Sunday, August 30, 2015

Sermon: Transformative Religion

James 1:17-27
Transformative Religion
James Sledge                                                                                       August 30, 2015

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this… Religion… The term could use some PR help. Most of the stories associated with it are negative. Article after article has chronicled the dramatic rise of the “Nones” those folks who check “none of the above” when asked to list a religious preference. They and many others sometimes say they are  “spiritual but not religious,” SBNR for short.
The exact distinction between “spiritual” and “religious” is a bit fuzzy. One dictionary says that “spiritual” has to do with sacred things, with religion, with supernatural deities, but the definition of “religious” mentions many of the same things. However “religious” feels more connected to the corporate and institutional: congregations, denominations, churches.
In her delightful, witty, snarky, and insightful book, When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church, UCC pastor Lilian Daniel challenges SBNR thinking about church. She complains about such folks needing to share their spiritual insights with her upon learning she is a pastor. Writing of one such encounter she says, “Everybody loves to tell a minister what’s wrong with the church.”
This particular fellow had started out Roman Catholic but had left for a variety of church “failures.” After college he become part of a conservative Baptist church, drawn by relationships with the people there. But he chafed under a long list of prohibitions and eventually drifted away. Later he married and became part of his wife’s Mainline congregation. It fit him rather well, but then they divorced and it felt like her church, so he drifted away again. Now he spent his Sunday mornings sleeping late, reading the New York Times, and going for runs through the woods.
This was his religion today, he explained. “I worship nature. I see myself in the trees and in the butterflies. I am one with the great outdoors. I find God there. And I realized that I am deeply spiritual but no longer religious.”
He dumped the news in my lap as if it were a controversial hot potato, something that would shock a mild-mannered minister never before exposed to ideas so brave and different and daring. But of course, to me, none of this was different in the least.
This kind and well-meaning Sunday jogger fits right into mainstream American culture. He is perhaps by now in the majority— all those people who have stepped away from the church in favor of …what? Running, newspaper reading, Sunday yoga, or whatever they put together to construct a more convenient religion of their own making.[1]
Daniel shares a good bit more of this fellow’s story and his attempts to enlighten her before concluding, “It finally hit me what was bothering me about this self-styled religion he had invented— he hadn’t invented it at all. It was as boring and predictable as the rest of our self-centered consumer culture, and his very conceit, that this outlook was somehow original, daring, or edgy, was evidence of that very self-centeredness.”[2]

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Guns, Tribalism, Mustard Seeds, and Hope

There are days when I find it depressing to be a pastor. This isn't because of anything going on in my congregation or any personal faith crisis. Rather it's because I am seeing fellow Christians cheer on Donald Trump as he denigrates immigrants, Latinos, and women. It's because I hear fellow Christians go on and on about the sanctity of gun ownership, and I can't understand how this can be.

I am a pastor, a designated leader in the Christian movement. Our movement is rooted in the God of the Bible who demanded welcome and concern for the poor, the alien, and the outsider. Our movement follows a pacifist Messiah who calls us to deny ourselves and love our enemies, who dies willingly for his enemies, whose most fundamental command is to love. Yet many "Christian" voices spew hatred toward the neighbor who is different. They are obsessed with their "right to defend themselves." Everyone else be damned. How did we get following Jesus so horribly wrong? It's depressing.

No doubt some of Christianity's decline in America is because so many of us look so appallingly little like our religious namesake. And this problem is not restricted to conservatives, liberals, or any particular group. We all have our methods choosing a few Christian attributes that suit us and ignoring the rest.

Of course this is nothing new. Jesus' disciples struggled to make sense of him or follow his teachings. Peter "rebuked" him over his willingness to die, and Judas eventually decided to turn him in. One follower drew his sword - the open carry of his day - when they came to arrest Jesus, but Jesus stopped him. In Matthew's gospel, Jesus gives a chilling indictment of those who use weapons to serve their ends. "For all who take the sword will perish by the sword."

After the resurrection, the disciples (minus Judas) understand Jesus a lot better, yet the Church they start almost immediately starts fighting about whether or not to allow those dirty, non-Jews to be a part of their little movement. Welcoming the Gentiles eventually became the norm, but not before a lot of nasty fights and, apparently, a few martyrs.

