Monday, June 30, 2014

June 22 sermon video: I'm Out There

Thanks to Jodi Lingan, who preached for me when I was out of town at my daughter's wedding. Jodi is an FCPC member and seminary student.

Audios of sermons and worship are available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sermon: Bricks, More Bricks - Sabbath and the First Commandment

Exodus 20:1-11; Matthew 6:24-29, 11:28-30
Bricks, More Bricks
Sabbath and the First Commandment
James Sledge                                                                                                   June 29, 2014

As a general rule, I’ve tried not to talk about my children in sermons. I was never a preacher’s kid, but I imagine it would be horrifying to sit in the pew while a parent stands in the pulpit and shares some personal episode with you in a starring role. But now that she is grown and married, I suppose it’s okay to share this one from my older daughter’s childhood.
When Kendrick was a toddler, she did not like to go to bed at night. We were fine with that as long as she stayed in her room and was fairly quiet, but that wasn’t acceptable to her. She was forever coming out of her room to ask for something, to get something she’d forgotten, to tell us something that couldn’t wait, and so on. It got so ridiculous that we crafted a rule meant to subvert all the new reasons she kept inventing. The rule stated. “If you are not injured and bleeding, you may not come out of your room.”
If you were a new parent thumbing through a child-rearing book and came to a chapter on guidelines for toddlers that included, “Toddlers should not come out of their rooms after bedtime unless injured and bleeding,” I suspect you would think it, at the very least, a bit odd. The rule worked fairly well in our house, but it makes little sense without a certain amount of context. This is perhaps even more so for many of the Ten Commandments.
In recent years, the Ten Commandments have become more political symbol than rules to guide people’s lives. Few Christians can list them all, yet many have strong opinions on whether or not they belong on the courthouse wall. “They’re the basis of our civil law,” some insist, which is pretty clear evidence of not actually knowing them. Many have little connection to our civil law, and there’s one on coveting that seems to undercut a driving force of our economy. Those that do show up in civil laws probably didn’t need an endorsement from God. We surely would have had laws against murder and theft regardless.
I'm no lawyer, but I can't imagine there's much reason for law schools to cover the commandments we heard today. These are sometimes referred to as the first table or tablet of the law. They deal with the divine-human relationship, although the commandment on Sabbath occupies something of a middle ground, connecting the commandments on relationship to God with those on relations with neighbor.
Notice that the commandments do not begin with a list of rules, a concise set of bullet points suitable for framing and attaching to the walls of courthouse or schoolhouse. They begin with context. “I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Without remembering slavery in Egypt and the misery of Pharaoh’s oppressive, economic system, we will likely misunderstand and misapply these rules.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Peculiar God - Peculiar Community

When Jesus begins his ministry, he says that people need to get ready because God's kingdom has come near. The term "kingdom of God" (Matthew's gospel substitutes "kingdom of heaven") is not only archaic to modern Americans, it has also taken on religious connotations that likely obscure what Jesus meant when he used these words.

Kingdom is obviously a political term, and it is easy to imagine how such a term could have gotten Jesus in trouble with the Romans. The Roman authorities in Palestine administered the kingdom of Caesar, and they did not take well to competitors.

A kingdom is not only a political thing. It is also a social and cultural one. The kingdom of Caesar was organized around certain patterns and norms. Central to this was Roman power and military might which enforced a system of taxation and assimilation. Like all societies, Rome had its pecking orders and hierarchies, its folks at the top and folks at the bottom. And there were lots of folks at or near the bottom.

The kingdom that Jesus announces also has political and social dimensions, but its dynamics look little like those of Rome, or any other nation for that matter. Jesus says his new order is good news for the poor and the oppressed, but bad news for the rich and powerful. In some ways, it surprising that Jesus survived for as long as he did.

Following his resurrection, Jesus turned over the work of this strange kingdom to his followers, to the first disciples and to those who came after them, including those of us who say we follow him today. Surely he knew what a risky move this was. After all, even those original disciples, who sat and learned at this feet, were still much better acclimated to the ways of Caesar's kingdom than they were to God's. Today's gospel makes that abundantly clear as two disciples seek a top spot in Jesus' kingdom and other disciples get angry at this maneuver that potentially drops them down in the pecking order.

