Thursday, May 29, 2014

Doubting Disciples

If you're the churchy sort, you probably know that today's gospel reading contains the final verses from Matthew. You may also know that it's often called "The Great Commission" because here Jesus commissions the disciples, and through them the Church, for their work.

As you might imagine, the passage comes in for a fair amount of attention. I've read it countless times, and a couple of things almost always come to mind when I encounter it. The first is the disciples' doubt. They have gone to the mountain in Galilee as they were instructed in order to meet the risen Jesus, and now they do. And Matthew tells us, "When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted."

I had to translate this passage from the Greek as part of a seminary assignment, and I still remember discovering that there is no "some" in the Greek. Perhaps it can be implied, but my translation said, "When they saw  him, they worshiped; but they doubted." And the professor didn't correct me. But whether some or all doubted, their doubt still pretty amazing. It's one thing for me to doubt. I never watched Jesus be executed and then saw him walking around. But these guys did. And they doubt? Interesting.

The other thing I most always think about when reading this passage is what Jesus actually does and doesn't tell them to do. He tells them to make disciples, and he goes on to explain that this gets done by baptizing folks and by "teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you." But nowhere in this does he make any mention of belief.

I think the reason I so often notice doubt and disciple making in this passage is because they seem somewhat at odds with my experience of church. True, I encountered a fair amount of Jesus' teachings growing up in the church, and there was some expectation that one should follow these teachings. Still, I got the distinct impression that the real core of Christian faith was about "believing in Jesus." Faith, believing in Jesus (sometimes understood as not doubting) was what got you the divine seal of approval. And so the church's work was to create believers.

Now I won't suggest that being a disciple doesn't require a certain amount of belief, some level of trust or faith that Jesus' ways are the right ones. But the ending of Matthew's gospel depicts a Jesus less concerned about doubt and more concerned about what we do. Jesus seems to prefer doubting doers over adamant believers.

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May 18 sermon video: The Kingdom Comes

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

May 11 sermon video: A Glimpse of What's Possible

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

God of the Land

I recall reading a statement some years ago about how many a plan to read the Bible from beginning to end had faltered amidst the pages of Leviticus. Today's verses could certainly cause such a problem, not because they contain a numbing list of rules and cultic regulations, but because they feature a disturbing picture of God. God speaks of turning against a disobedient Israel and utterly destroying them. There are gruesome images of adults eating their children, which may contain hints of actual events when Israel starved while under siege by Assyrians or Babylonians.

I don't know how literally to take God's threats here. Perhaps they are a bit like those of an exasperated parent driving the car and shouting, "Don't make me stop this car and come back there!" After all, the passage ends on something of a hopeful note. If they humble their hearts and make amends, God will remember the covenants of old.

But what truly struck me in the passage was neither God's threats nor the hope that these threats might change Israel's behavior. Rather it was God's statement that "the land shall rest, and enjoy its sabbath years." It helps if you know that God not only commanded Israel to keep a weekly sabbath where Israelites as well as their animals received a day of rest (a remarkable concept in the ancient world), but God also commanded a 365 day-long sabbath for the land every seventh year. God, it seems, is concerned not just with people, but with animals and with the land itself.

It's striking how much this is emphasized in today's reading. "Then the land shall enjoy its sabbath years as long as it lies desolate, while you are in the land of your enemies; then the land shall rest, and enjoy its sabbath years. As long as it lies desolate, it shall have the rest it did not have on your sabbaths when you were living on it." Apparently one of Israel's failings has been not caring for the land God had entrusted to it.

Very often religious folks argue about insiders and outsiders, about whom God favors. A lot such religious arguments are only slightly more sophisticated versions of little children arguing "Mom likes me best." Interesting how, in today's verses, God doesn't pick one human child over another. God's most tender words are directed at "the land."

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Sunday, May 18, 2014

Sermon: The Kingdom Comes

1 Peter 2:1-10
The Kingdom Comes
James Sledge                                                                                       May 18, 2014

