Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Becoming Fully Alive

What makes someone fully alive? What things are truly life-giving? The answers to such questions motivate a great deal of human activity. Why do people get themselves deeply into debt acquiring all manner of possessions and experiences? No doubt they expect these to somehow enhance their lives, to make them more alive.

I saw this quote the other day on the Twitter feed of Eugene Peterson, Presbyterian pastor and author of numerous books including the Bible paraphrase, The Message. "The American self characteristically chooses advertisers instead of apostles as guides." In other words, we trust advertisers to lead us into a fuller and deeper experience of life than we do the messengers Jesus commissions.

As preeminent consumers, Americans are convinced that the secret to life lies in "more." We need more money, more things, more experiences, more stimulation, more information, etc. You don't have to look at this situation very carefully to see the parallels with addiction. No amount of "more" is ever enough, and people's lives can become totally occupied with the search for "more." Sometimes faith or spirituality become a part of this addictive pattern. People can seek to add spirituality or faith as another "more" in the hopes that this will be the one thing they lack. But Christian faith has always been more about letting go than about getting more.


When Paul writes to the congregation in Galatia (the letter providing the second of the daily readings for this week), he is speaking as an apostle of grace. He is talking about how true aliveness comes as a gift and not an accomplishment. This sometimes gets lost when we reduce Paul to formula. "Believe the right things and go to heaven." But Paul never says anything like that. For Paul, salvation was never about going to heaven. He did fully expect to experience resurrection just as Christ had, but he insisted that the faithful experienced a new and wonderful aliveness in the present. And it is a gift, he says.

We Protestants, with our focus on grace and faith, have been prone to distorting Paul's teachings in a particular way. We've very often turned faith into the thing we must do to get the prize. Faith becomes our effort, the "work" we must do in order to get the "more" of salvation. It is easy to see how this can happen. If we are saved by "faith in Christ," that does sound like we have to believe in order to be saved. Yet Paul says that our restored relationship with God is not our doing, that it is a gift. How to make sense of this?

It turns out that the phrase "through faith in Christ" could just as easily be translated "the faithfulness of Christ." In fact that seems a much more likely translation to many scholars. It also seems much more in keeping with Paul's emphasis on new life - on our being fully alive - coming to us as a gift and not an accomplishment. For Paul, aliveness is not something that can be gained through a consumer type pursuit. It cannot be acquired. It is not the "more" of all "mores." It is the gift of all gifts.

Perhaps you have experienced how incredibly alive it feels to fall in love. But as wonderful as love is, it cannot really be acquired in any conventional sense. People will do all sorts of things and spend all kinds of money because they are in love, but this is the result of love and not what leads to it. Here love is a lot like grace, and of course God's grace is all about love.

In Jesus, God's love (often an unrequited love) comes to us, longing for us, seeking us no matter the cost. And how wonderfully and remarkably alive it feels to fall into that divine love.

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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sermon: The Teacher and His Teachings

Mark 4:1-34
The Teacher and His Teachings
James Sledge                                                                                       January 25, 2015

I assume that many of you are familiar with what is typically called “The Jefferson Bible.” Thomas Jefferson never actually called it that. His title was The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. It isn’t an entire Bible. It’s a retelling of the four gospels, merged into a single narrative. It seems to have been primarily for Jefferson’s personal use, and it wasn’t published in his lifetime. But it gained popularity over time and can be purchased in paperback from for $4.99.
Jefferson was a deist who did not believe in miracles or the Trinity. He had no use at all for clergy and thought much of the New Testament had misrepresented and corrupted the pure teachings of Jesus. And so he set out to fix that.
Jefferson took a King James version of the Bible and, using a razor, cut out, rearranged, and pasted together verses from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. He took out all references to miracles, and he ended with Jesus in the tomb; no resurrection. He saw himself distilling something pure and useful from the corruptions of ignorant and superstitious New Testament writers. He wrote of this distillation process in an 1813 letter to John Adams. “There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging, the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.”[1]
Few of us are as ambitious as Thomas Jefferson, but many of us, perhaps most of us, engage in a little distilling when it comes to Jesus. Perhaps we are uncomfortable with miracles ourselves. Maybe the notion of bodily resurrection unnerves us. Maybe it’s something else altogether, but you don’t have to look with much care at the wide variety of Christian belief and practice to realize that there are a lot of different versions of Jesus floating around out there.
Surely one of the more common, and least controversial, is the one Jefferson so loved: Jesus as teacher par excellence.  During my time in churches, I’ve seen parents who have no real connection to a congregation, who do not attend worship or participate in mission, who nonetheless drop off their children for the Christian education hour so that they can get a little “moral instruction.”
I’ve got no problem with moral instruction. I would think that Jesus is all for children receiving moral instruction. But the fact of the matter is, very little of Jesus’ teachings are about morals. They are about the ways of something Jesus calls “the kingdom of God,” This kingdom is nothing  like the world as it currently exists, and that is why Jesus must teach his followers this kingdom’s strange and radical and counter-intuitive ways.
Our gospel readings today show Jesus teaching in parables. Notice that there is nothing in the way of morals in these parables. They are not guides for living a good life. They are about the mystery of the kingdom.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Kingdom, Idolatry, and the 1%

Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us,
     for we have had more than enough of contempt. 