Jesus tries to set them straight, tries to explain that his political and social order looks nothing like the ones they are used to. We in the church have embraced some of the words Jesus speaks here (church folk love the term "servant leader"), but we've not really taken what he said to heart. The Church often looks more like the kingdoms and republics and dictatorships in which we happen to live than it does what Jesus describes. We have our own hierarchies and pecking orders, and, all too often, we've been willing to legitimate the political and social orders where we live in exchange for favored status in those political and social systems.

But an interesting thing has happened in the last half century or so. The political and social systems in which Western Christianity lives decided they no longer needed our legitimation, and so they began to remove our special, favored status. In America, governments no longer make sure no other activities compete against us on Sunday morning, and schools no longer assist us in passing down our faith traditions.

This loss of status has created much angst and no small amount of anger in the Church. Some worry and fret while continuing to act as they always have (my own denomination tends along this path.) Others have become cultural warriors, seeking to return to a previous time of prestige and influence. The first path is heavy on denial. The second is tilting at windmills.

The Church's loss of status and prestige certainly has negative impacts on me and folks like me. Being a pastor is hardly the honored profession it once was, and the financial security that goes with it has diminished as well. It's hard not to feel anxious or angry at times when considering the ways in which the culture has ceased to be helpful. (Thanks, youth soccer, for giving so many families another place to be at the time traditionally reserved for worship.) Yet I can't help thinking that a tremendous opportunity has been given to us by our changed situation.

Jesus used every possible means, going so far as to get himself killed, to show us how the new community he proclaimed looked different from the political and social norms familiar to us. Unfortunately, we in the Church have often been tempted to abandon the strange norms of God's kingdom in order to enjoy honored status in the kingdoms of Caesar or Washington or others. But now that our honored status has been revoked, it seems to me we have an opportunity to rediscover our true identity, our true calling to be a peculiar community that enacts the peculiar ways of God's new political and social order. The world around us may well not come running to us when we do, but they certainly will get a much better picture of Jesus than the body of Christ we have so often displayed.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

"That's Not Fair!" and Other Hazards to Community

Many of us humans have a great desire that things be "fair." We are acutely aware when someone has not received their fair share, especially when that someone is us. Children frequently invoke the protest, "That's not fair!" when they think they have been slighted out of what they deem their portion.

Children learn early on about scarcity. Our world basically runs on the notion of scarce resources for which we must all compete. Parents and teachers also try to teach children about sharing, but this often runs into trouble because sharing requires giving up my access to those scarce resources. It turns out that it is difficult to worry about the other's needs when I'm anxious about my own. And this isn't just a problem for children sharing toys. If you study church offerings or charitable giving in general, you'll see the same problem at work. I cannot share much of what I have lest I run short. The same anxiety that makes me worry about getting my "fair share" makes me prone to hoard what I do have.

You can see this anxiety about fairness and sharing in the parable from today's gospel reading. In Jesus' story of "The Laborers in the Vineyard," those hired in the morning are upset to learn they will not receive more wages than those hired late in the day. They are paid the fair wage they had agreed to, but in the competition for scarce resources, it looks like a loss on their parts for others to receive the same as them without the same effort. "That's not fair!" The vineyard owner is not playing by the rules.

I've been planning a summer sermon series around the topic of Sabbath, and that has led me to a lot of thinking about the busyness and anxiety in American culture. There are so many things to be worried and stressed about. In this world of scarce resources we may not have enough for retirement. We may not have enough on our résumé to land that great job or get into that elite college. The blanks in the phrases "I may not have enough ________" or "I may not be ________ enough" can be filled in with all sorts of anxiety producing deficiencies, and God forbid someone else acquire what I need without expending the same energy and effort as me.

But as Jesus' parable makes clear, God doesn't abide by our rules of scarcity and competition. Old Testament and New speak repeatedly of a God who provides, who insures abundance for all. The laws God gives at Mt. Sinai and the new day Jesus labels the Kingdom of God are about a community of abundance, or enough for all. This unnerves us, though, because we are so thoroughly acclimated to the norm of scarcity and competition. We find many of Jesus' teachings so troubling that we have relegated them to a purely spiritual sphere. Jesus offers salvation, understood as a ticket to eternal life, as free gift to all. We can, to a degree, live with the unfairness of this, in large part because it has so little to do with our daily lives.

Yet neither God's covenant with Israel in the Old Testament nor Jesus' proclamation about the Kingdom that has come near speak of tickets to heaven. They are about transformed human community here and now, about heaven's ways taking up residence on earth rather than us escaping earth for heaven. That is why Jesus tells parables such as today's. It is why the book of Acts tells of a church community where "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." Nothing particularly "fair" about that. Nor is there much evidence of worrying about having enough or something happening to "my share."

