Sunday, April 24, 2016

Sermon: Transformed by Love

John 13:31-35
Transformed by Love
James Sledge                                                                                       April 24, 2016

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” But exactly how new is this commandment? Love your neighbor as yourself is in the Old Testament book of Leviticus. And haven’t parents been trying to get siblings to love one another since the beginning of time? Isn’t a mom yelling, “Why can’t you two just get along?” an exasperated version of “Love one another!”?
At first glance, this command to love one another also seems a lot less noble, a lot less impressive than some of Jesus’ other commands such as, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Now that’s an extraordinary accomplishment, surely something much more difficult than loving those around you, than loving one another.
Then again, “one another” presumably refers to those we spend a lot of time with, those who have ample opportunities to annoy us, hurt us, disagree with us, get under out skin, and disappoint us. And if our enemy is nameless and faceless, some group way over there, they may not stir our emotions nearly so much as that family member we can’t abide, or that member of the congregation who seems to go out of his or her way to be difficult and cause trouble
There’s an old Peanuts cartoon that I think captures this well. (I’ve updated the language a bit.) Lucy has told Linus that he can’t be a doctor because he doesn’t love humankind. Linus yells back, “I love humankind… It’s people I can’t stand!!”
Humanity… nameless, faceless others in general, even some who are enemies, perhaps we can love them on principle. But those people that we encounter on a regular basis, who irritate and annoy and cause us all manner of problems… that’s another matter entirely. “Love one another,” may not sound all that noble or impressive, but doing it isn’t very easy.
That doesn’t really make it a new commandment though. What is new about love one another?

Monday, April 18, 2016

Strange Blessings

As a pastor, it is not unusual for me to hear people speak of their blessings. They may comment to me that they have been "blessed," usually referring to tangible things they appreciate such as possessions, wealth, position, children, etc. In prayers people sometimes refer to their "many blessing," often with similar meaning. What I've never heard is someone including the items on Jesus' list in today's gospel passage, one usually labeled "The Beatitudes."

These Beatitudes (from the Latin for "blessing") have suffered from a fair amount of trivializing over the years. They frequently get referred to as the "Be Happy Attitudes," as though Jesus was here offering some tips for self-improvement or success. But any self help guru who suggested mourning, anguished longing for the world to be set right, or persecution as a prescription for happiness would not last long in that role.

Jesus/God clearly has different priorities than most of us do. Jesus has little interest in possessions, and he regularly invites people to leave what they have behind and follow him. Many of the things we call blessings involve acquisition and getting, but Jesus says that the path to life goes through giving, self-denial, and concern for "the other."

My own Calvinist tradition is largely responsible for the so-called "Protestant work ethic." In its origins it equated hard work and success with signs that you were a member of God's "elect." Yet Jesus' beatitudes speak of God's favor being on people most of us would not list as paragons of success. And in Luke's gospel, a similar set of beatitudes says, "Blessed are you who are poor..." And it later adds, "But woe to you who are rich..." The same pattern follows for those who are "hungry" and those who are "full." Not sure how that fits into a hard work + success = God's blessing.

Our culture often blames those who are poor for their fate. They are presumed to be lazy or without initiative. Yet God seems to be quite taken with the poor. It's a theme that recurs regularly in Old and New Testaments. Whether that poverty is spiritual or literal, God looks with favor on those who are too often despised for their "failings." And I'm pretty sure that Jesus' teachings are encouraging us see things more from God's point of view.

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Monday, April 11, 2016

Left to Our Own Devices

Today's lectionary gospel reading features John the Baptist calling people to prepare for the coming Messiah. According to John, getting ready involves a change of direction or mind, repentance. That got me wondering about what sort of repentance is required for me or a congregation to embrace Jesus fully. This wondering was intensified because I had been thinking about an upcoming sermon that deals with miracles.

