Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sermon: Wishes, Hopes, and Dreams

Luke 1:67-79 (Isaiah 2:1-4)
Wishes, Hopes, and Dreams
James Sledge                                                               November 30, 2014 – Advent 1

When I was a boy, way back in the 1960s, one of the things my brother and I most looked forward to was the arrival of the Sears Christmas catalog. I’m not talking about the regular catalog, a massive thing several inches thick. This was a specialty catalog, though still quite large, geared toward children and Christmas.
Now I realize some of you have never laid eyes on a Sears catalog of any sort, but bear with me for a moment. Way back when, before the internet, the Sears catalog was the place you could find most anything you wanted, the of its day. And the Christmas catalog was filled with toys and games and bikes and most anything a child might want for Christmas. My brother and I would spend hours going through it, marveling at all the wondrous things in it. Some of this was research, looking for potential presents from Santa, or gift suggestions for relatives. But a great deal of it was mere, wishful thinking, a child’s version of “What I would buy if I won the lottery.”
I assume most of you have engaged in such wishful thinking. Who hasn’t occasionally imagined winning the lottery or wished for an impossible haul of Christmas presents.
Speaking of wishing, in Brian McLaren’s We Make the Road by Walking, the chapter for the first week of Advent makes a distinction between wishes, on the one hand, and hopes and dreams, on the other. He writes, “Desires, hopes, and dreams inspire action, and that’s what makes them so different from a wish. Wishing is a substitute for action.”[1] One needn’t agree with McLaren’s exact semantics to get his point. There are different sorts of longing. When someone dreams of running the Marine Corps Marathon she may well start a training routine that will hopefully allow her to finish the race. It is a dream that motivates, very different from, “Oh, I wish I could win the lottery.”
When Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed, “I have a dream…” what he was doing had little in common with my looking at spectacular presents I would never get and saying, “Wouldn’t that be grand.” He was speaking of something he dedicated his life to, that he worked diligently to achieve, a real possibility. It was a prophet’s dream.
Prophets, Dr. King, the biblical sort, are connected to God’s dream, the future that God is working to bring. Prophets seek to align people with that dream. When biblical prophets predicted gloom and doom, it was never a precise “This will happen on such and such a date.” It was a call to change, to turn from ways that will lead to destruction. And in the same way, when prophets spoke of a day when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, it was never a magic formula or timetable. It was an intimacy with the hopes and dreams of God, an assurance that God would bring history into line with those hopes and dreams. The biblical prophets knew, as the prophet Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Offering Thanks for the Impossible

"How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years." So asks Zechariah. "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" asks Mary. Part of the angel's response to Mary might well have been said to Zechariah, too. "For nothing will be impossible with God."

It is so easy to look at the newscasts and headlines and become cynical. Syria, ISIS, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Hong Kong, Ferguson. Partisan bickering and a seemingly broken political system able to do little beside blame the other side. Church pastors are sometimes prone to a cynicism born of congregational life. Pastors can pour heart and soul into declaring God's word, into speaking what they hear God saying, and then see people who say, "Nice message," but seem totally untouched by it. The burnout rate for pastors is quite high, and I've spoken with a few such pastors who tell of frustration and cynicism born of congregations who are experts at modelling the ways of world and culture, but seem little interested in modeling the way of Jesus.

In my own moderate, "progressive" end of the church spectrum, there is sometimes a lot of squeamishness about the Spirit or the power of God working through us. We may resonate with Jesus' call to love others and help the poor and the marginalized, but we imagine that the only power at our disposal is the gathered gifts, talents and resources of our particular group.

In the face of all these forms and sources or cynicism, I am thankful to be confronted once more with the texts of Advent, with voices of prophets who proclaim that God's purposes will come to pass, with the words of Gabriel, "For nothing will be impossible with God."

We modern, sophisticated people sometimes imagine that we have plumbed the limits of what is possible. We "know" which biblical texts are true and which are the fanciful inventions of ancient writers, and we imagine God is bound to our logic and our understandings of how things are.

