Monday, September 28, 2015

What Me Worry?

"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. " 
Matthew 6:25

I wonder if telling someone not to worry has ever stopped that person from worrying. Jesus clearly thinks that worrying is a problem for living the life he teached, the way he calls Christians to walk. Yet we Christians sure do a lot of worrying. (We're also accomplished at fear, another thing that runs counter to the way of Jesus.)

Not that we have no reasons for worrying. Most American denominations are experiencing significant numerical decline. Congregations worry about budgets and where to cut if this year's stewardship campaign disappoints. Sports leagues and a plethora of other activities are scheduled at times once reserved for church activities. Who wouldn't worry?

Right this moment I'm doing a mental inventory of the big items on my worry list. They are a mix of the personal and the professional, which in my case has to do with church. I have the run of the mill concerns shared with many others. Is there enough money for everything? Did we pay too much for our house? Will we get enough when it comes time to sell it? Will the crazies in Congress cause another sequestration and accidentally send the economy over the edge, and the DC area housing market with it? What will this mean when it finally comes time to retire?

On the professional/church front, our stewardship campaign is just starting, and I'd be lying if I said I had no worries regarding it. Like many churches, we are disproportionately dependent on a handful of bigger givers. What if one moves or simply decides to give a lot less? And will we find the right person to fill that open staff position? And what will happen to the program if we don't? In the meantime, am I doing what I should be, or am I going about things all wrong? Do I need to learn some new trick or get a lot better at some facet of my ministry if things are to go well? There is plenty to worry about.

At the same time, I wonder how many of my worries have even the tiniest thing to do with Jesus or the the new day (kingdom) he calls people to be a part of. Jesus taught his followers to pray for "daily bread" so the sort of security he promises may have little to do with getting a good return on my housing "investment." Actually, when I reflect on Jesus' priorities, it does often help with my worries. As I think more about a different set of priorities from those that sometimes drive me, it often has a calming effect

But what about church? Church is all about Jesus, all about God's new day, and so if I'm worried about Church then my worries are of a deeper and more troubling sort (with a personal, financial component added in because the church writes my paycheck). Except that the Church is often about all manner of things having little to do with Jesus or God's new day. 

Yesterday during worship, Kerry, one of the elders who serve as the spiritual leaders of our congregation, gave a wonderful, brief "stewardship moment." In it she shared a quote from Pope Francis.  “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security."

Very often my worries about Church are worries about security. They are not concerns over how faithful we are being to Christ's call, or worries about whether Jesus wants us to do this as opposed to that. Buildings and classes and music programs and youth group may be related to our call to be Christ in and for the world, but they also can easily become things that distract us from that work. They can be the very things that keep us focused on our own security rather than our call to risky work out on the streets.

I suspect that church professionals such as myself can be especially prone to such temptations. I also suspect that many of us are good at absolving ourselves and blaming our congregations for this problem.  I wonder what might happen if pastors and congregations could together listen to Jesus, stop worrying for a moment, and take a good look at our priorities. If we discovered we were worrying about a lot of the wrong things, what might change?

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Preaching Thoughts on a Non-Preaching Sunday

The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.  - James 5:16

As a pastor, I deal regularly in prayer. I lead prayers in worship. At committee meetings, I'm often the one who gets asked to pray. People ask me to pray for them or their loved ones in moments of crisis. Our denomination even requires that all meetings of the church's governing council open and close with prayer. Prayer is clearly a "big deal" in the church.

Prayer is a big deal in the Bible as well. Jesus is frequently shown praying, and the disciples ask for instruction on praying from him. Today's lectionary passage talks about length about prayer. I glanced at a Bible concordance, and it listed hundreds of verses featuring the word "prayer" or forms of the word "pray."

But if prayer is clearly central to the Christian life, it is also problematic. From football teams praying for victory to armies doing the same to people praying for a winning lottery ticket, prayer gets employed for questionable purposes. I once read about a boxer who prayed to win his bout. He explained that after the prayer he could feel the power of God in his fists, pummeling his opponent into submission. Really?

Thoughtful Christians who are uneasy about such prayers have every right to be. The notion that God is some sort of genie who must grant requests offered with the correct formula, or that God can be compelled to act if enough "prayer warriors" fill God's inbox to overflowing, is more than a little troubling. No wonder many Christians become uneasy and hesitant about prayer.

Of course the "prayer of the righteous" refers not to prayer offered the right way but to prayer offered from a right heart, a heart aligned with God. Many popular ideas about prayer are huge distortions of what the Bible actually says. Prayer has never been about getting God to do our bidding or convincing God to see things as I do.

