Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Cleansing Our Temples

Yesterday's gospel reading includes the famous story of Jesus "cleansing" the Temple. Jesus gets so riled up that he's turning over tables and flinging chairs, but I'm not entirely certain what has Jesus so upset. The only things specifically mentioned, "money changers" and "those  who sold doves," don't seem all that troublesome. They were simply accommodations to the many pilgrims who arrived after long journeys and needed an animal for sacrifice or to convert Roman coins into those used in the Temple. I'm not sure it was all that different from churches selling books or having credit card kiosks for those who no longer carry checks.

Regardless, Jesus goes ballistic at the Temple, which has left me pondering how he might react if he walked into a typical American church some Sunday morning. Are there things that would infuriate him so that he started throwing offering plates and ripping down sanctuary banners?

Jesus' upset is clearly not directed at Judaism in general. He regularly visited synagogues on the Sabbath, and while he gets into verbal tussles with some leaders over Sabbath healings and such, he never starts messing with the synagogue furniture or decorations.

This is something of an over-simplification, but the synagogues of Jesus' day gave rise to the rabbinical Judaism that is still around today. This form of the faith was more focused on following scripture and less focused on ritual. Priests and sacrifices were not a part of synagogue activities. Priestly Judaism was mostly confined to the Temple, a magnificent structure built by Herod the Great as a replacement for Solomon's Temple destroyed by the Babylonians centuries earlier. Priestly Judaism would largely disappear after the Romans destroyed this latter Temple only a few decades after Jesus caused a ruckus there.

The Church that emerged in the century following the first Easter probably looked more like synagogue than temple, but when the Church later became the official religion of the Roman Empire, it brought back more and more of the temple. Over the centuries there have been all manner of combinations and permutations. Some congregations and denominations lean more toward synagogue, other toward temple, but probably a majority feature some mix of the two.

And that brings me back to my pondering about what it was that got Jesus so worked up that day in the Temple. It must be more than helping pilgrims exchange Roman coins or buy a dove, which was happening in the courtyard and not the Temple proper. Surely it had something to do with service to God getting lost in the process of doing the rituals, maintaining the institution, and performing the required religious duties for good standing before God.

After all, this is the same Jesus who earlier taught, "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." Going through the motions, doing institutional religion just right, is not what it means to be part of God's new day.

So what must Jesus think of our synagogue/temple hybrids. Surely there is much in most of our churches that isn't about doing God's will. That many people think of "going to church" as a primary mark of faith sounds a little temple-like, a little Lord, Lord-like, to me.

How about your synagogue/temple hybrid? Are there temple-like elements that could use a bit of cleaning?

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sermon: Learning to See

2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
Learning To See
James Sledge                                                                                                   June 26, 2016

A distinctive feature of Presbyterians is that we ordain not only pastors or teaching elders, but also ruling elders and deacons. All three take the very same ordination vows, plus a vow specific to each ministry area. Because they are ordained or “set apart,” deacons and ruling elders are also required to have training and to be examined “as to their personal faith; knowledge of the doctrine, government, and discipline contained in the Constitution of the church; and the duties of the ministry.”[1]
As part of this training, elders and deacons here at FCPC utilize an online video series that includes a helpful study guide. We also ask them to write a personal faith statement, and one of those study guides provides helps for this. It lists a number of faith topics and then asks people  to complete “I believe…” statements about each one. People jot down thoughts on what they believe about God, sin, Church, humanity, scripture, and so on, the sort of things you might expect someone to include in a personal faith statement or creed. But one of the belief topics initially struck me as a bit odd: “End times.”
End times. This in the study guide of a very Presbyterian, academically oriented, video. At first I planned to skim the topic in training. I was never asked about end times when I was going through the ordination process for pastor. Surely this was something of a fringe topic.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how important the topic actually is. If Church leaders do not have a picture of what God is up to in the world, of the future that God will bring, how can we show the world the hope of God’s new day? When Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” he could do so because he had a clear sense of God’s purposes, of where history is ultimately headed.
I wonder if being able to see God’s purposes and ends isn’t a part of today’s story about Elijah, Elisha, fiery horses, and chariot. I’m thinking of the part where Elisha asks Elijah to inherit a “double share” of his spirit. That request may not be what you think. A “double share” was the inheritance typically given the eldest son who would carry on the family lineage. Elisha is asking that he be successor, the one to continue Elijah’s ministry.
Elijah gives a strange answer to this request. It depends. It depends on whether or not Elisha has learned how to see things that are not earthly but heavenly. It depends on Elisha knowing how to see beyond the sphere of human activity and glimpse the work of the divine.