But from time to time, I catch glimpses of a reality not bound to my logic or beholding to my cynicism. Here and there, I brush up against the power of God that does not acknowledge my notions of what is or isn't possible. And as we enter another Advent, ancient texts speak again of such things. I hear once more that "nothing will be impossible with God," and I recall the fleeting brushes with that power I have known. Small tears appear in the garb of cynicism that I too often wear, and hope peers through. And I am thankful.

Thanks be to God for the hope that is bigger than my cynicism, and a Happy Thanksgiving to you.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ferguson, Advent, and God's Dream

In the aftermath of last night's rioting in Ferguson, Jeff Krehbiel, a friend and colleague, posted this quote on his Facebook page.
It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.
These words are from Martin Luther King, Jr. Clearly he was not addressing the events in Ferguson, but the words ring true for today's headlines and for today's America, regardless of those who say that racism and the civil rights movement belong to the past.

In our church staff meeting this morning, we read Isaiah 2:2-4, which includes the famous words, "They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." In light of events in Ferguson, it felt appropriate to hear a prophet's vision of "days to come," a time when people will "walk in (God's) paths."

Prophets are good at sensing God's dream, and holding it up to us. Dr. King was able to do that. "I have a dream..." he said. He cast a vision of a different day, a new day, a day God dreamed of and so a day that must someday be. And that dream called people to action, to service and sacrifice in a long and difficult journey toward those "days to come."

The events in Ferguson occur just before the first Sunday in Advent. The Presbyterian Book of Common Worship contains a litany for the lighting of Advent Candles that says, "We light this candle as a sign of the coming light of Christ. Advent means coming. We are preparing ourselves for the days..." and the words that follow speak of swords transformed into farming implements, wolves living with lambs, the desert blooming, and Immanuel, God with us. But all too often, all we are not preparing ourselves for any of these things. We are simply getting ready to celebrate another Christmas.

I have nothing against celebrating Christmas, but to do so without attending to the prophetic vision, to God's dream, seems to miss the point somehow. Outside the Church, the coming weeks may be about nothing but decorating and shopping and listening to Christmas music, but that cannot be for us if we are to be the body of Christ.

We celebrate Christ's birth because it is proof that God is engaged in the world, in history. We celebrate Christmas because it is the beginning of our call to be participants in making that dream visible. And so Advent must be a time when we recall the vision of "days to come," when we remember that God is faithful, and God's promises will bear fruit. Advent and Christmas should be a time when all Christians recommit ourselves to the prophetic visions of Isaiah and Micah and Martin Luther King, to God's dream of a day that is surely coming.

Regardless of the exact sequence of events in Ferguson, regardless of where "fault" lies in the shooting, the grand jury decision, or the unrest that followed, we who follow Jesus are called to show the world a different possibility. We are called to embody and work for that prophetic vision, that divine dream that so easily dissipates in the face of cynicism and hopelessness.

If we are to prepare during Advent and celebrate at Christmas, surely it must be because we have good news for the citizens of Ferguson, especially for those who have lost all hope. We must be able to declare, "God is with us. God will strengthen us as we give ourselves in service to the prophetic vision and divine dream." We may not be able to bring the Kingdom in all its fullness, but we can make it visible and tangible and so help create hope. Otherwise our Christmas is little more than an exercise in nostalgia and manufactured cheerfulness.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Preaching Thoughts on a Non-Preaching Sunday (Ezekiel 34:11-24)

Some of you likely recall the old Beatles song from The White Album entitled, “Piggies.” The four, short verses were set to a fun, bouncy little tune, but the words contain biting, social commentary. Here are the first three verses.
Have you seen the little piggies
Crawling in the dirt?
And for all the little piggies
Life is getting worse
Always having dirt to play around in
Have you seen the bigger piggies
In their starched white shirts?
You will find the bigger piggies
Stirring up the dirt
Always have clean shirts to play around in
In their styes with all their backing
They don't care what goes on around
In their eyes there's something lacking
What they need's a damn good whacking
Little piggies and bigger piggies. The prophet Ezekiel makes a very similar move, but being Jewish, he can't use pigs. Instead he speaks of lean sheep and fat sheep, offering the same sort of social commentary George Harrison did with his song. Ezekiel joins a long line of God’s prophets who speak of judgment against the wealthy who enjoy the good life at the expense of the weak and the poor.