Jesus goes to incredible lengths to drag us out of our "us versus them" ways of viewing the world. But we keep trying to drag Jesus back into our tribal view of things, hoping to make him captain of our team and so the enemy of theirs. (Of course Jesus loves his enemies, but we forget that.)

And yet... And yet Jesus, the real, biblical Jesus, keeps breaking loose from our tribal boundaries. In New Testament times it happened with the Apostle Paul, who, at no small risk to his own life, welcomed in those dirty Gentiles without requiring them to become Jewish first. (Paul's arrest and imprisonment in Rome may well have been orchestrated by Christians opposed to his non-tribal understanding of Jesus.) And Jesus keeps breaking loose in small, mustard seed moments down through history. In our own US history this happens when some Christians began to see African slaves as full human beings loved by God, and they agitate for an end to slavery. It happens a hundred years later when white and black Christians march peacefully for civil rights, sometimes at the cost of their lives.

In recent days, a non-tribal Jesus has been visible in the faith of Jimmy Carter who, facing his own battle with cancer, is focused not on himself but on helping others all over the world and teaching others about Christ-like love.

Thinking of these and many other "mustard seeds," I feel less depressed... and a lot more hopeful.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Sermon: In the End, Beloved Community

Luke 15:11-32
In the End, Beloved Community
James Sledge                                                                                       August 23, 2015

Just over a year ago, Shawn and I traveled to Austin, Texas for the wedding of our daughter Kendrick and now son-in-law Ryan. In many ways, it was like a lot of weddings, with bridesmaids and groomsmen, tuxes and dresses, and friends and family gathered from here and there. If you’ve been involved in many weddings, you know that they have their share of family dynamics, tuxes that don’t fit, and frayed nerves. Here again, this wedding was probably typical, although it all came together beautifully. But when my father of the bride duties had all been completed, this wedding, in my admittedly biased opinion, did become distinctive.
I can’t say exactly why. It was a reception like many other receptions with a band and a bar and dinner, but this one worked better than most others I’ve been to. Perhaps it was just the right combination of food that was good, drink that was good, a band that was good, a venue that was good, and a great mix of family and friends from the various places we’ve lived over the years. Whatever the reason, I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed myself more. I ate, drank, mingled, talked, laughed, danced (I rarely dance), and I did not want it all to end.
I think that experience gave me a greater appreciation for Jesus’ and the Bible’s use of wedding banquets as metaphor for the kingdom, the reign of God. Weddings were huge deals in that time, feasts and celebrations that went on for a week. People pulled out all the stops for a wedding. When the father in our parable today kills the fatted calf to celebrate his younger son’s return, he throws a wedding banquet type party. No wonder the elder son is so upset, giving this party its own family dynamics and drama. “I’m not going if he’s going.”
I’ve long loved the exchange between father and elder son that concludes the parable, leaving the situation unresolved. The Presbyterian son – in the Greek he is the “presbuteros” (presbu/teroj) son, root word of our denominational name – has disowned his younger sibling. He is no longer his brother, and so he yells at his father, “When this son of yours came back…” But the father will not let the family disintegrate so easily. “But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life…”
The elder brother might have been happy for his sibling to return in the manner the younger had imagined, a hired hand and not a son. But the father’s love makes that impossible and leaves him in anguish at parable’s end, longing for reconciliation among his children.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Presence, a Shared Smile, and Selfie Sticks

I normally keep "office hours" late each Monday afternoons at the Starbucks just down the street. Yesterday I was sipping my coffee and reading when I heard an infant who wasn't quite crying but was making a good bit of noise. I looked around and saw the mother bouncing the child on her shoulder, trying to calm him. She had a nervous expression on her face as she looked around.

Her eyes caught mine. Another time I might have been perturbed or frustrated by this interruption, but yesterday I was simply taking it in and even enjoying myself as I watched this small slice of life play out. I smiled at her and laughed a bit to myself. She smiled broadly back at me. After a moment I looked back down at my book. My mother taught me it is impolite to stare. But I looked up at her again a few moments later, and she smiled at me once more.

We were on opposite sides of the Starbucks, and we never spoke. Soon the child settled down, and I eventually got back to my book, but not before ruminating a bit on how alive I had felt in those brief moments of shared smiles. I also reflected on how that might not have happened had I glared at her, indicating my displeasure at being disturbed.

