Monday, December 28, 2015

Changed into Children

There's a car commercial that's been running on TV during the Christmas season featuring adults acting like children and children acting like adults. The excited grownups rouse the children from their beds early on Christmas morning then run downstairs to see the new car in the driveway. The children follow them outside with cups of cocoa in hand, commenting on how it's all worth it to see the joy on the adults' faces.

I thought about this scene of adults reverting to childlike behavior when I read today's gospel. Jesus tells his followers, "Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." So does that mean to become like the adults who just found a Lexus as their Christmas present? Or is Jesus talking about something else?

Interpreting images such as this one can be difficult. "Childlike" can have all sorts of meanings, some good and some bad. And modern notions of childhood are vastly different from those in Jesus' day. Fortunately on this one, Jesus gives us an interpretive clue in his next sentence saying, "Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven."

I suppose humility came easily to children in Jesus' time. Childhood was short and children had little in the way of power or influence. "Arrogant child" would have been something of an oxymoron in first century AD, and this seems to be the sort of change Jesus urges his followers to embrace.

Because Christian faith has tended to be presumed in America (at least until fairly recently), the notion of faith changing us has often been absent. If you've been a Christian all your life, how can your faith change you? Of course the problem with this notion is obvious. With no expectation of faith changing me, the way I happen to be must be compatible with faith. I wonder if this notion doesn't have a lot to do with how American Christians can see whatever views they hold as not only compatible but also as integral to their faith.

Examples abound of those who think that patriotism, consumerism, unlimited access to guns, Democratic ideals, Republican ideals, etc. are not only fine with Jesus, but actually an essential part of Christian faith. And generally speaking, none of these positions involves any "change" that occured as the result of following Jesus.

It strikes me that there is a certain arrogance to assuming that my political, economic, social, or other points of view fit easily into the ways of Jesus. Jesus did not fit easily into many of the norms of his day, and a great deal of what he says still grates against the norms of our day.

If we are to become the children Jesus recommends, it will not involve getting a Lexus, or any other consumer item. Jesus says it will mean becoming "humble," and a good place to start might be considering how the norms and truths we live by are or aren't in keeping with the life Jesus tells us to live.

One constant to being a child is realizing there is so much you do not know. Growing up is a regular process of learning new things and casting aside old assumptions of what is true and certain. Surely the humility Jesus demands of his followers requires that we test and evaluate all we hold dear in light of his words.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Sermon: A Little Christmas... But Not Too Much

Luke 2:41-52
A Little Christmas… But Not Too Much
James Sledge                                                                                       December 27, 2015

I’m not sure what prompted me to use song lyrics in sermons two weeks in a row, but for whatever reason, as I studied the verses we just heard from Luke, a line from a Christmas song popped into my head. It’s a song I heard many times on the radio growing up, but I actually knew few of the words. I had to look it up and then discovered that it’s actually from the musical Mame. The opening chorus goes,
For we need a little Christmas Right this very minute,
Candles in the window, Carols at the spinet.
Yes, we need a little Christmas Right this very minute.
It hasn't snowed a single flurry, But Santa, dear, we're in a hurry;
The song ends with variation on the chorus.
For we need a little music, Need a little laughter,
Need a little singing Ringing through the rafter,
And we need a little snappy "Happy ever after,"
Need a little Christmas now.
With all the terrible things in the world, I’m sure that a lot of folks felt like they could use a little Christmas this year. Candles and music, a little laughter, and wouldn’t some happy ever after be great. Yes, who wouldn’t love a little Christmas. But not too much. A little will do for most of us, which may be why Luke tells the story we just heard, as a reminder of what Jesus’ birth is really all about.
When you think about it, it’s amazing how little we know about Jesus outside the last years of his life. Mark and John’s gospels make no mention of his birth or childhood. Matthew and Luke have brief stories connected to Jesus’ birth. And Luke alone has a single story of Jesus as a 12 year old boy in which Jesus speaks two brief sentences.
Christians have been curious about Jesus’ childhood from the beginning. There are writings that purport to tell of Jesus the boy, written during the church’s early centuries. But when the New Testament was put together and made official, those got discarded, and for good reason. They were fanciful accounts of Jesus animating clay animals, causing the death of a child who bothered him, even raising a playmate from the dead so he could testify that Jesus wasn’t the one who pushed him to his death.[1] Such stories were written by people of faith who imagined what Jesus might have been like, sometimes in absurd fashion, but Luke is not doing that.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Christmas Version of Strength and Bravery

In the biblical account of Christmas, two people are absolutely essential for God's plans to come to fruition. First, a young woman must bravely consent to become a part of that plan. Mary becomes a disciple before the fact, responding to the seemingly absurd message of the angel with, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word." Pretty darn close to, "Not my will but yours."

Today's lectionary speaks of the other person who must cooperate with God. In truth Matthew doesn't actually have a Christmas story. There are today's verses which speak of events well before Christmas and then the story of the Magi, which takes place long after Christmas. Nevertheless, the events from today's gospel are critical if Jesus is to have a family, if he is to come from the house of David.

If Mary is incredibly brave and faithful, Joseph comes across as remarkably righteous and kind. He's learned that his wife-to-be is pregnant, and not with his child. You'd think he'd be furious. You'd think he'd lash out. Instead he plans to follow the law and break his engagement, but in a way that is as gentle as possible. And I suppose you can say Joseph is also brave and faithful because he sign's on to the angel's crazy plan as well.

I think about the sort of strength and bravery and faith shown by these two people so critical to the Christmas story, and I wonder what they might think of all the noise and anger in our world at Christmas. I wonder how they would respond to voices that posture and claim to be strong by railing against refugees or Muslims. I wonder how they, who faced very real attempts to kill their son, would react to all the hysteria and fear in our world. I wonder if they would be dumbfounded that people who claim to follow their son can get so bent out of shape because someone says, "Happy Holidays."

As we celebrate the child who was born, in part, because of the quiet bravery and faith of Mary and Joseph, I hope we might learn something from them about the shape of strength and bravery and faith.