Our soul has had more than its fill
     of the scorn of those who are at ease,
     of the contempt of the proud.
    Psalm 123:3-4

Perhaps you've seen the news reports that have come out recently. One says that by 2016, 1% of the world's population will control more than 50% of the world's wealth. Another says that 80 people now have wealth equal to that of the bottom half (economically speaking) of the world's population. A group of people who could fit in a large room now have more money than the 3.5 billion people with the least.

I am quite confident that such a situation is not at all pleasing to God. After all, God's prophets regularly fume against the wealthy, especially those with little concern for the poor. Jesus, who was very much in tune with the prophets, goes so far as to say, "Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." (And don't let anyone fool you into believing that this statement about a camel doesn't mean exactly what it seems to.)

It speaks of a great failure in the Church's witness that we are often more associated with things Jesus never taught (hatred of gays and peoples of other faiths, distrust of science, and connection to conservative politics to name a few) than we are with his actual teachings. Many get all worked up over labels - Keep Christ in Christmas - without worrying very much about actually following Jesus as a disciple. Again Jesus' own words are instructive. "Not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven." And Jesus says this right after teachings on loving enemies and not storing up treasure on earth.

In today's reading from Isaiah, the prophet makes light of those who trust in idols, who bow before things of their own making and say, “Save me, for you are my god!” All of us are prone to trusting in things that are not God, but great wealth makes certain sorts of idolatry even more tempting. There is the wealth itself, of course, but even more, there is the notion of being one's own god. I am constantly amazed at wealthy folk who insist that their wealth is all their own doing. Conversely, they say, other people's misfortune is their own doing. Combine such veneration of self with denigration of others, and you could not get much further from the kingdom, from God's  hope and dream of a restored world.

O God, we have had more than enough of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud. Have mercy, God. Show us the promise of your kingdom once more.

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Sermon video: Preparing to Join the Adventure

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Sermon: Preparing to Join the Adventure

Luke 4:1-30; 5:1-11
Preparing to Join the Adventure
James Sledge                                                                           January 18, 2015

The day before the new Congress was sworn in, I saw a headline on the Washington Post website with a sub-title below it that read, “And that makes it among the most diverse in history.” That sounded odd compared to the main headline saying, “The new Congress is 80 percent white, 80 percent male, and 92 percent Christian.”
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by those numbers, or by the fact that represent a fairly significant trend toward more women and more non-whites. During my teenage years, the percentage of women was between two and four percent. The percentage of non-whites was even lower.
One part of the headline did not really surprise me, the 92 percent Christian part. If you ask Americans, a vast majority of them will say they are Christian. Church attendance may be dropping in our country, but the number of folks who self-identify as Christian is still close to 80 percent. That’s not so high as in Congress, but it’s much closer to being representative than the numbers of males and whites.
It would seem that we actually are a “Christian nation,” although that raises the question of just what people mean by the label Christian. I assume a fair number of you here this morning would identify as Christian, so what does being a Christian mean to you?
I’ve been intrigued by that question for a long time, and so I’ve asked quite a lot of people over the last 20 years or so what they mean by it. I’ve also asked a companion question about what church congregations understand membership to mean. What do they expect from people who join their congregation? Seems to me that the expectations for members would have something in common with what it means to be a Christian.
It will probably come as no surprise that the answers I’ve received about being a Christian are all over the map. Belief usually comes up, sometimes of a very precise nature but usually a more vague sort. Some will talk about morality, some about community; some about helping people in need. “Going to church” or worship comes up with some regularity, but not as much as you might think.
The answers to what it means to be a church member are a little different. People seem to struggle more with this one, perhaps because it implies expectations for others. That may be why the answers have less variety and tend to be minimalist. For many Presbyterians and other Mainline Protestants, the typical answer is something along the lines of “Believe in God/Jesus, show up occasionally, and be nice.” It’s not that people can’t offer more things that members ought to do: support the church financially, participate in its mission, study the Bible, and so on. They’re just not willing to set those as real expectations. We live in an individualistic culture where faith is a personal thing. And so being a member is like being  Christian. People decide for themselves what it means.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Sermon: What Do You Want to Be?

