Monday, November 30, 2015

Hoping... Because of God

It seems a bit strange to read today's gospel passage. Just as we are getting into Advent and folks are starting to decorate church sanctuaries for the season, here is Matthew's account of Jesus entering Jerusalem on "Palm Sunday." Not very Christmasy.

As Jesus enters into the city, the crowds shout, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!" It all sounds so wonderful and exciting, greeting this king who enters triumphantly into the city of David. Of course Jesus will be dead in just five days.

All those people who celebrate Jesus' entry into Jerusalem apparently lose their excitement by Friday. That's not to say that the crowds who shout "Crucify him!" are the exact same crowds yelling "Hosanna!" just days before, but no one takes Jesus' side on Friday. No one is hailing him king. They've all come to their senses by then. Rome is the real power. What were they thinking? All those Hosannas are long forgotten.

It strikes me that Christmas functions for a lot of us a bit like Palm Sunday did for the people of Jerusalem. We'll jump up and down about Jesus. We may chastise those who don't seem to realize that Jesus is the "reason for the season." We may even get all huffy at those whose holiday greetings don't keep Christ in them. (I wonder if there were any arguments in the crowd about the appropriate scriptural passages to use for hailing Jesus' entry. Did anyone correct people who just said, "Go, Jesus!"?) But once Christmas is over, Jesus will recede until next Advent when we can be bothered by the commercialization of Christmas or "Happy Holidays" all over again.

The crowds that hailed Jesus as he entered Jerusalem said the right things. They correctly identified Jesus. He was the king entering into the city of God's king. But the crowds had no notion of what it meant to serve or follow this king. In fairness to them, they knew nothing of the cross and the resurrection. They had no real reason to think that this Messiah who was betrayed by one of his own inner circle, who was so easily done away with by the powers that be, could possibly be God's anointed.

We say we know better. We know about the empty tomb and Pentecost and the Holy Spirit. And yet, I still don't act all that different from the crowds of Jerusalem. I hail Jesus when it is easy or fun or comfortable, but bail when it gets difficult. I'm happy to claim Jesus as my king, but I'm pretty selective about which of his commands or teachings I'll actually follow. And looking at politics and public opinion in America, I'm clearly not alone. A lot of people are quick to embrace the label "Christian," to speak of America as a "Christian nation," and then proceed to act in such un-Christlike  ways that it's little wonder less and less people are attracted to the Christian faith or the Church.

But despite no one sticking with Jesus once Palm Sunday gave way to Friday, God's plans moved forward. Easter was not dependent on enough people "getting it" or liking Jesus on their Facebook page. Easter did not happen because of anyone's faith or belief or prayers. Easter happened simply because of God. And that is a bit of good news and hope to hold onto in a day when people like to shout Jesus' name yet seem filled with anything but peace and hope and love.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sermon video: Heads Held High

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sermon: Heads Held High

Luke 21:25-36
Heads Held High
James Sledge                                                               November 29, 2015 – Advent 1

What are the things that weigh heavily on you, that cause you to lose sleep at night? I’ve read several articles talking about a growing fear of terrorist attacks among Americans. And we’ve all seen this fear being aimed at Muslims.
Perhaps your worries are more immediate, financial concerns. The economy is better than it was a few years ago, but not for everyone. And in a region with the economy so tied to the federal government, and with a largely dysfunctional Congress, who knows when another sequester or other budget mess might arrive.
Or maybe you’re concerned about getting into the college of your choice, graduating from school, or getting a decent job when you do. What will you do if you don’t get in? Or what if that job you’re hoping for doesn’t pan out? Or what if it doesn’t pay enough to live on?
Perhaps your worries and anxieties are of an entirely different sort. Health, relationships, retirement, the environment, and many more possibilities can leave people feeling anxious, burdened, and weighed down.
But now comes the Christmas season, a time of year that is supposed to fill us with joy and good cheer. Bathed in Christmas lights and feasting on a steady diet of Christmas music and broadcasts of It’s a Wonderful Life, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, we can enjoy a respite from all our worries.
I’m sure this works for some folks, but for a lot of people, the holidays and Christmas season just leaves them feeling more stressed out.
When I lived in Columbus, Ohio, I volunteered and served on the board of a non-profit that worked to help people dealing with mental illness lead productive lives. It was staffed and run by people who themselves were living with various mental illnesses. One happened to be a member of the church I served which is how I got connected with them.
Most every year as the Christmas season approached, the good folks at Partners in Active Living would ask me to do a presentation on faith, mental health, and the holidays. For a lot of clients at Partners, Christmas made them feel worse rather than better. Most were living on limited incomes, and the focus on gifts and buying only reminded them of that. For those dealing with depression, the idea that they were supposed to be joyful and cheerful seemed like added pressure. In addition, long years of struggle with mental illness had often frayed family relationships and caused estrangements from parents, siblings, or children. Christmas could be lonely.
For a lot of the clients at Partners, the difficulties of day to day life were enough to leave them feeling weary and heavily burdened. Christmas sometimes felt like “piling on.”
I was careful never to proselytize when I did my “Christmas and Mental Illness” presentations, but I never pretended to be anything other than a pastor. A lot of clients had religious baggage connected to their mental illness and family estrangements. And so they often wanted to talk about faith with me.
A revelation for me in these discussions was how relieved some were to hear that our culture’s obsession with Christmas was neither biblical nor part of Christian tradition for most of history, and how much some of them preferred Advent to Christmas. In most congregations, people are itching to get to Christmas. I was warned in seminary that if you don’t start singing Christmas carols by the third Sunday in Advent you’re going to get yourself in trouble. But many at Partners would have been happy to stay in Advent.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thanksgiving and Religious Stereotypes