Grace and peace to you and yours in this season of joy and peace. Wishing you a wonderful and Merry Christmas!

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Why the Christ Child?

Christians everywhere are getting ready to celebrate. Christmas is only days away. Choirs are well rehearsed. Extra musicians are ready. Candles with small paper or plastic protectors await Christmas Eve worshipers. Perhaps there are Christians somewhere who won't observe a celebration of Jesus' birth, but I do not know of any. (When the "Pilgrims" first came to Plymouth, Massachusetts they outlawed all Christmas celebrations, a law that remained on the books well into the 19th century.)

But if there is near uniformity on the decision to celebrate, there is much less regarding the reasons for the celebration. Yes, we can all agree that the immediate reason is the birth of the Messiah, the Christ, a Savior. But what exactly is the point of this Messiah and Savior? What does his birth herald?

I don't know of any reliable statistics, but many of the Christians I know equate "being saved" by this Savior to mean getting into heaven. I saw a Facebook post recently which I assume hinted at this. It read, "Eternity is a long time to be wrong." The person who shared it - whom I know to be Christian - had added, "I have a good insurance policy." This was likely just meant to be humorous, but this is the good news of Jesus to many: an engraved invitation to heaven.

But if you had never heard of Jesus and sought answers to the meaning of his birth in a Bible, you might come to some very different conclusions.When Luke, the only gospel writer actually to report a birth in Bethlehem, begins the story, he starts with Jesus' mom. Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel, and she consents to be a player in God's plan. She then heads to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, already six months pregnant with a child who will become John the Baptist. There Mary launches into her "Magnificat" a song that celebrates what God is doing. That song is part of today's gospel reading.

It makes no mention of heaven. It does have a lot of details about earthly things, though. The proud are scattered, the powerful are brought down from their thrones, and the lowly are lifted up. The hungry get good things to eat, but the rich get sent away empty. And if you imagine that Mary didn't quite understand what this as yet unborn Savior was really all about, there are Jesus' own words when he begins his ministry. Jesus says that God's Spirit has anointed him "to bring good news to the poor... to proclaim release to the captives... to let the oppressed go free... (and) to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (This last one refers to the year of Jubilee from Leviticus 25 which has nothing to do with heaven but is decidedly bad news for the investor class.)

Neither Jesus nor Mary say anything about getting folks into heaven, but they both say a great deal about a tumultuous, social leveling, an upheaval where those at the bottom are lifted up and those and the top are brought down. If you reprinted some of these words in a non-church setting, I would be surprised if someone didn't accuse you of encouraging "class warfare."

The good news of Jesus does include the promise of eternal life and resurrection, although neither of these necessarily has anything to do with heaven. But at the very core of Jesus' message is a new social order he calls the kingdom of God. He chooses a political term for his new day because it has huge political implications. The powerful won't give up power easily. Those with great military might have no intention of turning swords or tanks into farming tools. The fabulously wealthy seem doggedly determined to hang on to what they have and to acquire even more. And so no one should be the least bit surprised that this Savior got himself killed. He was a threat to a lot of people.

Babies in mangers are not terribly threatening, making it easy to celebrate Jesus' birth without worrying too much about why he is born. But his mother lets us know what he is all about well before the big day. So if we celebrate with nary a thought about social upheaval, lifting up the poor, or freeing the oppressed, we seem to have missed the point in some way.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Sermon: A Foolish, Radical, Idealistic Vision

Luke 1:39-55
A Foolish, Radical, Idealistic Vision
James Sledge                                                               December 20, 2015 – Advent 4

Some of you may recall this line from Longfellow’s poem, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” better known to many as a Christmas carol.
            And in despair I bowed my head; “There is no peace on earth,” I said,
            “For hate is strong and mocks the song Of peace on earth good-will to men.”
When I was young, I loved the band, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. They had a Christmas song that U2 has covered in recent years, one that reminds me of that line from Longfellow.
They said there'll be snow at Christmas; They said there'll be peace on Earth;
But instead it just kept on raining, A veil of tears for the Virgin birth.
Looking at the world we live in, it is easy to be pessimistic and cynical. War, terror, shootings, hate, and  political discourse that sounds like middle schoolers trading insults on the playground. And that comparison may be an insult to middle schoolers.
Perhaps the most we can expect from Christmas is a warm moment, a upsurge in charity and goodwill, some gatherings with family or friends, and a bit of nostalgia. For hate is strong and does mock the angel song; and it’s more likely to rain than snow on Christmas.
A lot of people think that our world is in a horrible mess, that things are bad and getting worse. Many observers suggest that this presidential campaign looks different from some previous ones because so many voters are worried, anxious, and afraid. That’s why calls to “take our country back” or “make America great again” resonate.
Without minimizing the real difficulties facing our country and world, a lot of people in history would probably love to change places with us. Mary, Elizabeth, and Zechariah lived in a day when many children did not make it to adulthood, when disease often decimated whole communities, when most people lived in poverty while a handful lived in grandeur.
In Mary’s day the local governments was a puppet for Rome, and Rome dealt harshly with the slightest threat to Roman authority. Common criminals could be dispensed with the swing of a sword, but any who dared challenge Roman power would die an excruciating death on a cross situated in a very public place so everyone would get the message.
Our world has lots of problems, but the world Jesus was born into surely had at least as many. All those problems make Mary’s words sound naïve, hopelessly optimistic, or perhaps downright crazy.
When Mary launches into her song, she says that God has scattered the proud… brought down the powerful from their thrones, lifted up the lowly… filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.  Really, Mary? Have you looked around at the world?

