Sunday, October 25, 2015

Sermon: Miraculously Healed by Jesus

Mark 10:46-25
Miraculously Healed by Jesus
James Sledge                                                                                       October 25, 2015

I came across a story recently that’s a bit lame, or worse than that, but I think I’ll share it anyway. A farmer lived along a quiet, county road, but over the years, it became a busy highway, and the speeding cars began to kill more and more of the farmer’s free-range chickens.
He called the local sheriff to complain. “You’ve got to do something to slow these cars down,” he said. “They’re driving like mad men.” The sheriff wasn’t sure there was much he could do, but after repeated calls from the farmer then he agreed to put up a sign that might make people more attentive. It said, “SLOW: SCHOOL CROSSING.”
But a few days later the farmer called to say that the sign hadn’t worked at all. If anything, the drivers seem to have sped up. So the sheriff tried a slightly different tactic, installing a sign that said “SLOW: CHILDREN AT PLAY.” And the cars went even faster.
Finally, the exasperated farmer asked if he could put up his own sign. The sheriff was tired of the farmer calling every day, so he agreed, and the calls stopped. Eventually the sheriff decided to call and check on things. The farmer said he hadn’t lost a chicken since he put up his sign. The sheriff had to see this, so he drove out to the farm where he saw a piece of plywood with spray-painted wording that said, “NUDIST COLONY: Go slow and watch out for the chicks!”[1]     …I told you it was bad.
I told this story, lame as it is, to raise the issue of what it takes to get folks to slow down and pay attention. We live in a fast paced world where we are often busy and overscheduled. It’s a threat to our mental health and overall well-being, and that of our children. Even more, it is a huge threat to a relationship with God, to getting to know Jesus, because that requires stopping, waiting, silence, and attentiveness on our part.
But lest you think this a peculiarly modern problem, the people in our gospel reading also seem unable to slow down enough to see what truly is important. Jesus has just passed through Jericho. Jerusalem is not very far away, and the very next episode in Mark’s gospel is Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city of David. Jesus is picking up something of an entourage. He, his disciples, and a large crowd are all headed down the road when a blind beggar begins to cry out. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
The beggar’s name is Bartimaeus… or perhaps not. Our story says he is Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, but Bartimeaus means son of Timaeus. I’m suspicious that Mark’s gospel gives us the original Aramaic and then its translation. This blind beggar is insignificant enough that no one remembers his name, only that of his father.
An unnamed, blind beggar is hardly important enough to warrant stopping, especially for this procession headed to big events in Jerusalem. “We’ve got to keep moving. Be quiet!” blind beggar. We’ve got somewhere to be.”
Our readings says, Many sternly ordered him to be quiet. Many? Many of the disciples? Many in the crowd? Many of both? The last time anyone spoke in this stern manner it was the disciples trying to chase away those bringing children to Jesus. Unimportant children, now an unimportant, blind beggar. “Shoo, get away. No time for you.”
In one of those wonderful ironies of Scripture, the blind man sees what the crowd and disciples cannot. Jesus came for people such as this blind beggar, and he came to help people see. Jesus heals the beggar’s blindness with little difficulty. But the harder work of healing his followers’ blindness continues and won’t come to full fruition until after the resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Peace, Unity, and Purity... and Other Impossible Combinations

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
    righteousness and peace will kiss each other. 

Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
    and righteousness will look down from the sky.  
Psalm 85:10-11

I've always loved these lines from Psalm 85, one of today's evening psalms. The psalm itself is a plea for God to restore, a prayer based in knowledge of God's nature and character. And so, even in the midst of difficult circumstances, the psalmists hopes for the wondrous day when "righteousness and peace will kiss each other."

God is often seen as having contradictory, almost incompatible attributes. God is a God of justice, who will not tolerate wickedness. God is a God of mercy and forgiveness, who in Jesus is a friend of sinners and tax collectors. A lot of people prefer one or the other of these images, and this, in part, accounts for some of the wildly different versions of Christianity floating around.

The psalmist is aware of both images, asking earlier in his prayer, "Will you be angry with us forever?" Presumably there is some reason for God to be angry. Israel has not lived as God has commanded. They in some way deserve the judgment they are experiencing, and yet the psalmist can cry out, "Grant us your salvation."

The psalmist hopes for righteousness and peace to kiss, but just how compatible are such things? Righteousness is about doing things correctly, about abiding by God's law. Does the psalmist simply mean that peace will emerge when people live rightly, or is there a hope that God's justice and love can coexist?