But while prayer is often misunderstood and abused, I'm not sure that is the primary reason it is problematic for some Christians. Recognizing that God won't buy me a new Mercedes Benz just because I want one is not a reason to conclude that God does not respond to prayer. However, if I am convinced that God is distant and removed, never actively engaged in human life of history, then prayer may indeed seem unnecessary and even a waste of time. If God is not very real, why bother to pray?

If as Christians, we are bothered by the way prayer is trivialized and abused, treated it like asking Santa for goodies, then it will serve us well to develop a deeper understanding of prayer. As we learn about contemplative prayer, centering prayer, prayer that seeks to draw closer to God, prayer that listens more than it speaks, prayer that seeks Christ's call and the strength to live out that call... our prayer lives will become more central to our faith just as Jesus' was to his, and we will become models of prayer for others.

And if we are Christians who wonder about prayer because we have difficulty imagining that they "do" anything, then it will serve to an even greater degree to develop a deeper understanding of prayer. As we learn about contemplative prayer, centering prayer, prayer that seeks to draw closer to God, prayer that listens more than it speaks, prayer that seeks Christ's call and the strength to live out that call... God and Christ will become more present and more real to us, and we will learn about the power of God at work in our lives, and in the world.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Christ We Show the World

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons — not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one.    
1 Corinthians 5:9-11

Very often we Christians have done the exact opposite of what Paul tells the Corinthians to do. Paul himself seems to worry about being misunderstood. "When I wrote about avoiding immoral folks, I wasn't referring to non-Christians but to church members," he says. Paul expects followers of Jesus to be in the same places Jesus was, among the least and the lost. The good church folks of Jesus' day complained because he hung out with sinners and prostitutes, making the same mistakes many modern Christians make, doing what Paul warned the Corinthians about. Paul expected the community of faith to hold one another to high ethical and moral standards rather than worrying about the morals of those outside the church. But being "the body of Christ" requires the Church to be at work in the same places Jesus was.

We live in a time when fewer and fewer people have more than a passing understanding of what it means to be a disciple, to follow Jesus. A majority of Americans identify as Christian, but large numbers have little familiarity with church, the Bible, or basic tenets of the faith. This means that, increasingly, congregations and individual disciples become the way many people encounter or fail to encounter the living Christ.


I live in the DC metro area, and we are currently being visited by Pope Francis. The adulation of this pope can get a bit overblown at times, but it is easy to see why it happens. (I'm smitten with him at times myself.) He seems to embody what Paul is talking about and what Jesus lives in ways that churches and Christians often do not. His harsh words are for those in power and inside the faith. But he is full of love and concern for those who are struggling: for Syrian refugees, migrants, and the poor, regardless of faith. He is a refreshing view of Christ in a world where Christians often reflect a horrible distorted image of Jesus. 

I have a number of Facebook "friends" who regularly post "Christian" memes with a picture of Jesus asking me to share his image if I love him. They post pictures pleading with America to turn back to God and pray for our wayward nation. Then they post angry rants insisting no Syrian refugees should come to America, or threatening to shoot you if you try to take their guns. I wonder what Christ people see in their "witness."

On the flip side are "progressive" Christians who speak of embracing all people in love, who criticize the idea that we can be a "Christian nation" without caring for of those who are poor or hungry or suffering. Then they post blistering personal attacks on Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to give out any marriage licenses rather than give one to a gay couple. They attack her looks, her weight, her personal failings. I wonder what Christ people see in their "witness."

What Christ do people meet through me or you? What Jesus do they encounter through our congregations? These are difficult times for many congregations in the US. Attendance is down; giving is down; our place in the culture is less secure. Churches have a lot to worry about. But I wonder if we don't need to spend a lot more time reflecting on the Christ we reveal to the world.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sermon: Long Journey to Something New

Mark 9:30-37
Long Journey to Something New
James Sledge                                                                                       September 20, 2015

