Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sermon: Sowing Love - A Life of Justice and Compassion: The Social Justice Tradition

Matthew 25:31-46 (Isaiah 58:1-11)
Sowing Love
A Life of Justice and Compassion: The Social Justice Tradition
James Sledge                                                                                       August 31, 2014

One of my favorite seminary professors had a saying that I use a great deal. He said that the Jesus and the entire Christian enterprise is about creating  “true communion with God in true community with others.” It was his way of linking love of God with love of neighbor, and it aptly depicts the cross-shaped life of faith that reaches up to God but also out to others.
Human beings most always neglect one of these dimensions. For the religious sort, it is often the horizontal that suffers most. Think of the language Christians sometimes use to describe faith. “I go to church every Sunday, and I read my Bible and pray  daily.” You and me, God; you and me.
A similar problem can inflict people who are less church centered but still interested in spirituality. Spirituality can become a one dimensional pursuit of intimacy with God. You and me, God; you and me. That’s a distortion of true Christian spirituality. One of my favorite writers and spiritual teachers, Father Richard Rohr, operates a center that seeks to train people in the Christian mystical tradition so that they may serve compassionately. To me, this epitomizes a true, holistic and integrated spirituality.
In similar fashion, the unknown prophet sometimes labeled “Third Isaiah” struggles to help the people of Israel integrate both the divine and neighbor dimensions of the spiritual life. The people addressed by the prophet have done all the religious rituals correctly. They’ve attended worship; they’ve said the right prayers; they kept the appointed festivals and fasts. But none of this has transformed their relations with the other, the neighbor, and so the prophet describes another religious ritual or fast, one that undoes injustice, feeds the hungry, houses the homeless, and clothes the naked. No doubt Jesus knew these verses well. Perhaps he even has them in mind when he speaks of a final judgment based on the sort of religious rituals found in our Isaiah passage.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Apathy and Anger toward God

"O you who answer prayer!" This line from the morning psalm (Psalm 65) describes God as such. I suspect that many people of faith have times when they are not so sure. It is not that unusual for me to experience times when God seems absent, and the only answer to prayer is silence.

I'm not always sure who to blame when this happens. For a "religious professional," I can be remarkably bad at this prayer thing. Sometimes I fear that I keep my expectations of God quite low so that I am not disappointed. I don't really expect much of an answer from God. An inkling, a hint, or a nudge will do. I'm not really looking for much beyond that.

Curiously, today's Old Testament reading from Job features prayer to God, but it is not a pretty picture, and Job has nothing nice to say about or to God.
Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul... When I say, 'My bed will comfort me, my couch will ease my complaint,' then you scare me with dreams and terrify me with visions, so that I would choose strangling and death rather than this body. I loathe my life; I would not live forever. Let me alone, for my days are a breath... Will you not look away from me for a while, let me alone until I swallow my spittle? If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of humanity? Why have you made me your target? Why have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity? For now I shall lie in the earth; you will seek me, but I shall not be."
(If all you know about Job is his reputation for patience, you ought to read the book sometime. His patience evaporates after a two chapter, prose introduction. The next forty chapters sound more like the passage above.)

Job has had it with God, and I wonder if I, and perhaps others, don't need to be more like Job from time to time. Not that yelling and shaking one's fist is an optimum communication or relationship practice. But any deep relationship is bound to have frustrating moments that provoke anger and even rage. If I never lose my temper with God, it seems likely it's because I've never really allowed myself to become vulnerable and unguarded before God, never allowed myself to be hurt if God didn't act as I thought God would.

If I never get angry and rage at God as Job did, perhaps it is because I really don't believe that God answers prayers. And thus my God may be so vague and nondescript so as never to give offense.

I think I'll end here. I need to have a chat with God that I'm not sure I want to be public.

(This post refers to the lectionary readings from yesterday, August 27.)

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Godly Attributes and Utilitarian Religion

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
     whose hope is in the LORD their God,
 who made heaven and earth,
     the sea, and all that is in them; 

who keeps faith forever;
     who executes justice for the oppressed;
     who gives food to the hungry.
     Psalm 146:5-7

One of the classic problems of religion is its tendency to become utilitarian. Faith easily becomes about getting God on the side of me and mine. God becomes a resource to be employed and even exploited for my good. "God bless America" does not necessarily fall into this trap, but it does whenever the petition contains an unspoken "and not them."

