Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Giuliani, Obama, and What Love Looks Like

President Obama doesn't love America. So said former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani in a speech I assume most everyone has heard about by now. It stirred up something of a political firestorm, and so Mayor Giuliani has further explicated his comments in a number of interviews, explaining why it is he thinks Obama does not love the USA.

People make judgments about whether or not someone loves something or someone all the time. It's not uncommon to hear young children accuse their parents of not loving them. The accusation is rarely true, but no doubt is is believed by many a child who has been punished or denied something she wants.

One of the reasons Giuliani gave for his judgment about the president had to do with Obama not being enough of a cheerleader. The president doesn't say how great America is frequently enough, criticizes the country too often, and even seems to think that other countries are exceptional, too.

What does love say and do? Where is the correct balance between cheerleading and criticizing, between defending and correcting? Look at parents and how they raise their children, and you'll see a lot of different answers.

I thought about such questions as I read the day's lectionary passages, verses filled with criticism, much of it scathing, for the people of God, the chosen people whom God loves. They are a stubborn people with hardened hearts who always go astray, at least according to God. When Jesus cleanses the Temple, accusing its leaders of making it a marketplace, his words are no harsher than those God has used with Israel on numerous occasions. And if you want more, read the gospel of Mark and look at how harshly Jesus speaks to the 12 disciples.

But in our highly partisan culture, harsh criticism is sometimes reserved for the other side. And if WE are good and THEY are bad, then we need to praise us and criticize them. In church congregations, this sort of thinking may contribute to a queasiness about prayers of confession. "They seem so negative," someone said to me. Yet how does one talk about a Savior if THEY need saving?

I've seen church members make much the same judgment as Giuliani, announcing that their pastor doesn't love them because he or she isn't enough a cheerleader and doesn't tell them how great they are. I wonder if this isn't related to partisan styled US and THEM thinking.

I suspect that a lot of pastors struggle with finding the right balance in loving their congregations, much as parents struggle. No doubt we often get it wrong. And I imagine that a lot of congregations struggle with finding the right balance in loving their pastors, much as parents struggle. No doubt they often get it wrong.

That said, all of us probably need to be careful in making judgments about others' love. Mayor Giuliani ended up looking petty and foolish, a bit like an upset toddler in his evaluation of Obama. We'd probably all do better to focus on getting our loving right.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Preaching Thoughts on a Non-Preaching Sunday

The lectionary gospel passage for today is Mark's extremely brief account of Jesus' baptism, temptations, and the opening of his ministry, all in the span of seven verses. There is no content to the temptations reported, just that it happened. But as bare-boned as it is, it does give us a quick look at who this Jesus is and why he is here.

Our congregation is not following the lectionary at the moment. We are instead using Brian McLaren's We Make the Road by Walking for our Sunday readings. Today we heard the opening of the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew's gospel, including the Beatitudes and the call to be salt and light for the world.

If the lectionary passage is about Jesus' identity, the one from Matthew is about our identity as the people of God. And I think we often have problems with both identities. Especially in modern America, Jesus and his work has been understood very individualistically, in terms of personal salvation, healing, fulfillment, etc. But Jesus' identity is the one who proclaims God's new community, the Kingdom, and the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount are about what it looks like for the Church to model this community.

Yesterday I was at the (snow shortened) Next Church regional gathering where David Lose was the featured speaker. He talked about how church and worship needed to be places where we practice things that really matter, things that are connected to our lives in the world. We need to move away from church as a concert hall or event center where we go to hear and see uplifting, maybe even inspiring things, but then leave to live lives little connected to that worship. We need to become places where people learn and practice ways of being God's people in the world. To put it in the identity terms from above, church needs to be the place where we learn and practice those ways that mark us as God's alternative community, ways that we take into the world and our lives.

What is church? Clearly it is many things to many people, but what is it at its very core? Why does Jesus/God need the Church? And are our congregations being whatever that is?

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A Lenten Test Drive

Here we are on the eve of another Lent. Tomorrow evening people will come to our sanctuary for a rather somber service where ashes are used to mark a cross on people's foreheads. At the same time they will hear, "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return." Some of these people will "give up something" or engage in other "lenten disciplines" for this season that carries us toward the events of Holy Week, and finally to the empty tomb on Easter.

Growing up in 1960s South Carolina, I was only vaguely aware of Lent. Few southern Protestants did much with Lent. It was too "Catholic." Of course I didn't really know any Catholics so I wasn't quite sure what that meant.