The reason I responded with a smile rather than a glare likely has to do with the book I was reading, The Naked Now by Richard Rohr. (I should say re-reading. I'm slow to learn Rohr's lessons.) The subtitle of the book is Learning to See as the Mystics See, and Rohr was talking about learning a different way of seeing, one that is truly and fully present to the moment.
It happens whenever, by some wondrous "coincidence," our heart space, our mind space, and our body awareness are all simultaneously open and nonresistant. I like to call it presence. It is experienced as a moment of deep inner connection, and it always pulls you, intensely satisfied, into the naked and undefended now, which can involve both profound joy and profound sadness. At that point, you either want to write poetry, pray, or be utterly silent. (p. 28)
I'm not much of a poet, so I did the last two.


On my recent trip to Turkey, my companions and I were struck by the large numbers of people carrying around selfie sticks and spending much of their time with backs turned to the breathtaking churches and mosques and ruins that drawn millions of tourists. How odd to experience such wonders "over your shoulder." 

I don't own a selfie stick, but that hardly means I don't miss plenty myself. More often than not, I'm in a hurry or in the middle of something or lost in thought or concerned with defending my position, and so I'm unable simply to take in what is around me. The miracle of that shared smile in Starbucks was that it happened at all, that I did not miss it.

Think of how rarely we simply take things in, simply experience the moment without making a judgment, without worrying about how to respond, without thinking about what we have to do next, without any need to defend a point of view. For many of us, what a rare gift it is to be absolutely and only in the moment.


In today's gospel reading, Jesus refuses to answer a question about the source of his "authority." His refusal has nothing to do with a need to hide the source or to be secretive. Rather Jesus knows (and demonstrates) that his opponents are not really interested in his answer. They will not roll it over in the minds, considering it and wondering about it. They will hear Jesus only in order to find something to use against him. 

How like me they are, already knowing what the answer is, needing only to protect and defend that. But for a brief moment yesterday, I experienced the world differently, and it was lovely and beautiful.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Preaching Thoughts on a Non-Preaching Sunday - Hope

We here at Falls Church Presbyterian are about to finish our preaching journey with Brian McLaren's book, We Make the Road by Walking. Today Diane preaches from the next to the last chapter, and it is drawn from the book of Revelation. Appropriate, it seems, to go to the concluding words of the Bible as we get to the end of our journey, focusing on hope.

Revelation suffers from benign neglect in most Mainline churches. That's understandable, given the difficult imagery that modern people struggle to understand. Unfortunately, however, this has basically ceded the book to the lunatic fringe, whose use of Revelation has largely defined public perceptions of the work.

In truth, Revelation was written as a word of encouragement to Christians suffering through difficult times. It does not mean to predict the future in any exact sort of way. There is no secret formula from which can be drawn timetables of specific, future events. Instead it calls people to remain faithful, sure in the hope that God will triumph in the end.


One of my favorite movies is The Shawshank Redemption. If you’ve never seen it, you really should.  Tim Robbins plays Andy, a bank executive falsely convicted of murder, who is serving two life sentences in a brutal penitentiary. There he strikes up an unlikely friendship with a long-timer named Red, played by Morgan Freeman. Despite his false imprisonment, Andy never gives up hope of someday being free, of one day opening a hotel and operating a fishing boat in a little Mexican town on the Pacific Ocean. He even asks Red to be his assistant. But Red warns Andy to let go of his hope. “Hope is a dangerous thing,” he says.  “Hope can drive a man insane.  It’s got no use on the inside.”  But Andy will not let go of hope.

Finally, after nearly twenty years in prison, Andy pulls off a remarkable escape. A full scale search ensues, but they never find him. Not long afterwards, Red is finally paroled, but after a lifetime in prison, he simply cannot adjust to life on the outside. He is all ready to commit some petty crime so he will go back to prison, but one thing stops him, a promise he made to Andy.  
And so he journeys to a field, finds his way to a particular tree, and the rock wall below it. And there, buried at the base of the wall is a box containing money and a letter from Andy. It invites him to come to Mexico, to help Andy get his venture off the ground. The letter concludes, “Remember, Red. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies. I will be hoping that this letter finds you, and finds you well. Your friend, Andy.”

The very last words we hear in the movie are Red’s thoughts as he rides a Trailways bus to Fort Hancock, Texas. “I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand.  I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.”