I have many things to be thankful for. The list is long enough that I won't even try to catalog them here, but I will mention the special blessings I've received this year via friends at the Institute of Islamic and Turkish Studies in Fairfax, VA. Not only did my congregation have the wonderful opportunity to break the Ramadan fast with the congregation from IITS's Ezher Mosque, but I and pastors from several area congregations enjoyed a ten day trip to Turkey with their Imam, Bilal, thanks to their generosity and hospitality. In fact, the "Thanksgiving Feast" pictured here is actually one of several meals our group enjoyed in people's homes in Turkey.

While visiting Turkey, we were received with amazing graciousness and hospitality. We feasted on wonderful food. And we experienced remarkable warmth and love from people we had never before met. This was in part because of the hospitality that is a big part of Mediterranean culture, and because such hospitality is a central part of Islam, as it is with Judaism and Christianity.

As I give thanks for my friends at IITS and in Turkey, I am saddened and frightened by the tone of political discourse that speaks openly of registering Muslims. That sadness only deepened as I read an article in yesterday's Washington Post entitled, "Americans are increasingly skeptical of Muslims. But most Americans don't talk to Muslims." The article contains the startling statistics that a majority of Americans thing Islam is at odds with American values while 70 percent of Americans have seldom or never spoken to a Muslim.

People who are my friends, people who have treated me with the utmost courtesy, hospitality, and respect, are being demonized and scapegoated in large part because ridiculous stereotypes of Islam go unchallenged by actual encounters and experiences with living, breathing Muslims.

Most of us are familiar with disgusting stereotypes of Jews, African Americans, gays, etc. But most of us also know at least a few Jews, African Americans, gays, etc. and so we know real people who don't fit the stereotypes. Apparently most Americans cannot say that with regard to Muslims.

I have a troubling suspicion that this is also the case for many Americans and Jesus. Based on a lot of rhetoric that gets passed off as "Christian," I have to wonder if these people have ever met the Jesus portrayed in the pages of the Bible or if they only know some popular stereotype of Jesus they encountered who knows where.

There are ridiculous stereotypes of Jesus on both the left and the right. In the worst cases of both, there is a willful attempt to reshape Jesus to fit people's particular political views. But the bigger problem seems to be similar to that with Muslim stereotypes. People simply accept stereotypes because no actual experience with Jesus challenges them.

Especially for Protestants, this problem is largely one of failing to regularly and seriously engage with the Scriptures. Huge swaths of American Christianity seem perfectly content to assume that the Jesus of the Bible largely conforms to their stereotypes. They may even know of a few Bible passages that buttress that stereotype, but their Jesus almost never confounds or challenges them. Yet the biblical Jesus did that on a regular basis, both with the religious establishment of his day and with his own followers.

When you hear Donald Trump or some other candidate talking about Muslims, who is that to you? What comes to mind when you hear the words Muslim or Islam, and where do these images come from? And what about Jesus? What comes to mind when you hear his name, and where did that image come from?