My how things have changed. Even conservative, southern Protestants have adopted "Catholic" practices they would never have gone near 50 years ago. All manner of Christians will have Ash  Wednesday services to kick off this season. I assume that almost all view Lent as some sort of preparation, some way of deepening faith as Easter draws near. But to be honest, I've never quite figured this Lent thing out. Maybe that's just because I was almost 40 years old before it became a part of my church life. I'm not certain.


In today's gospel reading, John the Baptist answers questions about his identity by saying that he is the voice crying in the wilderness, "Make straight the way of the Lord." The origins of these words from the prophet Isaiah likely go back to actual preparations for religious parades of some sort. But clearly the phrase had become a symbol about getting ready. But for what?

I think that may be one of my issues with Lent. I'm all for a time of cultivating spiritual practices, of trying to be more focused on God and what God wants from my life. But to what end? What happens when Lent is over and another Easter is celebrated? Did anything change, or do we just start playing the song over again. (The same sort of questions seem equally appropriate for Advent and perhaps other seasons.)


There is a great deal of looking backward in Christianity these days. (This could be something peculiar to American Christianity.) There are many versions of this. Not all Christians long to put prayer back in school, but even the most liberal may long for days when they had more political influence or when it was easy to fill a sanctuary on Sunday. But if our gaze is not primarily on that future that God is bringing, the new day Jesus says is drawing near, what are our Lents or Advents getting ready for?

One thing I do really appreciate about Lent is its association with giving up things. This can get trivialized into little more than a spiritual diet plan, but on a deeper level, the practice invites us into something very much at odds with the world we live in. Our world, our society, is convinced that a fuller and more abundant life is an exercise in addition. Our lives would be better if we just got enough of whatever it is we are lacking. (Often spirituality gets understood as just one more consumer item to add to all our other things, hoping that this will get us to enough.) But the Jesus-way is more about subtraction, about letting go of things and of self.  It is about losing one's life in order to find it. Lent, at least, seems to get that.

Lent got its start all those centuries ago as a time of intense preparation for new Christians, people who would be baptized during the night just before Easter and join in their first Lord's Supper on Easter morn. So maybe it would be good to think of Lent as a Jesus-way test drive. But of course that hopes that Easter will be the start of something and not the end. Understood that way, doing Lent again each year still make sense. It may be another test drive because the previous one didn't lead to a new way of life. Or it may be a test drive for a fuller and deeper walk with Jesus. But either way, it gets ready for something that is about to begin, something that looks forward and not backward.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Sermon: What Is Faith?

1 John 1:1-2:6
What Is Faith?
James Sledge                                                                                       February 15, 2015

What is faith? What is belief? Are they the same thing or something different? And how do you know if you believe or if you have faith? What are the markers? Where is the threshold between faith and not faith, belief and not belief?
We’re in the midst of winter, so let’s imagine a warm, summer scene, a hot July day at the neighborhood pool. Children are laughing and screaming. And over near a corner at the shallow end, a toddler stands at the pool’s edge. She has on a cute little bathing suit, a pair of goggles, and a pair of those orange, inflatable swimmies, one on each arm.
Just in front of her, on his knees in the shallow water, is the child’s father. He is holding out both arms and encouraging his daughter to jump to him. Repeatedly she come toward the edge but then backs off. She looks excited and terrified at the same time, but more terrified the closer she gets to the pool’s edge.
Her father keeps reassuring her. “I’ll catch you,” he says. “You know I’ll catch you, don’t you?” he asks. See nods in agreement, but then backs off once more. Apparently her belief that Dad will catch her isn’t enough to overcome her fear, isn’t enough for her to make that terrifying leap into the pool.
As we’ve journeyed through Advent, Christmas, and now to the edge of Lent, following the path laid out by Brian McLaren’s We Make the Road  by Walking, we’ve learned a lot about Jesus. We witnessed prophetic dreams that anticipated him, and we saw how his birth causes both joy and fear. We saw Jesus be baptized and begin his ministry, proclaiming that God’s new day is arriving. We heard him call disciples to come with him, and heard him teach. We witnessed his healing powers. We saw him transfigured on the mountaintop and heard the voice of God say, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 
For a lot of us, this is not our first bit of information about Jesus. Many of us attended Sunday School as children. Some of us read our Bibles occasionally, a few of us regularly. Confirmation classes taught a number of us the core of Christian faith, and all of us who are members have made a profession of faith at some point, saying that Jesus is our Lord and promising to be faithful disciples.
So at what point does all this information and all these words become something more? At what point do the things we learn, the things we “know,” become belief? And is that the same thing as faith?

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Senseless Controversies

Today's reading from 2 Timothy includes these verses." Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness."That must have been a lot easier before the internet.