The context for my wondering is a secular mindset in a secular age. The stories of the Bible, of Jesus, of healings and miracles do not sit easily in our world. I'm not Thomas Jefferson, taking a razor and carefully removing all the miracle stories associated with Jesus in order to produce a pure collection of Jesus' teachings without foolish superstitions about demons and evil spirits and healings and exorcisms. But I do struggle with miracles. When I hear of a televangelist or other religious figure offering healings or other miracles, I assume he or she is a con and a fraud.

But do such secular assumptions create problems for following Jesus? Is there a change of mind, a repentance required of me and those like me if I am to be properly oriented for following Jesus?

I'm unsure of the exact connection, but the rise of a secular worldview seems to parallel the development of individualism. In its best forms this has encouraged everyone to recognize his or her own intrinsic value and worth. In its worst forms it has transformed us into free agents, each of us responsible for self alone, no overriding loyalties, allegiances, debts, or commitments. If one is wealthy, it is because she had done well for herself. If one is poor, it is because he has done poorly.

The message of Jesus certainly seems compatible with notions of intrinsic value and worth for every individual. But it seems totally at odds with being free agents. In the alternative community Jesus proclaims, there are profound commitments and obligations to the neighbor, to the other. And Jesus expands the neighborhood to include outsiders and enemies. It is a worldview that allows Jesus to die for the sake of others, even for enemies.

But central to Jesus' proclamation is the certainty that the power of God to transform, the bring life out of death, to make all things new, is active and at work in the world. God is shaping things, bending the arc of history toward particular outcomes. And if the power of God is at work in the world, then surely miracles must at least be a possibility.

Possibility and control are two very different things, and I suspect that much modern skepticism around religious miracles has roots in issues of control. Think of televangelists who offer healing for a donation or, more commonly, the notion of being healed if you pray hard enough or have sufficient faith. This is less about the power of God moving in surprising and life giving ways and more about formulas to harness such power. And one thing the Bible makes clear over and over is that the God of Jacob, the God we meet in Jesus, will not be harnessed. The God of Sinai and of the cross is radically wild and free.

But if God will not be harnessed, what does it mean to follow this Jesus who could trust his very life to the power of God to make new and give life? Surly it requires, at the very least, being open to the power of God at work in the world. And I'm not always open to such things.

Very often the Christian faith practiced by Presbyterians and other Mainline/Oldline denominations can be a mix of "believing in Jesus" and trying to follow some of his teachings (at least those we like). But this often includes no expectation that anything other than our own devices are involved. We're not inclined to claim any ability to control the power of God. We seem to think that only power involved is the power we possess. At least I often seem to operate from such a point of view.

And that is why I'm wondering about repentance, about a change of mind.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Sermon: The Story Continues

John 21:1-19
The Story Continues
James Sledge                                                                                       April 10, 2016

When I go to the movies, I’m one of those people who sit there as the credits roll. I’m not sure why. Sometimes I’m actually looking for something such as song that was in the movie. Other times it’s just what I do. And every once in a while, something pops up after the credits, a blooper from the filming, an epilogue, a teaser about a sequel.
Something similar happens in today’s gospel reading, though given the way we use scripture in worship, reading a few paragraphs each Sunday morning, it’s easy to miss such things. But go back a page or so and you’ll see it. John has told us of the empty tomb and the risen Jesus speaking to Mary Magdalene early on Easter morning. Then we read of Jesus appearing that night to the disciples, and then appearing again when Thomas, who missed the previous appearance, is present.
Then the gospel seems to conclude saying, Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and through believing you may have life in his name. The End. Let the credits roll.
If you’d been listening to an audio version of John’s gospel in the car, you might well turn it off at thispoint. You might leave during the credits and completely miss our reading for today. Jesus reappears, after the credits, after the gospel is over, after the story has been told.
This reappearance has sparked much discussion as to why. Had some problem arisen in the congregation for whom John is originally written? Might some of them have thought that Peter was unfit to be a leader because of denying Jesus on the night of his arrest? Had a different author attached this new ending? Scholars debate such questions endlessly, and they are interesting questions. But I wonder if they miss a bigger point.