How many of you remember having to write essays or papers in high school or college of a certain word number? Some of you are no doubt enjoying this experience right now, and some of our younger worshipers have this to look forward to as you get a bit older. What word count would you expect for a modest, high school essay? What about a term paper for a college class? How about a Ph.D. dissertation? Anyone here who’s done one and can say? Forty or fifty thousand words sound reasonable?
I ask because I want us to think for a moment about what is required to cover a major topic in a fair amount of detail and in a good deal of depth. For example, if you were going to write something that thoroughly covered what someone would need to know to live a life of deep Christian faith and discipleship, how many words would suffice?
Of course we do have a book that Presbyterians say is the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus and for life and faith. But if anyone had ever submitted the Bible as a dissertation or as any other sort of publication, surely some academic advisor or editor would have quickly returned it saying, “Get back to me when you’ve done some serious trimming and editing.”
The Bible weighs in at somewhere near 800,000 words. By comparison, Tolstoy’s War and Peace is a bit over 500,000. If you were God and wanted to explain this faith thing to folks, don’t you think you could have come up with a nice pamphlet, or at least something you could read in a few afternoons? Why on earth have something of this magnitude, a text that gets squeezed into a single book only because of tiny print and ridiculously thin sheets of paper?
The Bible is an unbelievably complex mix of stories and myths and poems and songs and rules and advice and letters and theology and teachings. Yet we Christians often examine a few verses here or there and then attempt to distill great theological truths or axioms from them. I engage is something of this sort most Sundays when I deliver a sermon rooted in a tiny handful of the Bible’s 800,000 words, 175 words in the case of today’s gospel reading.
Without some care and restraint, there is a danger of such efforts being akin to carefully examining the earlobe of the Mona Lisa with a microscope and then proclaiming to understand the significance of the entire painting.
When you think about it, the Bible is a strange and wonderful way to make God known to us, to draw us into relationship with this God. It isn’t a bit of empirical information to be learned. Rather it is an amazing array of experiences and stories that share how God has been encountered in a variety of contexts. It is not unlike getting to know another person, and without understanding context and circumstances, without knowing to whom certain words were spoken, it is easy to misconstrue or misunderstand.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Sermon: Helping Each Other See

Mark 8:27-38
Helping Each Other See
James Sledge                                                                           September 13, 2015

I’m going to ask you to imagine a scenario that may terrify some of you. Imagine that there is someone seated near you that you have never met or seen before. That’s not the terrifying part… I hope. Worship comes to an end and she turns to you and says, “I’ve really never done the church thing. Could you tell me what your church believes about Jesus?”
Let that sink in for a moment. How would you respond? What would you say to this person? Really think about it. What would your first words be?
Countless authors have noted that Mainline Christians, especially those who think of themselves as more “progressive,” struggle to answer such questions. More often than not, we instead began to explain what we don’t believe. “We’re not like that county clerk in Kentucky who won’t give a marriage license to gay couples. We don’t believe that Jews and Muslims are going to hell. We’re not fundamentalists who take every word of the Bible literally.” And so on.
Now some of this may be helpful, even welcome information, but none of it actually answers her question about what we actually do believe.
In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus asks a “What do you believe?” sort of question. He starts with, “What are other folks saying?” Then he moves to, “But who do you say that I am?” Not so different from someone asking, “What do you believe about Jesus?”
I wonder how long it took Peter to answer? Peter seems to be one of those folks who talks first and thinks later, so I’m betting pretty quickly. I wonder about the other disciples. If Peter had been quiet for once, what would they have said? Or were they relieved that Peter had taken the risk and blurted out something?
The gospels were written to help Christians with “What do you believe?” questions, especially “What do you believe about Jesus?” Because people in our day sometimes hand out Bibles as a way of introducing Jesus, it’s easy to forget that the gospels were written, not for people who had yet to hear the story of Jesus, but for people who already knew it, who were already in a church. They’re written to help Christians better understand who Jesus is and what difference that is supposed to make in their lives.
Like Peter, these folks correctly could identify Jesus. So can most of us. If pressed, most of us could share a bit of his story, could identify him as Messiah, or Christ, or Son of God.
But it turns out that being able to Jesus doesn’t really mean Peter, or any of us, understand who he is or what it means to follow him. Peter is clearly expecting a different sort of Messiah than what Jesus describes with his words about suffering and death, and I’m not so sure that has changed very much in our day.
Probably all of us have ways in which we would like Jesus to be something or someone other than he says he is. We want Jesus to help us get where we want to go, but he insists that following him means letting go of our agendas and connecting to God’s.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Something More Than Writer's Block

I've not been writing here very much of late. I like to humor myself by imagining that I am a writer, and I've read that genuine writers suffer through times when they cannot find words. I wonder if the term "writer's block" adequately describes that experience. It seems too pedestrian for something that robs a person, however temporarily, of a significant piece of her identity.

My own identity is not much rooted in the musings that show up in this blog, but it is rooted in the faith and spiritual life that lies behind many of my posts. There are times when not writing a blog is simply a matter of too much going on. Some days fill up with events and commitments and activities of a higher priority than blog posts. Still, when my posts become as sporadic as they have in recent months, something more is at work, and "writer's block" feels too pedestrian to describe it.

I read a piece in The Washington Post by Jen Hatmaker where she worried about us pastors. ("How a consumer culture threatens to destroy pastors") Drawing on recent polling data she writes that pastors
suffer in private and struggle in shame: 77 percent of you believe your marriage is unwell, 72 percent only read your Bible when studying for a sermon, 30 percent have had affairs and 70 percent of you are completely lonely.
    You are a mess! Which makes sense because you are human, like every person in your church. You are so incredibly human but afraid to admit it. So few of you do.
She has a good point. And while I've largely avoided the particular statistics mentioned above, I'm my own sort of mess, one I generally prefer to keep hidden.