America was founded in part on the notion of a "common good," a notion that is not nearly so operative today as it once was. I don't have any idyllic picture of a young America. There were countless ways in which our founding mothers and fathers twisted and distorted biblical ideas about loving neighbor as well as enemy, about valuing the other and the stranger. Still, there is little doubt that our focus on individualism and competition has eroded early ideas of America as a "covenant community," ideas partly drawn from the Bible. And the Church has often aided and abetted this erosion, joining in on the focus on me and mine, my rights and my share.

The ridiculousness of churches championing Second Amendment gun rights is but one example of this. Jesus calls us to give sacrificially for the good of the other. When I am more focused on my rights (of whatever sort) over the good of the neighbor, I find myself at odds with Jesus' parable of the laborers and at odds with God's dream of true community. I do, however, find myself fully in tune with the world's notions of scarcity, insisting on whatever "fair share" I can attain, unable to trust that God can provide enough for all.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

General Assembly, Controversy, and a Family Wedding

Last week, as my Presbyterian Church (USA) was debating issues of marriage equality and divesting from companies seen as profiting from activities damaging to peace between Israel and the Palestinians, I headed to Austin, Texas to attend my daughter's wedding and associated fun and festivity. (As an added bonus, The Mountain Goats, my favorite group, played a concert in Austin on Sunday evening. Something about divine providence in there somewhere.) In my only slightly biased opinion, the wedding was one of the best I've ever attended. And no, I didn't officiate. I enjoyed simply being the dad. The marriage equality votes at General Assembly had already occurred prior to the actual wedding activities, but I was not really paying attention by the time the divestment vote happened.

Even though this wedding and its related activities were incredibly well done, they were not so dissimilar from weddings that you have likely attended. There was a rehearsal and rehearsal dinner, along with tuxes, bridesmaid dresses, and a lovely wedding gown. People stood and snapped pictures with their smartphones as I walked my daughter down the aisle, and picture taking and Facebook posting continued at the reception, along with eating, drinking, dancing, and a bit of wedding cake.

I suppose someone who objected to drinking alcohol could have found fault. Perhaps someone might have disliked the band. But it's hard for me to imagine that many would not have thoroughly enjoyed themselves. There is little disagreeable, off-putting, or controversial about a lovely wedding.

I returned from Austin yesterday, and I'm in the office for the first time in a bit, digesting all the blog posts and reactions to the recently completed General Assembly votes on divestment, marriage equality, and more. Unlike my daughter's wedding, many have found the events of GA disagreeable, off-putting, and controversial. There are worries that more congregations may leave the denomination over some of the decisions. And there are numerous posts attempting to explain or clarify "what really happened."

Some of the latter are certainly needed. Mischaracterizations of the events abound, as they so frequently do on issues that are politicized with people on both sides prone to hyperbole and demonizing the other. Others have done an admirable job here, and I'll simply recommend some of those to you. Check out some of the coverage by The Presbyterian Outlook. I found colleague Steve Lindsley's open letter to his congregation helpful. And MaryAnn McKibben Dana, a colleague who ran for vice moderator of our denomination, and whose church is just down the street from the one I serve, had a couple of helpful pieces, one a post in her blog The Blue Room and the other a piece in TIME.

I was for the marriage issues, which passed easily. I was also generally in favor of divestment, although some its supporters have been prone to unnecessarily inflammatory language regarding Israel. And so I'm not one who is upset by decisions coming from this General Assembly. At the same time, I am bothered by how divisive such decisions often are and the turmoil and controversy they create. Isn't there some way that General Assemblies could be as enjoyable, agreeable, and non-controversial as my wedding fun this past weekend?

The short answer is, "No." As much as I and others may long for the theological equivalent of "Can't we all just get along?" the fact is we are struggling to follow a Jesus who created disagreement and controversy most everywhere he went. He didn't get executed because he was a nice guy who stuck to the status quo.

When I looked at today's gospel reading, I couldn't help reflect on how good the church has become  at polishing off Jesus' rough edges. Jesus says, "Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." I've heard some rather lame attempts to make this say something other than what Jesus clearly says, but in the end, these are troubling and uncomfortable words for a majority of Presbyterians who hear them. We preachers sometimes twist ourselves in knots as we dance around their unappealing character. In the process we often embrace this prevailing notion. "Surely Jesus doesn't mean that following him will make us different, odd, unlike the world around us, and subject to name-calling, lies, and mischaracterizations?" But of course the short answer here is, "Yes!"