What is it that allows you to hope? More to the point, what is it that allows you to hope when very little evidence exists that hope is a good thing? Christian hope has always been connected to the cross and the empty tomb. In many ways, Jesus suffers the same fate as others who speak against the powers of empire, the powers of exploitation, the powers of terror. But Jesus' movement on behalf a a different sort of world, God's new commonwealth where the poor hear good news, the captives are released, and the hungry are fed, does not end with his death. God raises Jesus.

God brings life out of death, hope out of hopelessness. It's a wonderful and heartwarming story... if by some chance it is true.

But is it true? Certainly many people believe that it is. But is it a foolish hope. Ultimately, who is right about hope, Andy or Red who said, “Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.  It’s got no use on the inside.” When things are going to pot, when the world seems headed in the wrong direction, does hope make much sense?

Christians have often relocated Jesus' hope to a hope for heaven when we die. It's easy to understand why. Maintaining hope in God's will being done on earth, in the world becoming a sort of heaven, is difficult in the face of so much evidence to the contrary. Yet this is precisely the situation facing to Christians for whom the book of Revelation is written. But why should we or they believe in and trust in hope that God is ultimately in charge of history?

For me, it all hinges on the living Christ. If I can, in fact, experience the presence of Jesus, here and now, then the powers that seem so terrifying and real - empire, evil, death - could not overcome Jesus. Their victory was a sham, for he is still here. And it isn't simply a matter of believing an old story. It is about coming to know Christ, sensing his presence, as the Spirit makes him known to me.

And so.... I hope.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Paying Attention: Good News in a Consumer Culture

“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
Mark 10:14-15

Jesus' words in today's gospel reading are likely among the more familiar and beloved in the Bible. However, just what Jesus means by "as a little child" is not clear. Certainly the understanding of children and childhood was quite different in Jesus' day, and so some modern assumptions may be well off the mark. But no doubt Jesus' words sounded ambiguous in his own time as well. There is probably no one, correct understanding.

Yesterday a friend of mine posted a picture of his granddaughter on Facebook. (Thanks, John.) She was lying down on a beach, propped up on her elbows. Most of her legs were in the water while her upper body was, for the moment, clear of the gentle waves. Her fingers worked into the wet sand as she stared intently at them. My friend had captioned the picture, "Even sand is interesting to a 7 year old."

When Jesus spoke of being like a little child, perhaps he referred to children's relative powerlessness. Perhaps he was talking about their needing to receive what they need as opposed to acquiring it for themselves. Or perhaps he was referring to their ability to be enthralled by whatever is at hand, to be present to the wonder of what is right in front of them. We adults are often too busy to pay attention.

Countless spiritual writers have spoken of prayer in terms of being attentive or paying attention to God. But the busyness of our culture makes that difficult. Living in a consumer culture, we are bombarded with messages telling us that only "more" will feed our deepest desires. We will not be content until we get enough, though enough proves endlessly elusive.

Our consumer mindset is about much more than convincing us to buy a new car or a bigger TV or a  fancier smartphone. Our relentless consumerism leaves us anxious that we may miss out. We worry that our children may miss some experience they "need" and so we over-schedule them. We worry that we may miss an important piece of information and so we check our phones in the middle of our conversations. (I'm guilty of this one.) And even if we aren't on our phones we often find it difficult simply to listen to someone, giving her our full attention. We are too busy evaluating what she is saying or calculating our response to it. (Guilty again.)

Living in a consumer culture and having a consumer mindset, we are often prone to hear the good news of the gospel in terms of "more," as something we add to our busy lives to help feed the longing we experience deep within us despite all the "more" we already have. But according to Jesus, the gospel is more about subtraction than about addition. And a seven year old stares at the sand in wonder. She has not yet been totally enveloped in consumerism, able for the moment to be fully present, content and not worried about an email she might be missing or what is next on the schedule.

And a little child shall lead them...

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Monday, August 10, 2015


Dryness. It sounds like a skin problem, but in this case I am speaking of spiritual dryness. As one who sometimes suffers from the skin sort, I can attest that the spiritual kind can be every bit as aggravating and irritating. To top it off, I can't quite figure out where to scratch, and soothing lotion can be difficult to find.

I keep thinking I will figure this spirituality thing out some day and become accomplished, an expert. Yet that never seems to happen. Perhaps this is God's way of breaking down my over-dependence on thinking and intellect. Dryness reminds me of a deep longing that cannot truly be satisfied by knowledge or information. Dryness reminds me that relationship with the divine, like intimacy with another human being, does not necessarily emerge from the same sort of efforts that produce good grades, a promotion at work, or other sorts of "success."