I don’t know that the world has changed all that much from Ezekiel’s day. America has had  rather remarkable run where a large, middle class enjoyed the fruits of the economy, but many fear that this is breaking down, that our economic system is becoming more and more skewed toward the wealthy, the one percent, the bigger piggies, the fat sheep.

But Ezekiel insists that God will intervene on behalf of the lean sheep, the scattered and hungry sheep. God will seek out the lost and bring back those who have strayed and been battered and injured. And this claim is all the more remarkable given the people to whom Ezekiel speaks it, exiles in Babylon.

The notion that God will protect the sheep and bring them home is an audacious claim to make in the face of the awesome power of the Babylonian Empire. They are a great superpower that has easily smashed cities of Judah and destroyed the capital of Jerusalem. The palace and the great Temple built by Solomon lie in ruins, all the finery from both now contained in the Babylonian treasury. What possible hope can the displaced remnant of Israel have in the face of such power?

But Ezekiel insists that despite all evidence to the contrary, God is sovereign. Not King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon nor the gods of Babylon, but Yahweh. And Yahweh will rescue the sheep who now find themselves at the mercy of powers and principalities that seem to hold all the cards. But why should anyone believe such a thing?

You may have seen the recent news reports documenting how the economic doldrums we've experienced since 2008 have impacted charitable giving. Strangely, giving by the wealthiest Americans, the people who have benefited the most from the stock market rebound, has decreased. At the same time, those toward the bottom of the economic ladder, who have seen little of the "recovery" we've been in for the last five years, have increased their giving. Fat sheep and lean sheep; bigger piggies and little piggies.

I heard a pastor this week speak on church stewardship, quoting the statistics above. He said something about those with wealth having to give an account of what they have done with their riches. Not language much used in our day, but it is the same sort of language Ezekiel uses. "Thus says the Lord GOD to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep." And Ezekiel is pretty clear that God is on the side of lean sheep, of little piggies.

But why should anyone believe such a thing? Clearly, many do not. We have confined God to a narrower and narrower slice of our lives. Even many who are believers reduce that to "believing in Jesus" and therefore receiving a heavenly prize. Many more dismiss with God's power altogether. They may even "belong" to a church but their money is theirs, to do with however they see fit. No account to God for them.

Today is Christ the King Sunday. Many churches will mark this in their worship, but it won't really seem much different from any other Sunday. All that will change in the coming weeks as we draw close to Christmas. (We'll call it Advent, but often that simply means "pre-Christmas.") Attendance will swell and sanctuaries will get all decorated. We'll enjoy all the glad tidings and good cheer, but it won't really change anything. The great thing about a baby Jesus is he doesn't speak, nothing like that pesky adult Jesus who sounds a lot like Ezekiel at times.

Christ the King, our ruler, master and Lord, or so we say. Christ the King falls on the last Sunday of the Christian calendar, the culmination of the year that begin in Advent. Our king is the one who lived and preached and died and was raised. And this risen Jesus commanded his followers, us, to make disciples, "teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you." I'm assuming "everything" includes all that stuff about caring for the poor, about wealth making it hard to enter the kingdom, and so on. But why should anyone believe such a thing?

