Sunday, January 31, 2016

Angry at Someone, or Perhaps at God

It was Diane's Sunday to preach in our worship today. (She's my pastoral colleague here.) She talked about times growing up where God disappointed her, not living up to expectations she had. Surely that is a universal experience for people of faith. We think God should act certain ways; we think faith should lead to certain outcomes, yet often things turn out differently from our expectations.

Diane was preaching about the gospel reading for today, the second half of Luke's story of Jesus at his home town of Nazareth. Luke's version is quite different from the parallel stories in Matthew and Mark. In Luke the locals are wowed by Jesus. "All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth." But Jesus is the one who shatters this moment of awe and wonder. He reminds them that "no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown." He tells of episodes from Israel's past where the famous prophets Elijah and Elisha helped foreigners rather than the many in Israel could have used such help.

In the end, the hometown folks try to kill Jesus. Presumably they were expecting that their connection to Jesus meant that they would be the very first to enjoy the fruits of the Messiah's arrival, but when Jesus goes on and on about God helping foreigners and outsiders, it's more than they can stomach.

God has certainly disappointed me many times. On occasion I've gotten quite angry. This pastoring thing is often not at all what I envisioned when I first heard a call to ordained ministry. But I can't imagine ever getting so angry that I'd want to kill Jesus. What made the folks at Nazareth mad enough to kill?

Perhaps some of the difference can be attributed to a more violent time in history when human life was cheaper, but still... Could I ever become so angry at God that I contemplated violence? Could God's failure to do as I expect or anticipate make me mad enough to join an angry mob?

I'm not the sort to kill anyone, but I can get pretty worked up at times. Generally, my greatest anger is not directed at God but at people who cause me trouble or who I think cause trouble in the world. Very often my anger at them feels "righteous," but I wonder if it might be displaced anger at God. (God's rarely available to be thrown off a cliff in the first place.)

When people in the church make my life miserable, I feel justified anger over how they injure me or  hurt the ministry and fellowship of a congregation. Yet I suspect some of my anger might really be at the God who allows such people to become prominent fixtures in so many congregations. How is it that God lets troublemakers occupy important positions in churches?

I have talked to colleagues as well as to church members who've spoken of the damage such people have done to them or their church's ministry. This only heightens my upset, my righteous anger, knowing that the behavior is typical. And that seems to confirm that my real anger is at God. How is it God allows churches to be such messed up places that get so off track, that have so many less than ideal folks running things, serving as pastors, and at times being downright hateful and mean?

I think the next time I get really angry over something going on at church, I'm going to pause and wonder about how I might really be angry at God. And I going to wonder if that means I'm expecting something of God I shouldn't be. I wonder if that means I need to do a bit more work on who God is, who Jesus is, and what it really means for me to be his follower.

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Monday, January 25, 2016

Snowbound sermon text: Saving Addicts

Luke 4:14-21
Saving Addicts
James Sledge                                                                                       January 24, 2016

Had it not snowed, we would have welcomed members of the Institute of Islamic and Turkish Studies, or IITS, and the imam of its mosque to our church this Sunday. During the Sunday School hour, they were going to teach about the central tenets of Islam. That got me to wondering what we would say if we visited IITS and taught them about the central tenets of our faith.
What would you say constitutes the core of Christian faith? That’s a crucial question, yet there are many competing answers, quite a few of them incompatible. One benign and inoffensive answer makes faith a simple matter of believing in Jesus and being good little boys and girls. A less benign version adds that if you don’t believe you are going to hell.
In individualistic America, many answers speak of personal fulfillment. Sometimes this is understood as a ticket to heaven, other times as a sense of spiritual fulfillment or well-being, and others as success or financial gain.
Some answers suggest that being Christian is mostly about being kind and loving. At the very same time, some prominent Christian voices engage in hate-filled speech rooted in their understanding of faith. All these answers cannot be true. So what are we to do?
Unfortunately, the typical answer is to imagine a Christian faith and life that is perfectly compatible with my particular political, social, economic, and cultural norms. Seems like a more helpful approach might be to ask Jesus, and fortunately for us, Luke’s gospel provides an answer of sorts.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Snowbound sermon video: Saving Addicts

The quality of this video is not up to normal standards because it was done in my basement as the blizzard of 2016 shut down the DC area. Church services had to be cancelled as a result, and this video is meant to allow those unable to attend worship a way to do so at home.