Utilitarian religion invariably imagines that God is more like us and less like them. This, of course, is the beginning of creating God in our own image. Religious people on both the left and the right presume themselves to be in the right, and so it only stands to reason that they are more like God than those who disagree with them. But this presumption that we are in the right is seldom a judgment dispassionately arrived at by considering the attributes and will of God. Often our "rightness" is relatively unexamined and based in little other than the fact that it is our position.

Christian faith, along with many other faiths, speaks of being made new and transformed. For Christians, this is a matter of becoming more Christ-like, which we understand as the ultimate human embodiment of godliness or being like God. Yet most of us Christians fall so short of being Christ-like that our critiques of other Christians who are not as in the right as we are border on being a farce.

Today's morning psalm touches on a few attributes of God "who executes justice for the oppressed." As the psalm continues we hear more about what God is like and cares about.

The LORD sets the prisoners free;
     the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
 The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
     the LORD loves the righteous.
 The LORD watches over the strangers;
     he upholds the orphan and the widow,
     but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

I've seen a few articles this week critiquing the Church for its failure to really address some of the great societal problems in our culture. Of late, the problem of racism comes easily to mind. These critiques were aimed more at the progressive sorts of congregations where I am most at home, and that might seem more likely to engage issues such as racism. Yet somehow much of our energy ends up going elsewhere. There are so many places where we do not much resemble the body of Christ, yet so much of what we do and how we do it remains unexamined and simply assumed to be right and correct.

The Apostle Paul writes, "If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation." Lord, make it so. Reshape us in your image. Trying to cast you in ours is not working out so well.

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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sermon: Giving Up Control; Letting the Spirit Lead - Empowerment through the Spirit: The Charismatic Tradition

John 14.15-17, 25-26, 15.26-27, 16.7-15
Giving Up Control; Letting the Spirit Lead
Empowerment through the Spirit: The Charismatic Tradition
James Sledge                                                                                       August 24, 2014

The Christian faith has its share of pithy sayings and proverbs that people can pull out in particular situations. They are a mixed bag. Some are helpful, and some are not. Some do a reasonably good job of capturing some facet of the Christian faith and life. Some distort it terribly. Some of these take on quasi-biblical status.  Many people think the saying “God helps those who help themselves,” is in the Bible. It’s not, of course. It is in Poor Richard’s Almanac by Benjamin Franklin, but the saying itself predates him. And it’s contradicted by many biblical teachings.
One of my least favorite of such sayings is one you’ve surely heard. “God never gives you any more than you can handle.” I suppose that some find this helpful, but I also know that it can inflict a great deal of pain to people who are already suffering, telling them that the experience that is leaving them broken and shattered is no more than they can handle. I wonder what Jesus on the cross would have said to someone who “comforted” him with this after he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Another of these little sayings gets trotted out when church people are in recruiting mode. When someone is asked to coordinate Vacation Bible School, teach a class, or take some leadership role but responds, “Oh I don’t think I have the gifts or abilities for that,” the recruiter may come back with, “God doesn’t call the equipped; God equips the called.”
If you’re not familiar with that one, you may want to write it down. “God doesn’t call the equipped; God equips the called.” It can come in quite handy when someone is on the fence, interested in helping but not certain she has what it takes. And while it can certainly be misused, unlike the previously mentioned sayings, this one is not only true but also biblical.
Our gospel reading this morning says as much. The Advocate, the Spirit will come and abide in Jesus’ followers. The Spirit will “teach  you everything,” says Jesus. “(The Spirit) will guide you into all truth.” As wonderful as it must have been to have been taught directly by Jesus, he says that it is to his followers’ advantage that he leaves them. They will be better off with God’s presence dwelling within them via the Spirit than they were having Jesus with them. And if Jesus is to be believed, those first disciples have no advantage at all over us. We can know all they knew, experience all they experienced, through the Spirit.
It’s only hinted at in our scripture this morning, but other places in the New Testament make clear that the Spirit empowers Jesus’ followers to do all sorts of things they could never have done on their own. Writing to the church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul says, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Everyone is given some spiritual gift that is an essential part of the body of Christ. And these are totally distinct from natural talents or abilities. They are, if you will, supernatural abilities.
I’m guessing that this term makes some people a bit nervous. Supernatural is not a word you hear bandied about very often in Presbyterian churches. For a variety of reasons, the Spirit has been the neglected member of the Trinity in Mainline churches over the years. We talk about God and Jesus, but we’re not quite sure what to do with the Spirit. Recent years have seen a big uptick in talk and interest in spirituality and so the Spirit. But even here, it is sometimes relegated to a very private, personal sphere, about my spirituality but not so much about the body of Christ and the work and ministry of the Church.
I recall a conversation I once had with a church leader about my wanting the Session, our Presbyterian governing council, to become a become a more spiritual body, one that spent less time discussing and debating what to do and spent more time seeking God’s will and guidance, discovering what God was calling us to do and so would bless and empower us to do. The person I was talking to looked very befuddled as I said this. She simply could not conceive of any way that church leaders could make a decision other than discuss it and do our very best to figure out what the right decision was. “God gave us minds and our reasoning ability,” she said. “We’re supposed to use those.”
I can certainly agree with that, but I can’t agree that there’s not more. God did not simply give us minds and some information in the Bible for us to do our best with. Jesus promises the Spirit, a presence who will be with us, teach us, guide us, and empower us.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Ferguson, Repentance, and Noble Lost Causes