I guess that is the crux of the matter. Do we dare believe such a thing? Not do we believe in God or Jesus? Not do we go to church and therefore hope God is well disposed toward us? But do we believe that Christ is Lord of all, seated above all the great powers of our day, above all the armies and technology and wealth? Do we believe that we are called to follow him and obey him, and that whether or not we do ultimately matters? Do we?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Retrieving Jesus

A church member recently shared with me a Nov. 9th NY Times opinion piece by James Carroll entitled "Jesus and the Modern Man." A couple of quotes from it grabbed my attention. The first had been lifted out of the piece, reproduced in large print and so was unavoidable. "Retrieving the centrality of Christ can restore the simplicity of faith." The second struck me as I read the essay. It spoke of the current pope saying, "For this pope, the church exists for one reason only -- to carry the story of Jesus forward in history, and by doing that to make his presence real. Everything else is rubrics."

That such a thing needs to be said at all seems strange. Of courses the Church is about, above all else, Jesus. And yet, how easily he can slide from view in the day to day life of that institutional thing the Church -- whether denomination or congregation -- is tempted to become. Our theological statements would never say such a thing, but our practicalities often refute our stated theology. My own denomination's constitution speaks of the Church as "the body of Christ" and says it "is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life." (Book of Order F-1.0301) In reality, however, the Church will often seek to preserve its own life at all costs.

How easily the Church's mission becomes maintaining its structures and buildings, protecting its ways of doing church, or providing a religious product that is appealing to its "consumers." Nominally, at least, all these things can make some appeal to the person of Jesus, but practically, Jesus often disappears from view as congregations spend countless thousands of dollars to maintain facilities that sit vacant most of the time, argue incessantly about institutional details, or agonize over what new program might entice more participation. How easily we lose sight of Jesus as we become so focused on those "rubrics" that we forget who we are.

The 21st century is a time of great anxiety for most churches in America. Church participation has fallen precipitously; we have become less relevant culturally;, and many congregations have closed or will soon do so. In these anxious times churches often look for someone or something to bring them back. New pastors may be viewed like new head coaches who will be judged on how quickly they "turn things around." A slew of books, consultants, and organizations will show you new methods and programs that promise to increase worship attendance, build your youth program, or draw in those notoriously difficult to attract millennials. But what happens when, in the midst of all th is, we lose our focus on Jesus?

There is much to be learned from books, consultants, and organizations. Pastors have a key role to play in building congregational vitality. But absent Jesus, does it matter how successful our "rubrics" are? If the Church does not make Jesus known to the world, if we do not, in some way, incarnate Christ to and for the world, does anything else really matter very much?

"Retrieving the centrality of Christ can restore the simplicity of faith," says James Carroll. And within that simplicity can also be found the beauty of faith, the meaning of faith, and the relevance of faith. It may even be that the reason so many find the Church irrelevant to their lives is because those "rubrics" we devote so much time and energy to have nearly obscured Jesus.

And so, what might happen if we not only said but actually lived out this truth? "The Church exists for one reason only -- to carry the story of Jesus forward in history, and by doing that to make his presence real."

Monday, November 17, 2014

Faith, Works, and an Advent Swallowed by Christmas

Supposedly the great church reformer, Martin Luther, lobbied for removing several books from the New Testament. He thought they ran counter to his understanding of the gospel's focus on grace and faith. One of these was the Epistle of James, and a line from today's reading in that book surely bothered Luther.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
In the years and centuries since Luther, Christians, especially those of Protestant extraction, have created an often false dichotomy of "faith versus works." This has typically reduced faith to belief, creating a popular theology of "believing in Jesus" in order to get a ticket to heaven. Huge swaths of Jesus' teachings are dismissed, and we are left with what Brian McLaren aptly labels "a gospel of evacuation." Faith has little to do with earthly life. It is simply a cosmic insurance policy with premiums requiring mental assent to a certain doctrines.

I find myself thinking about faith and works and evacuations as the season of Advent draws close, as I begin looking at familiar prophetic passages about spears beaten into pruning hooks, good news offered to the oppressed, and release to the captives. These passages will likely make appearances in many congregations' worship during Advent, but our culture, and often the Church, has little use for Advent, other than as a warmup for Christmas.