Audios and videos of other worship services can be found on the FCPC website.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Helping God Remember

The Old Testament readings this week have been finishing up what is sometimes labeled the "prehistory" of Genesis. It's called this because when we meet Abram and Sarai in tomorrow's reading, we can tie them to places and peoples that can be located in known history, unlike the tower of Babel, the Garden of Eden, or Noah's ark. Of course that does not mean that the story Abram and Sarai, later named Abraham and Sarah, are primarily about relating historical events.

It seems to be a peculiarly modern notion that the Bible is primarily a vehicle for relating "what happened." Modern people think "myth" is synonymous with "false" or "untrue," but nothing could be further from the truth. Myth is a vehicle for exploring big, even ultimate questions about who we are, why we're here, who God is, and what our relationship is to this God. Myth answers such questions with pre-scientific stories and folk tales. The people who originally told them may or may not have believed that they actually happened, but the people who put them in the Bible most certainly valued them for how they helped answer those big questions.

The Noah story is a wonderful case in point. It's yet another biblical story that is vaguely known by many but often badly misunderstood. It bears remarkable similarities to other Middle Eastern flood myths, but it contains striking differences, many of them focused on the Bible writers' very different answers to those big questions.

If you read the entire Noah cycle, you'll notice a couple of different versions of the story woven together. (They don't quite agree on the numbers of animals onboard.) Also, the flood doesn't "fix" anything. After Noah left the ark, God says that "the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth," the same problem that prompted the flood. The only thing that seems to have changed as a result of the flood is God's mind. "Never again," says God. No matter how bad these human creatures have turned out, God declares a commitment to them.

And so God said, "I have set my bow in the clouds." The reference is to retiring and hanging up God's weapon of war, and also to the rainbow. It is a sign to help remember God's covenant to humanity. But the sign is not to help us remember. It is to help God.

My understanding of God would not seem to include the possibility of forgetting things without the help of mnemonic devices. But there it is, right there in the Bible. The rainbow reminds God to turn the spigot off. Unless of course, the story is wrestling with the worry that God may indeed forget us.

There are certainly times when I have such worries. How could I not when I look around. The wicked do well while the good perish. Innocents are killed in terror attacks. Children starve in Syria as warring factions use them as pawns. The political voices in our land speak little of the good news for the poor that Jesus proclaimed.

I suspect that the rise in agnosticism and atheism is a modern (postmodern?) way of grappling with the ancient worry of God forgetting us. In some ways it is more logical and rational to imagine God not existing than to imagine God being feeble minded or forgetful. But the basic question remains unchanged. Is God for us or not? Will God act on our behalf, or has God abandoned us?

The ancient Hebrews had plenty of reasons to think God might have abandoned them. The destruction of Jerusalem and it gorgeous Temple. Capture and exile by the Babylonians. And before any of that happened, the prophets railed against the wealthy who grew rich at the expense of the poor, the suffering of the innocent, and the frequency of injustice.

No doubt some in ancient Israel thought the Babylonian gods superior to their own. Others thought that their failures had been so great that God had turned away from them. But the keepers of Israel's faith told stories about a God whose commitment to humanity was absolute and was remembered every time a rainbow appeared. Perhaps God didn't need actually need help remembering, but the Israelites certainly did.

Sometimes I would like to find a way to help God remember, to prod God to act. With the psalmist I cry out, "How long, or Lord?" But what I really need most of all is the ability to remember God and God's goodness, what some would call faith. Which is why the biblical writers told their stories.

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Sunday, January 17, 2016

Sermon: I Come Bearing Gifts, says the Spirit

1 Corinthians 12:1-11
I Come Bringing Gifts, says the Spirit
James Sledge                                                                                       January 17, 2016