What is wrong with the world? Have you ever asked yourself that question? How could you not. Think of the terrible things that have happened, just in the last month or so. Hundreds of Korean students were killed when a ferry capsized while the crew did little to save them, and it seems there was negligence and malfeasance on the ferry company’s part.
Hundreds of school girls have been kidnapped in Nigeria by terrorists opposed to Western styled education. They’ve threatened to sell the girls as wives or slaves, and the Nigerian government did almost nothing, refusing help from the US and others, until a social media campaign created international outrage.
In Syria, shortly before an exhibit of children’s artwork was to go on display, bombs were dropped on the school. Teachers and children were killed, adding to a death toll now surpassing 150,000 people. And there is no end in sight.
What is wrong with the world?
In our own country, the economy seems to be in permanent doldrums, and the vulnerable suffer the most. Hunger and homelessness are increasing, yet our political process seems paralyzed. And the very people who yell, “This is a Christian nation,” argue for cuts in food stamps and Head Start, despite God’s repeated command to care for the poor and vulnerable.
What is wrong with the world?
Not that this question is new. It is likely as old as humanity itself. The second of the two creation stories in Genesis, the Garden of Eden story, is not really an account of events or an attempt to record history. Rather it is theological reflection, in story form, on a fundamental theological and anthropological question: What is wrong with the world?
Israel’s answer to this question is one that Jesus embraced, that shaped his life and ministry, and shaped how his followers understood his death and resurrection. Unfortunately, this answer has often been forgotten Church. Jesus became about personal salvation and getting a ticket to heaven, disconnected from his central message that was addressed to the question, What is wrong with the world?
Israel’s answer did not really try to explain how it was the world got so out of kilter, but it did address why. The problem is that the world simply refuses to accept the sovereignty of its creator, the lordship or rule of God. Israel, and the first Christians, did not understand heaven to be a place where people could go when they died. Rather it was the place where God did reign supreme, where God’s sovereignty was unchallenged. And Israel awaited and longed for the day they were sure would come, the day when God would reign supreme on earth as well. This was sometimes known as the kingdom of God, or kingdom of heaven.
When Jesus begins his ministry, he declares that God’s kingdom had come near. And this coming day is central to the prayer he teaches his followers. “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.” In other words, reign supreme on earth as you currently do in heaven. Fix what is wrong with the world.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

On Being Different

Salt and light. Jesus speaks of his followers being both. Both may have had a bit more oomph as metaphors in Jesus' day. Light is still light, but we don't know much of real darkness. We live in such a brightly lit world. We also know about salt as a seasoning, but not so much as a preservative. Oh, we've encountered cured ham and such, but salt is not nearly so essential to life thanks to refrigeration, canning, freezing, and such.

What strikes me about these metaphors is their distinctiveness from what they season, preserve, or illumine. Salt is able to do its work because it is something very different from food. So too light is distinct from the world in which it shines. Both do their work because they are different from the earth and the world Jesus says they are to salt and illumine.

I grew up in a time when being a Christian was simply part and parcel being a citizen. There was little about it that spoke of a distinctiveness, that transformed and gave life to what it touched. Instead Christian faith became about maintaining the status quo. Not that churches did not do a great deal of good, good that sometimes had powerful, life giving impact and so was salty. But being Christian was often simply about fitting in, about being like everyone else.

But Jesus says we are to be different in ways that give life to the world. We are called to be distinct, to be an alternative to the world around us. Not in some holier than thou way, and not in a way that says, "You'd better become like us or you're gonna get it." We are called to be different and distinct in the manner of Jesus, who enjoyed, perhaps even preferred, the company of the poor and the outcast.  We are called to be like Jesus, who gave himself for the sake of others, with little thought as to whether or not they deserved it.

Come to think of it, following just these two examples would probably be enough for a Christian community to look very different from the world around it, and so to be salt and light.

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Monday, May 12, 2014

Poor, Poor Pitiful Me

There's an old Warren Zevon song entitled, "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me." Like a lot of Zevon songs, its lyrics are a bit odd. The song begins by telling of a failed suicide attempt, and this chorus follows.
Poor, poor pitiful me
Poor, poor pitiful me
These young girls won't let me be
Lord have mercy on me
Woe is me
I suspect that most all of us feel poor and pitiful from time to time, but it's hardly a feeling many of us relish. It is surely a sign that something is terribly amiss. If we are feeling  poor and pitiful in the spiritual area, then obviously something is wrong there. We've become disconnected from God; our prayer life is on the fritz; we need to revive some neglected spiritual disciplines.

I once heard someone suggest that the beginning of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount might well be translated, "Blessed are the pitiful in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." My Greek dictionaries don't suggest "pitiful" as a possible translation, but they do have "worthless"and "miserable." That sounds just as bad, maybe worse.

When we thank God for our blessings, feeling poor and pitiful, or miserable and worthless, isn't usually on the list. Nor are a number of other things that show up on the Jesus beatitudes. When such things happen to me, I'm more likely to sing along with the late Zevon, "Woe is me."

There is more than one way to understand what Jesus says. He could be saying that God especially favors those the world finds worthless. That would fit with Jesus so often being found among outcasts and sinners. It could also be about God blessing those who are vulnerable and dependent, who cannot bless themselves. And I wonder if this one isn't a real problem for many American Christians, especially those who, like me, come from relatively well-off, Mainline church backgrounds.

Speaking personally, I'm one of those people who hates to ask for help. I like to think I'm capable of doing it myself. If I don't know how, surely I can figure it out. Such an attitude has its advantages at times, but it can be counterproductive when it comes to a relationship with God. It turns out that wanting to achieve a deep spirituality can get in the way of that desire. Deep spirituality is as much about losing ourselves as it is achieving something... self-denial, that sort of thing.