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Sermon: What Should We Do? - Ethical U-Turns

Luke 3:7-18
What Should We Do? – Ethical U-Turns
James Sledge                                                   December 13, 2015 – Advent 3

Who invited John the Baptist to the Christmas party? The big day is less than two weeks away. If your house isn’t yet decorated, what are you waiting for? Trees are up, presents are already wrapped and under many. Most everyone is starting to get into the Christmas spirit. Congregations are starting to sing Christmas carols. And into the midst of the joy and cheer of the season comes John the Baptist.
I once tried to find a Christmas featuring John. I couldn’t, but leave it to the internet to correct such an omission. This one says, “Merry Christmas, you brood of vipers! Now repent!”
Of course Advent always has a big dose of John. We may be in a Christmas spirit, thinking about angels, a baby, and shepherds, but John screams, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” He speaks of an ax poised at the tree, of judgment and unquenchable fire.
Yet in our Scripture reading, people have sought out John. They seem to think he has good news in the midst of their troubled world. They do not run off when he calls them snakes and demands fruits of repentance. They simply ask, “What then should we do?”
What should we do? The question has been asked countless times. Three years ago, in my first December as pastor here, the Sandy Hook school shootings occurred just days before the third Sunday in Advent. Questions about what to do were everywhere. But little was done.
I had several church members ask me the question again right after the Charleston church shootings this year. A few suggestions came up, some online resources were shared, but then…
Charleston seems a long time ago. Cruel terror attacks have continued regularly around the world without us much noticing, but the Paris attacks jarred us, in the middle of a modern, Western democracy. Then came the Planned Parenthood shooting and then San Bernardino. And the question echoes over and over. What should we do?
For many Christians, our first response it to pray. That is certainly appropriate. To pray, to lift up those in San Bernardino or Paris or Beirut or Charleston; to hold them in the only embrace we can offer at that moment, is the closest thing to a hug we can give. Progressive Christians sometimes underestimate or even dismiss the power of prayer. Still, “thoughts and prayers” can feel like something to do without doing anything.
A colleague posted this on her Facebook page the day after the San Bernardino shootings.
Prayers are ringing hollow. Arguments on how to solve what seems to be an "American" problem go round and round with nothing changing. Many of us are weary, numb, and feel helpless to put a stop the madness. I'm afraid we have simply rolled over and accepted that murder is a given part of our national landscape. Oh well. We aren't the only culture ever to have done so. Power and violence are not the same thing, but too often they go hand in hand. Collective outrage doesn't seem to be doing a damn thing!
Blame whoever or whatever you want to blame. What scares me the most is that it really doesn't matter. Pray. Get angry. Write a letter. Send a check. It won't really matter until... until what? That's what I'd like to know.[1]

Friday, December 11, 2015

Loving Our Neighbors

In light of the current climate of fear, hate, and anti-Muslim sentiment, the Session (governing council) of Falls Church Presbyterian Church has approved the following statement.

We are grateful to worship God in a nation that explicitly protects our freedom to do so. We affirm the freedom of others to practice as they so choose, whether they profess different creeds, a different faith, or no faith at all. We know we are living in a troubled world—we are angered by injustice, we are grief-stricken by senseless violence, we are heartbroken by cruelty. But we renounce attempts to use our anger and grief and heartbreak to stoke fear. We reject messages that tell us to be afraid of outsiders. We condemn the persecution of and discrimination against believers and non-believers around the world, regardless of whether such actions target and victimize Christians, Muslims, atheists, or those of other faiths. We further condemn the encouragement of and incitement to such persecution and discrimination whether initiated by politicians, the clergy of any faith, or violent sects claiming the mantle of religious authority..
We remember that God says “Fear not, for I am with you,” (Isaiah 41:10).
We remember that our God has given us a spirit of power and of love, not a spirit of fear (2 Timothy 1:7).
We remember that God’s perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:18).
We will, with God’s help, work to do as God commands, practicing forgiveness, standing up for those who are persecuted, and welcoming one another, as Christ has welcomed us, for the glory of God (Romans 15:7)

Wednesday, December 9, 2015


The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD, 
when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the LORD.
They shall wander from sea to sea,
and from north to east;
they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD,
but they shall not find it.
Amos 8:11-12

People come to churches for lots of reasons, but presumably a good many church attenders have some hope of hearing God's word. They may not express it that way, but they hope to have some sort of encounter with the divine. Why else would people go and listen to a pastor read from the Bible and then talk for 15, 20, 30 minutes? Most of us aren't really all that funny or entertaining. Surely people could find a better way to spend their time if they were just looking for a show.

Likely some attendees are hoping to hear that God agrees with them, and very often we pastors are happy to oblige. If you like your religion liberal, a liberal pastor will tell you about a liberal God. If you like your religion conservative, a conservative pastor will tell you about a conservative God. I suppose that a certain amount of this in unavoidable. God is hidden enough that we probably can't help doing a bit of projecting ourselves onto God. But I worry we've gone way past that.

Perhaps you are familiar with this quote from writer Anne Lamott. "You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do." I suppose it's a fairly easy move for people who like God and know God likes them to assume God is on "their side." I fall into that one from time to time. But I worry that we've gotten so good at twisting God to our own purposes that we can neither see nor hear the genuine thing. We've entered into a famine like the one Amos describes, a famine of our own making.

The recent hate-filled, bordering-on-fascist statements by Donald Trump, a candidate who says he's Presbyterian and enjoys a fair amount of support from conservative Christians, have rightly brought an avalanche of condemnation. But the very fact that Mr. Trump can spew the hatred he does, seemingly unaware that it might conflict with the teachings of Jesus, speaks to the level of famine we are experiencing. We have become so accustomed to shoe-horning God into our particular political, social, cultural worldviews that we've come close to obscuring the real thing.

The Session of the church I serve is currently weighing a number of options for responding to the fear mongering and hate that has become so prominent in our country of late. By Sunday we will likely have approved two or three ways to repudiate this hate and to show support for our Muslim neighbors. I don't see how we could not. There is no way to love our Muslim neighbors without doing all we can repair the damage, to show kindness to people who have very real reasons right now to be terrified of some of their neighbors.

That said, all the options we are weighing come fairly easily to me and to many in this congregation. They fit neatly into our political, social, and cultural worldviews. Without hesitation I can say that they are completely consistent with and faithful to the word of the Lord. But is that because we have heard the word of the Lord, or is it, to some degree, simply a happy accident?

