Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Tears for a Far Off Kingdom

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
     whose hope is in the LORD their God, 
who made heaven and earth,
     the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
     who executes justice for the oppressed;
     who gives food to the hungry. 
The LORD sets the prisoners free;
     the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. 
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
     the LORD loves the righteous. 
The LORD watches over the strangers;
     he upholds the orphan and the widow,
     but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
 Psalm 146:5-9

As I read Psalm 146 this morning, my thoughts turned to Baltimore, to the violence, the hopeless desperation, the crushing poverty, the senseless looting, the justifiable anger, the lack of opportunity, the fear... It is so tempting to draw easy and simple explanations, to point a finger and say, "There! That's the problem." But mostly I just find myself horrified by all of it, wanting to cry but unable.

A colleague, Ray Roberts, posted this on Facebook last night. "Watching Baltimore burn and praying for our country. Jesus wept over Jerusalem because they did not know the things that make for peace..." We still don't.

As I mulled the psalm over in my mind, I wondered if the psalmist had experienced happiness from God executing justice, feeding the hungry, lifting up the bowed down, and thwarting the ways of the wicked. Or was the psalmist instead longing for those things, even attempting to stir divine action by reminding God of God's own character.

Jesus came speaking in a manner much like the psalmist. He said he came "to bring good news to the poor... proclaim release to the captive... (and) to let the oppressed go free." But people didn't much listen to the ways Jesus proclaimed and taught, and we don't listen much better today. Surely Jesus weeps over Baltimore, and most other cities in America, just as he once did over Jerusalem.

Faith is hard sometimes. I'm not talking about magic-formula-faith that hopes God will reward me for sharing that Facebook post or punch my ticket for heaven if I believe the right things. I'm talking about a faith that actually embraces the things Jesus and the psalmists proclaim when they insist that God is working to bring down the powerful and lift up the lowly, a faith that lives as though that were really true.

Almost 2000 years ago, Jesus was on better terms with folks like those in troubled areas of Baltimore than he was with religious leaders, police chiefs, governors, or captains of industry. He proclaimed a new day, a kingdom of God without a top or a bottom, a day when those who had plenty used it to make sure all had enough. But the powers that be thought that a terrible idea. And they still do.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sermon: Worship in the Kingdom

Acts 2:41-47
Worship in the Kingdom
James Sledge                                                                                       April 26, 2015

I have a vivid memory of something that happened during worship at a church I previously served. That particular sanctuary was a bit different from ours. It was a longer and narrower. Like ours, there was a narthex just out the sanctuary doors, but it also had a large fellowship space straight through on the other side of the narthex.
More importantly, at least for this story, the back wall of this sanctuary had windows that went all the way across. This meant that the choir and I could look out of the sanctuary during worship into the narthex as well as into a bit of the fellowship area.
This could be distracting during preaching. A few ushers always stayed out in the narthex and were often moving around, getting a cup of coffee, finding the offering plates, arranging furniture in the fellowship area, and so on. I tried very hard to ignore them.
One Sunday while preaching, I saw a fellow who looked like he might be homeless enter the narthex from the doorway just out of my view to my left. He did not make it before he was intercepted by one of those ushers. I could see what happened but not hear anything. The usher appeared to act cordially and probably asked what he could do for him. I assume the man said he was looking for help, and the usher said it wasn’t the best time because he then led the man, gently but firmly, back across the narthex until he disappeared from my view again, headed to the exit.
I don’t know if people in the congregation noticed my distraction. I kept preaching, but my focus was on the other side of those windows. That moment has stayed with me, and I’ve  wondered about them from time to time. Did the usher ask the man if he wanted to stay for worship? Did the man volunteer that he would come back later when told worship wouldn’t be over for another 30 minutes? I don’t know.
The contrasts were stark, though. The usher was in coat and tie, the other man was disheveled and in ragged clothes. The usher and almost everyone in worship were white while this fellow was black. Whatever the particulars of his conversation with the usher, he was not one of  us. He was not like us. And he did not stay for very long.
Watching those events in the narthex, it was easy to imagine the usher reinforcing the racial and economic barriers of our society, although I doubt he meant to. He was just concerned about decorum and order in worship. I know he supported the ministry where homeless families lived in our church building for a week at a time, eight times a year. He just thought of worship and mission as two separate things.
In that sense, he was little different from me. As a second career pastor, I can recall those times my wife and I looked for a church to join. When we did, we sought people who were “like us,” who sang hymns we knew and had a worship style we were used to. And the churches we ended up joining had people that looked like us, dressed like us, and mostly had skin color like us. Looking for a church, for a place to worship, was not about breaking down cultural, racial, or economic barriers. It was about finding a comfortable place to attend.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Endings, Beginnings, and Liturgical Correctness

If you're the churchy sort, you likely know that Easter is not yet over, that it is a season lasting until Pentecost. I've seen a number of reminders of this on Facebook, some of them quite humorous. I myself have sometimes reminded folks myself about Easter not being over. But I do wonder if this doesn't start to sound like "liturgical correctness" at some point.

