Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Words, Words, Words

On Monday evening, our group of pastors traveling through Turkey were guests in the home of a Muslim family in Izmir. The two older sons are grown and have moved away. (One is in  America and one is a professor at a Turkish university.) The third son, Yusuf (Joseph), was much younger – late elementary school age perhaps – and he was the only one of the family who spoke any English. Of course, like any respectable boy that age, he preferred to be anywhere but in a crowd of adults, most of whom he’d never laid eyes on, and he didn’t say much.

The meal was a traditional Turkish one, served in courses. There was a delicious lentil soup, followed a dish of eggplant, potatoes, meat, followed by rice and green beans, all of this accompanied by homemade bread and side dishes of salad from the family garden, something made from yogurt, mint, and cucumbers, and a wonderful eggplant salad made with smoked eggplant, yogurt, and spices I couldn’t quite identify. Then we retired to the living room where we were brought plates of fresh watermelon, and lastly, the end to most Turkish meals, a small glass of hot tea.

We feasted like kings and queens with our hosts scurrying about in a kitchen cramped by the nine of us, quickly removing one bowl or plate and replacing it with another. The husband, Baha, did most of the talking, but both he and his wife, Binnur, were incredibly enthusiastic in their hospitality. Conversations were interesting, with Bilal, the Fairfax, VA imam who is leading us in our Turkish odyssey, having to translate back and forth.

It was a remarkable evening, with many touching moments, but a couple stand out. The first happened over introductions. This family has hosted groups like ours many times before, but we were something of a novelty. With the exception of Bilal, all of us are Christian pastors. They had never hosted pastors before, and when they learned of this, Baha called us “friends of God” repeatedly and excitedly. And he spoke of seeing the light of God in us.

But I think the moment that touched me the most was when Baha said how rich he was because they were able to host us. That’s not how I usually hear people use the word “rich.” Perhaps there were some issues with translation, but I don’t think so. He and his wife were treating us like royalty, and he felt enriched and blessed by the opportunity to do so. It was an amazing demonstration of the biblical call to show hospitality to the stranger, a call I have often found to be considerably more evident among those of Islamic faith.


A hectic schedule and the lack of reliable WiFi in our hotel has led to a delay in finishing this post. In the meantime we have again dined with a Muslim family. This family was younger and the evening somehow felt a bit different. One colleague spoke of the previous night being “moving” but this meal being “fun.” Yet one constant remained: the remarkable level of hospitality that genuinely felt joy and gratitude for the opportunity to host us.

As I reflect on these two evenings (we have another in a couple of hours), I’m struck by the connection that we made at these dinners despite significant language barriers. More striking, this connection achieved despite the difficulty understanding each other’s words happened  between people who are sometimes divided by words.

I suppose that all faiths, in an understandable attempt to more fully understand that faith, use mountains of words to explain and detail the essentials of faith, to make sense of our faith stories and how they are to impact our lives. Yet so often our words become our fences, the lines we draw around our group that leaves others on the outside. Too often our words become weapons to say who’s in and who’s out. For Christians, our great commands are about love, yet we have often had little trouble telling others that our loving God is happy to damn them to hell for all eternity if their words don’t match ours.


I’m reading a wonderful, historical novel that takes place in Turkey at the end of the Ottoman Empire and the early days of the Turkish Republic, Birds without Wings, by Louis De Berniers. I ran across this quote in it. “(T)he first casualties of a religion’s establishment are the intentions of its founder. One can imagine Jesus and Mohammed glumly comparing notes in paradise, scratching their heads and bemoaning their vain expense of effort and suffering, which resulted only in the construction of two monumental whited sepulchres.” (pp. 142-143, Kindle edition)

The observation is perhaps a bit harsh, but not without its truth. When we Christians forget about the command to love neighbors, along with Jesus’ teachings that broaden the neighbor to include even our enemy, then we inevitably misuse and abuse his words and words in general.