In the biblical witness, the word of the Lord tends to create a fair amount of discomfort and disruption. It calls people from where they are to something new. Jesus says that it requires us to deny self and embrace the cross. (Here "the cross" means suffering that I could avoid.) The Word of the Lord made flesh, the Incarnation we celebrate at Christmas, has amazing power to get people to drop everything and go in directions they have never imagined, but I worry that such a Word is rarely encountered in our churches today.

One good thing about biblical famines; they never last forever. I suspect the same is true of any famine we may be in now. But I also wonder how many of us are starving without ever realizing it. We're wasting away on a steady diet of words of our own making, perhaps dimly aware that something is amiss but never suspecting we are in the midst of a famine.

In the Beatitudes Jesus says, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." (In Luke's version it's, "Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.) There is a promise to fill our longing, but if we don't even know we're hungry...

"And the Word became flesh and lived among us." Lord, help us long for your Word.

Monday, December 7, 2015

That's Not Christian

I think I'm getting a tiny taste of what it must feel like to be a typical Muslim at a typical mosque when people twist Islam to justify their hate or violence. It happens when I hear someone like Jerry Falwell, Jr. encouraging Liberty University students to get concealed-carry permits so they would be able to "end those Muslims before they walked in."He even joked about "what I have in my back pocket right now..." chuckling as he asked, "Is it illegal to pull it out? I don't know."

Falwell later clarified that he was speaking of Islamic terrorists when he said, "those Muslims," but I don't think that helps at all. Worse, I'm certain that people both inside and outside the Christian faith are saying to themselves, "This is what Christians believe." But that cannot be if they are truly followers of Jesus. That is my response.

In some of the most strained biblical interpretation I've ever heard, Falwell claims that Jesus' words, "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's" somehow justify the use of deadly force. Falwell is talking about the same Jesus who stops his own followers from pulling swords (the concealed weapon of choice in those days) to save his life, adding, "For all who take up the sword will perish by the sword." This is the same Jesus who demands love of enemies. But now some people hear Jerry Falwell, Jr. and think to themselves, "Jesus approves of my gun and my hatred/fear of Muslims." And others think to themselves, "Jesus tells Christians to carry guns and hate me."

That is a lie, a gross misrepresentation of Jesus and his teachings. Yet it is a lie that far too many embrace. And those of us who are followers of Jesus have been terribly negligent in allowing such lies to go unchallenged. As my Muslim friends know well, challenging those who co-opt faith for their own agendas of hate is no easy task. Challenging others' lies does not mean that people stop accepting those lies as truth. Yet followers of Jesus are called to be people of truth.

It is common in America to hear calls for moderate Muslims to do more to repudiate radical Islam. (No amount of such repudiation is sufficient for some.) But American Christianity needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror on this issue of misrepresenting the faith.


From time to time, I'm made the case for retiring the term "Christian." I think it largely meaningless, a paper thin veneer that too often implies nothing in the way of actually following Jesus' teachings. I am constantly amazed at the ways "Christians" on both the left and right trivialize faith and imagine it lines up neatly with their own personal and political preferences. I'm not speaking of how we fail to do all that Jesus asks of us. (We all fall short on this.) Rather I'm speaking of a total failure to see the many ways that Jesus' call is totally incompatible with our culture, our politics, our fears, our aspirations, etc.

Jerry Falwell, Jr. may well be a "Christian." He may well "believe in Jesus," though I'm never quite sure what that means. But I am convinced that he is not following Jesus. And he is sullying the Savior's name in the process.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Sermon: Sound and Fury

Luke 3:1-6
Sound and Fury
James Sledge                                                               December 6, 2015 – Advent 2

In the final act of the play, shortly before his own death, Macbeth learns that Lady Macbeth has died, prompting him to launch into a brief soliloquy ending with these famous words. “Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Macbeth seems unimpressed by our sojourn through mortality. I hope he’s wrong about life being a poorly told tale with lots of noise, but ultimately meaningless. Yet we might well borrow his words to describe a great deal in our world.
 If you frequent Facebook or Twitter or other social media you know something about sound and fury. The internet overflows with bombastic speech with no hint of nuance. People hurl unequivocal statements at one another, apparently unable to imagine that their opinions could have the slightest flaw, or that their opponents’ opinions a sliver of truth. And right now there are many such posts about guns and Muslims and Islamic terror.
Social media are often just a less polished versions of the talking heads so prominent on so-called “news channels.” There is much sound and fury, but is sometimes difficult to say if there is anything more. And in the wake of events like Paris or San Bernardino, the sound and fury can be deafening.
But for the ultimate in sound and fury, nothing tops what passes for political discourse in our age. Such noise is bipartisan, but perhaps because of so many candidates, each needing to get noticed, the Republican presidential field surely pushes the sound and fury meter to absurd levels. This past week even more so.
In such a climate, where does one go to hear a word that is wisdom and truth? Where are we to find a word that actually signifies something? Who has a word to give meaning and hope and life?

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Where Is God?

"You give your mouth free rein for evil,
     and your tongue frames deceit.
You sit and speak against your kin;
     you slander your own mother's child.
These things you have done and I have been silent;
     you thought that I was one just like yourself.
But now I rebuke you, and lay the charge before you.
Psalm 50:19-21

Another shooting. We almost expect them these days. When you walk into the room and tell folks the news about the latest, no one says, "Oh, I can't believe it!" They may gasp, but then they look downcast and say, "Not again." 
What are people of faith to say and do at such times? Very often, I wish they would say a lot less, other than an occasional, "Lord, have mercy." Like others at such times, people of faith would like answers, would like things to change, would like some way to fix things. Naturally some mine their faith for answers and solutions, sometimes grasping desperately and ridiculously. Some will declare that the pain and violence in our world are somehow punishments from God. Some will even imagine that the victims somehow "deserved it." 

