Sunday, May 29, 2016

Sermon: Limping between Gods

1 Kings 18:20-39
Limping between Gods
James Sledge                                                                                       May 29, 2016

If you were among the participants in the weekday Bible study on the book of Revelation, you may recall that it is a badly misunderstood work. It does not predict the end of the world. It is not meant to be frightening but to encourage people who were already frightened, who lived in a time when it was difficult, even dangerous, to be Christians.
Revelation is addressed to seven churches in what is today Turkey. Each church’s strengths or weaknesses are mentioned, their need to hold fast to their faith or to deal with some problem. But the seventh is addressed differently. “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
The writer of Revelation seems to have a special disdain for the church at Laodicea. Embrace the faith or don’t. None of this half in, half out business. And in their lukewarm ways, the Laodiceans seem to mirror the Israelites in this morning’s Old Testament reading.
Like Revelation, Old Testament books such as 1 Kings are also misunderstood, if for different reasons. They tend to be viewed as historical works, reports of “what happened,” but 1 Kings is primarily theological reflection. It seeks to understand how God’s chosen people, rescued from slavery in Egypt and brought into the land of promise, could have ended up with Jerusalem and its Temple destroyed, the Ark of the Covenant gone, people carried off into exile in Babylon. And even when they finally returned home, there was no return to the glory days of King David. They were an unimportant, insignificant speck in some other nations’s empire. How could that be?
The writers and editors of 1 Kings look back over Israel’s history  in an effort to give an answer. And so while they do tell a history, questions of “what happened?” are always secondary to questions of “Why?”

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Sermon: Waiting and Praying

Acts 2:1-21
Waiting and Praying
James Sledge                                                                           May 15, 2016 – Pentecost

Imagine for a moment that some significant challenge faces your department at work, a group you’re a part of, maybe even your church congregation. Maybe your company’s sales have been hurt by online shopping. Maybe an organization you belong to wants to find a new way of fundraising, but doesn’t know where to start. Maybe your congregation is worried about Millennials not going to church and wonders how to respond.
Regardless of what sort of challenge it is you imagine or actually face, what are some of ways you might go about meeting the challenge? Perhaps form a task force or ad hoc committee? Maybe hire a consultant? Perhaps give the congregation an online survey to provide data for strategic planning.
In the weeks following the very first Easter, the little congregation of Jesus followers faced huge challenges. Many of the 120 or so of them still weren’t entirely sure what the resurrection meant. They had asked Jesus if he was going to restore Israel to power, but he said such things were not for them to know. They were, however, responsible for being his witnesses throughout all the world. Quite the challenge for a little congregation of 120.
Almost none of them had any leadership experience. Many of them had lived in the same place their entire lives. What did they know about going into all the world? Time to form a task force or hire a church growth expert. But they don’t do any of those things. In fact, by my typical way of thinking, they don’t do much of anything. They wait, and they pray.
Over the years, first as an elder on a church session and later as a pastor, I’ve had numerous opportunities to be a part of church or presbytery committees and councils dealing with problems large and small. And though it pains me to say it, I’ve often found myself frustrated by others in these groups who wanted to stop, to wait, to pray.
By nature I tend to be impatient. On top of that, I’m the product of a culture that values production, efficiency, and accomplishment. And it is hard to be productive or efficient or accomplish anything when you are waiting, when you are praying. Yet the explosion of the Christian faith all over the Mediterranean world, surely one of the great accomplishments of history, happened only after waiting and praying. The work was not something that little congregation could do by itself. It could only happen with the power of God, the Holy Spirit working through them, a story that begins at Pentecost.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Sermon: A Way of Deliverance and Liberation

Acts 16:16-34
A Way of Deliverance and Liberation
James Sledge                                                                                       May 8, 2016