When I was in seminary, a pastor nearing retirement shared with me his plan not to darken the door of any church facility upon leaving the pulpit. His best guess was he'd not do church for a year or so. Being an enthusiastic seminary student, I found this strange, bordering on bizarre. Twenty years later, I can better appreciate his plans. Yet I can still get annoyed over church members who don't take their faith "seriously," something generally measured by their level of attendance, giving, or volunteering.

When I encounter a writer's/spiritual block time in my life, I wonder how it would manifest if I were not a professional Christian. (I can't really stop attending on Sundays and still draw a paycheck.) Would I sleep in for a season?

I've frequently heard that non-church folks feel intimidated at the thought of attending worship with church-people who have the faith thing all figured out. They worry that they will stand out and feel lost or out of place. Most church members likely marvel at the idea of their faith intimidating anyone, and I wonder if a similar dynamic might not be at work between many pastors and those in the pews. Perhaps the dynamic is even worse.

Robes and titles and ordination and salary all serve to divide pastors from members, providing means for pastors to hide all those ways that we are a big, human mess. Sometimes members, who pay those salaries, may expect pastors to be "better" Christians than themselves, but the division between pastor and parishioner is detrimental to both. It encourages pastors to keep up an image that is most often far from true, and it robs pastors and parishioners of of the support and companionship they could give one another as they face the inevitable "blocks" that get in the way of full aliveness.

When pastors get together, they sometimes talk, even vent, about their congregations. During full fledged venting, the congregation almost always gets described as "they," or "them." Rarely is it "we" or "us." I would be surprised if church members don't sometimes engage in similar venting about their pastor, with a similar "her and us" or "him and us" divide.

There is something about us humans that looks for a "them" when things are going badly. How different that is from God, who in Christ responds to broken relationship with humanity by becoming fully involved in the pain and suffering of human existence. Strange that we followers of this Christ so often move away from one another when we go through times that challenge, threaten, or frighten us, times when our true selves and identities feel hidden or blocked. Surely Jesus shows us a better way.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

August 30 sermon video: Transformative Religion

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sermon: Welcomed to the Table

Mark 7:24-37
Welcomed to the Table
James Sledge                                                                                     September 6, 2015

There are numerous pictures on the internet of black and white toddlers holding hands or hugging with a caption saying “No one is born racist.” I like the sentiment, though I wonder if it’s a bit optimistic. Hatred and racism may indeed be cultural and learned, but we humans seem to have a tribal nature, a tendency to coalesce into groups and create boundaries separating us and them. Culture teaches the norms that grow up around such boundaries, but the tendency seems to be innate.
How many of you ever had the childhood experience of moving and attending a new school? My family moved several times over my elementary and middle school years, and while this felt exciting and adventurous, it was also terrifying. Walking into an elementary classroom where you know no one, or worse, walking into a school cafeteria… At least in elementary school the teacher took you to the cafeteria as a class, but in middle school, you were on your own.
Where do I sit? Will I be welcome at that table, or maybe that one? I certainly wasn’t going to go sit at the table with all girls, and being new, it was hard to tell which tables had which sort of students. The athlete’s table was sometimes easy to spot. Easiest of all were the tables populated by those who didn’t really fit in at any of the other tables. Pushing aside those who are different may be learned behavior, but we start learning it awfully early.
If humans had no tendency to be tribal, I wonder if there would be political parties or politics as we know it. I wonder if there would simply be varying ideas about the best way to deal with this or that problem. But we are tribal, and so our varying ideas get turned into boundaries between us and them.
The surprising success of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign seems almost inexplicable, and many have speculated on what makes him appealing. One suggestion is that he loudly proclaims us and them boundaries that are already there but not spoken aloud in polite conversation. Some suggest that Trump has tapped into tribal fears of them, immigrants, the Chinese, and so on. He’s given voice to an us versus them fear that makes some think, “He’s on my side, unlike those regular politicians.” Perhaps Bernie Sanders appeal is not so different, just aimed at different tribes.
Us versus them tribalism was an issue for Christian faith almost as soon as it got started. It’s easy to forget in our time, but all the first followers of Jesus were Jewish. That did not change after Jesus was raised from the dead. It did not change as new followers began to join the Jesus movement. Jesus was a Jewish Messiah who remained firmly in the Jewish tradition all his life, and as the Church began to grow, no one thought of it as anything but Jewish.
When non-Jews began to come into the movement, that meant becoming Jewish first. Males had to be circumcised, and everyone had to adopt Jewish dietary and purity restrictions. But as the number of non-Jewish converts grew, so did the tensions. And people like the Apostle Paul began arguing that the Jesus movement was open to non-Jews without them becoming Jewish. It was the first really big church fight. Read Paul’s letters and you’ll get some idea of how heated and nasty things became.