Seems to me that with both Islam and Jesus, a lot of foolishness, a lot of hate, and a lot of harm, arise because people have so little experience with the reality of either.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Sermon: Embracing the Truth

John 18:33-37
Embracing the Truth
James Sledge                                                   November 22, 2015 (Christ the King)

“What is truth?” That is Pilate’s response when Jesus says, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." And so Pilate cuts off Jesus’ attempt to engage Pilate the man, the person behind the persona.
On the surface, Pilate is the most powerful man in all of Jerusalem, in all of Palestine. He is Roman governor, with the power and authority of the Roman Empire and the might of the Roman army at his disposal. He has the power of life and death over Jesus and countless others. Yet the gospel of John describes a scene where Pilate is the one on trial, where he is a pawn caught up in events he cannot control.
In John’s account of Pilate’s trial before Jesus, Pilate is a tragic, even comic figure. Amidst all his trappings of power, he must scurry back and forth between Jesus and the Jewish authorities gathered outside, and as the events unfold, Pilate grows more and more frightened, and more and more aware that he is trapped. So much for all that power.
In the portion of this trial that we hear this morning, Jesus responds to Pilate’s questions with questions of his own, or answers that reshape the conversation. In a manner reminiscent of his conversations with Nicodemus or a Samaritan women at a well, Jesus invites Pilate to see things differently. Even at his own trial, Jesus reaches out and ministers to Pilate, offering him a chance to let go of assumptions and patterns that trap him, to grow and step into the truth. But it is more than Pilate can do. It would be far too costly for him.
I think most any modern politician can appreciate Pilate’s predicament. Think of all the ways politicians and office holders find themselves boxed in, unable to speak what they truly believe or think. Are all those increasingly absurd statements about Syrian refugees and Muslims really heartfelt, well-reasoned responses? Or do the people making them feel forced to speak a certain way, trapped just like Pilate.
People regularly trash politicians for dancing around the truth, for the way they “spin” and massage the truth, but there is often a price for them to pay if they don’t. Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, most all discover that their notions of power and control are as much illusions as was Pilate’s. There are things they must say and do, and things they cannot.
But I need not pick on politicians. Fact is, most of us live behind masks and personas. Perhaps not so blatant as Pilate’s or some politicians, but there are plenty of times when I am frightened of the truth, when I’m not inclined to let Jesus draw me out of my fears.
As a pastor, I am supposed to know and embody certain things. There are certain assumptions about who I am and how I should act. Some of those are my own assumptions that I have acquired from God knows where, and some are assumptions that others have for me. Much like Pilate, I can find myself caught in these assumptions and expectations without much thought for truth.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Fear and Foreigers

The Old Testament book of Ezra tells of events when Jewish exiles in Babylon are permitted to return to Israel and begin rebuilding Jerusalem. Prophets had spoken of a day when exiles returned and Jerusalem became great again, surpassing the glory of David and Solomon. But it didn't work out quite that way. Jerusalem remained a shell of its former self, an insignificant, backwater town.

Naturally there were people who looked for something or someone to blame. Perhaps they weren't pure enough to please God, and some began to look with suspicion on those who had married "foreign wives." (In the companion book of Nehemiah, 13:1 cites Deuteronomy 23:3-6 and its ban on Moabites and Ammonites from the assembly of Yahweh.) Eventually Ezra, in today's Old Testament lectionary reading, orders the people, "Separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives." That likely would be a death sentence to many women and children, but God demands purity.

Interestingly, the Old Testament has another book that takes an entirely different point of view. The title character in the book of Ruth is a Moabite, and the great-grandmother of King David no less. If Ezra's rule had been enforced in her time, David might never have existed. The story of Ruth lifts up a Moabite woman as a paragon of virtue and faithfulness. She is a "foreign wife" like those Ezra banishes in the name of the purity God demands.


There is a good bit of worry and fear associated with foreigners in our day. Some are terrified of the threat posed by Syrian refugees, and quite a few governors have declared they want no refugees in their states. The issue is not religious purity, though some have proposed letting in only Christian refugees. But in both our day and Ezra's, the foreigner is viewed as a danger. And when people think they are in danger, they often act is ways they later regret. Whether Ezra later did so in unknown, but the book of Ruth and the teachings of Jesus certainly repudiate Ezra's actions.

In the New Testament epistle of 1 John, we find the famous line, "Whoever does not know love does not know God, for God is love." And just a few verses later it adds, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear." My love certainly isn't perfect, and so I have my share of fears, but when my actions are driven primarily by such fears, it seems highly likely that I will be acting in ways contrary to those of the God who "is love."

