Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Holy Week Is for Losers

For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
1 Corinthians 1:22-25

It's Holy Week. Not that the world much notices. For that matter, I don't know that I really noticed for much of my life. I do recall some Maundy Thursday services here and there, but in my (admittedly unreliable) recollections, Holy Week was little  more than the time between two celebrations: Palm Sunday and Easter.

American Christianity has long had a triumphalist bent to it. It is a religion for winners, not losers, and so we do not like to linger too long at the cross. We rush from the processional parade of the king to shouts of "He is risen!" The cross is that unfortunate bit of the formula Jesus must navigate in between. But that is all past now. The risen Jesus is a winner, not a loser, just like us Americans.

The gospel writers and the Apostle Paul seem much more inclined to focus and reflect on the cross, and not simply as a formulaic cost that had to be paid. John speaks of the cross as Jesus' exaltation, and Paul says the crucified Christ is the power and wisdom of God. Jesus himself insists that the way of the cross is the way of true life. He says that only in losing our life do we find it. Only in dying to ourselves do we live.

Triumphal American Christianity has often seen faith as a strategy for winners rather than a way of life to be embraced. "Believe in Jesus and enjoy the perks of winners." It's often so individualized that it loses all sight of the "Kingdom of God," the new community of love that Jesus says he comes to set loose on earth. It's about each individual becoming a winner.

When Paul writes to the church in Corinth, he is quite upset with them, primarily because they are division among them and they are not caring for each other. Some are declaring themselves winners and looking down on others they deem losers. But Paul reminds them of their own call in Christ, saying, "God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God." God chooses losers, says Paul.

Our culture celebrates winners, and winning usually means getting ahead of someone else. Our culture values those at the top and has little use for those at the bottom. Just look at the paltry wages one earns for being a servant, a waiter, a maid, a nursing home aid, etc. Never mind that Jesus said, "Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave." Those look like losers to us.

In our culture that worships winners, it little surprise that we tend to rush from waving palms to singing "Jesus Christ is risen today." It's easy to see why American Christianity has so little familiarity with the psalms of lament, even though they are the most common type of psalm. Lament psalms come from people in despair, and winners don't think that way. Yet God's victory does not look like our notions of victory. God's power and wisdom looks foolish to the world. It looks a good bit like losing.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Joining the Jesus March

I don't have a written sermon today because our choir is performing "Requiem for the Living" by Dan Forrest for Palm/Passion Sunday. That meant I preached only at our smaller, more informal, 8:30 service. That gives me an opportunity to do things a little differently, working without a script. These are some thoughts and reflections from that.

Our worship has been following along with Brian McLaren's book We Make the Road by Walking since Advent. Today we heard Luke's account of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, but we continued on to hear Jesus weeping because the people don't recognize "the things that make for peace." We also saw him at the Temple where he drove out those who "were selling things there."

Jesus' parade was something of an impromptu affair, not a lot like the parades many of us have attended, taking our place on the side of the road to watch the floats, bands, celebrities, etc, go by. This parade was mostly marchers, and as they picked up steam, it started to worry some folks. What if the Romans saw and thought Jesus was starting a rebellion? After all his followers were calling him a king, and the Romans did not take kindly to kings other than Caesar.

It strikes me that Jesus' Palm Sunday parade looks more like the march into Selma 50 years ago than it looks like any parade we stand on the sidewalk to watch. No one beat the marchers in Jerusalem that day, but they would arrest and execute the leader of the march a few days later. According to the gospels, no one but Jesus gets hurt in the march's aftermath, but that is largely because the rest of the marchers scattered. Only after the resurrection, only with the gift of the Spirit, would they be bold enough to keep going in the face of threats and violence.

Back in the days of the Selma march, it was not uncommon for white religious leaders to ask Martin Luther King, Jr to scale it back a bit, to go more slowly and be more careful. He was scaring people and it was sure to stir up trouble. There were white Christians who joined the march, but for the most part, the institutional church played the role of the Pharisees in Luke's account of Palm Sunday, urging restraint and caution.

Parades need participants, but most of us experience them as spectators. Marches are something else. They are all about those in them and the cause they seek to attain. And Jesus calls marchers rather than spectators. He says that we need to take up our crosses and go with him. There are dangers in joining the Jesus march, as anyone who was in Selma 50 years ago can tell you. But the kingdom, the new day Jesus proclaims, happens only as Spirit filled people join Jesus as he continues to lead us toward God's new day.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Authentic and Compelling Voices

Diana Butler Bass was the preacher at the worship portion of yesterday's meeting of National Capital Presbytery (the local governing body made up of pastors and elder representatives from congregations in DC and the surrounding areas). Prior to our meeting and worship, she also did an extended presentation entitled "Where Is God?: Spirituality, Theology, and Awakening," followed by a time of discussion.