Sermon video from June 19: From Despair to "Go"

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Sermon: From Despair to "Go"

1 Kings 19:1-16
From Despair to “Go”
James Sledge                                                                                       June 19, 2016

Many of you recently took a lengthy, online survey known as the Congregational Assessment Tool or CAT. Thanks to the large numbers who participated, we got a lot of great information about our congregation. The Session, the governing council of our church, received a lengthy report with all sort of statistics and charts and graphs. It’s a little overwhelming, which is why we weren’t simply given the report. It was interpreted to us for nearly three hours by people who have been trained in understanding and utilizing these reports. Even then it was a bit overwhelming, and we’re still grappling with just how to follow-up and utilize all this information in moving forward.
During that initial presentation, one of interpreters told us that he had spoken with a consultant at the company that owns and administers the CAT, who said that based on our survey data, we appeared to be a congregation  that was “sitting on ‘Go.’ ”  We have great resources and energy, a vital congregation ready to do great things but, in some ways, we are sitting at the starting gate, sitting on “Go.”
I should add that those interpreters also said that our report was one of the better ones they had seen among the many Presbyterian congregations in this area who have taken the CAT. The comment about sitting on “Go” wasn’t a “Here’s what’s wrong with you” statement. Rather it was a call for a strong, solid congregation to explore where we should go and what we should do to fulfill the potential that’s just waiting to be tapped.
But where to go? What to do? What is it God expects of us right now? These are difficult questions at any time, but we live in a time of great uncertainty and great challenges for the Church. We live in a time when the world seems to brim with hate and fear and violence. How are we to comfort and support LGBTQ sisters and brothers after an attack on what many of them consider a sanctuary, a safe place? How are we to love those who have so often been the victims of the world’s and the church’s hate?
How are we to love Muslim brothers and sisters in this time when Donald Trump and others use them a political punching bags? How are we to show Christ-like love to those who are hated and condemned because terrorists claim to be followers their faith?
What are we to do, where are we to go in response to never ending gun violence in this country? What is God calling us to be and do in the face of cold cynicism that says, “Nothing is ever going to change.”?
I confess that right now, I do not know what to do. I feel numb, dejected, at times hopeless. I may even feel a new sense of kinship with the prophet Elijah, who is so dejected and hopeless that he is ready to give up.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Thoughts and Prayers, Hand Wringing, and Faithlessness

I posted my own, brief prayer on Facebook yesterday after learning of the shooting in Orlando, and I’ve shared a few posts from others that moved or touched me. But I confess that I’m a bit tired of well-crafted prayers proliferating on my social media pages. At some point it starts to feel like a prayer competition. No doubt most these prayers are heartfelt and helpful to many, but I’ve seen so many of them in recent years.

At the same time that thoughts and prayers have begun to grate on me, I am far beyond that with American society. I grew up in “the country” and learned to shoot and hunt, but no hunter needs a military assault rifle. And in this supposedly “Christian nation,” people quote the Second Amendment as though it were sacred writ. But it’s only an amendment to a constitution that has needed correction many times over its slightly more two centuries of existence.

This “sacred” document originally approved of slavery, denied women the vote, and didn’t allow the people to elect the senators from their state. Yet many, including many who say they are Christian, quote “the right to bear arms” as though is was to be found in the Ten Commandments. They insist on “my rights” while ignoring Jesus’ command to deny oneself and to put the need of the other, even of the enemy, above oneself.

I wonder what Jesus thinks of the odd mix of “thoughts and prayers” combined with the near certainty that no meaningful measures to curb gun violence will be enacted, that “rights” matter more than people’s lives. This is what he said to his followers over their failure to heal someone in desperate need. "You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you?” What must he think of us?

But I’m not just annoyed and frustrated with other “Christians.” I feel certain Jesus includes me among the perverse. When the disciples ask Jesus why they had been unable to heal the person he answers, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you."