I presume that Jesus didn't enjoy controversy for controversy's sake. It was simply the inevitable result of his ways being so out of synch with the world's. This leads to a recurring source of discomfort for me. Why isn't the Church more controversial? Unless the ways of the world have gotten a whole lot closer to those of Jesus in the last two millennia, then those who follow Jesus should be as out of step with the world as he was. (Jesus says as much on several occasions.) And so I am left to ponder whether the Church is so often non-controversial and comfortable with the status quo because the world has drawn so near the Kingdom, that new day Jesus proclaims, or if, as seems more likely, the Church has instead drawn too near to the world.

Jesus on occasion used the image of a wedding banquet to speak of the kingdom, of that day when the world is set right Oh, how I wish that proclaiming and living into that new day were as agreeable and easy and enjoyable as the wedding I attended this past weekend. But they are not. And while I operate with a fairly high level of uncertainty regarding just what controversies we in the Church should be stirring up, I have no doubt that we fail to be the body of Christ when are simply benign, unoffensive, status quo reflections of the communities in which we live.

As for the decisions of the recent General Assembly, time will tell how true they are to Jesus and his call to follow him. But the fact that they create controversy, cause people to speak ill of us, or even to hate us, is hardly evidence of a failure on our part. It may even be evidence of faithfulness.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Sermon: In God's Image

Genesis 1:1-5, 27-2:3; Matthew 28:16-20
In God’s Image
James Sledge                                                   June 15, 2014, Trinity Sunday

There’s a lot of commissioning and sending going on in our worship today. There are youth who will soon leave on their mission trip, rising 6th graders sent upstairs to join the middle school youth, and graduates headed to college or the work world.
When we send people out, there is usually some mix of excitement and trepidation. Heading out to college is exciting, but making new friends, getting used to a roommate, adjusting to college academics, and so on can be challenging. Parents often share in their college students’ excitement and fear, but they may have somewhat different worries.
I knew a girl who attended a Baptist women’s college in Raleigh, NC, where quite a few students enrolled because of parents’ fears about the terrible things that might happen as their little girls went off to the morally uncertain world of college. The school had strict rules about leaving campus, men in the dorms, etc.
There were actually three such colleges in Raleigh, the Baptist one plus a Presbyterian and Episcopalian, all just a short distance from the large, public, NC State University. Guys at State had a lot of jokes about which of these women’s schools had the wildest girls. There was no clear winner, but conventional wisdom ranked all three ahead of the coeds at NC State. So much for safely sequestering one’s little girl at a religious, all women’s school.
It’s interesting to think about how some go to college, exploring, maturing and changing yet remaining essentially the same person, while others undergo transformations that leave them unrecognizable, not always for the better. Perhaps some people’s identities are more formed than others. The freedom of college lets them explore who they are, but their identity gives them certain boundaries. Others, perhaps like some of those sent to women’s colleges, having always lived within the tight confines of hovering and anxious parents, have less formed identities, and those identities provide as much in the way of boundaries.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Reconsidering Jesus

In today's gospel reading, Jesus asks his disciples who people think that he is, and they respond with some of the suggestions that are floating around. Then Jesus asks a much more critical question. "But who do you say that I am?"If you grew up in the church, you likely know that Peter gave the "correct" answer. "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."(Some Bible translations will have "Christ" rather than "Messiah," but Christ is simply a Greek version of the Hebrew word Messiah.)

Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God. Many church members could come up with this answer if asked the question Jesus poses to his disciples. But that is not to say these people are talking about the same Jesus. There are a lot of competing and incompatible Jesuses running around. One Jesus hates gays and lesbians but another loves and accepts them. One Jesus is a militant warrior and another is an avowed pacifist. One Jesus wants you to be rich and another calls you to give away your possessions to the poor.

Sometimes we more liberal Christians get so troubled at some of the more ridiculous pictures of Jesus that our response is barely to picture Jesus as all. A United Church of Christ pastor once told me this joke about his denomination. "What does UCC stand for?" The answer/punchline: "Unitarians Considering Christ." I've met many Presbyterians for  whom this is an accurate description. They're looking for a picture of Jesus they can live with. I think a lot of Christians would do well to do a little considering, or perhaps reconsidering, their picture of Christ. But that is different from simply painting a picture to suit us.