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD.
    Lord, hear my voice! 

Let your ears be attentive
    to the voice of my supplications!  
Psalm 130:1-2

There are a lot of depths out there right now. From the terrorist force ISIS to the situation in Ukraine to the Ebola epidemic to the situation in Ferguson, there is much in the world to shake your head about and wonder what to do. Of course when it comes to doing, we Americans are enamored with the quick fix, and we imagine we can fix things with a different plan, a new leader, a new formula, or a few air strikes.

When problems are far too complex for quick fixes, we tend to declare them intractable or deny them altogether. And so the situation in the Middle East is one where "They've been fighting for centuries and they'll be fighting centuries from now." But in Ferguson, MO it's simply a matter of a few "thugs and hooligans" because racism is no longer that big of a problem.

In his remarkably short, second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln reflected on a war in which both sides read the same Bible and prayed to the same God for aid in defeating the other. And he wondered if the Civil War was not God's punishment on both North and South for the horrible sin of slavery.
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
Lincoln understood that the grievous sin of slavery had brought terrible and lasting consequences, ones for which quick fixes provided no real remedy. Firmly in that context did he conclude his address with a line often quoted, but not always connected to the quote above, which it immediately follows.
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
 I have to believe that Lincoln's assassination just a month later greatly impeded efforts to achieve a just and lasting peace.

I grew up in North and South Carolina in the 1960s and 70s. I did not really witness the Jim Crow era but my childhood was still very segregated. And the Civil War I learned about had nothing to do with America's atonement for her original sin of slavery. Instead it was a noble, lost cause. Even in the North, this sentiment often went unchallenged. And obviously, there is no need to repent of noble, lost causes.

Repentance is fundamental to Christian faith. When Jesus begins his ministry his first public words are, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." The good news Jesus brings requires a repenting, a turning from old ways, which naturally requires an acknowledgement that these old ways were the wrong way. But that never really happened with America's sin of slavery. Especially in my native South, this failure allowed us to replace slavery with institutions nearly as bad. Our unwillingness to confess and repent allowed the continued treatment of African Americans as less than fully human. It allowed white pastors to preach that segregation was ordained by God. And it continues to allow white Americans to underestimate, ignore, or deny the advantages and privileges we enjoy and the disadvantages and hurdles faced by African Americans to this day.

I do not know all the "facts" in the shooting of Michal Brown by a Ferguson police officer. But I do know that the Ferguson police have engaged in plenty of questionable behavior. I know that being young, male, and black puts one at considerably more risk of being confronted and killed by the police. And I know that a lot of whites would like to deny that this is so.

A fuller repenting of slavery by white Americans and especially by white southerners would not fix the racial problems in American, but it could change the dynamics. The failure to repent, to admit that the Confederate cause was not just a lost cause but also an evil one, is a refusal to acknowledge our sin. This shields us from blame for circumstances that emerged because of that sin and absolves us of a duty to help correct the problems. Our inability to repent denies that we or our forebears could have been part of a monstrous evil, and so it keeps us from recognizing the need to turn from the ways of our past in order to move toward the good news Jesus proclaims - a new day when all peoples and races and clans are one family, a new day with none of the "us versus them" divisions that we are so good at perpetuating.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD.
    Lord, hear my voice! 

Amidst all the troubles in the world, it is easy to despair that God is not paying much attention, that God is ignoring our cries and pleas. But it seems equally plausible that a bigger problem is our inattention and our ignoring Jesus' plea to repent, to turn from our ways and embrace his.

