Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sermon: Responding Differently

Luke 13:1-9
Responding Differently
James Sledge                                                                                       February 28, 2016
The other night the eleven o’clock news  had a report of another shooting in southeast DC. TV news tends to emphasize such events, but the following morning, it was hard to find anything about it in The Washington Post, just a small paragraph buried deep inside the local section. Such shootings are routine enough that they’re easy to ignore. People might notice if the shooting were in northwest DC or Falls Church or Arlington.
They certainly noticed the terrorist attacks in Paris last November. A lot of people still have the colors of the French flag superimposed on their Facebook pictures, and I added the flag to mine briefly. But I never put a Kenyan flag over my picture, even though they had an attack that killed more than the one in Paris. No Nigerian flag either, and they had two deadlier attacks. In fact, there were six terror attacks in 2015 deadlier than Paris, but I could only remember one of them. I had never even heard of some. Just like I couldn’t tell you the details of any of those shootings in southeast DC.
There are lots of reasons for this. One surely has to do with race. The victims in Southeast DC and in Nigeria were largely black. In Southeast DC, they were often poor, and their deaths didn’t represent any real danger to me or my suburban existence.
We aren’t much surprised by shootings in certain parts of DC, or terror attacks in certain parts of the world. We’ve grown numb by repetition, and it’s not much of a step from numbness to the idea, perhaps a subconscious one, that these deaths matter less, which would mean that their lives mattered less.
There also seems to be a natural human tendency to blame the victim. It makes our lives feel a little more orderly if tragedies happen to other people because of their actions. They got involved with the wrong people. They didn’t work hard enough to live in a safer neighborhood. They got mixed up in drugs and alcohol.
We sometimes do the same thing when it comes to illness or natural disaster. The person smoked or drank too much, didn’t exercise or have a healthy diet. They lived in a flimsy trailer or near a stream that floods. It’s partly their own fault, right?

Monday, February 22, 2016

On Reading the Bible

This is a portion of Richard Rohr's daily meditation, which arrives as an email each day in my inbox. (You can sign up for them yourself at
The Bible is an anthology of many books. It is a record of people's experience of God's self-revelation. It is an account of our very human experience of the divine intrusion into history. The book did not fall from heaven in a pretty package. It was written by people trying to listen for and to God. I believe that the Spirit was guiding the listening and writing process. We must also know that humans always see "through a glass darkly . . .  and all knowledge is imperfect" (1 Corinthians 13:12).
"It did not fall from heaven in a pretty package," says Rohr, but a lot of Christians seem to disagree. There are more and less absurd versions of the notion that God somehow dictated the Bible. I'll let you decide where this classic defense of the old King James version of the Bible falls on that continuum. "If it was good enough for Paul, it's good enough for me."

Speaking of Paul, he had no Bible as we know it. "Scripture" for him was something close to what most Christians refer to as the Old Testament. In fact, the movement that Jesus' followers began, after his resurrection and their animation by the Holy Spirit, spread and grew and thrived without our New Testament.  A congregation here or there might have had one of the gospels or a letter or two from Paul, but there were no sacred, Christian texts. It would take many generations, and a much more institutional Church, before what we think of as the Bible would come into being.

If Paul had realized that his letters to congregations would one day be turned into sacred texts, surely he would have lowered the snark and sarcasm levels when he was writing the words of today's lectionary epistle. "Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Quite apart from us you have become kings!" writes Paul as he attacks the Corinthians hubris and arrogance. No general religious principles here, just a frustrated pastor employing anything at his disposal in an attempt to straighten them out.

I've never been one to read the Bible literally, so I'm uncertain how it is some people think of Scripture as somehow delivered directly from God's hand. I'm especially confused as to how anyone who has actually read the Bible at length can hold onto notions of biblical literalism. It wouldn't really matter to me that there are biblical literalist had not done so much to damage the Bible and Christian faith in the eyes of many outside (and even some inside) the Church.

I recently saw Bill Maher being interviewed by Stephen Colbert. Presumably because Colbert is so open about being a devout Catholic, the atheist Maher felt the need to point out the absurdity of modern people finding their truths in the ancient writings of people who thought the sun orbited the earth and so on. How could such unsophisticated, backwards folk possibly have anything to teach us?

Though an atheist, Maher seems to have gotten his understanding of the Bible from fundamentalist, literalist Christians. Maher is unlikely to dismiss the brilliance of Homer's epic poems because Homer doesn't understand modern science. Nor is he likely to suggest that no pre-modern artist, musician, or philosopher has anything to teach us. But because many of Jesus' followers make such absurd claims for our sacred texts, Maher can make a quite convincing argument against the Bible and any faith rooted in it.

The modern, scientific era has tended to create literal thinkers. Scientific truth is about carefully observed and demonstrated actions or events. It is about certainty. (Post modern science may be leaving such notions behind, but that has not yet created a big shift in the worldview of many Christians.) But the writers of the Bible did not share our modern notions of truth.

As this quote from the late John Dominic Crossan so eloquently says, "My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally."