If conservatives sometimes create a Jesus who looks more like a patriotic Republican than the Jesus depicted in the Bible, liberals sometimes create a Jesus so benign and bland I can't imagine why anyone would want to follow him. In trying to remove some of the offensive ways in which Jesus has been co-opted into supporting America, gun rights, and free market economies, they create a Jesus with little or no offense at all. He's just a nice guy who loves everybody and does nice things for them. Trouble is, the biblical Jesus was offensive. At least he was to lots of people, particularly those with power, who ran religious institutions, who imagined they were holier than others, and who were motivated by money.

If you take some time to consider and reconsider Jesus, who do you say that he is? The answer is probably less about what words we use to describe him and more the sort of faith life we live as we seek to follow him. What picture of Jesus do people see when they look at you or me?

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Love, Freedom, Idolatry, and the Self-Made Person

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skilful; but time and chance happen to them all. Ecclesiastes 9:11

"Time and chance happen to them all." So it says, right there in the Bible. It's not really a startling statement, but it does run counter to the cherished American myth of the self-made man or woman. Those who are struggling may not embrace it, but those who do well are happy to attribute their success to their own strength, intelligence, and skill. And quite often, they are equally willing to lay the blame for poverty on the poor's lack of initiative, wisdom, and skill. No "time and chance" involved.

To me this smacks of good old fashioned idolatry. There's a reason that the Bible links greed with idolatry. (see Ephesians 5:5; Colossians 3:5) Those whose lives are motivated by wealth are often prone to a certain arrogance, imagining that they control their own destiny. No grace or blessing required for them. They grab, earn, take, and secure what they need and want. They dare not trust in the provision of God's abundance. The only thing they can trust are their own desires and their own efforts. There is not enough for all, and they must snatch theirs before someone else does.

Americans often speak of this as a "Christian nation," but it is a Ben Franklin version of Christian faith where "God helps those who help themselves." (That's not in the Bible. Franklin said it.) The Bible says something contrary. "Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain." (Psalm 127) There's no dishonoring of hard work here, but there is a warning against hard work that is simply for self, and this sort of effort describes the frenzied activity of many Americans in their endless pursuit of more.

Of course this isn't just an issue in the area of financial greed. Many of us who aren't necessarily "greedy" still have something we want, something we work very hard to achieve. (I want to be a successful pastor and an admired preacher.) And when we start to imagine that such achievements are purely a matter or our efforts, of our strength, intelligence, and skill, we wander into the arrogance of the greedy. No need for grace or blessings. No need to be sure we are building what God desires.

The American myth of the self-made person is closely associated with our love of freedom. But here again, I fear we have distorted the biblical concept of freedom. Ours tends to be little more than, "I can do whatever I want." In today's reading from Galatians, the Apostle Paul has a somewhat different notion. "For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another."

What do you need to be freed from in order to trust yourself to God and give yourself others?

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Monday, June 9, 2014

A Life that Matters

Those of low estate are but a breath,
    those of high estate are a delusion;
in the balances they go up;
    they are together lighter than a breath.
Psalm 62:9

Some years ago, there was a supposed feud between David Letterman and Oprah Winfrey, and Dave had included Dr. Phil (who got his stardom via Oprah) in some of his snarkier jabs. When Dr. Phil showed up as guest on Letterman, the two engaged in a relatively light-hearted battle of wits, with Dr. Phil perhaps coming out on top.

At one point in the banter, when Letterman complained about Oprah not liking him, Dr. Phil responded with a piece of wisdom he credited to his father. "You wouldn't worry so much what people thought about you if you know how seldom they did.'' It was one of the better zingers of the night.

When we are infants, we have good reason to assume we are the literal center of the universe. A swirl of activity accompanies our every cry. There's a bit of guesswork on parents' parts regarding just what we need, but someone generally responds to any indication that we are in any sort of want or distress.

As we grow, we realize that our grand self image is an illusion, though we never totally abandon it. We still tend to prioritize our needs over those of others, our family's over others, our group, community, state, nation, etc. over others, and so on.

This factors into our religious behavior. Jesus may speak of loving neighbor as ourselves, but we generally shift that to loving neighbor after ourselves, if we've got any leftover time or money. We also expect God to be attentive to our individual needs. And while God may well be able to hear the prayers of billions simultaneously, there is something a bit odd about my praying for the light to stay green until I get through it while the poor and oppressed, people the Bible tells me are God's special concern, struggle just to survive.