Yes, Easter continues. For that matter, every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection, even those Sundays in Lent. Yet in terms of all the build up and preparation leading to the services on Easter morn with huge crowds and brass quartet, the big day has come and gone. Even if we keep watering and caring for those Easter lilies, they're starting to look a bit bedraggled by now.

I love the way we do Easter big. Unlike Christmas, most of the excitement is not about secular things (Easter bunny aside) but about the good news that Jesus lives. There is a problem, however, when Easter is just a celebration of something that happened long ago, and not about the start of something.

If you read this blog often, you know that our congregation is letting Brian McLaren's book, We Make the Road by Walking, guide our worship. He uses the theme of "Uprising" for all of Easter, and today's theme is "The Uprising of Discipleship." It draws on the story in John 21, where after the resurrection, after Jesus has said to the disciples, "As the Father has sent me, so I send you," after Jesus breathed on them saying, "Receive the Holy Spirit," after Jesus appeared to Thomas, after all this Peter says, "I am going fishing," and a number of other disciples join him.

Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but it feels a lot to me like Easter was over for Peter. No doubt he was thrilled that Jesus was alive. Considering how badly he had failed when Jesus was arrested, it was wonderful that his denial of Jesus wasn't the last word. But now Peter was going fishing, going back to what he knew. Did he think his failure had disqualified him? Was Easter a great moment for him, but now it was over; now it was time to get back to his regular life?

If Peter is thinking that way, Jesus sets him right. In a threefold question and command formula, Jesus seemingly undoes any lingering trouble from Peter's threefold denial, and Jesus commissions him to care for the flock. And he utters the original call once more, "Follow me."

Peter nearly gets off track a second time when he looks over at "the beloved disciple" and asks "What about him?" There's always a "what about" that gets in the way of following Jesus, isn't there. If anything, Jesus sounds more irritated with Peter here than he was when he "undid" the denial. In so many words he tells him, "That's none of your concern," and then he calls once more. "Follow me!"

I don't think John's gospel includes chapter 21 (it looks like it could be an addition to a work that seems to finish with chapter 20) just to tell what happened to Peter. Most of us find ourselves in Peter's place from time to time. There are things we've done, things about us, ways that we've failed that surely disqualify us. There are also "What about?" questions that get in our way. But Jesus reminds Peter and us that Easter is a beginning, not an end.

The big celebration of Easter may indeed be over, but the work of Easter is just getting started. And it continues when we hear Jesus speak to us, dismissing our failures or whatever else think disqualifies us, redirecting us from our inevitable, "What about?" and calling us once more, "Follow me!"

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

On Loving One Another

Linus, the character in the Peanuts comic strip, once uttered this. "I love mankind. It's people I can't stand." I imagine many of us know how Linus felt. Peanuts is not popular all these years after Charles Schultz's death because he wasn't a keen observer of the human condition.

It is easy to love humanity in general. It's when they start to become particular people that loving them becomes problematic. In our day the hatred between liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, progressive Christians and fundamentalists, sometimes borders on rabid. But you can find hatred and nastiness within like groups. Look at the sort of infighting that occurs within political parties, or the fights that take place within Christian denominations and congregations.

I assume that the writer of today's epistle reading from 1 John is familiar with this sort of intra-congregational nastiness. Why else would he go on so about how important it is to love other followers of Christ, saying that "whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness"?

I can only assume that the writer knew well that it is sometimes easier to love some unknown person far away, even when that person counts as an enemy, than it is to love that so-and-so you bump into every week, the one who has said nasty things about you, or made your life unnecessarily difficult, or blamed you for a problem not of your making.

How easy it is to seethe against those who have hurt us in ways that are immediate and personal as only those close to us can. But the epistle writer insists that we cannot be followers of Christ when we succumb to this temptation to hate those who are supposed to be in community with us, and that we stumble in the darkness when we do.