Other people of faith will react very differently. Such moments bring their faith into question. "How can God allow such things to happen?" This actually strikes me as a much more faithful response. The Psalms are filled with cries of "How long, O LORD?" where the faithful state their case and wonder in anguish why God does not intervene. One of today's morning psalms speaks (or perhaps hopes) of such long delayed intervention. The psalmist insists to the wicked (In this psalm God's judgment is aimed at Israel.), that God will not remain silent and inactive forever.

But where is God now?

I suppose that God might ask the same of us. It is our society and our culture of gun violence after all. We certainly bear responsibility, but I will leave that discussion for another time. For the moment, and especially in light of our obvious ineptitude, why doesn't God do something?

If I were God... Surely most of us have imagined such a scenario, and in it, surely we have done something to fix things. All that power at God's disposal. Either God doesn't really exist, or God doesn't act and react in the least bit as we do.

I saw this on Twitter shortly after I learned of the shootings in San Bernardino. It's a quote from Thomas Merton. I don't know if it was tweeted in response to the shootings or not, but it seems appropriate. “Into this world, this demented inn, where there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ comes, uninvited.” 

This demented inn... That seems an apt description of our world. And if the Christian story is to be taken with any seriousness, God's response to our demented state is to come to us and live among us in a manner totally at odds with our ways. Jesus hangs out with the wrong folks, loves enemies, serves the last and the least, speaks truth to power, and calls folks to follow him in embodying an entirely different manner of living. It gets him killed, of course, How could it not. But even the certainty of death does not turn Jesus aside from his strange way of confronting the brokenness, sin, and demented nature of our world. And the story insists that even in death, he triumphs.

I have to admit that on some days this is not enough for me. I want God to "do something" more in the manner that I would. But Christ is the heart of faith I proclaim. And it is this faith that at times takes root deeply enough in me to seem more real than the reality of this demented inn we inhabit. And if Christ is indeed alive, and if we in the Church are indeed his body, then we do have some notion of how we are supposed to react to the brokenness, sin, and demented nature of our world.

But for the moment, all I can muster is, "Lord, have mercy; Lord, have mercy."

Monday, November 30, 2015

Hoping... Because of God

It seems a bit strange to read today's gospel passage. Just as we are getting into Advent and folks are starting to decorate church sanctuaries for the season, here is Matthew's account of Jesus entering Jerusalem on "Palm Sunday." Not very Christmasy.

As Jesus enters into the city, the crowds shout, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!" It all sounds so wonderful and exciting, greeting this king who enters triumphantly into the city of David. Of course Jesus will be dead in just five days.

All those people who celebrate Jesus' entry into Jerusalem apparently lose their excitement by Friday. That's not to say that the crowds who shout "Crucify him!" are the exact same crowds yelling "Hosanna!" just days before, but no one takes Jesus' side on Friday. No one is hailing him king. They've all come to their senses by then. Rome is the real power. What were they thinking? All those Hosannas are long forgotten.

It strikes me that Christmas functions for a lot of us a bit like Palm Sunday did for the people of Jerusalem. We'll jump up and down about Jesus. We may chastise those who don't seem to realize that Jesus is the "reason for the season." We may even get all huffy at those whose holiday greetings don't keep Christ in them. (I wonder if there were any arguments in the crowd about the appropriate scriptural passages to use for hailing Jesus' entry. Did anyone correct people who just said, "Go, Jesus!"?) But once Christmas is over, Jesus will recede until next Advent when we can be bothered by the commercialization of Christmas or "Happy Holidays" all over again.

The crowds that hailed Jesus as he entered Jerusalem said the right things. They correctly identified Jesus. He was the king entering into the city of God's king. But the crowds had no notion of what it meant to serve or follow this king. In fairness to them, they knew nothing of the cross and the resurrection. They had no real reason to think that this Messiah who was betrayed by one of his own inner circle, who was so easily done away with by the powers that be, could possibly be God's anointed.

We say we know better. We know about the empty tomb and Pentecost and the Holy Spirit. And yet, I still don't act all that different from the crowds of Jerusalem. I hail Jesus when it is easy or fun or comfortable, but bail when it gets difficult. I'm happy to claim Jesus as my king, but I'm pretty selective about which of his commands or teachings I'll actually follow. And looking at politics and public opinion in America, I'm clearly not alone. A lot of people are quick to embrace the label "Christian," to speak of America as a "Christian nation," and then proceed to act in such un-Christlike  ways that it's little wonder less and less people are attracted to the Christian faith or the Church.

But despite no one sticking with Jesus once Palm Sunday gave way to Friday, God's plans moved forward. Easter was not dependent on enough people "getting it" or liking Jesus on their Facebook page. Easter did not happen because of anyone's faith or belief or prayers. Easter happened simply because of God. And that is a bit of good news and hope to hold onto in a day when people like to shout Jesus' name yet seem filled with anything but peace and hope and love.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sermon video: Heads Held High

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sermon: Heads Held High

Luke 21:25-36
Heads Held High
James Sledge                                                               November 29, 2015 – Advent 1