Sometimes I feel like I belong to the Church of the Holy Hand-Wringing. We can drone on and one, making endless statements about the need for this measure or that. We are well versed in passing resolutions that almost no one pays any attention to, but we’re not much on telling mountains to move. We’re far too rational and timid ever to say, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you…” I’m far too rational and timid.

In the New Testament letter of James, there are these words on faith. “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith, by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” I fear that my own “thoughts and prayers” are a version of “Go in peace…”

I am not at all certain how to ratchet up my faith so that it is alive. Perhaps I suffer from the same affliction I’ve often diagnosed as ailing my and other Mainline denominations. I know a lot about God, but I do not really know God in a deep and meaningful way. I do not experience God’s presence significantly enough to trust God’s ways and God’s power over the ways and power I know from living in the world.

While I’m uncertain about specifics, clearly I need to work on experiencing God, on letting the Spirit touch me and guide me. A hurting world needs something more tangible and alive than my thoughts and prayers.

Click to learn more about the lectionary. 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Preaching Thoughts on a Non-Preaching Sunday

Looking over today's passage from 1 Kings 21:1-21, it is hard to avoid connecting it to this political season. The story is about greed, but even more, it is a story about abuse of power. The story starts out simply enough. King Ahab would like to buy Naboth's vineyard which adjoins his property. He offers to give him another vineyard or to give him cash. Seems reasonable.

But there is a problem. The land is ancestral. This is more than a
matter of sentiment. In Israel, ancestral land was understood to be held in trust. This was part of the commandments Moses had given Israel. There was even a provision in the Law where ancestral land that had somehow been sold or lost would revert to the family every 50 years, in the Jubilee year.

Naboth's refusal to sell is an act of faithfulness to God's law, an act to ensure his family is provided for in the future. The story makes note of this twice, but Ahab makes no mention of it when he mopes and tells his wife of his "problem." Ahab, as king, is supposed to be one who upholds the Law. Even more, he is supposed to be a shepherd who watches over the people, especially those who are vulnerable. Yet he gives no thought to that at all.

Ahab is already wealthy. Surely that should make him able to keep his priorities straight. Without real financial worries, surely he is free to attend to the needs of his flock. But of course that is not how wealth tends to work. Very often, those with wealth seem preoccupied with it, with protecting what they have and with gaining more. There are notable exceptions, but far from freeing wealthy to care for those with less, it often makes them more callous. Clearly that is the case with Ahab.

We don't have kings in our day, but our leaders are often wealthy. Indeed as the costs of running for public office grow ever higher, our "shepherds" are more and more likely to be people of wealth. And if not, they are heavily dependent on people of wealth to provide the funds needed to run.

If rulers and leaders are supposed to be shepherds, we who are Christians have a ready made way to judge the shepherd-like qualities of office holders and those running for office. We say that Jesus is the "Good Shepherd," yet even among voters who say faith is important to them, the candidates we support and elect often look very little like Jesus. Even Bernie Sanders, who often did look more shepherd-like in his stances, has seemed to me a bit too filled with hubris and a sense of self-importance of late. And Donald Trump... Even his most ardent supporters are not likely to suggest he exhibits many Christ-like qualities.


We live in a time when income inequality is growing, when those at the bottom are struggling while those at the top are doing remarkably well. It is the sort of time that often caused Israel's prophets to blast their leaders as bad shepherds who failed to watch over and care for the most vulnerable. So how can we who follow the prophet Jesus not be appalled at the problems facing the poor in our day?

I wonder if it is even possible for us to use Jesus as a measuring stick for our political candidates. Politics has become such a strange game in our country. And the country has become so bitterly divided. Still, I wonder what sort of judgements we might make if we thought of every political office, from US President to school board member, to be the office of Good Shepherd. Would it make any difference?

Monday, June 6, 2016

Sermon video: Getting To Know God

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Uncomfortable Jesus

Today's gospel passage is one of those uncomfortable ones. Jesus first ignores a Canaanite woman's request for his help. When she is insistent, he calls her a "dog." This isn't the Jesus of Sunday School class artwork, smiling and friendly. This Jesus is unsettling.