This Advent, we began using Brian McLaren's book, We Make the Road by Walking, to shape sermons and worship, a pattern that will continue summer of 2015
This sermon connects to the chapter entitled, "Jesus Comes of Age."
Luke 2:39-3:14; 3:21-22
What Do You Want To Be?
James Sledge                                       January 11, 2015 – Baptism of the Lord

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” That’s long been a popular question to ask young children. I doubt anyone has ever researched it, but I imagine that very few six year olds grow up to be the astronauts, football players, firefighters, or teachers that they offer as answers to that question.
I wonder what John the Baptist or Jesus would have said when they were five or six. Perhaps John would have said, “I want to be a priest.” After all, his father was one, and the job was hereditary. People looked up to priests. They had fancy robes and such. Surely at some point, John dreamed of being a priest like Dad. Wow. That didn’t pan out.
Perhaps Jesus would have said, “I want to be a carpenter.” Joseph was a carpenter, at least in some of the biblical texts. I would only be natural that Jesus might have wanted to emulate his father. Some Bible verses say Jesus that was a carpenter, so perhaps he did become one.
That’s mostly speculation. We know almost nothing about Jesus or John before they begin their ministries. The gospels of Mark and John introduce Jesus to us fully grown. Same for John the Baptist. Only Luke tells us about a twelve year old Jesus. And only Luke links the births of Jesus and John, telling us they were related. Did John and Jesus know one another as children? Did the family stop by Zechariah’s house for a visit when they travelled to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover? As a priest, Zechariah must have lived nearby.
There is so much we don’t know, but clearly both Jesus and John were brought up in the faith. They learned about God and what it meant to be a member of God’s people. Luke clearly paints Jesus as a prodigy, but he also makes clear that Jesus learned and grew. He was a real boy who received lessons in Torah but who was also keenly aware of God’s presence. It is tempting for some Christians to picture Jesus as not really human. The carol Away in a Manger has a gentle version of this. “The little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.” I doubt that seriously. Luke says he was a human who grew in age and stature and wisdom.
Luke doesn’t tell us anything about John’s childhood. I wonder if he was the rebellious sort all along. After all, he ends up a long way from the temple priesthood. No fancy robes for him. No ritual baths like those used by pilgrims who came to the Temple. John seems to have rejected his father’s way of the faith. John was out in the wilderness, dunking people in the river, talking about how God was about to do something new, how just being a member of God’s people wasn’t going to cut it. Just being a member of a church wasn’t going to cut it. “Bear good fruit,” shouts John. “Share what you have. Don’t use your power to take advantage of people. Don’t always being trying to get more.”
Luke tells us about John’s ministry sandwiched between the story of a twelve year old Jesus and Jesus’ baptism. That provides an interesting contrast. At age twelve, Jesus causes his parents sheer terror because he stays behind to be in his “Father’s house.” Jesus is there with folks like John the Baptist’s dad, discussing the Law with the Temple experts. But when Jesus begins his ministry, he goes to John out in the wilderness, far from the Temple. And he gets dunked in the river. He connects himself to John’s rebellion, to that new thing where simply being a descendant of Abraham or a member at the church won’t cut it. He connects himself to John’s call to bear fruit.
I wonder what happened between age twelve and how-ever-old Jesus is when he gets baptized. Jesus is quite different from John, but like John, he spends most of his ministry far from the Temple. He became a rebel himself somewhere along the way. As he learned the faith and grew in wisdom and that combined with his special awareness of God, he realized that things had to change, and that he was the one to change them.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Faith, Fear, and "Otherizing"

God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
    though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; 

though its waters roar and foam,
    though the mountains tremble with its tumult. 
Psalm 46:1-3

Because of God, we will not fear. This is not the sentiment of an isolated scripture verse. The notion shows up with regularity. First John speaks of God being love and of love casting out fear. Jesus' disciples go from fearful to fearless when they receive the Holy Spirit, when God's love begins to dwell in them.

So why do religious people often seem so fearful and so terrified of this or that? I've known my share of devout Christians who wear their faith on their sleeves yet seem mortified about what might happen if evil, the devil, temptation, heresy, etc. isn't kept at bay. People who don't believe or who believe the wrong things are dangerous and to be feared.