I saw something in The Washington Post the other day about Robert Griffin III making the mistake of engaging haters on Twitter. In the words of the column, even before he engaged them he had "violated the first rule of sharing content on the internet - 'DON'T READ THE COMMENTS.'" It's a rule a lot of us haven't learned.

Timothy had no internet, but he clearly had other ways of getting involved in "senseless controversies" and quarrels. I've always been a bit of an arguer, and that was true before there was Twitter or Facebook. And most of the time my arguing accomplishes little other than to annoy those around me. It makes little difference how right or wrong I am.

The writer of 2 Timothy does not say that truth is unimportant or that no sort of wrong-headed thinking should ever be confronted. He even speaks of "correcting opponents with gentleness." I think that most of us know something of this. There are certain people whom we love or admire that we only correct in the most careful and gentle way, and we may not correct them at all if the issue is not too big of a deal. But we don't relate in the same manner with those we label "opponents" or "enemies" or "them."

This inability has greatly impacted the Church in America. We have fractured into more denominations and sects than can be counted, often over "stupid and senseless controversies." Never mind acting kindly toward everyone, we cannot even act kindly toward fellow Christians. If you're on Facebook or Twitter, you know just what I mean. Unless, that is, you've made sure to friend or follow only those who already agree with you. And even then, eventually something will come up.

Jesus at times engaged in heated discussions and arguments, but I've never gotten the sense that he was an argumentative guy. I guess he was too secure in who he was for that. A lot of us, of all faiths, on both the right and the left, can't say the same.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Faith, Status Quo, and Facebook Jesus

One of the great threats to faith - I speak as a Christian but assume this is true for other faiths - is its tendency to be co-opted by the status quo. Regardless of the actual, core teachings of the faith, it will be invoked to support whatever a particular culture supports. Jesus may have been a trouble-making radical who preached non-violence and love of enemies, who sided with the poor and spoke against wealth, but in the short history of the US, he has lent his support to slavery, a strong military, the right to bear arms, and the prosperity gospel, to name just a few. Jesus even morphs into those who claim him as seen as this picture of Jesus on Facebook today. (I assume it's meant to be Jesus, but to me it looks like a member of a southern, country-rock band.)

The status quo, any status quo, begins with an assumption that it is correct. And so any faith connected to the status quo will get enlisted to serve this assumption. Yet I've never known anyone who would claim that the kingdom has arrived, that God's will is being done on earth as it is in heaven, as Jesus taught us to pray. That would imply that any status quo falls short and needs to be transformed. But status quos are never very big on change.

This same problem also operates on a more personal level. People often approach faith as one more item to improve their lives. In this sense the Facebook post about Jesus functions much like the one saying, "25 Ways Apple Cider Vinegar Will Change Your Life."Click on either and things will get better. (I passed on both.)

But the Jesus we meet in the Bible doesn't arrive as one more option for improving our lives. He comes to call us to an entirely new sort of life. So too Jesus doesn't come to support the way things are but to transform them. The status quo invariably supports those at its top, but Jesus is invariably found with those at its bottom. (See today's gospel for one, small example.)

Today's devotion by Richard Rohr ended with this. "Hateful people will find hateful verses to confirm their love of death. Loving people will find loving verses to call them into an even greater love of life. And both kinds of verses are in the Bible!" I think it safe to expand this to say, "Hateful people will use the faith to confirm their love of death. Loving people..." And so the problem rests with the disposition of the heart. Is the heart inclined toward death or life? Is the heart expansive or constricted? More to the point, does our faith draw us toward the expansive, grace, love and mercy of God? Or does what we call faith start with me and mine, and then ask what God can do to make things better for us?

As a Christian pastor, I worry about the faith sometimes. I so often see it trivialized and twisted to serve personal and political ends with little connection to the actual words of Jesus. I see it get turned into a spiritual consumer good to be added to the shopping cart, one more item to make people's lives a little better. Can anything like the faith Jesus models survive in such an environment?

But then I remember the biblical story. The situation that so troubles me is nothing new. The faith has long been distorted by the powers that be, by the religious apparatus that grows up around it, by those who seek to employ it for their good rather than being employ by it, and so on. And so when I see some politicians' smarmy versions of faith, or when I see Christian denominations and congregations worried more about their own goods and survival than about the gospel, I remember that faith has always operated and thrived on the margins. It did when Old Testament prophets called kings and priests to task. It did when Jesus acted in similar fashion. (Is it any surprise that a pope from a third world country, from the international margins, has made the Church resemble Jesus a bit more?)

And so I trust in the power of faith to make all things new. Short of Christ's return, such work will rarely be the work of the majority. Such faith is rarely popular. We celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. today, but during his lifetime he suffered all manner of abuse. And no small amount of the hateful speech aimed at him emanated from Christian pulpits. But the power of the gospel was with King, and not with the status quo Christianity that stood in his way.


