Sunday, July 31, 2016

Sermon: God's Inner Turmoil

Hosea 11:1-11
God’s Inner Turmoil
James Sledge                                                                                       July 31, 2016

Church hymnals are usually organized into sections that cover topics, themes, special seasons, and so on. It’s helpful for people who plan worship services. If there is a baptism that Sunday, you can go to the section on baptism and look at the different hymns. Same with the Lord’s Supper.
When the Presbyterian Church came out with a new hymnal in the early 1970s, someone had the bright idea simply to put all the hymns in alphabetical order. Predictably, most people hated it. When you’re using the hymnal to plan the Christmas Eve service, no one wants “Angels We Have Heard on High” at the very front of the hymnal, “What Child Is This” at the very end, and other carols scattered throughout. You want to open to the Christmas section and find all of them in one spot.
The Presbyterian Hymnal in our sanctuary came out in 1990, once again featuring sections for Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and so on. There are section for baptism and the Lord’s Supper and a section of Psalms. Right after the Psalms are about sixty hymns organized around the persons of the Trinity. That makes some sense. If you want to find a hymn about the Holy Spirit, you can turn to that section and see what’s there. Or you can find hymns about Jesus.
But I’ve always had a problem with how they labeled the Trinity sections. As I mentioned, there’s “Holy Spirit” and “Jesus Christ.” No problem with those. But then there’s a section simply labeled “God.” God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit; but that’s not the Trinity. The Trinity is God the Father (or Mother perhaps), God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. It’s not God and then something else called Jesus and the Spirit. Each person of the Trinity is truly God.
This idea that Jesus and the Spirit are somehow subordinate to God is probably the most common version of something called “functional Unitarianism.” It’s not true Unitarianism because we say that we believe in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But in practice, functionally, we often speak of God and then, on a slightly lower level, there’s Jesus and the Spirit, important but not really God.
I blame Greek philosophy for this problem. That may be overstating things, but Greek, philosophical notions of God predominated in much of the Greco-Roman world before Christianity ever showed up. And these Western ways of thinking didn’t always fit easily alongside the non-Western understanding of God from Judaism and most of the Bible, the understanding shared by Jesus and his followers.

Sermon video from July 24: It Starts with Water

On the day before Vacation Bible Camp began, this sermon was done as an extended children's time. The Creation story was told using "Godly Play," with the sermon itself spoken to the gathered children.

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Sermon: It Starts with Water

Genesis 1:1-10, 26-27, 31-2:3 (Matthew 3:17-17)
It Starts with Water
James Sledge                                       July 24, 2016, start of Vacation Bible Camp

When I first became a pastor at a church in Raleigh, North Carolina, a more experienced pastor was very kind to me. Her name was Wylie, and she gave me a lot of good advice. She also invited me to be a part of group of pastors who gathered each week to discuss Bible passages for upcoming sermons. But before we talked about the Bible, we socialized, ate lunch, and talked about being pastors. One day, Wylie told us a story I’m going to share with you. I think I’ve shared it before, but it’s a good story and worth hearing more than once.
Wylie had gone to a big gathering of pastors from all sorts of denominations and traditions. She found a seat at one of many tables, and there the pastors introduced themselves to one another, telling their denomination, the church they served, how many members it had, and so on. One pastors asked the rest of them, “What day do you take off?” Because pastors work on Sunday, we often take a weekday off instead.
The pastors answered saying, “I take Monday off,” or “I take Friday off.” But one pastor thought taking any day off was a bad idea. “I never take a day off!” he shouted. “The devil never takes a day off.” My friend Wylie replied to him, “God does.”
That’s what the story we just heard says. God finishes with all the work of creation, and then God rests. God takes a day off. What’s more, God gives everybody the day off. The seventh day, the Sabbath, is “hallowed” the Bible says, which means it’s set apart for special purposes. And the main purpose is rest.
But we humans are not always good at resting. I recently read a story in the newspaper about people not using all their vacation time, working instead of resting. And even when we do vacation, we don’t always rest. We cram our vacations with travel and theme parks and activities, so much so that we’re often worn out when we return.

Monday, July 18, 2016

To What End?

The world would be a bigger mess than it already is without rules. Imagine if no one stopped at intersections. It's bad enough because a few don't follow the rules of the road. But rules are not an end in and of themselves. They are in service to some larger purpose, or at least they should be.

"Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy." This commandment or rule is one our society has disregarded to its detriment. The need for sabbath, for rest, is part of what makes us human. Many of us are frazzled and burnt out because we've not realized this, because we've imagined that this rule does not apply to us. This commandment is not simply some arbitrary rule. It is meant to safeguard our humanity.

Sabbath keeping as a rigorous, religious requirement seems to have developed during the time when the Babylonians carried off much of Jerusalem's population into exile nearly 600 years before the time of Jesus. In exile, with their Temple destroyed, Sabbath keeping became a way for the Hebrews to maintain a distinct, Jewish identity. The rule may have always been there, but during the Exile, it came to occupy a central place in what it meant to be a Jew.