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sermon video: Questioning God

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Sermon: Questioning God

Genesis 15:1-18
Questioning God
James Sledge                                                                                       February 21, 2016

If you’re like me, it’s sometimes hard to relate to the faith heroes of the Bible. Take Abram, later Abraham, one of the original faith heroes. According to Genesis, God just shows up one day and says, “Go from your homeland and family and friends to a place I will show you. I’ll make you great and bless you and you’ll be the start of a great people. And you’ll be a blessing to all the people of the earth.” And Abram, along with wife Sarai, pick up and leave, headed for parts unknown, no questions asked, all because of God’s promise.
Imagine that you were Abe’s parents when he came in to explain his plans. “Mom, Dad, God wants us to leave here and go somewhere else. Not really sure where yet. We’re heading out tomorrow.” What would you say if your child said something like that to you? What would you do if you thought God was telling you to sell the house, pack up everything, and head out to some unknown destination? Like I said, it can be hard to relate to biblical heroes.
But a lot has happened since God first said “Go” to Abram. He’s done a lot of going because of God’s promise. He’s gained wealth and had some exciting adventures, but there’s one colossal problem. It’s hard to be the parents of a great line of people when he and Sarai have no children. And they’re both getting on in years.
So when God shows up again, making more promises, Abram’s a little less ready to trust. “Don’t talks to me about rewards,” Abram says. “Sarai and I are getting old and have no kids, no one to pass it on to.”
This Abram I can relate to. When I think back on my own call and what followed: seminary, strains on our marriage, pain for Shawn that too often accompanies being the pastor’s wife. “God, this isn’t what I thought was going to happen when I said, ‘Yes.’”
When Abram starts whining about how following God’s promise hasn’t turned out as planned, the story says, But the word of the Lord came to him. Maybe this was some sort of vision, I’m not sure, but somehow God takes him out to look at the stars and promises that his descendants will be as vast as all those twinkling lights in the sky.
And Abram trusted God one more time. I suppose that if it were a good enough vision, that would do it for me, too.
Then God starts with a new promise. This one is about land, but Abram’s not so quick to jump at God’s promises as he once was. He wants proof. “How am I to know this will really happen?”
It is a crucial and basic faith question. Are God’s promises trustworthy? Does it make any sense to do as God says, or should we go our own way, doing whatever seems best to us?

Friday, February 19, 2016

Who's a Christian?

Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God's Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else's scrutiny. "For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?" But we have the mind of Christ. And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.  
1 Corinthians 2:14-3:1

A couple of items caught my eye in the last 24 hours. The more recent was Pope Francis' comments regarding Donald Trump. The pope said, "A person who thinks only about building walls — wherever they may be — and not building bridges, is not Christian." Trump countered that for the pope to question his faith was "disgraceful," but spiritual leaders have felt the need to correct people's faith from the beginning. The Apostle Paul is quite harsh with his congregation at Corinth, as witnessed in today's lectionary reading

The other item that caught my eye was a quote from Mark Twain that showed up on Facebook yesterday. (I've done a bit of checking to confirm that it is a genuine Twain quote.) "If we would learn what the human race really is at bottom, we need only observe it in election times." I fear that Twain is on to something.

Much of the sort of behavior Twain described is perpetuated by people who insist they are Christian, Mr. Trump being one of many. But I suspect that Twain speaks more of those casting ballots, motivated by their most base instincts and fears. There is a good reason that candidates continue to use "negative ads" despite much lamenting their prevalence in political campaigns. The fact is they get used because they work. Scare people, make them fearful, and watch what happens.

So at what point does the sort of behavior Mark Twain lampoons invalidate a person's claim to be Christian?

Jesus spoke enough about forgiveness that few would argue that anything close to perfection is required. Yet Jesus also said, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven." (Matthew 7:21) Clearly being Christian has to be more than a claim of belief in Jesus. Some attempt to embody the Gospel is required.

If the label "Christian" can be selected merely by checking a box, without any intention to change, to move away from human behavior "at bottom" to something shaped more by the way of Jesus, then the term has become nearly meaningless. If it cannot be described or defined in any significant way beyond a person's checking that box, then what exactly is it that we in the church are hawking?  Which may speak to some of the church's struggles in our time.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.  

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Sermon: Remembering Our Lines

Luke 9:28-36
Remembering Our Lines
James Sledge                                                                                       February 7, 2016

In a recent speech at a small, Christian college in Iowa, Donald Trump lamented Christianity’s loss of prestige in America but promised that would end if he is elected. Said Trump, "Because if I'm there, you're going to have plenty of power. You don't need anybody else. You're going to have somebody representing you very, very well. Remember that."[1]
I appreciate Mr. Trump’s concern for the state of the church, but I’m not sure he understands the nature of Christian power. It is God’s power, “power made perfect in weakness,” power most evident in the cross. I don’t think Trump gets that at all, but based on my own actions, as well as those of congregations, denominations, and all manner of “Christian” entities, I’m not sure very many of us get it either.
Lately I’ve been struggling with this issue of so many Christians, myself included, doing a rather bad job of following Jesus. I think that’s why I recently heard well-known quote from 19th century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard in a way I hadn’t before. He said, “People have an idea that the preacher is an actor on a stage and they are the critics, blaming or praising him. What they don't know is that they are the actors on the stage; (the preacher) is merely the prompter standing in the wings, reminding them of their lost lines.”
I’ve used this quote many times, always to talk about worship. But when it popped up online the other day, I was struck by those final words about “lost lines.” If you’ve ever acted, even in an elementary school play, you likely know what it feels like to forget your lines. You can’t do your job as an actor if you don’t know your lines. There’s not really much reason to go on the stage if you have no idea what you are supposed to say or do. But what of these lost lines Kierkegaard mentions?
Have we forgotten our lines, forgotten what we are supposed to say or do as actors in God’s drama? Did we never learn them in the first place? Did we study the wrong parts of the script, not the parts we need to know? Are we unsure if we want to be actors at all. Or do we not like to take direction, preferring to ad lib?