Like Ezra, I can always find a verse of Scripture to justify my actions when I am afraid, but I'm pretty sure that means I'm reading my Bible incorrectly.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Sermon: Forgetting, Remembering, and Waiting for God

1 Samuel 1:4-20
Forgetting, Remembering, and Waiting for God
James Sledge                                                                                       November 15, 2015

Hannah’s story is a personal one, but it is not just about her. She lives in a time when Israel is in disarray and chaos, fragmented into tribes that sometimes fight one another, threatened by the powerful Philistines. The hope and promise from the days of Moses and Joshua are gone. Hannah’s personal despair mirrors that of Israel.
Hannah despairs because she is childless, something understood as a curse from God. Yahweh had closed her womb, the story tells us twice. God, it seems, is Hannah’s enemy.
Hannah lived in a patriarchal society where the value of women was largely limited to child bearing and nurture. A woman who could not have children had little in the way of other options for a fulfilling life, and her husband’s other wife never let Hannah forget that. She tormented her, a pain only intensified by the annual trips to Shiloh where each family member offered sacrifices at the sanctuary of God. Sacrifices to the one who had cursed her.
Her husband  Elkanah loves her and doesn’t think her worthless, but his efforts to cheer her up fall a little flat. “Why are you so sad? Why won’t you eat? After all, you have me.” Even I know better than that, and my wife says I’m clueless.
Elkanah isn’t the only clueless guy in the story. Eli the priest stumbles badly himself. He’s there in the temple when Hannah comes in, walking right past him. She makes no notice of the priest, taking her case straight to Yahweh. She has a bitter complaint. God has forgotten her, and she longs to be remembered.
Eli totally misreads her, thinking she’s drunk because she moves her lips without speaking. That seems pretty thin evidence. Maybe he’s not used to women barging right by him and dropping on the floor before God.
Hannah quickly sets the priest straight, but then adds, “Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman…” That is the problem. In her world, she is considered cursed and worthless.
I’m not certain how to read Eli’s response. He does seem sympathetic, but when he says, “the God of Israel grant the petition you have made…” is that a promise, or merely a hope? However Eli means it, Hannah goes home glad.
I occasionally have someone share a crisis with me and ask me to pray for her. I’m happy to do so, and I hope my prayers provide some comfort. Still, I don’t know that either of us thinks the situation changed after I’m finished. I’m not sure anyone goes home glad.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Church Newsletter for Advent

Our congregation produces a quarterly newsletter. Here is my upcoming piece for the Winter edition.
Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
As I write this it is a beautiful, autumn day. Some trees still cling to brightly colored leaves. Thanksgiving is still two weeks away, but one of my neighbors already has up his Christmas lights. And we’ve had the first salvo in the annual “War on Christmas” silliness, thanks to those atheists at Starbucks who removed the snowflakes, those ancient symbols of Christ’s birth, from their seasonal cups.
I’m not much bothered by early Christmas decorations, or by what retailers put on their cups or store decorations. I’m not offended if the stores are already playing Christmas music. Surprised and amused, perhaps, but not much more. I do, however, sometimes lament the loss of Advent. I don’t suppose that stores or malls ever did Advent, but I do miss it when it fades away in churches.
The Presbyterian Book of Common Worship has a liturgy for lighting the Advent candle on the four Sundays prior to Christmas. It begins, “We light this candle as a sign of the coming light of Christ. Advent means coming. We are preparing ourselves for the days when…” What follows is a list of that grows longer each week and speaks of swords beaten into plowshares, nations no longer learning war, wolves making peace with lambs, the desert blooming, and a young woman who bears a child named “God with us.”
“Advent means coming.” It’s a coming that is not of our making. We can prepare. We can work to make it more visible, but only God can bring the promise. That means that Advent is also about waiting.
I am not very good at waiting. I’m impatient and sometimes impulsive. I’m even worse at waiting for God. I am very much a product of our culture that values busyness and productivity. But God’s ways are very different from mine, and over the years I’ve discovered that a deep experience of God requires prayer and stillness and silence and waiting.
Advent requires waiting. It is an active, expectant sort of waiting, but it is waiting nonetheless. Yet too often we rush toward Christmas, trying to manufacture joy and cheer, trying to make Advent into one long and extended Christmas celebration.
I’m not suggesting that we should be dour and somber until Christmas Eve, or that we hold all the Christmas carols in reserve until that day. (I would prefer we not pack up the carols so quickly after Christmas.)  I do, however, think it important to cultivate the spiritual disciplines of waiting and of preparing for what God will do. Expectant and faithful waiting that trusts in God’s promises is crucial to living as the body of Christ in Advent and throughout the year.
Some years ago John Buchanan, then pastor at Fourth Presbyterian in Chicago and editor of The Christian Century, wrote a piece entitled “Deepening Darkness.” In it he described the busyness of the holidays on the Magnificent Mile portion of Michigan Avenue where the church sits. “The sidewalks are filled with shoppers. Buses arrive daily from the suburbs and nearby states, disgorge their shoppers in the morning and pick them up, exhausted and heavily laden, in the evening. We sit in the middle of it all with the somber purple color and sing hymns in a minor key.” (The Christian Century, 11-28-2006)
I wonder what sort of witness a faithful observance of Advent might offer to our busy, hectic and anxious world.
Grace, peace, a blessed Advent, and a Joyous Christmas,