Since I’m quoting folks I’ll throw in another by Barbara Brown Taylor. “(I)n an age of information overload . . . the last thing any of us needs is more information about God. We need the practice of incarnation, by which God saves the lives of those whose intellectual assent has turned them dry as dust, who have run frighteningly low on the bread of life, who are dying to know more God in their bodies. Not more about God. More God.” (An altar in the World, p. 45)

Said another way perhaps, Not more words about God, not more words, but more God. Of course it's taken me a whole lot of words to say that.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Muslims, Confederate Flags, and Guilt by Association

As I write I'm sitting in the airport terminal, waithing to begin my journey to Turkey. I'm traveling with a group of pastors on a trip sponsored by the Institute for Islamic and Turkish Studies, or IITS, in Fairfax, VA. Members of my congregation recently broke the Ramadan fast with worshipers at the IITS mosque. It was a delightful evening with great food and the most wonderful company and hospitality.

Because of my relationship with the folks at IITS, the recent attack on a Navy recruiting center in Tennessee that killed five servicemen left me with a second, heartbreaking reaction. After the initial shock and sadness that such a tragedy had occurred, I immediately thought of the good people at IITS and countless other Muslims like them. Because the attacker was Muslim, some Americans with declare all Muslims guilty by association. This seems so unfair to my friends, and I can only imagine the pain it causes them.

Speaking of guilt by association, I have a number of Facebook “friends” who claim that the Confederate battle flag is not tainted by its association with a war to preserve slavery, hate groups such as the KKK, or the fact that so many southern states raised it over capitals and incorporated it into their state flags to protest the civil rights movement. And in an interesting oddity, those most vocal in defending the Confederate flag are often the same people condemning all Muslims for the actions of a few.

What is it that makes us humans so good at dividing ourselves into different groups, then assuming the worst of those whose group is different from ours? What makes us willing to believe the absolute worst about those who are different than us while at the same time excusing terrible actions by members of our own group as aberrations?

For me as a Christian pastor, such questions are even more troubling because religion is often heavily invested in the “we’re in and you’re not” game. We Christians, whose greatest commands are about love, can be downright hateful to those we deem on the outside. Clearly some Muslims have similar issues.

As I finish writing, I am now in Istanbul, brought here by a Muslim imam, and experiencing the warmth and hospitality of all those I've met. It is interesting being in a place where I'm the minority, whether the measure is language, ethnicity, or religion. Surely my being a Christian American carries with it a number of guilt by association issues for people here. But based on my limited experiience so far, perhaps not. Regardless, I look forward to the coming week and the chance to continue pondering those things that divide us, as well as looking for those things that bind us in a common, shared humanity.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Taking the Bible Seriously - Two Different Idolatries

The next day an evil spirit from God rushed upon Saul, and he raved within his house. 
1 Samuel 18:10

I encounter very many "liberal" and "progressive" Christians who have a tenuous relationship with the Bible. (I'm not speaking of pastors so much as regular church members.) This is usually not because they haven't read Scripture, but rather because they have. At least they have read it enough that they have encountered sufficient terrifying or troubling texts that make them question the Bible's validity.

You don't need to look very hard to find such texts. From rather minor things such as the ban on eating shrimp or wearing clothing made of two materials to appalling commands to kill children who curse their parents and to conduct genocidal slaughter of a land's indigenous inhabitants, the Bible contains a large number of verses likely to make most people squirm. Ignoring the Old Testament doesn't help very much either. Women should remain silent; slaves should obey their masters; "accept the authority of every human institution." (I've always been confused by Christians who speak of infallible Scripture in one breath and in the next insist the right to bear arms must be maintained in case we need to overthrow the government.) There is plenty to make you squirm in the New Testament.

You would think that after all these centuries Christians would have arrived at some generally accepted notions of what to do with the Bible, but this seems not to be the case. Even stranger, many who've decided they can no longer accept the Bible's authority, appear to have accepted the literal, inerrant model of some fundamentalists as a norm. And some liberal Christians I talk to struggle to accept Scripture because they think doing so means reading it this way.