During the discussion time, she made a comment on how the "priesthood of all believers" is morphing into something else. This "priesthood" was an outgrowth of the Protestant Reformation and its ideas that all believers had direct access to God via Scripture, a move away from notions of a church hierarchy controlling this access. But thanks to social media, we're now seeing a "priesthood of everybody." I suspect this notion is as frightening to Protestant institutions as the ideas of Luther and Calvin were to the church institutions of their day.

If you've spend much time on social media, you know that the quality of the priests there varies wildly. Of course that's true of all priests, the formally ordained sort and the "all believers" sort. There are a lot of different versions of God and Jesus floating around on the internet, not to mention all other manner of spiritual "helps." The same has long been true in churches and temples. Social media has simply given every single person who wants one a pulpit.

This cacophony of voices must surely be confusing to people hoping to hear a genuine word from God. How is one not firmly grounded in a particular tradition to make sense of the competing and sometimes totally antithetical voices? At that meeting yesterday, our presbytery voted "Yes" on changes to our denomination's constitution allowing for same sex marriage, a somewhat anticlimactic event because the required majority of presbyteries have already voted in favor. Meanwhile Franklin Graham, the somewhat less kind and gentle version of his famous father, has said my denomination should no longer be able to call itself a church because of our willful sin.

Meanwhile the internet priests weigh in. Many of the voices, both left and right, are more notable for their shrillness than anything else. How is God/Jesus ever to be heard through such mouthpieces? How is an authentic and authoritative word to be found amidst all these words?

These are difficult and troubling times for religious institutions, for denominations and congregations and seminaries and more. Sometimes it seems everything we've developed and counted on is coming apart. Not that this is a novel experience. Imagine what it must have felt like to be a church leader 500 years ago in the aftermath of Luther nailing his list on the church door. The Church was splintering into countless churches, often in connection with political and nationalistic movements. The whole things got so nasty and bloody that it also spawned the Deist movement that gave rise to modern Unitarianism. You might say they got so disgusted by all the competing and arguing voices that they became their day's "spiritual but not religious."

But Christian faith not only survived. It changed and grew and thrived. Cherished ways of doing church did disappear, but faith in Jesus and the Church, his body on earth, did not. I do not know just how Christian faith will change and grow and thrive this time, but I have no doubt that it will. Cherished ways of doing church will disappear, but the living body of Christ will persist.

And so the question for me is how those of us who love Christ and his living body on earth are to offer an authentic and compelling voice amidst all those other voices. The gospels may offer a hint. They tell us that Jesus taught "as one with authority, and not as their scribes," a line that might get updated in our day to "and not as their learned clergy."

The gospels don't really describe how folks recognized this authority. It apparently was an intangible thing that's hard to describe but that people know when they see it. I suspect the appeal of Pope Francis is a little like this. There is something authentic and compelling in his voice, so much so that even non-religious people have taken notice.

I think there's a lesson there. Speaking in a manner that is authentic and compelling won't come from getting all the facts or doctrines just right. It won't come from winning all the arguments or votes. And it won't come from demonizing the other, even when that other is indeed an enemy. But it may just come if we are known more for embodying Jesus than for other things that often define us. Perhaps we're known for our shrill voice on social and political issues; perhaps we are so hidden behind church walls that we're known mostly for our buildings; perhaps we're so identified by our slick worship that we look like little more than a show. But what if we were known for acting like Jesus?

On that note, a quick mea culpa is in order. No one would be likely to confuse me with Pope Francis. So how do I need to let God work in me in order that I might better model Jesus? It starts there, I suppose.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Post Event Letdown

I assume this happens to people in other vocations and not just to pastors. You go to a conference, hear all sorts of exciting and wonderful ideas, and dream of all the ways you will use them upon your return home. But then you get back, the excitement recedes, and gradually things go back to "normal." In my case, last week's Next Church conference also included inspiring worship (I assume this would not be typical for other vocations.), and we pastors often don't get to do much actual worshiping. But as things get back to "normal," this, too, can seem a long way off and and a long time ago.