When Presbyterian elders, deacons, and pastors are ordained, one of the vows we make is to further the "peace, unity, and purity of the Church." It sounds lovely, but it is remarkably difficult to put into practice. Purity, like righteousness, is about doing things correctly, about living according to God's will. Peace and unity often seem to require some negotiating and compromise with purity. In the end, many congregations end up leaning one way of the other, some focused more on holy living and others focused more on loving each other and getting along. I'm not sure that either move looks very much like the psalmist's dream of a day when "righteousness and peace will kiss one another."

Perhaps we humans can never fully reconcile righteousness and peace, judgment and forgiveness, but does that mean God is bound by our limitation on this? People of faith speak of imaging God, of being the body of Christ. Surely that means that we are to move toward what God is like rather expecting God to be like us.

I suspect that most people who are serious about faith have a pretty good idea which image of God they prefer. And that means we already know about that side of God that unnerves us, that image of God we need to learn to embrace, even kiss.

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Sunday, October 18, 2015

Sermon: Radically Dissimilar Hearts

Mark 10:35-45
Radically Dissimilar Hearts
James Sledge                                                                                       October 18, 2015

Our gospel reading this morning would probably benefit from a bit of context. It takes place shortly after Jesus’ encounter with a rich man who works hard to keep God’s commandments yet feels there must be something more. But Jesus’ call to sell what he owns, give the money to the poor, and become a disciple, is too much.
Then Jesus and his followers hit the road again, headed to Jerusalem. The disciples don’t come off all that well in Mark’s gospel, repeatedly misunderstanding what Jesus teaches. But that is not to say that they are total idiots. They have clearly begun to grasp that danger lies ahead. The gospel says that as Jesus walks ahead of them, They were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. To these amazed and frightened followers, Jesus explains for a third and final time what will happen to him in just over a week.
Then James and John come to see him. Their request seems the epitome of the disciples’ cluelessness. James and John, along with Peter, form Jesus’ inner circle, a privileged trio who’ve seen things the others have not. Now they take advantage of this. They appear to realize there is something unseemly in their request, but they make it anyway.
But perhaps this is not merely arrogance or an attempt to turn their inside connection into special favors. What if this is simply two terrified followers trying to save their own skin? They’ve started to understand that this trip to Jerusalem is not going to end well. Jesus is not going to overthrow the Romans. In fact he keeps saying people will kill him. In some ways it’s amazing that the disciples stay with him as he leads them toward Jerusalem and the cross.
Maybe because they’ve followed him this far, they decide to see it through. Maybe because he keeps talking about rising again, they hope there might be something beyond the horrible events that await. If there really is something after Jerusalem, maybe they can be part of it. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

Monday, October 5, 2015

"The Other" and Christian Witness

"All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other. 
1 Corinthians 10:23-24

I read on The Washington Post website today where Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey suggested that devout Christians "should think about getting a handgun permit." This was in reaction to the shooting at an Oregon community college where the shooter seemed to target Christians.

I can understand why Christians who already are worried about the faith's place in our culture would be further unnerved by an act of violence aimed specifically at Christians (an experience other faiths know all too well). But I wonder what sort of Christian witness would be given if a gunman walked into a crowded venue and all the Christians whipped out their pistols and mowed him down.

St. Augustine long ago wrote that Christians might engage in violence and even deadly force to save another, but never to save themselves. His thought led to what is usually called "just war" theory, the idea that there are times when violence is required of those who follow the Christ who gives his own life and tells his followers to emulate him. But in such thinking, violence can never be for mere self preservation. It must be done in an act of loving the other. Just war or violence is an agonized choice to injure one in order to save others.


Americans have a tendency to understand freedom in terms of a lack of restraints on what I want to do. I'm all for this sort of freedom - up to a point - but that is not the sort of freedom Paul or Jesus speak of in the New Testament. For them, freedom releases us from an overly selfish or narrow viewpoint, allowing us to love others more fully. Jesus goes so far as to include the enemy in the orbit of one's love and concern. This sort of freedom allows people to become Christ-like, living for God and others more than self.

You can see that in Paul's words from today's epistle. Paul's Corinthian congregation has embraced their new freedom in Christ, but they've misunderstood it in libertine and individualistic ways. Paul corrects them and reminds them that their freedom is always in service to "the other."

The American Church and body politic would both do well to listen to Paul. Both have become overly individualistic, concerned narrowly for self and those who agree with me. Add in the climate of fear which seem so pervasive these days, and "the other" is more likely to become the object of my derision or much worse than the one whose good I seek.

In the Greek language used to write the New Testament, the word translated "witness" is the root of our word "martyr." The connection of these two terms came from the way many early heroes of the faith, including its founder, maintained their faith even in the face of death. Surely there was the occasional Christian of that time who chose to pull out his sword and make a stand, but not one of them is lifted up in the Bible or early Church writings.