Over the years, Christmas, originally a rather minor date on the Christian calendar, has largely swallowed Advent. The secular observance and commercialization of the holiday have certainly contributed to this. But so has a faith disconnected from living in ways that prepare for God's kingdom, lives that work for peace, for freeing the oppressed, and releasing the captives. When faith becomes about nothing more than believing a few things, what's to get ready for?

I'm glad James didn't get taken out of Protestant Bibles. It's a good reminder that faith is more than believing in God or Jesus. Luther knew that. After all, he was happy to leave in the Gospel of Matthew which ends with Jesus commanding those first disciples and the Church to go out and makes disciples of all peoples through baptism and by "teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you." If you've not read it, Matthew has lots and lots of works commanded by Jesus.

Learn more about the lectionary.

Sermon video: Doing the Impossible

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sermon: Doing the Impossible

Matthew 25:14-30
Doing the Impossible
James Sledge                                                                             November 16, 2014

Most congregations have a story or two about doing the impossible. There’s the congregation formed in the midst of the Great Depression, when everyone said it was a terrible time to try to start a church. But a group of people felt God’s call and saw the need for a congregation, and somehow, despite the difficult times and financial hardships, a congregation was born and thrived.
There’s the congregation that felt called to begin a comprehensive ministry to the poor in their community. They dreamed of converting an unused store near their church into a facility with job training, food pantry, health clinic, and after school tutoring. The rent on the building was well beyond the church’s small budget, and they did not have sufficient volunteers. But the church leadership decided to do it anyway, trusting that they would find the money and volunteers. And despite all the obstacles a new ministry was born and thrived.
There’s the famous story of the youth group at Spring Valley Presbyterian in Columbia, SC, gathered for a Super Bowl party. A seminary intern offered a prayer asking that as they enjoyed their Super Bowl festivities and food, they might be mindful of those who had nothing to eat. Some youth decided they wanted to do more than be mindful, but what could a youth group do in the face of a problem so big as hunger? Nonetheless they contacted other local youth groups, and at the next Super Bowl they collect nearly $6000 for hunger relief. The Souper Bowl of Caring was born and thrived. Since 1990 it has collected more than $100,000,000 for hunger, including over $8,000,000 this year alone.
There are countless such stories. Some who have been around at FCPC for a long time may well know some such stories from this congregation that I’ve not heard, and I’d love for you to share them with me.
Of course, there are plenty of times in plenty of congregations when someone said a provocative prayer or someone pointed out a pressing need, and nothing happened. There is much that works against doing the impossible. Fear of failing afflicts many of us, and churches can be particularly paralyzed by this fear. Money, of the lack thereof, often seems an insurmountable obstacle, and worries about money feed into the fear of failing. In our day, many congregations worry about surviving. Almost every US denomination is experiencing significant numerical decline, and the millennial generation is more disconnected from the church than any in recent history. A lot of church people are worried, and congregations worried about survival tend to get cautious and timid and rarely risk the impossible.
The congregation for whom Matthew writes his gospel was surely worried about survival. These were Jews who followed the Jewish Messiah, Jesus. But life as not all that easy for Jewish Christian in the latter part of the 1st century.  The Romans had destroyed Jerusalem and its spectacular Temple a few years earlier. And while this did fulfill Jesus’ words about the Temple’s destruction, it also threw Judaism into turmoil.
The loss of the Temple put an end to priestly form of Judaism focused on sacrifices and offerings at the Temple. Rabbinical, synagogue Judaism, the movement begun by the reform minded Pharisees, became dominant. Trouble was, as rabbinical Judaism became the norm, the Jewish followers of Jesus, who also called the synagogue home, found themselves labeled heretics. They were told to keep quiet about Jesus if they wanted to remain members of the synagogue, and they did want to remain members there.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Sermon: Forsaking All Others