The Next Church conference planners took this into account and are planning local followup sessions. I'll be interested to see how this may help us to put into practice some things we learned at the conference. I hope it works. If so it may help with a similar problem that seems to have become pattern in many local congregations.

Very often, Sunday worship can work a bit like the conferences I attend. It can be inspiring and stimulating, but the energy doesn't really carry over into life outside the church. Interestingly enough, I heard David Lose speak at a regional Next Church gathering about how church as "concert hall" didn't seem to be working very well. Even when the worship is top notch, inspiring, creative, and more, it often doesn't impact daily life much. In that sense it becomes like going to a play, or a concert, or a movie. It may be wonderful and enriching, but it doesn't necessarily do anything to shape people to live as God's people in the world.

I worry a little about trying to make worship into something utilitarian, but still, if worship moves us yet doesn't inspire us to take any actions, to live differently in the world, is it what it should be?

Worship, of course, is something we offer to God, and in that sense it is not primarily about us getting something from it. That said, any genuine encounter with God is surely transformational. Meeting and hearing God as we worship should direct us in some way. It should call us to more faithful lives. It should  help form us as disciples of Jesus. But does it?

I worry that as the church has struggled in recent decades, we've tried harder and harder to do great worship. Often we've succeeded, but church attendance continues to plummet. Have we turned church into an event that is moving, entertaining, inspiring, thought provoking, and any number of perfectly good things, but somehow stopped helping people live out their faith beyond the church? If so, what sort of followup sessions do we need? Or do we need to think about worship differently altogether?

Sermon video: Part of Something That Matters

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Sermon: Part of Something That Matters

Matthew 7:13-29
Part of Something that Matters
James Sledge                                                                                      March 22, 2015

Last month I was at a Saturday gathering of something called Next Church. The featured speaker was David Lose, president of Luther Seminary in Philadelphia, and he told a story about an extremely extroverted colleague who took his seat for a 14 hour long flight, introduced himself to the passenger next to him, and asked, “Do you go to church?”
His fellow passenger apparently wasn’t put off by this because he not only responded, he told how he had attended church for most of his life, but that he and his family were thinking about dropping church. He went on to explain that like many families, his was overcommitted and needed to drop some things. At a family meeting they had listed all the things they were involved in, then prioritized them by whether they really seemed to matter, really made a difference in their lives. Girl Scouts for his daughter did, but church did not for any of them.
The father was troubled by this. He had always gone to church. But he agreed that church wasn’t really important in their lives. It made little difference in how they lived away from church, so it just didn’t make sense to commit the time and energy it asked of them.
Dr. Lose what quick to tell those of us listening, pastors and elders, that this wasn’t our fault. We had not messed up church so badly that this family, and many others like it, had decided to leave. There’s been more energy and innovation in church and worship in the last couple of decades than any time in history, yet across the board – conservative or liberal, traditional or contemporary – people are leaving and attendance is dropping. And even committed members are attending less frequently.
The Church lives in a very different world from the one of my childhood. A generation or two ago, people raised in the Church tended to stay in it. People went to church because they were supposed to. But as our world has become filled with more and more choices, more and more options, going to church became one choice among many. “Supposed to” no longer cuts it, and church now gets weighed among other possibilities.
This situation poses some real challenges for churches who grew accustomed to the culture sending us people on Sunday. But it also poses some interesting opportunities to examine what it means to be the Church, followers of Jesus, the body of Christ in the world. Surely there is something very important about it, something about it that really matters. Why else would we toss around terms like salvation, new creations, abundant and eternal life?
As Jesus concludes his Sermon on the Mount, he clearly thinks he has just shared something important, something that really matters. He speaks of a narrow way that leads to life, of the need not to be misled, of how essential it is to do God’s will and act on his words. But just what is this narrow way? What is the will of God for you and me?
If someone asked you how your life is different because you follow Jesus, what would you say?  How is your way directed, your path narrowed from that of the world? How is your relationship to money different? How is God’s new day being born in you?

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Hope, Birth Pangs, and What Comes Next

I'm having a bit of trouble concentrating today. Too much is swirling around in my head. I've just returned from the Next Church conference in Chicago where we heard and talked about the church's decline, but much more, heard and talked with great hope also about new things that are emerging. These new things are still forming, still hard to describe precisely, but that is the way of things that are coming next.