What are the things that weigh heavily on you, that cause you to lose sleep at night? I’ve read several articles talking about a growing fear of terrorist attacks among Americans. And we’ve all seen this fear being aimed at Muslims.
Perhaps your worries are more immediate, financial concerns. The economy is better than it was a few years ago, but not for everyone. And in a region with the economy so tied to the federal government, and with a largely dysfunctional Congress, who knows when another sequester or other budget mess might arrive.
Or maybe you’re concerned about getting into the college of your choice, graduating from school, or getting a decent job when you do. What will you do if you don’t get in? Or what if that job you’re hoping for doesn’t pan out? Or what if it doesn’t pay enough to live on?
Perhaps your worries and anxieties are of an entirely different sort. Health, relationships, retirement, the environment, and many more possibilities can leave people feeling anxious, burdened, and weighed down.
But now comes the Christmas season, a time of year that is supposed to fill us with joy and good cheer. Bathed in Christmas lights and feasting on a steady diet of Christmas music and broadcasts of It’s a Wonderful Life, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, we can enjoy a respite from all our worries.
I’m sure this works for some folks, but for a lot of people, the holidays and Christmas season just leaves them feeling more stressed out.
When I lived in Columbus, Ohio, I volunteered and served on the board of a non-profit that worked to help people dealing with mental illness lead productive lives. It was staffed and run by people who themselves were living with various mental illnesses. One happened to be a member of the church I served which is how I got connected with them.
Most every year as the Christmas season approached, the good folks at Partners in Active Living would ask me to do a presentation on faith, mental health, and the holidays. For a lot of clients at Partners, Christmas made them feel worse rather than better. Most were living on limited incomes, and the focus on gifts and buying only reminded them of that. For those dealing with depression, the idea that they were supposed to be joyful and cheerful seemed like added pressure. In addition, long years of struggle with mental illness had often frayed family relationships and caused estrangements from parents, siblings, or children. Christmas could be lonely.
For a lot of the clients at Partners, the difficulties of day to day life were enough to leave them feeling weary and heavily burdened. Christmas sometimes felt like “piling on.”
I was careful never to proselytize when I did my “Christmas and Mental Illness” presentations, but I never pretended to be anything other than a pastor. A lot of clients had religious baggage connected to their mental illness and family estrangements. And so they often wanted to talk about faith with me.
A revelation for me in these discussions was how relieved some were to hear that our culture’s obsession with Christmas was neither biblical nor part of Christian tradition for most of history, and how much some of them preferred Advent to Christmas. In most congregations, people are itching to get to Christmas. I was warned in seminary that if you don’t start singing Christmas carols by the third Sunday in Advent you’re going to get yourself in trouble. But many at Partners would have been happy to stay in Advent.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thanksgiving and Religious Stereotypes

I have many things to be thankful for. The list is long enough that I won't even try to catalog them here, but I will mention the special blessings I've received this year via friends at the Institute of Islamic and Turkish Studies in Fairfax, VA. Not only did my congregation have the wonderful opportunity to break the Ramadan fast with the congregation from IITS's Ezher Mosque, but I and pastors from several area congregations enjoyed a ten day trip to Turkey with their Imam, Bilal, thanks to their generosity and hospitality. In fact, the "Thanksgiving Feast" pictured here is actually one of several meals our group enjoyed in people's homes in Turkey.

While visiting Turkey, we were received with amazing graciousness and hospitality. We feasted on wonderful food. And we experienced remarkable warmth and love from people we had never before met. This was in part because of the hospitality that is a big part of Mediterranean culture, and because such hospitality is a central part of Islam, as it is with Judaism and Christianity.

As I give thanks for my friends at IITS and in Turkey, I am saddened and frightened by the tone of political discourse that speaks openly of registering Muslims. That sadness only deepened as I read an article in yesterday's Washington Post entitled, "Americans are increasingly skeptical of Muslims. But most Americans don't talk to Muslims." The article contains the startling statistics that a majority of Americans thing Islam is at odds with American values while 70 percent of Americans have seldom or never spoken to a Muslim.

People who are my friends, people who have treated me with the utmost courtesy, hospitality, and respect, are being demonized and scapegoated in large part because ridiculous stereotypes of Islam go unchallenged by actual encounters and experiences with living, breathing Muslims.

Most of us are familiar with disgusting stereotypes of Jews, African Americans, gays, etc. But most of us also know at least a few Jews, African Americans, gays, etc. and so we know real people who don't fit the stereotypes. Apparently most Americans cannot say that with regard to Muslims.

I have a troubling suspicion that this is also the case for many Americans and Jesus. Based on a lot of rhetoric that gets passed off as "Christian," I have to wonder if these people have ever met the Jesus portrayed in the pages of the Bible or if they only know some popular stereotype of Jesus they encountered who knows where.

There are ridiculous stereotypes of Jesus on both the left and the right. In the worst cases of both, there is a willful attempt to reshape Jesus to fit people's particular political views. But the bigger problem seems to be similar to that with Muslim stereotypes. People simply accept stereotypes because no actual experience with Jesus challenges them.

Especially for Protestants, this problem is largely one of failing to regularly and seriously engage with the Scriptures. Huge swaths of American Christianity seem perfectly content to assume that the Jesus of the Bible largely conforms to their stereotypes. They may even know of a few Bible passages that buttress that stereotype, but their Jesus almost never confounds or challenges them. Yet the biblical Jesus did that on a regular basis, both with the religious establishment of his day and with his own followers.

When you hear Donald Trump or some other candidate talking about Muslims, who is that to you? What comes to mind when you hear the words Muslim or Islam, and where do these images come from? And what about Jesus? What comes to mind when you hear his name, and where did that image come from?

Seems to me that with both Islam and Jesus, a lot of foolishness, a lot of hate, and a lot of harm, arise because people have so little experience with the reality of either.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Sermon: Embracing the Truth

John 18:33-37
Embracing the Truth
James Sledge                                                   November 22, 2015 (Christ the King)