The Sabbath rule is also one where Jesus regularly found himself in conflict with Jewish religious leaders. Most often it was when he healed someone on the Sabbath, but on at least one occasion the issue was Jesus' disciples plucking heads of grain on the Sabbath day, grabbing a bite on the move, if you will. But this constituted "work" and so was against the rules. But Jesus, who clearly kept the Sabbath himself, reminds his critics that the Sabbath (like all God's rules) is made for the sake of humanity, and not the other way round.

Many of us are prone to thinking of rules as constraining us and getting in our way as opposed to things that help us. The actress Katherine Hepburn supposedly said, "If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun," but I wonder if that observation doesn't arise from the sort of rule keeping that has forgotten the true purposes of the rule.

Religion seems particularly prone to confusing our rules for the larger purposes behind them. (We're certainly not the only ones with this problem. The Second Ammendment seems to have become an object of worship for many people in our day.) Perhaps this is because we are unsure of what our larger purposes actually are?

A favorite theology professor of mine was fond of saying that the true purpose behind all divine activity in the Bible was "true communion with God in true community with others." That sounds like as good a synopsis as any, and that raises the question of how our rules and required ways of doing things serve that larger end.

Very often we in religious communities seem far more interested in preserving our ways than we do in serving those larger purposes. We live in a time when true community is desperately needed, when our society is fractured into camps, each eyeing others with suspicion, fear, and sometimes hatred. My own, more liberal branch of Christianity often imagines that this is not a problem for us, and it's true that we are not as prone to certain sorts of rule-keeping legalism. Yet we often look down on what we suppose are "less sophisticated" versions of the faith, and we sometimes assume that our carefully thought out, high-brow forms of worship are inherently better.

For that matter, Christians of all stripes are depressingly prone to worrying more about their worship style than they are about true communion with God or true community with others.

I suppose I find myself thinking of such things because the congregation I serve is currently doing some intentional looking at who we are and what we are about. I have some real hopes for this process. Most of all, I hope we can find ways to focus more on how things we do as a church help create true communion with God and true community with others.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Sermon: Famine

Amos 8:1-12
James Sledge                                                                                                   July 17, 2016

We’re celebrating the baptism of Aemon Cashin today, something I love doing. It’s the same sacrament whether for infant or adult, but most baptisms here are young children. Along with the cute factor and joyfulness that goes with such baptisms, they also highlight our covenantal understanding of what it means to be the Church.
Our baptismal covenant mirrors Israel’s covenant with God in the Old Testament. Israel’s treaty or agreement, like other covenants, had expectations of all parties involved. God would be with Israel, help her and protect her. Israel, in turn, would abide by the Law, a gracious gift meant to create true community.
There is similar covenant language in the sacrament of baptism. We make promises to turn from sin and toward Jesus, to follow him as faithful disciples. We recite the Apostles’ Creed and make covenant commitments to one another. Parents “promise to live the Christian faith, and to teach that faith to (their) child?” We as a congregation promise “to guide and nurture Aemon by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging him to know and follow Christ and to be a faithful member of his church?”[1] And God embraces Aemon, making him a brother of Jesus
In baptism, parents, child, congregation, and God become covenant partners. Down the road, Aemon will get to decide if he wants to be part of this covenant and make his own profession of faith, but God is fully committed to Aemon already, just as his parents are fully committed to him before he is really able to love them back.

The biblical notion of covenant with God was rooted in the covenants or treaties common to the ancient Middle East. Larger kingdoms or empires often entered into covenants with less powerful kings or chieftains, promising to come to their aid in exchange for tribute, providing soldiers when the bigger kingdom went to war, and so on. If the smaller kingdom failed in its obligations, the larger likely would punish it, even take it over entirely. If the larger kingdom failed to keep its obligations, the smaller might seek alliances with another.
Israel could describe its relationship with God in such treaty terms, at times sounding almost contractual. Be good and get God’s blessings. Break the rules and get punished. Some Bible verses say just that, and you can find people in our day who say the same. Be good, believe the correct things, and God will bless you and admit you to heaven. Break the rules and God will punish you, maybe eternally.
But Israel does not picture God solely as a powerful king with whom they have a treaty. The covenant is also relational with God seen as spouse, shepherd, or loving parent. This loving God may punish Israel for failing to keep covenant, but it is always in hopes of restoring the covenant, of reconciliation and restored relationship.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Spiritual Famine

I've grown weary of preaching in response to the latest shooting or terror attack. What am I to say? What word of light to declare in the face of such darkness, what word of hope in the face of shootings, racism, and hatred that seem pervasive?

Beyond my own vocational travails, what witness is the Church called to give in such times? What are we to say, do, and be that someone offers hope? My Presbyterian traditions says that one of the primary purposes of the Church is "the exhibition of the Kingdom of heaven to the world." According to the prayer Jesus gave us, this kingdom is a world where God's will is done. How are we to show this to the world?