Not that effort and intention don't matter. They do, but neither human intimacy nor divine union are primarily matters of achievement or tasks to be mastered. They are states requiring trust and vulnerability, opening oneself along with giving oneself. For reasons I don't fully understand, these are sometimes easier and sometimes more difficult for me.

In that sense, there is a seasonal nature to spiritual dryness, at least for me. Just as my skin bothers me mostly in the dry air of winter, my spiritual dryness has times when it rages and times when it troubles me not at all. These seasons are less predictable, but there is reassurance in knowing that spring will eventually arrive.

I sometimes wonder if people for whom faith is mostly about believing the correct essentials, agreeing with the appropriate doctrines, experience the sort of spiritual dryness that I do. Is their faith more manageable and less capricious? Or are their demons simply different: doubt or crumbling certainties rather than unfulfilled longings?

Regardless, dryness reminds me that divine union, like intimacy, should not be taken for granted. It is a remarkable gift, and as such, it will never really be "under my control."

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Sermon: Impossibly Alive

Luke 20:27-38
Impossibly Alive
James Sledge                                                                                                   August 9, 2015

I belong to a Facebook group called “Happy to be a Presbyterian.” It has a lot of pastors and others interested in the church who post sometimes interesting articles and discussion topics. The other day someone shared a blog post entitled, “Death Is Not the End Because Jesus Offers Us Eternal Life and Happiness.” The post itself contained nothing particularly memorable. I likely never would have even looked at it except for th3 note that accompanied it. It read, “I really deliberated on whether or not I should post this week’s article here because I know that many of you do not believe in resurrection or the afterlife. However, I decided to post it anyway since the PCUSA embraces a wide range of views—including those of members who do believe in the resurrection.”
By the time I first saw the post, there were already close to a hundred comments, and there was a pretty intense debate underway as to what exactly someone must believe in order to be Christian. The discussion never got out of hand, but it did get a bit testy at times. Considering how central the resurrection of Jesus is to Christian faith, some might find it surprising this was a big point of contention. Perhaps even more surprising was the fact that the person who originally posted the article assumed his belief in eternal life to be a minority one among Presbyterians.
But perhaps no one should be surprised that people of faith struggle with their understanding of resurrection. It is a topic that is barely explained in the Bible. Our gospel reading today is the only place where Jesus tackles to subject directly. In fact, a great many notions about resurrection and eternal life come, not from the Bible, but from such disparate places as Greek philosophy or fanciful speculation by Christians unsatisfied with Scripture’s unwillingness – or perhaps inability – to explain things. A lot of people want details and mechanics.
The Sadducees in our reading today are focused on details and mechanics, but not for the same reasons many Christians are. They employ mechanics to emphasize the absurdity of believing in resurrection. I wonder if the often absurd mechanics of resurrection and eternal life imagined by some Christians aren’t a big reason that educated or progressive sorts of Christians sometimes struggle with this subject.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Sermon: The Holy Ones

1 Peter 1:13-16
The Holy Ones
James Sledge                                                                                       August 2, 2015

Many letters in the New Testament are addressed “To the saints who are in such and such a place.” Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians opens, "To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.”
As many of you know, the term “saints” is used differently that it often is today. The notion of saints as super-Christians is not found in the Bible. In the New Testament, all the faithful are referred to as "saints." But lest you think the term “saint” just a different way of saying “Christian,” the word is often translated “holy.” And so it is possible to read those New Testament letters, "To the holy ones who are in…” or “to those called to be holy ones.”
The biblical idea of holiness is probably more nuanced and multifaceted than many realize. It includes notions of purity and righteousness, but it also speaks of being consecrated, set apart for a special purpose. Holiness is a kind of distinctive mark that designates people for a special task.  And this distinctiveness is supposed to reflect in some way the distinctiveness of God. Our reading from 1 Peter emphasizes this, quoting God’s voice from the Old Testament. “You shall be holy for I am holy.”
One other thing about holiness, or at least about saints, the holy ones; in the Bible they never occur in the singular. There is no Saint so and so. There is no one described as a saint, no holy one, other than Jesus. It is always corporate, a designation for the community of faith. Individuals have specific calls and tasks, but only the community is called “the saints.” In that sense, “saints” and “the body of Christ” are very nearly synonymous.