It may come as a shock to some, but reading the Bible literally is a modern phenomenon. It took the Protestant elevation of Scripture combined with 19th century scientific advances for some to embrace a doctrine of inerrancy. The problems with such a doctrine are many. For one, Scripture makes no such claim for itself. The passage from 2 Timothy 3:16, "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching..." is often quoted on this topic, but inspired and inerrant are quite different things. And of course, the writer is referring to the Old Testament only. The New Testament did not yet exist.

Notions of literalism and inerrancy also make it difficult, if not impossible, to let Scripture have its own say. For example, the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, place Jesus' cleansing of the Temple during the last week of his life. But John's gospel has this at the beginning of Jesus' ministry. If we are committed to a doctrine of inerrancy, we now must commit to explaining away this discrepancy. At such a point, this doctrine has now become more treasured than the gospel witness itself.

Or look at the quote from today's reading in 1 Samuel where God sends an evil Spirit to afflict Saul. Do evil Spirits come from God? In much of the Old Testament they do. In Exodus, Pharaoh repeatedly changes his mind about letting Moses and the Hebrews go because God "hardened Pharaoh's heart." For much of ancient Israel's history, they had no notion of an evil counterpart to God. Indeed their radical monotheism argued against such a thing. And so evil that at a later date might be attributed to "the devil" is attributed to God.

As I said, the problems with inerrancy are many, as well as obvious. Maintaining a belief in it requires a blind faith in the doctrine itself, which of course is idolatrous. The doctrine was devised to protect the authority of Scripture, but its many failings may have done more damage to the idea of biblical authority than science or secularism or anything else ever did. So then how do we lay claim to some sort of legitimate, biblical authority?

Perhaps that verse from 2 Timothy can be of help. "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching..." Inspired; what does that mean? I looked up inspired and found this: "aroused, animated, or imbued with the spirit to do something, by or as if by supernatural or divine influence." If a poet is inspired to write some incredible verses or a musician to pen a spectacular score, we do not mean that the finished product has nothing to do with poet of composer. Inspiration does not overwhelm the person. 

Hopefully my sermons are occasionally inspired, something more than just my thoughts and reflections, but on those occasions when God does speak through me, I am not obliterated by such inspiration. I do not simply become stenographer or parrot. My voice is still there, my perspective, my biases, and so on. So too the writers of Scripture are presumably present in their writings, along with their context, perspective, and so on. The inspiration is divine, but it does not swallow up the author.

The inspiration is divine. This is a critical thing to remember, for if some Christians have tended to claim too much for Scripture, some have tended to claim far too little. In the process, some liberal and progressive Christians have engaged in a different sort of idolatry from that of their inerrancy counterparts, an idolatry of reason. This idolatry sets up my own judgment as final arbiter and acknowledges no authority outside of self.

This poses an entirely different problem for faith. If inerrancy requires one to embrace a God of genocide and slavery, this second idolatry risks doing away with God altogether, or at least any insights into God not readily apparent and palatable to me. At some point such a move rejects the idea of revelation altogether. But if God cannot be other than I imagine or conceive, then God gets created in my image.

Faith is damaged by an overly simplified, black and white, "God said it and I believe it" mentality. But it is equally damaged by a refusal to acknowledge any biblical authority. If I do not engage with and wrestle with the Scriptures, if I do not allow the Bible to have some sort of claim on me and my life, then I am may be many things, some of them good and noble, but I am not seeking to be a Christian, a person who seeks to live in faithful relationship with the God revealed in Jesus.