The gospel writers have reasons for telling this story that typically get missed when it is read without its context, but that's not what I'm interested in today. Today I'm simply wondering about its uncomfortable and unsettling quality, along with our usual desire quickly to dispense with such discomfort.

There are more and less sophisticated ways of dealing with the discomfort. Some suggest that "dog" is somehow a term of endearment, which it is not. I'm more inclined to find some fancy exegetical move that's not so easily dismissed. But I wonder why we are not willing to sit with an uncomfortable and disturbing image of Jesus for a bit.

This passage is uncomfortable because it is contrary in some way to our existing pictures of Jesus. Perhaps that is simply because we've misunderstood the story. But if we move too quickly to provide and understanding that relieves our discomfort, we may simply be protecting our existing image. And that may get in the way of knowing Jesus more deeply.

All growth requires some measure of discomfort. If one is trying to grow stronger or increase her stamina, that discomfort will be physical. If one is hoping to grow emotionally or spiritually, the discomfort will be of another sort. Many of us seem easily to recognize the need for physical discomfort in pursuit of physical growth, even though it still dissuades many an exercise program. But when it comes to emotional or spiritual discomfort, we don't always make the connection.

This happens to me sometimes when I'm reading a book on faith or spirituality. I may be enjoying the book, nodding in agreement here and there, but then the writer steps on a deeply held article of my theology. Suddenly the author is diminished in my sight. Clearly he doesn't know what he's talking about. If, however, all my deeply held beliefs are unassailable, then I can never really move far from where I am, never really grow in any profound way.

That's precisely the problem that some religious authorities had with Jesus. When Jesus said something that made them uncomfortable, they immediately assumed he was wrong. It's a pose many Christians in our time assume whenever they encounter a notion about faith, a way of doing church, or an understanding of Jesus that doesn't fit neatly with what they already "know." (Today's gospel passage about Jesus and the Canaanite woman is actually part of a larger section dealing with the certainties of tradition.)

Very often when we try to get rid of discomfort - whether by explaining why Jesus didn't really insult the Canaanite woman or deciding a spiritual author is no count - it is a fearful act of self protection. Most of us have an almost innate need to defend ourselves, to preserve the identities we have constructed for ourselves, to be right. I know that I certainly do.

Interestingly, Jesus doesn't act this way with the Canaanite woman. He first says that he was sent "only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel," that, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." But when the woman challenges his analogy, saying that "even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table," Jesus does not defend his earlier statements. He applauds the woman's faith and does as she requested. An enacted lesson for us perhaps?

I wonder if Jesus' command to love our enemies isn't a way of challenging us to do some really difficult and uncomfortable self-examination. After all, our enemies are most often those we disagree with, who we fear and are most likely to react to in defensive ways. But loving them requires seeing them differently. And it likely requires painful growth of becoming different ourselves.

Jesus told is such growth would be painful. He spoke of it as dying to self. No wonder faith, even Christian faith that is supposed to be about loving God and neighbor, so often degenerates into hating those who disagree with us.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Sermon video from May 29: Limping between Gods

Audios of sermons and worship can be found on the FCPC website.

Sermon: Getting To Know God

1 Kings 17:8-24
Getting to Know God
James Sledge                                                                                                   June 5, 2016

What does it mean to be the Church? Ask a hundred people and you might get a hundred different answers. No doubt there would be a lot of overlap, but there would probably be a good deal of variety and disagreement.
What if I instead asked, What does it mean to be the body of Christ? It’s just a different version of the original question, but I suspect that it shifts the answers somewhat.
Thinking of the Church as the living body of Christ reminds us that we’re called to respond to situations and events and people in the same way that Jesus would. I always thought those old, “What Would Jesus Do?” wristbands were hokey, but they did capture a truth about Church, that we are called to see things as Jesus did and respond as he did. And because Jesus is the human face of God, that means to see and respond as God does.
Of course, a deep knowledge and understanding of Jesus, of God, especially since there’re no gospel stories about whether to raise the minimum wage, provide universal health care, or about how many Syrian refugees to take in. Yet a lot of us Christians – and this is true for liberals, conservatives, and everywhere in between – tend to picture Jesus lining up neatly with what we think are our best and noblest and most deeply held convictions. We may even have a few supporting Bible verses, but our images of Jesus are very often constructed on an incredibly small about of data.