“What is truth?” That is Pilate’s response when Jesus says, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." And so Pilate cuts off Jesus’ attempt to engage Pilate the man, the person behind the persona.
On the surface, Pilate is the most powerful man in all of Jerusalem, in all of Palestine. He is Roman governor, with the power and authority of the Roman Empire and the might of the Roman army at his disposal. He has the power of life and death over Jesus and countless others. Yet the gospel of John describes a scene where Pilate is the one on trial, where he is a pawn caught up in events he cannot control.
In John’s account of Pilate’s trial before Jesus, Pilate is a tragic, even comic figure. Amidst all his trappings of power, he must scurry back and forth between Jesus and the Jewish authorities gathered outside, and as the events unfold, Pilate grows more and more frightened, and more and more aware that he is trapped. So much for all that power.
In the portion of this trial that we hear this morning, Jesus responds to Pilate’s questions with questions of his own, or answers that reshape the conversation. In a manner reminiscent of his conversations with Nicodemus or a Samaritan women at a well, Jesus invites Pilate to see things differently. Even at his own trial, Jesus reaches out and ministers to Pilate, offering him a chance to let go of assumptions and patterns that trap him, to grow and step into the truth. But it is more than Pilate can do. It would be far too costly for him.
I think most any modern politician can appreciate Pilate’s predicament. Think of all the ways politicians and office holders find themselves boxed in, unable to speak what they truly believe or think. Are all those increasingly absurd statements about Syrian refugees and Muslims really heartfelt, well-reasoned responses? Or do the people making them feel forced to speak a certain way, trapped just like Pilate.
People regularly trash politicians for dancing around the truth, for the way they “spin” and massage the truth, but there is often a price for them to pay if they don’t. Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, most all discover that their notions of power and control are as much illusions as was Pilate’s. There are things they must say and do, and things they cannot.
But I need not pick on politicians. Fact is, most of us live behind masks and personas. Perhaps not so blatant as Pilate’s or some politicians, but there are plenty of times when I am frightened of the truth, when I’m not inclined to let Jesus draw me out of my fears.
As a pastor, I am supposed to know and embody certain things. There are certain assumptions about who I am and how I should act. Some of those are my own assumptions that I have acquired from God knows where, and some are assumptions that others have for me. Much like Pilate, I can find myself caught in these assumptions and expectations without much thought for truth.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Fear and Foreigers

The Old Testament book of Ezra tells of events when Jewish exiles in Babylon are permitted to return to Israel and begin rebuilding Jerusalem. Prophets had spoken of a day when exiles returned and Jerusalem became great again, surpassing the glory of David and Solomon. But it didn't work out quite that way. Jerusalem remained a shell of its former self, an insignificant, backwater town.

Naturally there were people who looked for something or someone to blame. Perhaps they weren't pure enough to please God, and some began to look with suspicion on those who had married "foreign wives." (In the companion book of Nehemiah, 13:1 cites Deuteronomy 23:3-6 and its ban on Moabites and Ammonites from the assembly of Yahweh.) Eventually Ezra, in today's Old Testament lectionary reading, orders the people, "Separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives." That likely would be a death sentence to many women and children, but God demands purity.

Interestingly, the Old Testament has another book that takes an entirely different point of view. The title character in the book of Ruth is a Moabite, and the great-grandmother of King David no less. If Ezra's rule had been enforced in her time, David might never have existed. The story of Ruth lifts up a Moabite woman as a paragon of virtue and faithfulness. She is a "foreign wife" like those Ezra banishes in the name of the purity God demands.


There is a good bit of worry and fear associated with foreigners in our day. Some are terrified of the threat posed by Syrian refugees, and quite a few governors have declared they want no refugees in their states. The issue is not religious purity, though some have proposed letting in only Christian refugees. But in both our day and Ezra's, the foreigner is viewed as a danger. And when people think they are in danger, they often act is ways they later regret. Whether Ezra later did so in unknown, but the book of Ruth and the teachings of Jesus certainly repudiate Ezra's actions.

In the New Testament epistle of 1 John, we find the famous line, "Whoever does not know love does not know God, for God is love." And just a few verses later it adds, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear." My love certainly isn't perfect, and so I have my share of fears, but when my actions are driven primarily by such fears, it seems highly likely that I will be acting in ways contrary to those of the God who "is love."

Like Ezra, I can always find a verse of Scripture to justify my actions when I am afraid, but I'm pretty sure that means I'm reading my Bible incorrectly.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Sermon: Forgetting, Remembering, and Waiting for God

1 Samuel 1:4-20
Forgetting, Remembering, and Waiting for God
James Sledge                                                                                       November 15, 2015

Hannah’s story is a personal one, but it is not just about her. She lives in a time when Israel is in disarray and chaos, fragmented into tribes that sometimes fight one another, threatened by the powerful Philistines. The hope and promise from the days of Moses and Joshua are gone. Hannah’s personal despair mirrors that of Israel.
Hannah despairs because she is childless, something understood as a curse from God. Yahweh had closed her womb, the story tells us twice. God, it seems, is Hannah’s enemy.
Hannah lived in a patriarchal society where the value of women was largely limited to child bearing and nurture. A woman who could not have children had little in the way of other options for a fulfilling life, and her husband’s other wife never let Hannah forget that. She tormented her, a pain only intensified by the annual trips to Shiloh where each family member offered sacrifices at the sanctuary of God. Sacrifices to the one who had cursed her.
Her husband  Elkanah loves her and doesn’t think her worthless, but his efforts to cheer her up fall a little flat. “Why are you so sad? Why won’t you eat? After all, you have me.” Even I know better than that, and my wife says I’m clueless.
Elkanah isn’t the only clueless guy in the story. Eli the priest stumbles badly himself. He’s there in the temple when Hannah comes in, walking right past him. She makes no notice of the priest, taking her case straight to Yahweh. She has a bitter complaint. God has forgotten her, and she longs to be remembered.
Eli totally misreads her, thinking she’s drunk because she moves her lips without speaking. That seems pretty thin evidence. Maybe he’s not used to women barging right by him and dropping on the floor before God.
Hannah quickly sets the priest straight, but then adds, “Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman…” That is the problem. In her world, she is considered cursed and worthless.
I’m not certain how to read Eli’s response. He does seem sympathetic, but when he says, “the God of Israel grant the petition you have made…” is that a promise, or merely a hope? However Eli means it, Hannah goes home glad.
I occasionally have someone share a crisis with me and ask me to pray for her. I’m happy to do so, and I hope my prayers provide some comfort. Still, I don’t know that either of us thinks the situation changed after I’m finished. I’m not sure anyone goes home glad.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Church Newsletter for Advent