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
Forsaking All Others
James Sledge                                                                                       November 9, 2014

Choose this day whom you will serve… but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord, (Yahweh). So says Joshua in one of those signature lines from the Bible. Of course there are other options. Joshua even mentions a few: the gods their ancestors served back in Egypt or in the wilderness, or perhaps the gods of the people in the land where they now live.
Bob Dylan once put is slightly differently in song called “Gotta Serve Somebody.
You’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Choose this day whom you will serve is part of something called a covenant renewal ceremony. God had made a covenant with the people of Israel, and Joshua takes them through its history and what that means. Then, in something akin to the renewal of marriage vows, the people once more state their loyalty and fidelity to the God known as Yahweh, to God and God alone. In fact, they could well have used a line from the old, traditional wedding liturgy, “And forsaking all others, be faithful only to you…"
We have a covenant renewal ceremony in our worship today. We have one any time someone joins the church or is baptized, and it has its versions of Choose this day whom you will serve, put away the foreign gods that are among you, and “forsaking all others.”
Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?
Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior, trusting in his grace and love?
Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love?
Choose this day whom you will serve. Forsaking all others, be faithful only to Christ. Put away the foreign gods that are among you. Of course that last one doesn’t really connect with us. Foreign gods, the god our ancestors served beyond the river or back in Egypt. What does any of that have to do with us and our lives?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Post-Election Theology

As on who can be labeled a "progressive Christian," I'm not among those celebrating yesterday's election results. I'll admit to a certain level of disappointment and even depression over the morning headlines, but I also think that we on the right, left, or middle tend to overstate the events of the moment.

Perhaps it arises from the immediacy of our culture, with information and results available instantly with the click of a mouse or finger to the touchscreen. Or perhaps it is simply human nature to imagine the good or bad things happening to me at this moment have tremendous significance because, after all, they are happening to me.

There certainly are long term trends in our world that concern me: the growing gap between rich and poor, the way campaign financing has become a big-money, free-for-all, or the seemingly unavoidable impact of climate change. But the realization that climate change is a near scientific certainty says very little about any particular weather event. Similarly, we may not want to draw overly large conclusions from any election.

So what conclusions to draw? For me such questions are always filtered through a theological lens. That means I wonder about the ways in which religion and faith enter into elections (often in ways that distort or undermine key tenets of that religion or faith). Even more, I wonder about what the curious twists and turns of politics say about the human condition, about the power of sin to distort us, and about the possibility of that power being broken or diminished.

We live in anxious times, and fear and anxiety seem to amplify the problem of sin. Fear tends to focus me more on me and mine, making it more difficult to consider the needs of the other. From a basic, Christian perspective, that moves me away from Jesus' command to love the other as much as I love myself. But if my ability to love others requires me to have enough excess for myself that there are leftovers, then I don't really love others as myself. Neither do I really trust God. Instead I must secure mine at the expense of the other. God will not provide, and so I must, a view often expressed in that non-biblical quote, "God helps those who help themselves." (Not only is this proverb, popularized by Ben Franklin, not to be found in the Bible, but it is quite contrary to the biblical witness.)

We "progressive Christians" like to think we are better at loving the other. After all we are willing to pay higher taxes to benefit those less fortunate than us and support a higher minimum wage even if it raises prices a bit at the store or restaurant. But even if it is true that we are better at one facet of following Jesus, I suspect that we are merely myopic in different ways from those Christians celebrating yesterday's election. I don't think we are any better at the more fundamental issue of trusting ourselves to God. And so we are just as prone as those with differing views to think the sky is falling when people who disagree with us get elected.

I'm not arguing for stoicism or passivity here. Rather I'm saying that if we come to politics or the big issues of the day from a Christian perspective, we cannot measure where things stand based simply on whether I am pleased with things at this moment. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was far from passive, but his dedication to his work was rooted in a deep faith and did not come and go based on the day's headlines. Dr. King could say, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice," not because he was winning in the polls, but because he trusted in a God who is a God of justice.