I take it that a perverse form of such fear lies behind the massacre in Paris yesterday. Loving God and honoring God would not seem to be the sort of things to provoke rage and deadly anger. Not unless one's faith is already filled with fear. The idea of a god who needs to be avenged or protected from those who would denigrate the divine must either imagine a remarkably impotent god or must be terribly afraid of awful things that could happen if things are kept just so. Such a faith is quite contrary to that of the psalmist. It is terrified of what could go wrong.

Fear needs enemies, and fearful faith often demonizes the other, those who are different from me. At this moment in the world's history, Islam seems to have more than its fair share of adherents whose fear sometimes drives them to violence. However, the notion that this is a problem inherent to Islam must not only forget other times in history when Christianity struggled with its own fear and violence problem, it must also ignore the substantial majority of Muslims whose faith is not full of fear.

Nicholas Kristof had a very good piece in today's New York Times titled "Is Islam to Blame for the Shooting at Charlie Hedbo in Paris?" It contains this. "The great divide is not between faiths. Rather it is between terrorists and moderates, between those who are tolerant and those who 'otherize.' " I take "otherize" to speak of what I'm describing, the fearful demonizing of those who are different. 

Most of us tend not to resort to violence against those we otherize. American culture is very practiced at lower grade actions against those we fear: prejudice, discrimination, lack of opportunity, etc. Of course if you're not an American citizen our society has agents that will resort to violence on our behalf. The abuses outlined in the recent Senate torture report may not have emerged from faith-based fears, but they were the product of fear, a fear that allowed us to act in a manner deeply at odds with our stated values.

Speaking of such values, it is striking to me that many who insist America was founded as a Christian nation and must remain such are supportive of torture, of doing whatever it takes to protect ourselves from what we fear. Not that terrorism isn't a scourge, but aren't Christians supposed to be followers of Jesus, the one who confronted evil without violence, the one who called his followers to love and pray for their enemies?


In the more mundane world of my every day fears, fears of failure, of not having enough, of being bested by someone, I have found that my worst moments are almost always connected to fear and anger. I may have a had a moment of genuine, righteous anger once or twice in my life, but most all my actions rooted in fear or anger are ones I've regretted. And they are most certainly not ones in keeping with a life "in Christ."

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
    though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; 

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.

Maybe if I keep repeating that, keep meditating on that...

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Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Lost in the Pageantry

As a child growing up in South Carolina, I knew well the story of Wise Men following a star to visit the child who was born king of the Jews. I knew next to nothing about Epiphany, however. For me the Wise Men were just one more facet of the Christmas story, one more layer to the pageantry that went with that celebration.

I know better now, although I'm not sure I know quite what to do with Epiphany. Perhaps it's still too connected to seasonal pageantry in my subconscious mind. It's still too much about elaborately attired gentlemen presenting gifts to the Christ child while the congregation sings "We Three Kings of Orient Are."

I suppose the Christmas itself has something of the same problem. The story is so bound to the pageantry that the meaning gets lost sometimes. And as Christmas has become a bigger and bigger event on both Christian and secular calendars, the pageantry has gotten bigger and bigger to match.

I wonder what we would make of the birth narrative in Luke or the Wise Men story in Matthew if we had never seen a crèche or a Christmas pageant or a nativity display on a church front lawn. If we had never heard any Christmas carols or gone to a Christmas Eve candlelight service, would the stories strike us differently?

Neither Mark nor John see the need to tell of Jesus' birth in their gospels. And I doubt that Luke or Matthew anticipated the impact of their brief narratives connected to Jesus' birth. I suspect that they saw these stories as ways of turning our attention in a particular direction. In both gospels, Jesus is connected from the outset with people we might not have expected.

In Luke the shepherds connect Jesus with the bottom tier of society. In Matthew the Magi connect Jesus with religious outsiders. In the Epiphany story, all the religious folks have somehow missed the heavenly announcement of a king. Only these foreigners, these members of the wrong religion, seek the king of the Jews. And when we read the rest of Luke and Matthew, we discover that Jesus has come for the bottom tier and for outsiders. It's the insiders and the rich and the good religious folks who can't make sense of Jesus, who don't like Jesus, who ultimately kill Jesus.

Religions of all stripes is prone to pomp and pageantry. Our pomp and pageantry are often inspired by the stories of our faith, but they can also obscure the stories themselves. Pomp and pageantry are not all that well suited to messages of subversion and revolution, and the stories the gospel writers tell are very much about subversion and revolution. Jesus comes to proclaim a way very much at odds with the ways of the world. That's no less true for our world than for the world Jesus was born into.

I do enjoy the pomp and pageantry of Christmas/Epiphany. But what I really long for is a deeper connection to the subversive, revolutionary Jesus, and to the subversive, revolutionary ways he calls us to embody.

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