In her sermon here last Sunday, Diane Walton Hendricks shared this quote from Parker Palmer's The Company of Strangers. "When people look upon the church, it is not of first importance that they be instructed by our theology or altered by our ethics but that they be moved by the quality of our life together: 'See how they love one another.' "

Most of the congregations I've known over my life spent a great deal of time and energy on doing good worship and on having good programs and activities. Some of this has been geared toward fellowship opportunities and so community-building. But very often, community was more assumed than cultivated. It had occurred, more or less, organically over the years.

I love worship and think it essential to any Christian community. Still, I can't help wondering what church might look like if we spent the same sort of time and energy and money on building loving community as we do pulling off good worship.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Confirmation Issues

Today is the day that members of our congregation's confirmation class make their public professions of faith, becoming full-fledged, adult members of the faith. This group has been meeting together since October, discussing and exploring the meaning of faith and discipleship. Today our congregation witnesses their choice to claim the faith as their own and to walk with Christ as his followers. It is an exciting day, and it is a special day.

Anytime I think about confirmation, I can't help but recall an old (and rather bad) joke. The story goes that a group of pastors are having lunch. One of the group shares that the steeple at her church has become the home to a huge colony of bats, and they are struggling to get rid of them. The other pastors offer suggestions, but each has already been tried. Finally, the Presbyterian pastor says, "We had that problem, but I solved it. I simply enrolled all the bats in our confirmation class, and when the class ended, we never saw them again."

All too often, at least in Presbyterian churches, confirmation classes and professions of faith have tended to be a graduation from church rather than an entry into it. And no matter how seriously a congregation takes this process, no matter how carefully and thoughtfully it is done, the results are still something of a mixed bag. Some of those confirmed today will begin to take a more active role, but others will seldom be seen again.

To be honest, I'm not entirely sure why some parents and young people bother with confirmation. Our culture no longer requires or much encourages church participation, yet certain habits die hard. Some parents who don't participate encourage their teenagers who don't participate nonetheless to attend confirmation and "join." It's an odd sort of cultural holdover from a different time. It is the continuation of a cultural norm that no longer exists but somehow persists here and there. Or maybe it represents a lingering hope that Christ might be met.

One of the interesting things happening in Christian faith these days is the way it is becoming counter cultural. Going to church on Sunday is declining, though still rather common. Seeking to live as a dedicated follower of Jesus is much less common. Maybe it always was but we didn't realize it when church was such a big part of the norm. I wonder how many confirmation class members - at this congregation or any other - recognize this counter cultural aspect of faith. Are they simply participating in the vestiges of an old and quickly fading cultural norm? Or do they still hope to meet the risen one? Will those who we don't see again after today bring their children back for confirmation? If the cultural inducements to church participation completely fade away, will a hope of meeting Jesus still cause people to show up?

Maybe when we talk about confirmation, the first question we should ask is how likely people are to bump into Jesus anywhere in the process. Will they encounter the body of Christ somewhere amidst the discussions or service or worship? Will they see Christ in the gathering of the faithful who meet here for worship and service and who will welcome them as members upon their profession of faith?

An encounter with the risen Christ is a powerful thing. It is not something that ever goes away completely. If those confirmation members who drift away did in fact encounter Christ, I will trust that experience, that presence, to do its work over time. And if they did not, why should they stay? And so perhaps congregations should worry less about trying to get the confirmation curriculum or process just right. Those are important, but probably nowhere near so important as being a community where Christ is met.

I firmly believe that, deep down, all people long for God. I don't think this is any less true in our time, a day when church participation is declining at a rapid rate. So perhaps any concerns about why some members of confirmation classes disappear shortly after the class ends should be refocused on why less and less people seem to think that church is a place where they might meet God.

I recently heard a sermon on Jesus' commandment that we "love one another." The pastor spoke on how very often churches are better at loving the neighbor via charity or social justice than we are at loving the people in our congregation, that difficult mix of people who are our community of faith. So how does the love of Christ flow within our fellowship? How is it experienced in ways concrete enough that Christ is encountered now and then in the life of the community? Because an encounter with this love is a powerful thing.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Abiding in Fear

If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 
John 15:10

I'm headed to see my favorite singer/band, The Mountain Goats, later today. (I say singer/band because sometimes the Mountain Goats are simply John Darnielle.) This, combined with today's gospel reading and the murder charges against a SC police officer, made me think of one of Darnielle's songs entitled "1 John 4:16." Here are the words.