I do wish that someone had been able to stop the Oregon shooter. (We need genuine dialogue about the best ways to prevents such acts in the future, but unfortunately we are largely divided into political camps who spout talking points at one another.) But I will not be encouraging anyone to buy a weapon for self-defense. Christians are called to be the body of Christ, and for the life of me, I cannot picture the Jesus we meet in the Bible packing a gun.

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Sermon video: No Tokens Required

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Sermon: No Tokens Required

Mark 10:2-16
No Tokens Required
James Sledge                                                                                       October 4, 2015

If you go into our church parlor, you will find a few items from this congregation’s history displayed there. There’s an old pulpit Bible and a curio cabinet with an old hymnal, more Bibles, old photos, and other artifacts. Young congregations tend not to have such displays, but those that have been around long enough often have a history display somewhere.
I once visited an old church with an elaborate display going back to colonial days. And in one corner of this mini-museum, on a curio shelf, were some communion tokens.
If you’ve never heard of such things, they are just what the name implies, tokens that gained a person admission to the Lord’s Supper. They were used back in the days of very infrequent communion, and you got one after elders from the Session (our church governing council) visited and quizzed you about your understanding of the faith. John Calvin suggested such a practice to ensure that people correctly understood the sacrament. He worried about what he saw as magical or superstitious beliefs about the Lord’s Supper.
Calvin may have understood these tokens as a kind of impromptu communicants’ class rather than a gauge of personal worthiness, but even if he did, you can be sure that people were denied tokens for reasons other than insufficient understanding of Reformed theology. Inevitably, the elders made character judgments about church members and denied tokens to those who didn’t measure up.
Use of these tokens largely disappeared in the 1800s, but it’s interesting to wonder about what sort of moral failing would have prevented people receiving one. Could a young, unmarried woman with a child get one? How about those who were divorced? What about drinking or carousing or dancing? Tokens were done on a church by church basis, so there was likely a good deal of variety from place to place. Nonetheless I feel confident that there were plenty of congregations that would not have welcomed divorced folks to the table.
“Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” When the gospel of Mark wants to take up an entirely new topic, the writer will often change locales, but he tells us about people bringing little children to Jesus with no break at all from the teachings on marriage. Curious.
Jesus has just finished talking about how relationships would work if people’s hearts weren’t out of whack, when the disciples demonstrate, for the umpteenth time, that they still don’t get this kingdom thing. Turn back one page in Mark’s gospel and you’ll hear Jesus saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” He has already said that children in some way exemplify what it means to be highly valued in the kingdom’s way of viewing things, but these disciples are fairly slow learners, like disciples in every age.
This seems to be the only place in Mark’s gospel where we’re explicitly told that Jesus got mad at his followers, “indignant” our translation says. Surely there is some significance here. Surely we are being told to pay attention.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Not again!

It happened again today - a shooting at a school. Current reports say 10 may have been killed at an Oregon community college in the 145th school shooting since Sandy Hook. Such a number - 145 - should make even the most ardent gun collector or avid shooter say, "Something is terribly wrong."

Recently some of my "friends" on Facebook have shared a pro-gun post that talks about how Switzerland encourages gun ownership, having one of the higher rates of gun ownership in the world, and yet has one of the lower murder rates. What the post conveniently leaves out is how regulated this ownership is, with required classes and registration. There is even a regulatory process one must follow to buy ammunition, with certain types banned. But those who tout Switzerland as an example of why it is good to own guns usually insist that any regulation or registration regarding guns infringes on their rights.

Obsessing about "my rights" is a popular American pastime, one not restricted to any political persuasion. But in the case of rights related to guns, my Facebook "friends" who seem obsessed with such rights are very often the same "friends" who regularly share posts encouraging people to "share this picture of Jesus" or do some other act that confirms their faith. Yet the Jesus of whom they speak calls his followers to willingly let go of their own good, their own rights, for the sake of others.

I never cease to be amazed at the human capacity to link personal preferences, beliefs, biases, etc. to one's faith, even when the founder of that faith speaks in ways completely counter to such preferences, beliefs, and so on. And so Jesus, the pacifist Messiah ends up being pro-military, pro-self defense, and pro-gun. The Christ who speaks of wealth and greed as huge barriers to life in God's coming kingdom ends up wanting you to be successful and rich. And the Jesus who calls on a rich man to sell all he has and give the proceeds to the poor would never ask that of me.

Almost all people who call themselves Christian have ways of distorting faith to make it line up with their wants and desires. It is a sin where we all need to repent. But right now, at this point in our life together as Americans, there is a terrible and pressing need for gun enthusiasts who call themselves Christian to repent and say, I am willing to deny myself, to give up my rights, to do whatever it takes to safeguard the lives of school children and innocents everywhere.

Either that, or stop with the Jesus Facebook posts.