When I was in high school, I briefly went out with a girl whose religious background was a bit more fundamentalist and Pentecostal than mine. At first I found the differences novel and even exciting. Raised a staid Presbyterian, a bit of religious enthusiasm was a refreshing change of pace. But eventually the novelty wore off for me, in part because of episodes like this one I’m going to share.
We once attended a late night worship service. I can’t recall exactly what the occasion was, but the service featured the Lord’s Supper with a twist I’d never encountered. We came forward to receive communion, but not by rows. The pastor told us to wait until we felt the presence of God, until the Spirit urged us to come forward.
I waited. I hoped for some tug on my heart, some stirring in my soul that would draw me to the table. But as time passed, and as I heard people moving around me, I began to check on other folks’ progress. I was in no rush, but as more and more people went forward and no spiritual fire, or even warmth, came over me, I began to worry. 
I waited some more. I was a novice at this and wasn’t overly clear on just how it was supposed to work. I increased my concentration and tried to heighten my inner attentiveness. But another glance made it clear I was in danger of being the very last person to go forward, and so I got up and went to the table.
Afterwards, I wondered about all those who went to the table ahead of me. Were they tuned to a divine frequency that I did not know how to access, or was it something else? I wondered how many people went forward for the same reason I did, because they didn’t want to be left out?
I was suspicious that there had to be a great deal of the latter, and I think the episode left me with a fair amount of skepticism, even cynicism regarding spiritual experience. Better to stick with a faith that could be worked out via reason and scholarship. Turned out I was a lot more comfortable being a staid, keep-it-all-in-the-head, Presbyterian.
It was many years before I had anything like the spiritual experience I had hoped for at that late-night communion service. God does tug at the heart. The Spirit has stirred my soul and warmed, even enflamed my heart at times. But it does not happen on command, and the Spirit is as likely to surprise me as to follow the formula I expect.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

That's Gonna Leave a Mark

As a child I was mostly a "good little boy" who generally got A's in school and went to church on Sundays. I was well behaved during worship. I sang the hymns and tried to listen to the sermons. I went to Sunday School and, as a small child, my father read Bible stories to me and my siblings each night.

It was all pretty typical stuff for a kid in South and then North Carolina as the 1960s gave way to the 70s. I assume it was also pretty typical that despite all this exposure to Church, Sunday School, and Bible stories, I didn't really know the Bible in any sort of depth. I knew that Moses went up the mountain, David smacked Goliath upside the head with a rock, and Jesus walked on water, but I'm not sure and had much sense of what any of itmeant.

And so I picked up a lot of my Christianity from "drinking the water" as it were. I accumulated the popular understandings of the faith that sometimes did and sometimes didn't cohere with what was in the Bible that I knew only in a Cliffs Notes sort of way. That meant that I had heard about "the mark of Cain" which shows up in today's Old Testament reading, but I didn't know it from the Bible.

I knew, in a vague way, that 'the mark of Cain" was something bad, something that let others know there was something wrong with you. Curiously - considering a childhood in SC and NC - I did not about the racist interpretations in American Christianity that labeled dark skin "the mark of Cain." I read about that as an adult. But that discovery was not nearly so surprising as the one that came from actually reading the story in Genesis.

What a stunner to find out that Cain's mark was there to protect him. Yes, Cain was in all sorts of trouble for killing his brother. Yes, the story depicts God punishing him, "cursing" him in much the same manner as had happened to his parents a bit earlier in Genesis. But in a pattern that never gets old in the Bible, earning God's wrath is never the end of the story. God makes clothes for Adam and Eve; God puts a "Do not damage" label on Cain; God forgives David for raping Bathsheba and then murdering her husband; and Jesus says, "Father forgive them," while on the cross. Not at all the sort of "mark" one might expect.


A quick confession: I spend too much time on social media. There I see a lot of posts which suggest that many other people must have gotten their notions of Christian faith in a manner similar to that of my childhood. Whether it's posts inviting me to type "Amen" to insure a financial windfall, manipulative posts demanding I share a really bad picture of Jesus to prove I love him, or posts from self-avowed Christians who tell outright lies to justify hate-filled slandering of politicianss they dislike, there are scores of "Christians" whose faith seems to have little connection to the teachings of Jesus found in the Bible. 

Despite my having spent a good deal of my own life with a faith only vaguely connected to the Bible, these sort of posts on social media really set me off. I suppose I feel a little superior because my own barely biblical faith was mostly non-strident and benign. Regardless, I often can't resist the urge to help straighten these folks out. I attempt - in the most kind and friendly fashion, of course - to show them the error of their ways. I won't say never, but I'm almost never successful.

I not so secretly long for the worst offenders to get their comeuppance. They need to be exposed for what they really are. Their distortions of the faith need to be clearly pointed out for all to see. They need "False Christian" branded on their foreheads so that everyone will know to avoid and ignore them.  

But God, it seems, is not so quick to write folks off as I am. When God marks Cain, it's not what most people assume. God's response to the way we've screwed up the world is to join us in the mess we've made, to suffer and die in it. God still cares for Cain. God keeps loving sinners. Or, as Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it, "There is nothing we can do to make God love us any more or any less."