In the midst of this Next Church conference, another new thing was announced. My denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), has been voting on whether or not to ratify changes in our official language on marriage, changing words saying, "between a woman and a man " to ones reading "between two people." Voting by the 171 local presbyteries that make up our denomination will continue for a while, but Tuesday we reached the majority needed for ratification.  This is the first time we have voted to change our constitution so that it embraces, or at least makes room for, same sex marriage. This is indeed a new thing, and like many other such things, one that will no doubt unfold in ways that are impossible to predict precisely.

Like it or not, the church and the world are changing. Actually, Christians are supposed to be happy about that. That's not to say we must be happy with every change that occurs, but we follow a Messiah who proclaims a new day and calls us to pray for that new day and work for it. Considering there is general agreement that the kingdom, God's new community of peace and love, has not yet come on earth, then we must continue to hope and pray and work for the change that moves us toward that day. Followers of Jesus can never be about going back to some day of old. We are called to go forward toward a day that is glimpsed but is not yet. People of deep and sincere faith can disagree about whether the changes my denomination embraced this week are a part of moving toward God's new day, but we can't be caught up in nostalgia. Our destination is a hard to discern future, not any remembered past.

Such thoughts whirled about as I read both the daily lectionary and the daily devotion from Richard Rohr. In the former, the Apostle Paul writes, "We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies." In deservedly famous lines, Paul insists that creation itself experiences birth pangs as it waits for something new, something seen only by faith.

In his devotion for today, Father Rohr paraphrases Teilhard de Chardin. "We are not human beings trying to become spiritual; we are already spiritual beings, and we are just trying and needing to become human for one another!" That sounds very different from Paul and yet similar. There is something coming, a next, a rebirth yet to be that we hope for, long for, work for.

One of the great failings of Christianity over the last 100 plus years was to personalize the message of Jesus and Paul that hoped for and prayed for and worked for a new day, turning it into an individual hope for heaven. But the creation isn't groaning for me to be admitted to heaven. It is groaning for the birth of something truly new.

I hope the new thing that received ratification on Tuesday is a part of that. I believe that it is. But regardless, I know that God's new thing is not dependent on my seeing it with absolute clarity or my denomination's getting everything right. God's future is safely in God's hands, and so in hope we move and stumble toward that future as best we can. "For in hope," Paul writes, "we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience."

I'll admit I not always patient, but I am hopeful, and excited, and longing to see what comes next.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Monday, March 9, 2015

On Determining God's Address

In the last week I've seen a handful of Facebook posts that have a picture of the White House with this caption. "Time to put God back in this house. Do you agree?" I'm sure you can guess the political views of those posting the picture, but I wonder just what they mean by putting God back in the White House.

I've not asked and don't plan to. Such Facebook discussions rarely lead anywhere that is good or helpful. Still, I wonder how those reposting this measure whether or not God is there. The current resident professes to be a Christian and quotes Scripture on occasion, so apparently that is not it. So just how are we to know whether or not God has been evicted?

I thought of such things when reading today's lectionary passage from Jeremiah. It also talks about whether or not God is in a certain house. This house is the Jerusalem temple, also referred to by God as "the house that is called by my name." But in this case God has not been evicted. God has decided to move.

God has moved out of God's own house but will consider returning "if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt." I wonder if aliens, orphans, widows, justice, and such have anything to do with God current residency, or lack thereof, at the White House.

One of the constant temptations for people of faith is trying to enlist God in our causes. This isn't a problem restricted to any particular sort. Conservatives and liberals can be equally guilty. That said, people who tend to wear their religion on their sleeve often can be incredibly arrogant and certain when engaging in this temptation.

We religious sorts can be quite adept at critiquing others who aren't sufficiently religious in the manner we deem correct. However, the biblical prophets don't critique those who aren't religious. Their critique is an internal one aimed at the way religious practice has gone astray. Jeremiah is fussing at people who come to the Temple and claim God's blessings. In the same way, the prophet Jesus reserved his most scathing critiques for the dedicated, never-miss-a-Sunday, religious folks.

If religious folks want to worry about whether or not God is in particular houses and buildings, Jeremiah and Jesus suggest that we had best start by looking at the one we call our religious home.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

An Overly Talkative Religion

I'm re-reading a wonderful little book by Barbara Brown Taylor entitled When God Is Silent. At one point she writes about how God becomes progressively more quiet and remote in the Hebrew Scriptures, but in the Incarnation, "the silent God found a voice." God's Word becomes flesh and our relationship to this Word requires we proclaim it using words. According to Taylor "...this has had the effect of making Christianity an overly talkative religion, but the truth is that silence plays as central a role in Christian scripture as in Hebrew." (p. 74)

Taylor is talking especially to pastors like me, people whose vocations require them to traffic in words. There is a terrible temptation for us to make those words bear more freight than they were ever intended to. We want to speak with more certainty than is possible. We want to provide answers where there really are none. We want to put together carefully crafted homiletical packages, neatly tied up with a nice bow. We want to so engagingly retell what Jesus said that people will go, "Oh, of course. Now I get it." How unlike Jesus we are.