That brings me back around to the question of how the the power of sin to distort and deceive us can be broken. And here I must confess to an all too typical, "progressive" problem: the tendency to think of progress as an almost entirely human enterprise. We have been prone to see Jesus as a philosopher and moral teacher divorced from his claims to be part of God's movement on the stage of history. We have been prone to embrace Christ's words on loving neighbor and lifting up the poor while ignoring and even disparaging his words on the power of God's Spirit at work in us and through us. We have imagined that the kingdom, that new day of God Jesus proclaimed, is about convincing everyone to agree with Jesus (and us). We have done far to much trusting in our powers of reason and persuasion rather than the power or God. But deep down, I know better.

And so while I am not all that happy this morning, while I do worry that there will be serious consequences from yesterday, ones that some who celebrate today will later regret, I do not despair. For I do not believe that the fate of the world or history finally and ultimately rests with us. If the Christian claim of resurrection means anything, it surely means that the very thing that seems to be the victory of forces opposed to God can become the means by which God's purposes are fulfilled.

But we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews (think "good, church folks") and foolishness to Gentiles (think everyone else), but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power and wisdom of God.  - 1 Corinthians 1:23-24

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Sermon: On Being Children and Saints

1 John 3:1-3
On Being Children and Saints
James Sledge                                                               November 2, 2014 – All Saints

Some of you may be familiar with the writings of Kathleen Norris who has authored books such as Amazing Grace, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, and The Cloister Walk. The title of that last one comes, at least in part, because Norris, a married Protestant, spent nine months as an oblate in a Benedictine monastery. The book as a chapter entitled, “The War on Metaphor.” In it Norris describes attending an event for a group of Protestant clergy, mostly Lutherans, where the poet Diane Glancy did a poetry reading. As a way of introduction, Glancy said she loved Christianity because “it was a blood religion.” The audience gasped in shock, says Norris, who goes on to say that Glancy shared how she appreciated the Christian faith’s relation to words and how words create the world we live in. But Norris worries that we Christians have lost our sense of the power of words, and especially of metaphor. She writes:
My experience with Diane (Glancy) and the clergy is one of many that confirms my suspicion that if you’re looking for a belief in the power of words to change things, to come alive and make a path for you to walk on, you’re better off with poets these days than with Christians. It’s ironic, because the scriptures of the Christian canon are full of strange metaphors that create their own reality—the “blood of the Lamb,” the “throne of grace,” the “sword of the Spirit”—and among the name for Jesus himself are “the Word” and “the Way.”
Poets believe in metaphor, and that alone sets them apart from many Christians, particularly people educated to be pastors and church workers. As one pastor of Spencer Memorial - by no means a conservative on theological or social issues - once said in a sermon, many Christians can no longer recognize that the most significant part of the first line of “Onward Christian Soldiers, marching as to war” is the word “as.”
…This metaphoric impoverishment strikes me as ironic, partly because I’m well aware, thanks to a friend who’s a Hebrew scholar, that for all the military metaphors employed in the Old Testament, the command that Israel receives most often is to sing. I also know that the Benedictines have lived peaceably for 1500 years with a Rule that is full of terminology, imagery, and metaphors borrowed from the Roman army. [1]
I’m inclined to think that our “metaphoric impoverishment,” as Norris calls it, extends to the terms “children of God” and “child of God.” In current usage, these are often little more than flowery ways of saying “human being.” Indeed to suggest that the terms do not apply equally to all people sounds almost fundamentalist.
I can appreciate why. Especially to our metaphorically impoverished ears, where words simply impart information, to apply “child of God” in a non-universal fashion, is to engage in the worst sort of exclusivism where some people matter and some do not, where some have value, and some do not. But “child of God” is no pedestrian label.