The above quote from Psalm 62 is something of a corrective. On the scale of cosmic significance, none of us really moves the needle. Feathers weigh more. It's not that God doesn't love each of us deeply. Rather it is about helping us discover what it means to be fully human. Just as no good parent would let a child grow up thinking he was the center of the universe, we cannot become who God creates us to be if we imagine we are created simply to be recipients of God's love and care.

In the Presbyterian Church's Book of Order (a part of our constitution), there is a brief section speaking to the core tenants of our theological tradition. Following a paragraph on God's sovereignty, there are several bullet points, the first reading "The election of the people of God for service as well as salvation." In other words, God loves us in order to orient us toward others, to make the neighbor, as well as God, the center of our universe.

It would seem that only when we learn to live "as one who serves" (Jesus' self description in Luke 22:27), will we contribute something of significance as God measures things.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Sermon: Ordinary Pentecost

1 Corinthians 12:1-13
Ordinary Pentecost
James Sledge                                                                           June 8, 2014, Pentecost

This may come as a shock to some of you, but church congregations are not always kind, loving, supportive communities where everyone gets along. While there is much kindness, love, and support found in congregations, there is also conflict, fighting, and even downright nastiness. Again, my apologies if I just shattered your image of the Church.
Churches find an amazing variety of things that provoke disagreement and division. Some we import straight from the surrounding culture, dividing along lines of wealth, race, political leaning, age, and so on. But we also divide over churchy things: doctrine, worship style, who can be leaders, and so on.
The Apostle Paul deals with most all these in his little congregation at Corinth. At times these Corinthian Christians sound remarkably modern: individualistic, relativistic, divided between haves and have nots, and intensively competitive with one another. Of course we don’t actually hear from them, having only Paul’s side of the conversation. He’s apparently received a letter from some of the folks there along with some first-hand reports, and Paul is not at all happy with what he’s read and heard.
So Paul writes to the Corinthians, and the moment he concludes with introductory niceties, he brings up the topic of division in the congregation. And almost the entire letter features Paul exhorting, explaining, cajoling, correcting, and flat out blasting these folks as he tries to set them straight.
Now the Corinthians’ problems are a bit different from those afflicting many present day churches. Their problem isn’t declining membership or loss of influence in the culture. They are growing, but Christianity is new and never had any cultural influence. Being new, this congregation is an exciting, exuberant place. Most everyone is a new believer who has been caught up in the Jesus movement, and there is a palpable sense of spiritual energy.
Corinth was a fairly cosmopolitan place, and this church has lots of educated, diverse people in it. If we could have visited there, we would probably have said it was a gifted, impressive congregation. But Paul thinks that this giftedness has become a problem.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Us vs Them

Despite all the statistics regarding church decline, the vast majority of Americans still profess some sort of Christian faith. So why do we seem to hate each other so? Why do we act as though anyone who disagrees with us is our enemy. And even if that were true, didn't Jesus tell us to love our enemies, too?

Today's reading from Ephesians says this. "And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you." So how was it we decided this didn't apply to some neighbors? (Both conservatives and liberals seem equally good at demonizing their neighbors on the other side.)

I read a column recently that suggested American politics has become dysfunctional in part because the Cold War ended. Without a common enemy, we turned our animosities toward one another. The September 11 terrorist attacks briefly united us around a common threat, but Al Qaeda turned out not to be terrifying enough to keep us united.

Now I don't know if I want to lay all the blame for our toxic partisanship on the Cold War's demise, but it does make a certain sense. We humans seem to have an innate fear of "the other," of those who are different from us. And once we label that other an enemy, demonizing them and seeing them as sub-human, un-American, or dangerous makes it much easier to hate them. No need to discuss or consider the viewpoints of such folks.

Yet Christian faith is about becoming one with the other through Christ. Elsewhere in Ephesians it says, "For (Christ) is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us." This is referring to a Jew versus Gentile divide and hostility, but that was simply the primary dividing line the early church faced. We have our own.

