that rules many of our lives, telling us, “You cannot serve two masters… You cannot serve God and wealth,” but still we try. Jesus is a threat to our overly competitive, 24/7 culture, commanding us, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear,” yet we still do.
Jesus is a threat, and so the Jerusalem powers-that-be must deal with him, as powers-that-be must still do. In Jesus’ day, they used a cross. Today, we’ve grown more sophisticated, enlisting even the Church to minimize the threat by saying that Jesus’ kingdom is only a spiritual one, only about your eternal soul, with no designs on lifting up the poor, releasing the captive, or freeing us from our slavery to possessions, success, money, and more.
Jesus is a threat to all earthly power, but for the moment, the crowd in Jerusalem embraces him anyway. They recognize that this one, so different from the conquering-hero Messiah people were expecting, is indeed the promised Son of David.
The crowd, like the other disciples, will abandon Jesus when he is arrested. Like Peter, they will deny him. Neither disciples nor crowd can yet envision that this humble Messiah’s power is greater than the powers-that-be, greater than the cross and  even death itself. They have not yet encountered the power of resurrection.
Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! We wave our palms and join the parade, this countercultural parade from the underside that threatens all powers-that-be. We know this parade frightens those powers, and that it leads to a cross. But we also know of the power of resurrection, power far greater than anything the world knows.
Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  As his followers, let us continue to march, to proclaim, to agitate, and to work for God’s new day, where love will triumph over all the powers-that-be, and God’s will shall rule, in our hearts and in all the world.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

What We Lack

I read a newspaper article this week about how competitive America's elite universities and colleges have become. These top schools accepted only 5% of their applicants this year, a new low. In this hyper-competitive process, there are winners and losers, lots and lots of losers. And this seems to be a general trend in our society, a world of endless competition and anxiety with fewer and fewer winners.

I increasingly see our 24/7, never slow down, competitive and anxiety-filled world as antithetical to God's notions of community. Whether it's the new community God seeks to create at Mt. Sinai from those brought out of slavery in Egypt, or the community of the Kingdom that Jesus proclaims, the basic mode of modern life is at odds with and counter to God's dream of true community.

I am hopeful that increasing numbers of Christians are beginning to recognize this. For centuries, we forgot. We turned Jesus' message of the Kingdom, of a world transformed by God's will, into one of private salvation after death. This is the distorted faith Marx correctly critiques as the "opiate of the masses." (The full quote reads, "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people".) Opium here is more about pain relief than illicit drug, and it speaks of faith as something that keeps people in awful straights from trying too hard to escape. After all, there is heaven to come.

But Jesus doesn't teach about heaven when you die. He proclaims a new day that is breaking into history, one that lifts up the poor and oppressed, that elevates the "losers" of this world. And all of this is uncomfortably on display in today's gospel.

I've long felt this passage was one of the most unsettling in the Bible. In Mark's version of this story, there is nothing at all unvirtuous or hypocritical about the rich man who approaches Jesus. He is a man of deep faith who has tried diligently to keep the God's commandments. His comment about keeping all the commandments from youth is not a boast or a claim of perfection. It simply means he has tried his best and has asked forgiveness when he has failed. (The Apostle Paul can speak of himslef in precisely the same manner. "... as to righteousness under the law, blameless." - Philippians 3:6)

Jesus' reaction to this rich man is entirely positive. "Jesus, looking at him, loved him..." Jesus sees a person of faith on a genuine spiritual quest, and so he seeks to guide him. "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." It is, of course, more than the man can do. He has too much to give it all away.

I'm struck by Jesus' words, "You lack one thing." We live in a world that is all about acquiring what we lack. The universal answer to all problems is "More." More of something will cure what ails us, make us happy, get us ahead, provide us security, make us popular or successful, etc. But Jesus tells this man, a man not so different from many of us, that what he lacks is a willingness to let go. The answer he cannot seem to find is one of less rather than more.

It's difficult to think too badly of this fellow. The idea that we need less rather than more is as foreign to us as it was to that first-century, well-to-do suburbanite. We cannot believe that creating the world God envisions is about a great sharing and leveling, with no winners and losers. Just like Jesus' first disciples, we are stunned when he says, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" (If you think I'm reading too much into today gospel, take a look at Acts 2:43-45 and its description of the first Christian community.)

It is unsettling to realize that the thing that motivates so much of what we do with our lives is the very thing Jesus says separates us from God's dream for a transformed world. And that brings me back round to where I began, an anxiety-filled world of winners and very many more losers, as well as an emerging awareness by some Christians that this is counter to God's ways.

This rediscovery of a gospel of the Kingdom, of God's new day, as opposed to a gospel of evacuation, of heaven when we die (to borrow from Brian McLaren) is profoundly hopeful to me even if it seems an impossible battle. What possible chance does a message of God's new community, a message of less and of sharing, have against our culture's faith in possessions and acquisition and competition? Very little it would seem.

But it's not as if this conflict is anything new. Jesus carried this impossible battle straight to the religious and political powers-that-be of his day, and they showed him what they thought of such a message. His talk of  God's new community, of a kingdom where God's will is done on earth, was no match for imperial power and for a cross. Or so it seemed.

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