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Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sermon: Drawing Near - Intimacy with God: the Contemplative Tradition

Mark 14:32-42
Drawing Near
Intimacy with God: The Contemplative Tradition
James Sledge                                                                                       August 10, 2014

I’ve mentioned before that while in seminary, I had the opportunity to visit the Middle East. It wasn’t the typical tourist trip, but we still did plenty of the typical tourist things. That included a visit to the Garden of Gethsemane. Not that anyone knows exactly where this famous garden was, but that’s the case for a lot of sites in the Holy Land.
The Garden of Gethsemane is on the list of popular tourist stops because most Christians are familiar with the story of Jesus praying there prior to his arrest. It is a famous event that has been depicted in countless paintings and movies. But as familiar and well known as it is, I had never noticed something remarkably obvious about the story until just the other day.
Mark’s gospel gives us an intimate picture of that night. We see sleepy disciples who cannot manage to stay awake in support of their friend and teacher at his moment of greatest difficulty. We see an anguished Jesus who struggles to fulfill his call, hoping and praying repeatedly for some other way to complete his mission. “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”
Abba. It’s an Aramaic word that is a lot closer to “Daddy” than it is to “Father.” Abba was used by little children, a warm, familiar, intimate term. Jesus approaches God not as some far off, distant deity, but as someone with whom he has a close, intimate relationship. There is no religious formality here. Jesus pours out his heart to one he knows intimately as a tender and loving parent. He does so repeatedly, but Mark says nothing about God answering Jesus.
That’s the thing I had never noticed before. “Daddy,” Jesus prays and pleads. He gets up to check on the disciples, then comes back and prays and pleads again, “Daddy.” After another check on the disciples, Jesus prays again, but we never hear from God.
Mark’s gospel doesn’t say exactly how much time passed. Jesus mentions an hour, but I don't know how literal that is. Does he pray thirty minutes, an hour, two hours? We do not know, but in the end, Jesus is once again focused on his purpose. “Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”
What happened during Jesus’ prayers? Why doesn’t Mark, or the other gospel writers for that matter, tell us anything about what Jesus heard in those moments? What reassured him? What steeled his resolve? Does Mark not know? Or is it simply a level of intimacy not meant to be shared? Is it enough for us to know that Jesus has drawn close to God in prayer, as he had on so many previous occasions, and in those moments, what he must do became clear?

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Prisons of Meritocracy

Reading today's meditation from Richard Rohr, I was struck by this.
The mentality that divides the world into “deserving and undeserving” has not yet experienced the absolute gratuity of grace or the undeserved character of mercy. This lack of in-depth God-experience leaves all of us judgmental, demanding, unforgiving, and weak in empathy and sympathy. Such people will remain inside the prison of “meritocracy,” where all has to be deserved.
It was that phrase, prison of meritocracy, that really captured my attention. I think it aptly captures much that is askew with the American psyche these days. It is why we can blame victims, assume that the poor are such because they are lazy, and we are not poor because we are not lazy. It is why the suffering of some people doesn't impact us as much as others -- they clearly are implicated in their own suffering by virtue of some flaw or miscalculation on their part. But this prison of meritocracy is also why we may be devastated by our own suffering or that of someone close to us. It is so unfair (unlike other people's suffering).

As a pastor trained in theology, I know all about the unmerited gift of God's grace, about "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." But I also imagine that I'm somehow better at understanding and receiving this grace. It is a Christian version of American exceptionalism, at least the form of it that understands such exceptionalism as residing in our being "better" than others.

Perhaps you've noticed that being good is hard to do all the time. Being "better" is even harder. Trying to live into the notion of being better and therefore deserving is indeed prison-like. There is no freedom to relax and simply receive love from another or from God. It must be earned. There is no freedom to embrace the portions of self and others that seem not so good or deserving. They must be purged, but when that proves impossible, they must be denied.

Surely some of the partisan nastiness in present day America arises from our need to be right and deserving. We must get things right, and once we do we must guard against those who are wrong, in other words, who disagree with us. If people who are wrong get elected, things will fall apart because it all  hangs on us getting it right. We get what we deserve, after all.

Living in the DC metro area, one thing I see scarce little of (and I include myself in this) is serenity. Rarely do I encounter people with an abiding sense of inner peace or shalom. Prison will do that to  you.

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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

On Our Own

In the somewhat humorous account of events leading up to Gideon's victory over the Midianites (today's Old Testament reading), God repeatedly trims the number of Gideon's warriors so that there is no way the Israelites can take credit for the victory. An initial force of 32,000 men is whittled down to 300. The final cut produced by sending home all who drank water from a stream by scooping it with their hands and keeping only those who lapped the water with their tongues, "as a dog laps." If this tiny force is able to defeat an army of more the 100,000, clearly it will not be simply because of their military might or cunning.