Today's gospel reading shows the same Word that spoke Creation into being at work in Jesus. "Go, your son will live," he says to a royal official, and it is so. Yet this same Jesus can be remarkably hesitant to give neat answers that clear everything up. He's as likely to answer a question with another question. And he is forever responding to questions with stories that don't quite answer those questions but leave you wondering. And when he does speak clearly, it's often something we don't want to hear. "Love your enemies," or "You cannot serve God and wealth."

I wonder what church might look like if we were a bit less talkative, a bit less convinced of our ability to explain Jesus, faith, God. I wonder if some of the current interest in spirituality, along with a greater emphasis on the sacraments, doesn't reflect a hunger for a less talkative church. And I wonder if we'd be a lot better off if we spent less time mining Scripture for answers and more time letting it raise questions for us to sit and quietly ponder.

Of course that might be a little risky for us professional clergy sorts. We get, in a sense, paid by the word. We are also able to control things with words. The worship services I lead are often tightly scripted from beginning to end. The congregation may say some of its own words, but they have been provided by me, either with prayers I have written or hymns I've selected. And we dare not let the service get quiet for very long. Lord knows what might happen if people were left to ponder in silence, if God were listened for rather than spoken about using just the right words.


I was at an event the other day where David Lose, president of Luther Seminary in Philadelphia, spoke of thinking about intelligence as the awareness of all you don't know. He said this in service to his call to "Reclaim the power of 3 overlooked words: I don't know!" For wordy people like pastors, that's surely an invitation to silence, at least on our parts.

Living and working inside the Washington, DC beltway as I do, talkativeness and wordiness are part and parcel of everyday life. So too is the awareness that much of this talk says very little, much of it is manipulative, and much of it is not true. It is too often about gaining the upper hand for our side and diminishing other points of view. Given this, I wonder if we might not offer a much more powerful witness of Christ, the Incarnate Word, if we learned to be a lot less talkative.

I'm going to ponder that quietly for a while.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Sermon: Fully Alive Imaginations

Matthew 5:17-48
Fully Alive Imaginations
James Sledge                                                                                       March 1, 2015

As a general rule, I’ve learned not to engage Facebook “friends” who post provocative items, but every now and then I can’t help myself. It happened the other day when someone shared a colorful, poster-like picture that read, “You know you have gone blind when you can ‘see nothing wrong’ with something that God has called sin.”
I took the bait and commented, “Such as?” My “friend” responded, “Look at this world , sin is everywhere and people think it’s normal!”
I’d started this so I thought I would see it through. I responded, “Again, such as? Are you referring to lending money at interest or failing to care for the poor or welcome the immigrant? Or do you speak of things such as eating shrimp?”
This time my “friend” got more specific. “Homosexuality is one, killing is another, no fear of God, drugs, child abuse, animal abuse and I could go on. but don’t get me wrong I care for the people just not the sin. I don’t look down on anyone.”
At this point my better judgment started to kick in, and I decided to disengage, but not before leaving what seemed an appropriate quote from Father Richard Rohr. “Either you allow Holy Scriptures to change you, or you will normally try to use it to change--and clobber--other people. It is the height of idolatry to use the supposed Word of God so that my small self can be in control and be right. But I am afraid this has been more the norm than the exception in the use of the Bible."[1]
I suspect that most everyone who takes the Bible seriously occasionally falls into the idolatry that  Father Rohr mentions. All of us can read the Bible selectively, using it to support what we already think. That’s true of both conservative and liberal Christians, though I fear that progressive Christians are sometimes more prone simply to dismiss the Bible whenever we don’t like what it says.
It’s not a perfect fit, but I wonder if the differences between conservative and liberal Christians don’t have something in common with those between the “traditionalists” and “nontraditionalists,” the “compliant” and “defiant” that Brian McLaren suggests make up the audience when Jesus gives his Sermon on the Mount. But, “According to Jesus,” writes McLaren, “neither group was on the road to true aliveness.”[2]