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Sermon video: Caught Up in the Conspiracy

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Sermon: Caught Up in the Conspiracy

Philemon 8-19
Caught Up in the Conspiracy
James Sledge                                                                                       July 12, 2015

The practice of referring to “books” of the Bible probably is a bit misleading, never more so than with the “book” of Philemon. I once had my answer on a seminary quiz marked incorrect because I wrote that a particular quote from Paul was found in Philemon chapter 1, verse so and so. I guess Professor Achtemeier would have marked down Brian McLaren as well. His chapter for today says our Scripture reading is Philemon 1:8-19, but in truth, Philemon has no chapters. It’s a one page letter, less than 500 words.
Like most letters in the New Testament, it is occasional and particular in its content, but this one is also personal, speaking primarily to one individual, Philemon. The exact circumstances aren’t known because Paul has no need to explain it to Philemon. But it seems that Paul is writing on behalf of a slave, Onesimus, who apparently belongs to Philemon.
The first seven verses of the letter are introductory, warm hellos and recollections of service together in the church. It seems Paul is charming Philemon a bit before he gets to the point of the letter which goes something like this. “I could command you, but I won’t. I’m giving you a chance to do the right thing on your own. Receive Onesimus, not as a slave but as a beloved brother, and free him so that he may return and work with me.”
As I was reading this letter, I imagined Paul living and writing it in our day. What if Philemon was an active leader in his church but also a CEO. Might Paul write, “I could command you but I won’t. I’m giving you a chance to do the right thing on your own. Treat Onesimus, not as an employee, a human resource, but as a beloved brother. Pay him a living wage so he may can stop working three jobs and help me.
But what makes Paul think he can make this sort of request? Or that he could have made it a command in Christ? Just who does he think he is?
It’s important to realize what a life altering thing it is for Paul to be “in Christ.” For Paul, this is not about getting to go to heaven. Paul has become a “new creation” in Christ. He has been transformed in ways that completely change how he lives in the here and now. Those who are in Christ live now as citizens of God’s new day, no longer recognizing the world’s division of Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, CEO and employee.
The Brian McLaren chapter that uses today’s verses from Philemon is called, “The Spirit Conspiracy,” and I love that title. As Paul well knew, the gift of the Spirit that is given to the Church does join us to a conspiracy, a movement to radically alter the world, to begin conforming it to what Jesus called the kingdom of God.
Back in Jesus’ day, there were many who hoped that he would be a conquering Messiah, that he would cast out the Romans and institute the wondrous day of peace and harmony foretold by prophets. No doubt they were crushed and confused when those Romans instead executed him, and for many, hope that he was the Messiah disappeared.
In our day we understand that Jesus is not a military Messiah, but far too often this has led Christians to conclude that Jesus is apolitical, concerned only with forgiving sin and getting people right with God before they die. But declaring Jesus a non-political Messiah requires ignoring the very core of his message.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Sermon: Downward Mobility

Philippians 2:1-11
Downward Mobility
James Sledge                                                                                                   July 5, 2015

A number of our youth recently went on a mission trip. Working with the Pittsburgh Project, they helped elderly residents with limited income make badly needed repairs or improvements to their homes. This is the second year our youth have gone to Pittsburgh, in large part because those who went last year has such a profound experience.
Similar experiences have been shared by countless other youth groups, college groups, adult groups, and intergenerational groups who’ve taken mission trips to all manner of locations to do all sorts of work. Rarely, have I heard anyone complain about their experience on such trips. Even though the accommodations may have been incredibly spartan, even though the weather may have been horrendous, even though the work may have been hard and strenuous, people talk about how moving the experience was, how much it impacted their faith, how life changing it was.
We live in a culture that bombards us with messages of needing more, of striving to get ahead, of leading a life that others can only dream about. Yet I’ve almost never heard anyone tell me that their faith blossomed or their life changed because they got that bigger house or nicer car, got that promotion everyone else wanted, or got into that highly selective college. People may get immense satisfaction or benefit from them, but they don’t talk about them in the same sort of language they use for those times when they sweat and work in the most difficult conditions, forming relationships with people very unlike those they usually meet.
“The Spirit leads us downward.” That’s the opening sentence in Brian McLaren’s chapter entitled, “Spirit of Service.” It seems totally at odds with the upward mobility focus of our culture, yet it is the experience of those mission trips.