This can be even more problematic for congregations. Because they are institutions and filled with people with lots of skills and abilities, it can be even harder for them to lose their selves and give themselves over to Christ, to the Spirit.

But as difficult as it can be for me to embrace this notion that feeling poor and pitiful somehow puts me near God's blessing, my own experiences have  nonetheless proved it true. The very moments when I am at wits end, when I have no idea what I'm doing and feel completely lost, are the very moments when I have encountered God most fully.  ...So why do I keep trying to do it myself?

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Sunday, May 11, 2014

Sermon: A Glimpse of What's Possible

Acts 2:42-47
A Glimpse of What’s Possible
James Sledge                                                                                       May 11, 2014

I think this is one of those scripture passages that makes a lot of American Christians a little bit nervous. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. That sounds a bit like, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” a communist mantra popularized by Karl Marx. But that’s somewhat counter to a number of basic tenants of American society.
The utopian, commune like feel of the Jerusalem church in Acts is also way outside most of our experience of faith. It is as removed from our experience as Mother Teresa’s life of faith feels distant from our own. And the preacher tempted to urge a congregation, “Be more like the Acts church,” is likely to find such efforts as ineffective as urging them to be more like Mother Teresa. Not that pastors don’t still try on occasion.
One of the problems, or perhaps better, the limits of preaching is that unless a congregation invests divine authority in a pastor – something that was probably always rare but almost never happens in our cynical age – preaching itself has very little power to change how people act or live. People may like or dislike a sermon. They may agree or disagree with it. They may even be convinced to change their mind about something from time to time, but in that sermons are little different from editorials in the newspaper, if more focused on religious rather than political discourse.
And so the typical sermon on today’s passage seeks to convince people how becoming a bit more like the folks in an admittedly idealized Jerusalem church might be a good and doable thing. Or it seeks to explain some updated practice that might be better suited to our modern world. Or it talks about how our lives as consumers are contrary to the life of those who are in Christ. Or it may even explain why this utopian vision of the early church has nothing to do with us. I’ve certainly charted a couple of these paths in sermons I’ve preached.
But the problem with such efforts is that, very often, they urge certain sorts of activity or behavior without much attention to what caused such behavior in the Jerusalem church. The people in Jerusalem didn’t share everything with one another, or devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to prayer, because a preacher, even Peter himself, urged them to do so. They did so because of a dramatic encounter with the power and presence of God that changed and transformed them.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Mistaking Temptations for Blessings

"Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted..." So begins today's gospel. It seems remarkable enough to me that Jesus wrestles with his identity and sense of call. But this scripture says that the event is necessary. The Spirit leads Jesus into it. In Mark's gospel the image is even more striking. There "the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness." But regardless of whether Jesus is led or driven, it is a requirement that Jesus at least consider becoming a different sort of Messiah than the one God has in mind.

One need not believe in an actual devil to be moved by this story. In fact, I think the story has more power when the devil ceases to be a pitchfork carrying cartoon and instead becomes a symbol for genuine temptation rising up within Jesus, temptation to take a messianic path that will be easier, more self aggrandizing, or more in keeping with the sort of Messiah people wanted. Surely there was some way to bring God's kingdom while still being admired by all, getting invited to the best parties, and enjoying a nice, upper-middle-class lifestyle.

When I find myself wrestling with what it means to follow Jesus and just what I am called to do and be, it is seldom an appealing place. Indeed when the path before me seems uncertain or filled with great difficulty, it can feel like God has withdrawn from me, and I can despair over God's absence. But if this story is in any way instructive for a life of faithfulness, then such moments may be necessary. The Spirit may even have led me there.

Certainly the Church, as the body of Christ, finds itself tempted to be something less than God intends. Jesus taught his followers that they would face many of the same difficulties and opposition he did, but we sometimes think that being Christian should protect and insulate us from troubles. We may even come to see the sort of temptations Jesus resists as blessings. Consider the things we appreciate when thanking God for our "blessings." Most of us don't go so far as the Joel Osteens of the world who insist that God wants us to be rich, but we still think of our nice house and comfortable lives as blessings.

Jesus says that following him requires self-denial and taking up the cross, the very sort of thing we see Jesus doing in today's gospel. But if we consider the things Jesus must resist as blessings we should pursue, surely we will get this whole Christian life thing all wrong.

