Sunday, August 28, 2016

Sermon: Leaky Cisterns and God's Love

Jeremiah 2:4-10
Leaky Cisterns and God’s Love
James Sledge                                                                                       August 28, 2016

Back when I was twenty-something, the mother of a good friend suffered a heart attack. She had many risk factors including smoking, not exercising, and being overweight. But the damage was minimal, and she was back home and feeling well soon after.
I dropped by to visit after she’d been home for a few weeks. She demonstrated her new exercise bike for me, telling me how many minutes a day she was up to. She sounded upbeat as she told me about throwing out her cigarettes and the new, healthy diet she’d begun. She was actually enjoying the healthy food, in part because not smoking had improved her sense of taste.
Everything seemed to be going incredibly well. Her husband and children were very supportive and encouraging. They did everything they could to help her maintain this new, healthy lifestyle. But…
Some of you may have lived stories like this one. She began to ride the bike less and less. The diet got less healthy, and the lure of cigarettes was too much. Her family was terrified. They encouraged her more. They pleaded, cajoled, threatened, bargained, cried, and got angry. But nothing worked, and in the end, she died of another heart attack.
Imagine how you would have felt and reacted if you’d been her family member. Perhaps you don’t need to imagine. Someone you know and love has engaged in self-destructive behavior and gotten stuck in a downward spiral. Perhaps you’ve even been in a downward spiral yourself and somehow pulled out of it.
Trying to help someone in such a place can be incredibly frustrating . People caught in self-destructive, downward spirals can be impervious to the attempts of loved ones to help. Attempts to intervene are often are met with angry outbursts, and at times they seem blind to the pain they are causing to those around them. It sometimes gets so bad that relationship fail.
Israel’s relationship with God seems to be experiencing something of this sort in the time of Jeremiah. Their relationship has a long history, going back to God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah, liberation for slavery in Egypt, the Mosaic covenant given at Mt. Sinai, the growth of the nation under David and Solomon. But the relationship is in crisis. Israel is trapped in self-destructive behaviors and unwilling to listen to reason.
The prophet Jeremiah, through his close relationship with God, feels the anguish in God’s heart. Speaking for God, Jeremiah tries to get through to Israel, using a standard, prophetic tactic, a lawsuit. God brings charges against Israel in a heavenly courtroom scene, but behind the tactic is a broken-hearted parent’s inability to understand. How can Israel have forgotten all God had done for them. How can they have turned away? How can they repeatedly act in ways that are so self-destructive, so displeasing and hurtful to God?
They act as though there is no relationship. Even when things have go horribly awry with threats from Assyria and t hen Babylon, they do not cry out to God. They do not plead, “Where are you, God?” Israel seems to have amnesia, acting as though God was not there at all. In their downward spiral, the relationship has disappeared, and there is no getting through to them.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Don't Take It Literally (or historically)

There are times, especially in John's gospel, when Jesus seems to go out of his way to be misunderstood. "Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life." These words are spoken early in his ministry, long before any Last Supper, which doesn't appear in John's gospel anyway. How could anyone have made sense of this?

Over and over, John's gospel makes clear the hazard of taking Jesus literally. If you read through the the gospel, you may notice a pattern of Jesus saying things which are misunderstood when they are taken literally. This provides an opening for Jesus to speak at length on a particular subject. It happens with his "I AM the bread that came down from heaven" statement that happens a few verses before today's reading.

It happened with his "born again/from above" statement to Nicodemos a few chapters earlier, a word play that cannot be reproduced in English, or in Jesus' own Aramaic tongue for that matter. That deliberately confusing statement could only happen in Greek, which Jesus and Nic would not have been speaking. Turns out that the truth John's gospel hopes to convey is hard to find reading it literally or historically. The writer is perfectly happy to tell events that could not actually happen as told, and where Jesus says things that are impossible to understand unless you're reading the gospel from this side of Easter. His concerns are not with historical or literal accuracy.

I'm not entirely sure why this has caused such problems for modern day Christians. I suppose it grew out of an Enlightenment reverence for logic and scientific fact which imagined truth was a matter of getting all the details correct. (I'm unclear how this will change if the post-modern trend of thinking my opinion is more valid that facts continues.) Yet the Christians I've found most compelling, most Christ-like, are not the ones who are most certain of the facts (or their opinions). They are the ones who have hearts that are more expansive, more gentle, more loving than most. And while studying Scripture does help shape, refine, and direct such people's behavior, I don't think anyone's heart was ever enlarged simply by learning more facts.

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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sermon: Fear, Deep Gladness, and God's Call

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Fear, Deep Gladness, and God’s Call
James Sledge                                                                                     August 21, 2016