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Sermon: Bad Ole Moabites and Wrestling with Scripture

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
Bad Ole Moabites and Wrestling with Scripture
James Sledge                                                                                       November 8, 2015

The Old Testament book of Deuteronomy shows Moses reminding Israel, just prior to their entering the land of promise, of all the covenantal requirements and obligations of the Law. Moses will not enter the land with them, and this is his final act before handing leadership of Israel over to Joshua. Here is part of what he says. “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted…”
Now if you’re worried that I’ve gotten confused about the scripture readings for today, let me assure you that this has everything to do with Ruth. But to make that clear, we probably need to go back to the beginning of her and Naomi’s story.
As the story opens, there is a famine in Israel causing Naomi, her husband, and two sons to flee their homeland. They become refugees, not so different from Syrian refugees in our day. They are in danger and at the mercy of those they encounter. And in the case of Naomi’s family, they end up in the land of those bad ole Moabites Moses warned them about.
The story doesn’t share any details of what happen when Naomi’s clan arrives in Moab. But clearly they are allowed to settle there. They are able to make a life, and when her husband dies, Naomi’s family is sufficiently a part of the community that her sons are welcomed to marry two of the local girls, Orpah and Ruth.
But then the situation changes dramatically. Naomi’s two sons die. I’m not sure we modern people can fully appreciate what a dire situation this is. As a widow without male children, Naomi was in grave jeopardy. She was too old to be married again, and she had no one to provide for her. As a woman, she could not inherit or own property. With no husband, no sons, and no grandsons, her husband’s lineage was at an end, and she was powerless and destitute.
Then Naomi learns that the famine in Israel has abated. This does not offer much hope, but it is all she has. She heads back hoping some relatives or friends will take pity on her. She may still be destitute, but it seems the best chance she has. And so she starts out for home, her daughters-in-law accompanying her. But Naomi knows this is not a good idea.
Naomi has no way to provide for herself, much less for Orpah and Ruth. They are still relatively young. If they return to their own families, perhaps they will care for them, even find new husbands for them. Orpah and Ruth protest. They want to remain with Naomi. But she insists, and finally Orpah relents and leaves, weeping as she goes.
But Ruth will not leave. She casts her lot with Naomi, and they return to the land of Judah and to poverty. Ruth is now the refugee, dependent on the hospitality of strangers. She tries to help Naomi by gleaning, picking up the grain that gets dropped during the harvest.
The story of Ruth is one of several in the Old Testament where God’s name is mentioned and invoked but God does not seem to be an actor in the story. Which is not to say that God is not at work. Ruth goes to glean in the fields and by “chance,” ends up in the field of Boaz, a relative of her long dead father-in-law.
Boaz does not recognize this refugee gleaning in his field, and so he asks who she is. No one seems to know her name. She’s just a refugee, after all. They tell him, She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. I’m not sure why they need to say she’s a Moabite from Moab. That’s like saying, “I’m an American from America.” But it does make perfectly clear that she is one of those bad ole Moabites.
When Naomi and her family fled to Moab, their survival depended largely on whether they encountered hostility or hospitality there. Now Naomi and Ruth’s survival depend largely on whether Ruth encounters hostility or hospitality from the people of Judah, and especially from Boaz. God’s providence has steered Ruth to the field belonging to a relative of Naomi’s husband, but we know nothing of him or what he thinks about hungry refugees or bad ole Moabites. At least we don’t until he gives his workers special instructions to look after Ruth, praises her for her care of Naomi, and gives her food and drink.