The scariest part about hostility between groups is that we start to think things would be better without "them," whoever we mean by "them." We decide that we don't want them in our denomination, our neighborhood, our government, etc. Our world would be so much better if they simply ceased to be. At that point, no matter how "right" our views may be, we've ceased to be a true church, a true community,  a true society. You might even say we've ceased to be truly human because we've defined human as "like us" rather than as the beloved children God sees when looking at every single one of us, and every single one of them.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Reminded of Our Calling

Earlier today I was flipping through the new Presbyterian hymnal, looking at the hymns it recommended for weddings. (My wife had asked if I had any thoughts on good hymns for our daughter's upcoming wedding.) One of the suggestions was a baptism hymn entitled, "I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry." As hymns go, it's a newbie, written in the 1980s, but I've heard it sung a few times and like the tune. I began to read the verses, but tears made it difficult.

I'm not certain what caused the tears. I suppose it was some intersection of thinking about a child now grown along with the notion of God always there alongside. If it gets used at the wedding, I doubt I'll be able to sing it.

That hymn and its impact on me were still fresh when I read today's lectionary passage from Ephesians, where the Christians at Ephesus are urged to "to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called..."  And I thought about my life and my family and my faith and how easy it is sometimes to live life without much sense of God there alongside or with much appreciation of loved ones. How easy it is to neglect those relationships, to take them for granted and fail to nurture and tend them. That goes equally for family relationships and the divine one.

I life worthy of the one to which I am called surely requires a certain attentiveness that I do not always practice. The busyness of work and life can push off to the sides the very things that life is all about. Jesus says the core of our lives is about love, love of God and of neighbor. (I'm pretty sure family gets counted in the neighbor part.) Yet I often find myself preoccupied with things that are not about loving God or neighbor, not even those closest to me. I get focused on tasks and addressing all the things that make me anxious, many of which are totally out of my control.

A life worthy of the calling to which you have been called... I wonder if the words of the hymn struck me so because they reminded of my truest calling, everyone's truest and deepest calling, which at its core is about love.

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Sunday, June 1, 2014

Sermon: Holy Waiting

Acts 1:6-14
Holy Waiting
James Sledge                                                                                       June 1, 2014

Back in my days as a corporate pilot, I would tell people who asked about what I did for a living that I flew planes for free, but I got paid for waiting. Corporate pilots tend to take the executives somewhere early in the morning, then sit around all day. You get good at waiting.
A lot of airports had movies you could watch. Some had sleeping rooms where you could crash after an early morning flight. Me, I read a lot; I carried my running gear. Some pilots carried golf clubs. We found ways to make the time pass quickly until the return trip home.
However, passengers could make the time pass more slowly. With a 5:00 pm departure time, I would start getting ready around 4:00; file flight plans, get ice, coffee, and any catering we might have. And then I would hope the people would get there somewhere near 5:00. When they didn’t show until 7:00, those two hours often felt longer than the entire day.
After one early morning flight, the CEO said, "I’ve a quick meeting then  need to get right back. I’ll be here no later than 9:30 am." And so I didn't get out my running shoes or book. I got the plane fueled, refilled the coffee and ice, filed a flight plan, and began to wait. I waited and waited and waited. At lunchtime, I thought about running out to grab a bite but didn't dare. If I left, I knew he would show up, ready to leave that instant.
Around 6:30 that evening he walked in. "We ran a little late," he said. "Oh really," I thought . But of course I didn't say it. I just smiled and said something about that being the whole point of having your own airplane.
How many of you enjoy waiting? How many of you relish the thought of a trip to get your driver's license renewed, or a little quality time in the doctor's waiting room? At least with smartphones, you can catch up on emails, read the paper, or do something productive. Because what is worse than simply waiting and not knowing how long the wait will be?
That's where our scripture story leaves the disciples this morning. Easter is 40 days past. The disciples have seen the risen Jesus repeatedly, and he’s continued to teach them about the kingdom, about the coming of God's new day. And he has also told them to sit tight, to remain in Jerusalem and wait for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.
Yet after all the time they've spent with Jesus, both during his ministry and in the 40 days since Easter, the disciples still seem confused. "Lord is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" All that post resurrection continuing education, and they still think Jesus will toss out the Romans and bring back the glory days of King David?
“Don't worry about such things,” Jesus says to them and to us. You're obviously not quite ready, but you are going to be my witnesses in all the world. You will be empowered by the Spirit, and then you will be able to act and live and speak in ways that let people see me in you.
Then Jesus is gone, and the disciples really don't know what to do. They stand there staring up at where they last glimpsed him. I wonder how long they would have just stood there staring if angels hadn’t showed up. Then they go back to Jerusalem. And there they wait. But they don't just wait. They wait, together, the whole community. They devote themselves to prayer, together.