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Monday, May 5, 2014

Put to Shame

The heavens proclaim his righteousness;
     and all the peoples behold his glory.
All worshipers of images are put to shame,
     those who make their boast in worthless idols;
     all gods bow down before him. 
- Psalm 97:6-7

John Calvin, the theological founder of my particular Protestant tradition (Reformed, of which Presbyterians are a subset), spoke of  human beings as prolific manufacturers of idols. Calvin, who lived in 1500s Geneva, Switzerland, was long removed from the days of actual carved or cast images. No one was making any animal sacrifices at pagan temples in Geneva when Calvin was its city manager. But Calvin knew that the impulse that led ancient people to create idols of metal or stone was alive and well. Indeed, it is alive and well today.

Most people need something they can believe in, can trust in. Most of us are too "sophisticated" to construct actual idols, but we have our substitutes. Obvious candidates are things such as family or nation. There is nothing wrong with such things. But when they become what we most fervently believe in and trust in, they do become problems. And they inevitably fail us and betray us when we put ultimate trust in them. Or, to borrow from the psalm, those who put their trust in them "are put to shame."

In our culture, acquiring things is an idol. Many believe that if they get enough of something: possessions, experiences, power, prestige, etc. they will be happy and content. Overtly religious folks often make idols of things such as the church or the Bible. In our increasingly secular age, ideologies make for nice idols. The Second Amendment crowd often seems to wander into idol territory. The faith that some people place in owning a gun strikes me as a greater leap of faith than that of believing in Jesus' resurrection.

I tend to run in more liberal crowds, and we have different idols. Education is often one. Not that there's anything wrong with education. I'm generally for it. But when you trust it to cure all that ails society, you've invested much more trust in it that is appropriate, and you'll end up being "put to shame."

There's a version of this sort of idolatry that especially afflicts church professionals and congregations. We sometimes believe that if we learn to do church just so, all will be well. Again, it's a good thing for pastors to learn leadership skills and churches to discover better ways of doing vital programs, but it is very easy for skills and abilities to become our idols, our gods, the things where we place our ultimate trust. And as the psalm says...

I think this sort of temptation is especially acute in denominations and congregations with highly educated clergy and members. We often find it much easier to trust in our impressive smarts and abilities than to trust in God. If you're not sure if this sort of idolatry afflicts your congregation, it may help to consider how people react when things are not going well. Do they devote more time to prayer and attentiveness to God's voice, or do they simply try to figure out what is wrong and fix it? Now clearly we can pray, listen for God, and also try to get better at church operations. These aren't mutually exclusive things. Still, it's worth asking ourselves where we place our ultimate trust. Otherwise we may find ourselves "put to shame."

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Sunday, May 4, 2014

Sermon: Able to See the Risen One

Luke 24:14-35
Able to See the Risen One
James Sledge                                                                                                   May 4, 2014

When I was in seminary, I had a wonderful opportunity to take part in three week travel seminar to the Middle East. Fifteen students, five from my seminary and five each from two others, joined a group of lay leaders from various churches on a trip that visited sites in Jordan, Syria, the Sinai peninsula, Israel, and Greece.
One of the things you discover in the Middle East, especially outside the cities, is the remarkable hospitality of the people, much like the biblical culture of hospitality, except in Israel. That’s not a knock on Israel. It’s just that its culture is largely imported from Europe and America and so very unlike indigenous, Middle Eastern culture.
One day, after visiting a number of archeological sites in Jordan, we made our way to an out-of-the-way, little village. There was an old Crusader castle on the hill overlooking the village, but it did not draw many tourists. We were the only Westerners, or tourists of any sort, at the single, little hotel that was about halfway between the village and the castle.
We arrived a couple of hours before supper, and a few of us decided to walk the bit less than a mile down the hill into the village itself. As we walked along the road, people would lean out the windows of homes and talk to us, ask where we were from, how we were doing, where we would go next, and so on. One boy – I guess he was 10 or 11 – asked if we would come in and join him for tea. But we wanted to get to the village and back before supper, so we said, “No.” He was insistent, running from the upstairs window down to the front door, showing us the teapot he would use, telling us it would be no trouble at all.
We were very appreciative. We thanked him repeatedly, but we had to keep going. It is by far my single biggest regret from that trip, and it ranks way up there on my list of all time regrets. To have visited in his home and enjoyed his hospitality would surely have been one of the more memorable and meaningful moments of the entire trip, certainly much more so than the few closed shops we saw at the bottom of the hill.
I have kicked myself over the years for not stopping, and I’m often reminded of that day when I read a biblical account that features hospitality. When I read the story of Cleopas and another, unnamed disciple meeting Jesus along the way but not recognizing him at first, I wondered if I would have missed out had I been walking along the Emmaus Road that day.
After all, I did not have time even to accept someone’s hospitality that day when I walked down a Middle Eastern road. Cleopas and his companion meet the risen Christ only after they extend hospitality, insistently, not unlike that little boy in Jordan. And they do so even though they are tired, confused, and heartbroken. Had I been there that day and Jesus walked ahead as if he were going on, I likely would have said, “So long. Nice talking to you.”