If you were in worship last week, you heard Diane preach about when Lydia met the Apostle Paul at Philippi. Paul had gone out from the city on the Sabbath, looking for a place of prayer. There he met Lydia, and she and all her household were baptized. She then opened her home to Paul, and presumably he and his companions stayed with her during their time in Philippi.
If you were in worship last week, or on any number of other occasions when Diane preached, you heard her close our worship by speaking of Christians as a people sent into the world. She charged us to go out into the world saying, “Consider that wherever you go this week, God is sending you there.”
I wonder if Paul discovered something about this sort of sending in the events of our scripture for today. The story is really a part of that reading from last week were Lydia met Paul and on beyond today’s passage. The story begins when a vision convinced Paul he was sent to Macedonia and its leading city, Philippi. Initially, the story played out along the lines Paul likely expected. He probably set up shop in the city to ply his trade, traditionally thought to be tentmaker, where he would talk to those he met in the marketplace.
On the Sabbath, Paul had gone out to find that place of prayer. There along the river just outside the city, Paul spoke to the worshipers he found there. Lydia was moved by the Spirit, the Church gained a new convert, and Lydia opened her home to Paul.
 But then, on another day, Paul headed to the same place of prayer where he had met Lydia and met someone else. More to the point, an unnamed slave girls seems to have met him. The story says that she had a spirit of divination, and because of this possession, she recognizes Paul’s connection to God. She senses the Holy Spirit in him, and begins to follow Paul and his companions around, announcing, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation,” or “deliverance” or even “liberation.”
Perhaps Paul enjoyed the attention at first, especially when he learned about her how people paid her owners (literally “her lords”) for oracles she would speak. Surely her words would confer a bit of prestige on Paul with the locals. But after days of this, Paul was getting more and more annoyed. Curiously, Paul never seems to consider that he might be sent to this slave girl, to proclaim to her a way of deliverance or liberation. Yet when Paul can stand her no more, he heals her in a fit of pique. “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And immediately it was so.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

By Their Fruits

Growing up Presbyterian, I got a good introduction to the Bible, and so I knew about the Ascension at a fairly young age. However I was totally oblivious to any celebration of a Day of Ascension, which happens to be today (in case you haven't yet learned of it as I eventually did). But in keeping with my upbringing, I'm reflecting on the gospel reading from Matthew in the daily lectionary rather than the Luke passage that is the gospel lection for Ascension of the Lord.

Interestingly, both readings conclude their respective gospels. But if Luke ends with Jesus telling the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the Spirit, followed by his ascension, Matthew concludes with Jesus sending the disciples out via what is often called "The Great Commission." These words are often cited as a call to evangelism, but such evangelism frequently strikes me as paying scant attention to the content of Jesus' commission.

A great deal of evangelism in America has focused on "accepting Jesus," and on "believing in him." There are certainly New Testament passages that seem to emphasize faith or belief, but this Great Commission in Matthew is not one of them. There is nothing here about believing and being saved. Instead Jesus says, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you." The emphasis is on making disciples, something done by baptizing and by teaching people "to obey everything that I have commanded you."

This call to obedience is how Jesus urges his followers to build his Church. That won't happen from signing up believers or adherents, but by making disciples or followers. And those commandments Jesus says these new disciple must obey include all that fun stuff about loving enemies, not retaliating against those who injure you, not swearing oaths on Bibles or anything else, the impossibility of serving wealth and God, not judging others, denying oneself, forgiving others over and over and over. And the list goes on and one.

Within all those commands, Jesus speaks more than once about a trees and their fruit. Trees, and people it seems, are known by the quality of their fruits. Consider the things the church in America is known for. The list is a mixed bag. It includes feeding the hungry, volunteering at homeless shelters, doing beautiful and uplifting worship, operating health clinics, settling refugee families, and more. But it also includes very public fights over everything from sanctuary carpet colors and worship songs to questions about whether to ordain women or gays. It includes preachers calling for violence against Muslims and carrying concealed weapons for self-defense. (See Jesus' command about "all who take the sword...") It includes "bathroom bills," disingenuously labeled "religious freedom bills," and every manner of discrimination and hate based on race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

If you were able to take a poll of all non-Christians in America, asking them what "fruits" they associated with Christianity and the Church, I wonder which sort of fruits would top the list. My fear is that they would not be sort Jesus taught. That suggests to me that we need to re-embrace the Great Commission. I'm not talking about trying to "evangelize" people. Our fruits are already publicly proclaiming our faith, for better or worse. I'm talking about seriously embracing  Jesus' call to teach each other to "obey everything" he has commanded. If we did that, we'd never have to convince anyone about Jesus.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Anxiety, Gap Year, and Sabbath

I assume that by now you have heard about Malia Obama's college choice, and also that she plans to take a "gap year" before attending. Both have been widely reported, including articles on the topic of gap years prompted by Ms. Obama's decision.