I'm really glad God loves me that way. I'm still struggling a bit with how God extends the same love to certain others.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Sermon: You're My Dear Child

Luke 3:15-22
You’re My Dear Child
James Sledge                                       January 10, 2016 – Baptism of the Lord

Have you ever known someone who was going through a tough time and disappeared from church? Illness or the death of a loved one sometimes causes a faith crisis that pulls people away, but I’m thinking more of folks who disappear after something that might cause people to judge them.
It doesn’t happen as much with divorce as it once did, but some folks still feel embarrassed enough to stop attending. Graduate to things such as getting arrested or some other form of public humiliation, and it becomes much more likely that people won’t show their face around the church. Church is, after all, a place for good, respectable people.
I thought about respectable people as I read Luke’s take on Jesus’ baptism. All the gospel writers have their own take on it. Apparently the event was well enough known that they need to address this potentially embarrassing episode. Why would Jesus need a baptism of repentance and forgiveness after all?
Matthew’s gospel has John the Baptist raise the question of “Why?” directly, but Luke does something different. There is no conversation with John. Jesus does not speak at all. Instead Luke merely throws Jesus in with all the other folks going to John. Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…
With no apparent fanfare, Jesus got in line with everyone else, with the “brood of vipers” who came out to the wilderness to be baptized. Jesus joined with those who felt they needed to turn their lives around, who needed God to forgive them. And this was hardly the last time. No wonder the religious folk would say Jesus wasn’t respectable enough, calling him “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Luke 7:34)
As Jesus prayed following his baptism, the Holy Spirit descended on him and a voice said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” I love the way the Cotton Patch Gospel renders this, “You are my dear Son; I’m proud of you.” Sounds like something a good, southern Momma would say.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

On Not Being, or at Least Acting, Afraid

God is our refuge and strength,
     a very present help in trouble. 

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
     though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; 

though its waters roar and foam,
     though the mountains tremble with its tumult.      

Psalm 46:1-3 

I often use these verses as a Call to Worship for a funeral service. When I read them today I found myself struck by an odd contrast. I've done funerals where the family wants nothing of this sort of reading. They want the service to be "a celebration" with no mourning or sadness. Very often it is family members with little connection to church who are most insistent that there be nothing in the service that speaks of sadness. They want to celebrate rather than grieve, and not because their faith assures them in the hope of a resurrection.

On the other hand, people who do claim a deep faith, who presumably would resonate with the verses of the psalm, are some of the more fearful voices in this country right now. I'm continually amazed at the number of Christians who tie their faith to support for Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, rattling off a long list of the things that terrify them. People who claim to have a deep trust in the power of God seem motivated primarily by crippling fears.

It is indeed a strange contrast. Those facing the loss of a love one yet seemingly unwilling to acknowledge any need for comfort, support, and hope, alongside those who profess security, comfort, and protection in the power of God yet imagine every refugees a terrorist and a Christian president the agent of the devil.

I suppose I should be more understanding of non-churched family members who don't look for support from something they scarcely acknowledge, who seek solace through other means. But what to make of people of faith who can happily say, "We will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea," and yet act like terrified children.

But as I point fingers at this obvious lack of faith from the faithful, I need to confess that it is hardly a problem relegated to evangelicals or conservative Christians. It takes different forms among  progressive or liberal Christians, but it is no less real. I know plenty of liberal Christians for whom faith is mostly a philosophy, its power limited to convincing enough other people to live by that philosophy. It is all too easy to have faith that the world would be a better place if only everyone would be kinder and more loving while never acknowledging the requirement for God to overcome the problem of sin and evil.

My own laments over the church and its failure to be anything approximating the body of Christ are often prompted by my struggle to trust that God could work anything of significance using the likes of "us." My own version of saying "We will not fear," but them trembling.


I think it is important to remember that this faith thing is not easy, or at least it is not easy to live it out in any meaningful way. That is why you should be very suspicious of anyone who tells you that faith is simply a matter of "accepting Jesus as your Savior," or of "believing in him." Faith is about following a Savior who goes to the cross, as terrifying as that is to him, because he trusts the power of God more than he is controlled by his fears.

That sort of faith is not something you can do on your own. You can't do it without help, the help of God, and the help of a community. I think that may be why the Apostle Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians that "No one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit." And I assume that Paul is speaking of more than simply mouthing the words, speaking of living as though they were true.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
     though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; 

though its waters roar and foam,
     though the mountains tremble with its tumult.      

"We will not fear," says the psalmist. I have my doubts that he meant that literally. Even Jesus seemed genuinely fearful of going to the cross. But with  help, with prayer and the support of the Holy Spirit and the encouragement of the community of faith, we can - here and there - live like those who are not afraid.

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