In the holding tank I built for myself, it's feeding time
And I start to feel afraid 'cause I'm the last one left in line
The endless string of summer storms that led me to today
Began one afternoon with you, long ago and far away

And someone leads the beast in on its chain
But I know you're thinking of me 'cause it's just about to rain
So I won't be afraid of anything ever again

In the cell that holds my body back, the door swings wide
And I feel like someone's lost child as the guards lead me outside
And if the clouds are gathering, it's just to point the way
To an afternoon I spent with you when it rained all day

And someone leads the beast in on its chain
But I know you're thinking of me 'cause it's just about to rain
So I won't be afraid of anything ever again
I'll let you draw your own meaning from the lyrics. But as I thought about Jesus' commandment that we love one another and Darnielle's words about not being afraid "ever again," I was struck with what a fearful world we live in. And considering how many people like to speak of the US as a "Christian nation," this strikes me as quite odd.

Certainly there are real dangers in our world. There are threats from terrorism, economic concerns, and worries about climate change. But the fearfulness I see in our culture seems out of proportion to such concerns. The shrill, partisan hatefulness in our country these days bespeaks a deep, visceral fear that is terrified of what may happen if anyone who disagrees with me is in charge. And very often it is those who wear their Christian faith on their sleeve who seem most afraid and angry.

Jesus speaks of loving one another as well as loving our enemies. 1 John 4:18 says, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear." So why are we so afraid? Why do we so often speak and act out of our worst impulses rather than out of love? Why do we so often assume the worst of the other, especially the other who is in the least bit different from us?

I don't know that John Darnielle would approve, but I'm going to let his song be part of my prayer. Let your love abide in us, O God, so we won't be afraid of anything ever again.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Sermon: When Hope Had Died

Luke 24:1-35
When Hope Had Died
James Sledge                                                               April 5, 2015 – Resurrection of the Lord

The stone is rolled away! The tomb is empty! “Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia!” We gather on this biggest day of the church year to celebrate. But according to Luke’s gospel, as the sun sets on that first Easter, no one is celebrating. Angels have told the women that Jesus is risen, but no one seems to believe it, not even the women. Peter goes and finds the tomb empty but then leaves befuddled, not knowing what it all means.
Later in the day, two disciples head to Emmaus. Maybe it’s their home, maybe just a layover. Regardless, they are disappointed and heartbroken. Just a week before they entered Jerusalem shouting “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” But now they their king is dead. Everything had seemed so hopeful. Something new and wonderful was being born. But now that’s all gone. It’s all over, and they are headed home.
Most of us have never had our hopes dashed in such brutal fashion, but many of us have faced a moment when hope was gone, when things we counted on failed us, when it’s difficult to go forward. The loss of a loved one, the failure of a relationship, or a diagnosis from the doctor can throw a person into despair. It can make the future seem bleak, hopeless.
On a larger scale, how do you hope for peace in an era of endless terror, conflict, and war? How do congregations look to the future with excitement when fewer and fewer Americans are interested in church? How do you hope for an end to racism and discrimination when hate seem to be growing worse? How can poverty end when economic inequality is growing?
Without hope and optimism, people fear the future. They tend to get depressed or anxious or overly reactive. You can see that in the hyper partisan politics of our day, in the shrill and vicious “conversations” on social media, in the way many people see little point in voting. You can see it when congregations and denominations engage in nasty fights over how to interpret the Bible or worship styles or most anything else.
Luke’s gospel doesn’t say so, but I have to think there were some pretty big blow ups by disciples that first Easter morning. Some wanted to stay together and see what would happen. Some thought that was crazy and just wanted to go home. Some were angry at the Romans. Some were angry at themselves for ever having followed Jesus. Some were upset that they hadn’t made an effort to save Jesus.
What sort of good-byes had bee said when two disciples left for Emmaus? Had it been a fond parting? Or had they left in a huff, shouting over their shoulders, “We’re out of here.”
Whatever the circumstances, two disciples make their way toward Emmaus on the afternoon of the first Easter. When the risen Jesus joins them, they have no idea who he is. Is this divine sleight of hand, or does seeing him require more hope that they can muster?
Jesus asks what they are talking about, and they stop, looking sad. Their pain is raw, but they share a short synopsis of what had happened over the last few days, ending with, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” They had hoped. But no longer.
Jesus had showed them a new way, a way rooted in love, a way that did not meet violence with more violence, a way that did not always have to have more but trusted God’s provision, a way that cared for the poor and broken, that worked for a new community rooted in God’s love and God’s priorities. Jesus had confronted the powerful, those heavily invested in old ways, with his new way of love. But the powerful had killed Jesus, had shut him up for good, and for two disciples journeying to Emmaus, hope had died, too.