I wonder if part of our problem isn't that we've forgotten what this kingdom is all about. I sometimes lament the fact that Matthew's gospel uses the term "kingdom of heaven" because I think it is misleading to those who already think that kingdom parables such as today's gospel passage are about getting into heaven. In truth, Matthew uses the term in place of Mark's "kingdom of God" because he is a good Jew who prefers to speak indirectly of God. We can still do the same thing today. When someone says, "O thank heaven," we don't think they are thanking a place.

Someone who had no knowledge of Christianity and carefully read the four gospels would probably be surprised to learn that one stereotypical form of Christianity involves beliving in Jesus in order to get to heaven. Jesus says virtually nothing about going to heaven but a great deal about a kingdom that is coming to earth. And he spends much time training his followers in the ways of this kingdom. These ways include radical love that extends to enemies, an embrace of weakness and powerlessness, a call to self-denial, a rejection of violence, and all manner of other behaviors that are at odds with much of the world. It is no wonder that the first name for the Jesus movement was "The Way."

But that Way has degenerated into belief to such a degree that the Church rarely shows the world a radically different way. Christian faith has become as fractured and divided as most everything else in our world, and much of this division is over what to believe rather than how to act, how to live. And when we worry about actions it's often about other people's rather than ours. But how are our actions, our Christ-like lives and Kingdom-shaped communities showing the world a better way?

I've been working on a sermon for next Sunday based on the prophet Amos' warning about a coming famine of the word of God. I wonder if we aren't fulfilling this prophecy, not because God has withdrawn from us but because we won't listen. We simply won't do the things Jesus tells us to do.

There's a famous quote attributed to Gandhi that he may never actually have said. "I like your Christ but I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ." Regardless of its accuracy, it surely is an apt description of "Christians" who are starved for the actual Word of God, who have somehow never heard Jesus calling them to follow him on the peculiar and radical Way that he lives and teaches. No wonder the Church is struggling in our culture. It is in the depths of a spiritual famine.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Sermon: Plumb Lines, Measuring Sticks, and Idolaty

Amos 7:7-17 (Luke 10:25-37)
Plumb Lines, Measuring Sticks, and Idolatry
James Sledge                                                                                                   July 10, 2016

I recently stumbled upon the website of an innovative, urban, Presbyterian Church in another city. Its homepage said simply, “Recess. Closed for Sunday Worship: July 3 & 10,” with a link where you could “Learn More.” There it spoke of  “an active pause… essentially, a sabbath for the system.”[1] There were online liturgies available, but no church.
I was intrigued, and so I showed it to a group of colleagues at a pastor lunch a few weeks ago. One pastor, who shall remain nameless, immediately said, “O how wonderful to be closed on July 3rd and not to have to worry about worshipping the flag.”
The connection to July Fourth had escaped me, perhaps because I’ve never been part of a church where people in uniform march the flag around during worship. I’m thankful to live in this country and happy to share my thanks in worship, but hopefully we never forget that we gather to worship God, that our ultimate allegiance is to our Lord, Jesus Christ.
I hope that, but letting other things get between us and God seems to be a chronic human problem. We don’t usually construct altars or golden calves, but we have all manner of things we honor, serve, or give loyalty to other than God. It is not unusual for them to be well ahead of God on our priority lists. And by definition, whatever sits at the top of the list is our god.
These gods may be security, wealth, power, nation, family, our political views, or simply self-indulgence. Regardless of the god, people will try to enlist their religion for support. People who worship money may say, “God wants you to be rich.” Racists, homophobes, and Islamophobes imagine a god who hates those they hate. More subtly, those of us who worship at the altar of consumerism may think of faith or spirituality as one more item for our shopping carts. Jesus is not our Lord, our God, but an element of our actual faith, one which promises us happiness and fulfillment if we have enough of all the right things.
The theological term for all this is idolatry, and Presbyterian tradition has long spoken of it as a fundamental human problem. The Presbyterian Book of Order includes this line in its list of the key themes of our theology: “The recognition of the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny, which calls the people of God to work for the transformation of society by seeking justice and living in obedience to the Word of God.”[2] People sometimes imagine that faith is a private, personal thing, but our tradition never has.
Jesus didn’t either. After all, Jesus said he came to proclaim the Kingdom of God, and there’s nothing private or “spiritual” about that. The ways of this kingdom were a stark contrast to the kingdom of Caesar, and so it’s no surprise that Jesus eventually drew the ire of Roman authorities.
In our scripture today, the prophet Amos draws the ire of Israel’s authorities. He says nasty things about Israel’s rulers right there in the national cathedral. It’s not like the National Cathedral in DC. It’s more like Westminster Abbey in England, a place where kings were crowned, a place built by a king. The high priest is clearly on the payroll, and he orders Amos out, telling him, “Never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom."
The priest’s faux pas, his idolatry, is too obvious. The king’s sanctuary? The kingdom’s temple? Really? Isn’t it God’s?