Our congregation produces a quarterly newsletter. Here is my upcoming piece for the Winter edition.
Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
As I write this it is a beautiful, autumn day. Some trees still cling to brightly colored leaves. Thanksgiving is still two weeks away, but one of my neighbors already has up his Christmas lights. And we’ve had the first salvo in the annual “War on Christmas” silliness, thanks to those atheists at Starbucks who removed the snowflakes, those ancient symbols of Christ’s birth, from their seasonal cups.
I’m not much bothered by early Christmas decorations, or by what retailers put on their cups or store decorations. I’m not offended if the stores are already playing Christmas music. Surprised and amused, perhaps, but not much more. I do, however, sometimes lament the loss of Advent. I don’t suppose that stores or malls ever did Advent, but I do miss it when it fades away in churches.
The Presbyterian Book of Common Worship has a liturgy for lighting the Advent candle on the four Sundays prior to Christmas. It begins, “We light this candle as a sign of the coming light of Christ. Advent means coming. We are preparing ourselves for the days when…” What follows is a list of that grows longer each week and speaks of swords beaten into plowshares, nations no longer learning war, wolves making peace with lambs, the desert blooming, and a young woman who bears a child named “God with us.”
“Advent means coming.” It’s a coming that is not of our making. We can prepare. We can work to make it more visible, but only God can bring the promise. That means that Advent is also about waiting.
I am not very good at waiting. I’m impatient and sometimes impulsive. I’m even worse at waiting for God. I am very much a product of our culture that values busyness and productivity. But God’s ways are very different from mine, and over the years I’ve discovered that a deep experience of God requires prayer and stillness and silence and waiting.
Advent requires waiting. It is an active, expectant sort of waiting, but it is waiting nonetheless. Yet too often we rush toward Christmas, trying to manufacture joy and cheer, trying to make Advent into one long and extended Christmas celebration.
I’m not suggesting that we should be dour and somber until Christmas Eve, or that we hold all the Christmas carols in reserve until that day. (I would prefer we not pack up the carols so quickly after Christmas.)  I do, however, think it important to cultivate the spiritual disciplines of waiting and of preparing for what God will do. Expectant and faithful waiting that trusts in God’s promises is crucial to living as the body of Christ in Advent and throughout the year.
Some years ago John Buchanan, then pastor at Fourth Presbyterian in Chicago and editor of The Christian Century, wrote a piece entitled “Deepening Darkness.” In it he described the busyness of the holidays on the Magnificent Mile portion of Michigan Avenue where the church sits. “The sidewalks are filled with shoppers. Buses arrive daily from the suburbs and nearby states, disgorge their shoppers in the morning and pick them up, exhausted and heavily laden, in the evening. We sit in the middle of it all with the somber purple color and sing hymns in a minor key.” (The Christian Century, 11-28-2006)
I wonder what sort of witness a faithful observance of Advent might offer to our busy, hectic and anxious world.
Grace, peace, a blessed Advent, and a Joyous Christmas,

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Sermon: Bad Ole Moabites and Wrestling with Scripture

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
Bad Ole Moabites and Wrestling with Scripture
James Sledge                                                                                       November 8, 2015

The Old Testament book of Deuteronomy shows Moses reminding Israel, just prior to their entering the land of promise, of all the covenantal requirements and obligations of the Law. Moses will not enter the land with them, and this is his final act before handing leadership of Israel over to Joshua. Here is part of what he says. “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted…”
Now if you’re worried that I’ve gotten confused about the scripture readings for today, let me assure you that this has everything to do with Ruth. But to make that clear, we probably need to go back to the beginning of her and Naomi’s story.
As the story opens, there is a famine in Israel causing Naomi, her husband, and two sons to flee their homeland. They become refugees, not so different from Syrian refugees in our day. They are in danger and at the mercy of those they encounter. And in the case of Naomi’s family, they end up in the land of those bad ole Moabites Moses warned them about.
The story doesn’t share any details of what happen when Naomi’s clan arrives in Moab. But clearly they are allowed to settle there. They are able to make a life, and when her husband dies, Naomi’s family is sufficiently a part of the community that her sons are welcomed to marry two of the local girls, Orpah and Ruth.
But then the situation changes dramatically. Naomi’s two sons die. I’m not sure we modern people can fully appreciate what a dire situation this is. As a widow without male children, Naomi was in grave jeopardy. She was too old to be married again, and she had no one to provide for her. As a woman, she could not inherit or own property. With no husband, no sons, and no grandsons, her husband’s lineage was at an end, and she was powerless and destitute.
Then Naomi learns that the famine in Israel has abated. This does not offer much hope, but it is all she has. She heads back hoping some relatives or friends will take pity on her. She may still be destitute, but it seems the best chance she has. And so she starts out for home, her daughters-in-law accompanying her. But Naomi knows this is not a good idea.
Naomi has no way to provide for herself, much less for Orpah and Ruth. They are still relatively young. If they return to their own families, perhaps they will care for them, even find new husbands for them. Orpah and Ruth protest. They want to remain with Naomi. But she insists, and finally Orpah relents and leaves, weeping as she goes.
But Ruth will not leave. She casts her lot with Naomi, and they return to the land of Judah and to poverty. Ruth is now the refugee, dependent on the hospitality of strangers. She tries to help Naomi by gleaning, picking up the grain that gets dropped during the harvest.
The story of Ruth is one of several in the Old Testament where God’s name is mentioned and invoked but God does not seem to be an actor in the story. Which is not to say that God is not at work. Ruth goes to glean in the fields and by “chance,” ends up in the field of Boaz, a relative of her long dead father-in-law.
Boaz does not recognize this refugee gleaning in his field, and so he asks who she is. No one seems to know her name. She’s just a refugee, after all. They tell him, She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. I’m not sure why they need to say she’s a Moabite from Moab. That’s like saying, “I’m an American from America.” But it does make perfectly clear that she is one of those bad ole Moabites.
When Naomi and her family fled to Moab, their survival depended largely on whether they encountered hostility or hospitality there. Now Naomi and Ruth’s survival depend largely on whether Ruth encounters hostility or hospitality from the people of Judah, and especially from Boaz. God’s providence has steered Ruth to the field belonging to a relative of Naomi’s husband, but we know nothing of him or what he thinks about hungry refugees or bad ole Moabites. At least we don’t until he gives his workers special instructions to look after Ruth, praises her for her care of Naomi, and gives her food and drink.