(Total aside: Why do reputable publications such as The Washington Post have a "Comments" section accompanying their articles on this or any topic? They seem to serve no real purpose other than empowering trolls. And the fact that we currently have a presidential candidate who sounds like a comment section come to life only adds to my concern about a fourth estate that has lost its vocational bearings. But enough venting for now.)

Gap year, or at least the term, was unknown to me until recently. I suppose there have long been students who chose to hike across Europe or work for a year prior to college, but my admittedly scant knowledge on gap years suggests this is a bit different. The sort of gap year engaged in by well-off suburbanites is likely not available to those of more modest means. Then again, the very idea seems a response to the over-scheduled, overly competitive, enrichment filled lives of many well-off, suburbanite youth.

The church I serve sits in a community that epitomizes well-off suburbia. My own children were grown prior to my arrival here, but here seems an only slightly amplified version of where they went to high school. That means that it feels slightly more tense and anxious . The pressures to measure up, excel, get into a good school, etc. are more intensified in this tense region surrounding our nation's capital.

Enter the gap year. In some versions, such years are no doubt as over-scheduled and competitive and enrichment-filled as was middle and high school. But at a more fundamental level, surely the gap year is an attempt to take a break from all that, from all the activity and competition and anxiety.

Understood thus, a gap year strikes me as a version of Sabbath. Because Sabbath became so connected to worship, a great many people, whether or not they are church-goers, seem unaware that Sabbath was originally about rest rather than worship. It was a command to stop, to cease. And it applied to everyone, even one's farm animals. If ever there was a piece of anti-anxiety legislation, surely the Fourth Commandment is one. (or Third Commandment, depending on your tradition).

I've told the following story so many times I've likely shared it here, but I'm an over-sharer when it comes to good stories. I heard this one from a colleague who related her experience attending some sort of ecumenical, clergy gathering. As with other other lines of work, pastors will "talk shop" when you put them together. On this occasion they began discussing what day each took off, a peculiar concern for pastors who typically "work" on Sunday.

As those gathered debated the relative merits of Friday versus Monday, one pastor objected to the very topic itself. "I never take a day off," he said. "The devil never takes a day off!"

To which my colleague replied, "But God does." (If you don't get her retort, read the first Creation story from the Bible's opening, Genesis 1:1-2:4.)

I've never fully understood it, but religious people can be remarkably anxious. Especially for Christians, who claim that nothing, not even death, can separate us from God and God's love, such anxiousness seems totally at odds with our faith. If God is indeed sovereign, as we Calvinists love to claim, then how could the world possibly spin out of control just because I took the day off? Never mind what the devil does or doesn't do.

The notion of Sabbath insists that life, in all its intended abundance, cannot occur in a state of constant anxiety. God commands a "gap day" for each week to break our tendency to pursue endless cycles of anxiety. Our culture has become particularly practiced at this. We have learned to quantify almost everything, and then we are able to worry about whether or not we have enough. Inevitably, we need more. We need more money, more power, better grades, more efficiency, more experiences, more accomplishments, more fitness, more sleep, more, more, more.

My old running watch recently broke and needed to be replaced. The old one told me basic info runners like to know: how far I've gone, my pace, and my heart rate. But the new watch does so much more. It has functions popularized by Fitbits and can track my steps and my sleep. If I wear it all night, it tells me not only how many hours of sleep I got but also how many of those hours were "deep sleep." And it color codes both to let me know when I'm deficient, where I need more. Now I can add anxiety about sleep to my others.

There is much in the world over which to be anxious. Neither I nor the Bible advocate a "What me worry?" attitude toward life. But our worries and anxieties are definitely something we need less of and not more. So where do we find our break, our gap, our Sabbath?

Most of us cannot manage a gap year, but we can cultivate practices of cessation, of stopping, of not measuring or marking anything. We can cultivate the spiritual practice of rest, of simply being, of Sabbath. Call it whatever you like, but what many of us need in our lives is to take a break from our culture's dominant focus on consumerism and acquisition. We desperately need a gap in such activities. God has said so from the beginning.