In honor of today's exploits by Alabama's chief justice, Roy Moore, I'm going to bestow the nickname, Alabama Jesus to the picture I found on Facebook. No slight to Alabama intended, though I feel less charitable toward Moore. The picture simply reminds me of someone from that state, and the post itself reminds me of how we twist Jesus to do our will.

But if not even a cross could stop the hope of the gospel, the promise that God's new community is emerging here and there in acts of radical love and obedience, then surely the gospel can survive the challenge of American consumerism and partisan foolishness.


Sermon video: Lord of All and Head of the Church

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Sermon: Lord of All and Head of the Church

Matthew 16:13-17:9
Lord of All and Head of the Church
James Sledge                                                                           February 8, 2015

“Do you trust in Jesus Christ your Savior, acknowledge him Lord of all and Head of the Church, and through him believe in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?” That is the first question asked to those who are ordained in the Presbyterian Church. It is the first question because it is the most important. The questions that follow build on it, saying how ordained leaders are to guide congregations with Christ as our Lord and Head.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus asks his followers a question. “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” and the disciples provide a number of answers. No doubt we could do the same. Who is Jesus? A great teacher, a prophet, a healer, the founder of one of the world’s great religions, a spiritual sugar daddy, and the list goes on and on.
“But who do you say that I am? Jesus asks, and Peter answers for the group. Today, those being ordained as ruling elders and deacons will affirm their answer. He is Savior, Lord of all, Head of the Church, and the way that we come to know the Triune God.
We ask our ordination questions in a worship service, walled away from the world. Jesus does things differently. He asks his questions in Caesarea Philippi. I have to admit that I’d never really thought much about the locale until I read Brian McLaren’s book, but I suspect that the first readers of Matthew’s gospel did take notice. They knew that this place was named for Caesar and a son of Herod the Great, that it featured prominent Roman temples. They likely knew it was a favorite getaway of Roman generals who besieged and finally destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Considering that Matthew is written to Jewish Christians shortly after this destruction, this surely made for some jarring contrasts.
Caesar was lord and a “son of the gods.” Proclaiming that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” had real political implications. It’s the same for deacons and elders who affirm that Jesus is “Lord of all.” He is Lord over our political loyalties, vocational choices, finances, daily lives, and even over human history. But declaring Jesus “Lord” is not the same as understanding what it means to live with him as Lord of all and Head of the Church. If you don’t believe me, just ask Peter.
I’m not sure there is any other place in the Bible where a person of faith goes so quickly from star pupil to abject failure. One moment Peter is the rock on which the Church will be built; the next he is the leader of darkness. I can scarcely imagine how Simon Peter must have felt when Jesus said , “Get behind me Satan!”
 During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had taught his followers, “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.” Now Peter gets reminded of that in brutal fashion. Peter’s notions of what a Messiah and Lord is supposed to do turn out to be way off the mark. The Lord of all does not come wielding power in the manner of Caesars or the powerful of our day. God’s ways, Jesus’ ways, are nothing like the world’s or ours. They are odd and strange to us, not at all what we would do if we were God.
And so we’re likely to have some of the same struggles Peter did. We will think we know what it means to be Christian, to be the Church, how the Church should act, and whom it should serve in much the same way that Peter “knew” how a Messiah was to act.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Faith, Anxiety, and Labrador Retrievers

In his devotion for today, Richard Rohr tells of how his Labrador retriever comes to his beside and looks right at him until he makes eye contact. Says Rohr, "I often wonder, 'What is she looking at? What is she seeing that she likes so much?' or maybe even 'What is she seeing that I cannot see?' I am convinced that many creatures--that we think just live at a rudimentary level of consciousness or mere 'instinct'--might be seeing 'the one thing necessary'! They don't get lost in our so called 'thinking,' which is largely labeling and judging everything up or down. Animals can seemingly connect out of pure naked being without any filters, except of course fear of rejection or harm. Is this innocence? Whatever it is, it is a gift! And a gift that you and I have to reclaim and relearn with great difficulty."

I thought about this as I read the Apostle Paul's words to the congregation in Galatia. Paul speaks of how, through Christ, we have received adoption, how we are now children of God and so heirs. Paul is speaking of a remarkable change in our sense of who we are, one that should set us free. We are secure in God's love and need not worry so much about meeting others' standards or checking off every religious box. And I thought of Fr. Rohr's black Lab.