As I read this ancient story, I couldn't help thinking about how rarely those of us who serve as leaders in churches attempt things we can't possibly do on our own. Perhaps the story of Gideon engages in a bit of typical Middle Eastern overstatement and hyperbole to reinforce its point, but that is no reason to dismiss its lesson. After all, it is a lesson Jesus seeks to teach many times.

Jesus speaks of the gift of the Spirit that will allow us to know the same closeness to God that Jesus knows, that will empower us to continue his ministry to the world. The first followers of Jesus spread his message across the Mediterranean world in a manner that can only be described as explosive. People with no real training in management, leadership, or organizational skills somehow manage to spread churches throughout the Roman Empire, a feat nearly as impressive as Gideon's.

I once stumbled across a quote that I cannot seem to relocate which suggested that the seeming absence of the Spirit in many modern, American churches had much to do with our never attempting anything that required the Spirit's power to complete. To borrow from the Gideon story, we don't take on anything unless we are reasonably sure our forces are sufficient and our resources are adequate. 300 against 100,000 plus? Never! We might not even try it with 80,000.

I'm working on a sermon about being empowered by the Spirit. An obvious question for such a sermon is, "What have we done as followers of Jesus that we could never have have imagined doing on our own?" What have you or your community of faith done? And if you are struggling to come up with something, what might you be able to do if you knew that the Spirit would assist you?

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Sunday, August 3, 2014

Sermon: Curing Restless Acquisition Syndrome - Sabbath and the Tenth Commandment

Exodus 20:8-11, 17
Curing Restless Acquisition Syndrome
Sabbath and the Tenth Commandment
James Sledge                                                                                       August 3, 2014

For all the attention that the Ten Commandments have received in recent years via court cases and movements to affix them to public buildings, I’ve never heard much discussion of the final commandment on the list, the one against coveting. That’s too bad because it’s one of the more interesting commandments. But it’s also understandable. What do you do with a commandment against wanting things that other people have?
Does God really get upset if I look at my neighbors nice, new Lexus and say to myself, “Man, I’d really like to have that car.”? What if someone finds her neighbor’s husband attractive and does a little flirting with him at a party? Where exactly are the lines with coveting? What exactly is the point of this command?
In truth, the command is not really a prohibition on wanting things that belong to others. The word translated “covet” refers not simply to desire, but inordinate desire, desire that leads to action and undermines the neighborly community that God dreams for humanity.
I think a lot of people assume that coveting is about people with less wanting what people with more have. But in the Bible, coveting usually works the other way round. It is about those with a lot wanting – and seizing –what belongs to those with little.
There are a number of coveting stories in the Bible. Some prominent ones involve kings, who have a lot. King David murders Bathsheba’s husband because he coveted her. But perhaps the epitome of coveting stories is the tale of Naboth’s vineyard, one of the cycle of stories around the prophet Elijah.
Naboth was just an ordinary guy who had the terrible misfortune to own a vineyard next door to King Ahab’s palace. Ahab thought it a choice spot to acquire, a great place to add a garden. And so he offered to purchase it. No real problem with the story so far.
But Naboth doesn’t want to part with his land, telling Ahab, “Yahweh forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” Naboth invokes God’s name because ancestral land was God’s doing. It was part of God’s design for a unique, neighborly community in which the wealthy would not acquire more and more, and the poor would not become destitute because hard times forced them to sell the family farm. God’s law even required that such land revert back to its ancestral family every fifty years, insuring that everyone would maintain a rightful share of the land. But of course the powerful and the wealthy, and especially kings, could usually find loopholes and ways around such regulations.
Ahab is none too happy that Naboth won’t sell, and he begins to pout. This allows Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, to enter the narrative. Jezebel is quite the villainess. I don’t know if that’s accurate history or if her nastiness is overplayed by the men who wrote the Bible. Always nice to have a woman around to blame. Just ask Eve.
Anyway, Jezebel points out the obvious. Ahab is king and can get what he wants. She then proceeds to manufacture a scenario where Naboth is falsely accused of cursing both God and Ahab, crimes punishable by death. And so poor Naboth ends up losing his life and his land, and Ahab, with Jezebel’s help, acquires what he was after, what he coveted.
Now Ahab has been a rotten king from the get go. And Jezebel had once tried, unsuccessfully, to have the prophet Elijah killed. But it is the events of Ahab and Jezebel’s coveting that finally cause God to pass judgment. Because of Naboth, Ahab’s lineage will no longer rule Israel, and Jezebel will suffer a particularly gory fate.