There’s a famous quote from writer and Presbyterian pastor, Frederick Buechner about calling, one I’ve used myself on a number of occasions. “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.” I love this idea, the notion that discovering your true purpose in life both deepens your own joy while making the world a better place. Still, the quote has always left me a little uneasy.
No doubt there is truth to it. Many people have found vocations or callings that bring them much happiness while doing good, helping others, benefitting society. But the quote still makes me uneasy for a couple of reasons. First, in our individualistic culture, the focus on my deep gladness tends to overshadow the world’s deep hunger. And second, the quote isn’t always true.
I first encountered Buechner as I explored my call to become a pastor. The quote is often trotted out at discernment weekends held by seminaries and by pastors and others advising would be pastors. However, there is another pearl of wisdom often shared by the same people. This one comes from Charles Spurgeon, a famous preacher from the 19th century, who said of becoming a pastor, “If you can do anything else do it. If you can stay out of the ministry, stay out of the ministry.”
I don’t know about you, but I detect a certain tension between the Buechner and Spurgeon quotes. The latter sounds like a warning. It suggests, to my ear at least, that being a pastor may be more difficult, less rewarding than one might imagine. Be really sure about this calling, it says. It may not be non-stop, deep gladness.
Now like any calling, being a pastor features good and bad. It can be very rewarding, although those rewards may not mirror our society’s idea of reward. But it should not surprise anyone if a calling from God isn’t loaded with non-stop joy and gladness. After all, at the very core of Jesus’ calling is the cross, a cross he prays that he might not have to endure, a cross he does not want.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Sermon: Wearying God - Finding Hope

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Wearying God – Finding Hope
James Sledge                                                                                       August 7, 2016

In spring of 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian, had been in a Nazi prison for a year because of his ties to the German resistance. Later that year, things grew more dire as the Nazis discovered his role in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, and he would be hanged in 1945 at a Nazi concentration camp just two weeks before US soldiers liberated it.
Previously, Bonhoeffer had been a prominent leader in the Confessing Church movement, Christians from both Lutheran and Reformed churches who protested Nazi intrusion into church affairs, and the church’s willing to cooperation. Bonhoeffer was appalled by a requirement to expel any church member with Jewish ancestry.
Bonhoeffer spoke out against the Nazis from the beginning, arguing publically that Christians’ ultimate allegiance was to Christ and not to the Fuhrer. Although he was not involved its actual writing, these ideas became part of the Theological Declaration of Barmen, approved in May of 1934 by the Confessing Church. Barmen is in our denomination’s Book of Confessions, and its banner hangs in the back of our sanctuary, notable for the crossed out swastika on it.
Bonhoeffer could have safely ridden out the war as a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, but in 1939 he returned to Germany, convinced that he had to be there to have any say in some dimly glimpsed, hoped for future.
Even in from prison in that spring of 1944, Bonhoeffer was thinking about the future. From his cell, he penned a letter to a colleague’s infant son who was being baptized. The many-page letter includes these words near its end.
Today you will be baptized a Christian. All those great ancient words of the Christian proclamation will be spoken over you, and the command of Jesus Christ to baptize will be carried out on you, without your knowing anything about it. But we are once again driven back to the beginning of our understanding. Reconciliation and redemption, regeneration and the Holy Spirit, love of our enemies, cross and resurrection, life in Christ and Christian discipleship – all these things are so difficult and remote that we hardly venture any more to speak of them. In the traditional words and acts we suspect that there may be something quite new and revolutionary, though we cannot as yet grasp or express it. Our church, which has been fighting in these years only for its self-preservation, as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world. Our earlier words are therefore bound to lose their force and cease, and our being Christian will be limited to these two things: prayer and righteous acts among men. All Christian thinking, speaking and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action.[1]
As he wrote his letter, churches all over Germany were still holding regular worship services, but Bonhoeffer clearly did not think such actions meant much. They had become too detached from the gospel, from the words Jesus spoke, and from the hope for that new day Jesus proclaimed –  the kingdom, the reign of God.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Visible Faith

I try not to engage in every Facebook debate that comes down the pipe, but I give in to temptation with some regularity. I have a terrible time leaving falsehoods or misunderstandings unchallenged, more so when these occur in my area of "expertise."

I recently felt compelled to comment on a "friend's" post where James Dobson vouched for Donald Trump's Christian faith. The post spoke of the disposition of his heart, which some reminded us, cannot be seen. Trump himself has used this argument in objecting to the pope's statements about him. And in these and other instances, Trump's heart is apparently supposed to negate (I was going to say "trump") his words and actions.

I struggle to understand how some Christians can defend this divorce faith from action. I too come from the Protestant tradition that emphasizes faith over works, but this emphasis never meant actions are unimportant. In fact, the model for faith and action is on display in today's reading from Acts.

Today's verses are part of the larger Pentecost narrative. After receiving the Holy Spirit, Peter addresses the crowd. He argues convincingly that the risen Jesus is the Messiah they have longed for, ending his address with a final dagger, "this Jesus whom you crucified."

The crowd is "cut to the heart" and pleads, "What should we do?" Peter tells them to repent and be baptized. In good Protestant fashion he says their former actions do not prevent God from embracing them, but that is hardly the end of the story. Not only is the call to repent a call to change (the basic meaning of the word), but we are shown the changed behaviors of the newly converted. "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and prayers." This leads to even more radical change. "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need."

The letter of James highlights this relationship of faith to works. If faith in the heart does not lead to new behavior, it is not real faith. "So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead."

The American notion of faith as a private, personal affair seems indefensible when measured against the words of Jesus and his early followers. Yet the divorce of faith from action appears equally popular among all political persuasions and church denominations. My own faith too often flits about in my brain, at times provoking the best of intentions that never take on much substance.


When Jesus began his ministry he said, "Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near." Put another way, "Change, for a new day is coming." Yet we persist in our old ways even as we profess our faith.

There's a famous quote from G.K. Chesterton that speaks to this. "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried."

I wonder what might happen if enough of us actually tried it.

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