For the most part, animals don't seem to worry very much about whether they measure up. Many dogs will go to great lengths to please their owners, but this does not seem to happen because they worry we might stop liking them. It is just how dogs are. Cats behave very differently from dogs, but the motivation seems much the same. They are not much worried about our opinions of them, and they simply behave as cats behave.

Very young children are not so different. They behave as young children do, not worrying very much that their parents might stop loving them if they give offense. Only with a bit of age do they began to worry about such things, learning to judge others and themselves and so become aware that they might not "measure up."

Our human awareness is a wonderful gift, but it also makes terrible worriers out of us. Much of our lives end up being attempts to keep the worries at bay. Surely our consumerism and careerism are born of worries that we might not have enough. Some awareness of our needs and how to provide for self and family can make for prudent planning, but we almost never stop there. Similar patterns show up in our relationships with others and in our relationship with God. 

Some of the most annoying and problematic Christians (and members of other faiths) are those with the most worries and anxieties. Their fears about being saved, getting to heaven, getting right with God, or whatever drive them toward rigid orthodoxies that allow them to be "certain." A similar dynamic operates in politics and other arenas.

But black Labs, little children, and Paul's "children and heirs" don't worry so much about such things. With dogs and very small children, this may simply be blissful unawareness, but with Paul it is something else. It is an assurance that comes from being caught up in God's love, something Paul labels being "in Christ." It is an experience of God's love that in no way overwhelms our human capacity for awareness. Rather it allows us to practice this awareness without the anxieties that so often define and motivate us.

We live in anxious times. Our current political climate is so full of anxiety that both political parties care more about making the other look bad (making themselves look better by comparison?) than they do about dealing with real issues. Both parties play to the public's anxieties in this pursuit, and those we disagree with become enemies. Enemies are easy to find when you are overly worried and anxious.

But Jesus models an entirely different way. Jesus is not much worried by whether or not others reject or embrace him. He sees little reason to label others enemies, and he tell us to pray for them anyway. Finally, he willingly becomes the epitome of rejection, enduring all manner of abuse, torture, and even a cross. He willingly becomes a kind of scapegoat for the entire world. He is so secure in who he is. He is so confident that God's love will not fail him.

I won't claim anything like that sort of confidence and security. I can trust myself to God's love and grace here and there, but my anxieties still can get the better of me all too often. I do think my faith is growing though. It happens by fits and starts. Sometimes there is a three steps forward two steps backwards aspect to it, but the awareness that God's love has claimed me is there... much of the time. And the sense that I am a child, an heir, at times is strong.

I wonder if a helpful guide for those of us seeking to grow in faith might not be our anxieties. By that I mean that our anxieties might serve as warning of sorts. If our faith practices are not helping us to become more secure in God's love, if they are instead making us fearful and worried, then surely we are off track. As perhaps our pets already know.

Sermon video: Who Is Welcome?

Audios of sermons and worship can be found on the FCPC website.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Sermon: Who Is Welcome?

Luke 5:17-32; 18:15-27, 35-19:9
Who Is Welcome?
James Sledge                                                                                       February 1, 2015

The headlines about income inequality are everywhere. The Washington Post ran as series last week on how badly the recent recession has hurt black homeowners, pushing many out of the ranks of middle class. I also saw this headline in The New York Times. “Middle Class Shrinks as the Bottom Falls Out.” Accompanying such articles are sobering statistics about how real income has fallen for those making the least even as it surged for those making the most. Some of the stats are startling. By next year one percent of the world’s population will control more than fifty percent of the world’s wealth. Right now, eighty individuals have more wealth than the bottom fifty percent of the world’s population. That’s eighty people with more wealth than 3.5 billion people combined. That’s mind boggling.
One of America’s great claims to fame was the notion of an egalitarian society, one not divided between a small elite and a large underclass. We’ve long cherished the idea that most of us were middle class. That’s never been entirely true, but it is becoming much less so. We are increasingly a society of haves and have nots, with race playing a huge role.
Not that this marks us a particularly onerous on the world stage. Divisions between haves and have nots are the way of the world. It’s been that way throughout history. Even socialist and communist movements with the express goal of ending such divisions have ended up creating glaring inequalities with spectacularly privileged elites and struggling masses.
The Church, too, has tended to mirror such divisions. Bishops and popes have often lived in fabulous luxury. Protestants haven’t typically favored our leaders in this way, but we have tended, to a greater degree than Roman Catholics, to create congregations and denominations of elites and of non-elites, of haves and have nots. Back in the middle of the 20th century it was a well-worn joke to call Presbyterians “the Republican party at prayer” because of our preponderance of well-educated, well-off movers and shakers. We even require our pastors to have advanced degrees; not like those uneducated Pentecostals and such.