Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Reverence, Awe, and Call

"Go away from me, Lord!"  So says Simon Peter in yesterday's reading from Luke. A lot of us would love to meet Jesus in the flesh and can't imagine trying to shoo Jesus away if we ever did. Peter says it's because he is a "sinful man." He is a rough and tumble fisherman, an occupation assumed to be filled with irreverent, irreligious sorts. Perhaps that's why Peter says, "Go away."

Of course the prophet Isaiah says something similar when he encounters God in the Temple. "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" Isaiah is no uncouth fisherman, but he responds pretty much as Peter does.

In the Bible, there is a great deal of reverence, awe, even fear about encountering the Divine. People thought that God's holiness did not mix well with humans. There's even a story about a man struck dead when he reached out and touched the Ark of the Covenant, despite his only wanting to keep it from falling. The presence of God is a wild and dangerous thing.

Perhaps there is something primitive in this ancient reverence of God, one that insisted on special preparations before getting too close. For Jews, this meant not even speaking one of their most treasured possessions, the personal name of God, YHWH.

Most of us are much more casual in our approach to God. For some this may be because of a deep and abiding relationship. For others, could it be a sense of equality with God? Most of us create God in our own image at times, and why would we have much awe for such a God.

Still, Jesus' response to Peter is very different from what Isaiah experienced. Then a seraph took a coal from the altar and touched it to Isaiah's lips to purify him. But Jesus simply says to Peter, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." With Jesus, the "otherness" of God still exists, but it feels more easily bridged. There is no cleansing ritual, just a call to follow.

As a pastor, I've rarely witnessed the sort of awe and reverence shown by Isaiah or Peter when they encounter divine presence. I'm not sure what that means. Have we rarely encountered God? Is our experience too wispy and ethereal to seem real? Or, as some have suggested, have churches trafficked more in "talk about God" than actual "experience of God?"

One place that I do see a great deal of deference, of keeping God at a safe distance, is in the very topic of this gospel passage. Jesus' call to share the good new, to catch people, literally terrifies many Christians that I know. They don't know their faith well enough, some say. They are still exploring and figuring things out and not ready to speak to anyone about their faith. Similar objections are often raised when people are asked to teach or lead a project or guide some aspect of the church's work.

I wonder if there is not a connection between our caution about Jesus' call and our rare experience of awe and reverence for the divine. Has our tendency to think of faith in intellectual terms, ideas to learn and understand, shackled us in ways we don't realize?

In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "For faith is only real when there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience." Simon Peter has been wowed by Jesus' presence prior to his obedience, but that is not always the case in the gospels. Routinely Jesus simply calls as he passes by, and some drop everything and follow. They get wowed later.

I wonder if the call to follow Jesus is not the more typical opening for us to encounter God's presence and power, and we get to be wowed later. Of course that requires taking a chance. Or, as Bonhoeffer said, it has a cost.

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Sunday, September 25, 2016

Preaching Thoughts on a Non-Preaching Sunday

Charlotte, NC is my hometown, and so I've watched the events unfolding there closely. I also have friends there, along with many more Facebook friends. That means I've seen a deluge of reactions on social media from people who live in or around Charlotte, as well as posts and comments from people all over the country.

There is much to be troubled by in the events of this past week, but I don't know that the conversations on social media are all that helpful. I would include my own contributions in that judgment. In fact, social media seem to be contributing to the divide around issues of race, police actions, and more.

There certainly are plenty of thoughtful posts online that do a good job of discussing the issues, but even these tend to prompt a stream of comments that frame everything as us versus them, good and bad. Individual people disappear into the group they are associated with, and then are labeled as good or bad with little in the way of nuance. Protesters, police officers, city officials, the media themselves, white, black, and more are depicted as monolithic entities. They are called thugs, biased, trigger-happy, untruthful, racist, and lots of other terms I won't repeat.

All of this makes me wonder if people, at least those of us waging dueling posts and comments on Facebook, really see one another. Or do we only see sides? And once we slot someone on a particular side, we simply assign to them all the behaviors we attribute to that side.

In today's gospel reading, the division of rich and poor is highlighted, but the parable Jesus tells runs counter to the way people typically talk about such groups. We are told the poor man's name while the rich man is anonymous. Not the way that usually works. And the rich man's wealth seems not to be a blessing, but rather a curse.

The parable also implies that the rich man never really noticed poor Lazarus. No doubt he saw him when he passed him in the street. But he was just another poor man. The rich man only notices Lazarus after they've both died, and then he sees Lazarus as someone who might assist him. The parable doesn't say whether the rich man simply assumes that that's what people like Lazarus are for. But I'm left wondering if the rich man ever really sees Lazarus, the person, at all.

The labels we use for each other are often excuses not to see. They make life easy and simple for us by allowing easy judgments and easy decisions. Which of course means that our judgments and decisions are very often wrong.

I wonder what could happen if we learned to see, really see, the other.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

On Not Noticing: White Privilege - White Blindness

A parable that Jesus tells begins this way. "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores." (Luke 16:19-31)

This is all we are told about either man prior to their deaths. Lazarus ends up in "Abraham's bosom" while the rich man is tormented in Hades. Nothing is said about what accounts for their different fates other than these words spoken to the rich man. "Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony." There is also a note about how "Moses and the prophets" should be more than enough to prevent the fate suffered by the rich man.

Without this note about Moses' Law and the prophets, the rich man's only sin would seem to be his wealth. Jesus actually says as much in Luke 6:20-26. "Blessed are you who are poor... But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation." That fits exactly with what happens to Lazarus and the rich man. But if the Law and the prophets could have provided some warning, there must more to the parable.

Lazarus' location seems to be the key. He lay right there at the rich man's gate. He was aware enough of the rich man that he long for the scraps from his table. But the rich man apparently took no notice of Lazarus. The Law and the prophets required helping the poor, feeding the hungry, caring for those in need. But this rich man passed by every day without even noticing. Nothing in the parable suggests he was a particularly cruel man or that he acted out of great malice. But he did not help. Because he did not see?

Jesus' parable draws on a division of rich and poor that is still with us. But if Jesus were walking around telling parables today, I wonder if he might choose a different division, one of white and black. Surely Jesus would never say, "Woe to you who are white." But then again, why would Jesus condemn everyone who happened to be rich? In Jesus' day, most simply would have been born into that state.

The point of Jesus' parable seems to be about not noticing, not seeing. And that is a huge issue for those of us born white. Many of us assume that the way we experience life is how everyone experiences it. When someone speaks of "white privilege" we cringe. What privilege? We've not experienced any special privileges; we've just lived our lives. And because for so long whiteness defined life in this country, we have felt right in our views. But we've never really seen what it is to be black. We can be as blind to that as the rich man was to the experience of Lazarus.

I've not needed much convincing that white privilege is a real problem in America, but that doesn't mean I truly see. I really cannot imagine that if my car broke down a police officer who stopped to investigate might even consider shooting me. So when that does happen, surely there must have been something other than blackness involved. Surely some action made the shooting more likely.

I recently read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It moved me more than any book I've read in a long time because it opened my eyes. By that I mean that it allowed me to see as another does, to experience a terrible fear and dread and anger that I have never known in my lifetime of middle class whiteness. I wonder if I didn't experience something akin to what the rich man felt when he actually saw Lazarus for the first time (if in fact he ever did; read the parable yourself and see what you think).

The mostly white Presbyterian Church I grew up in was generally sensitive to the needs of the poor. Despite many failures, it has tended toward more progressive stands on race and civil rights. But that does not mean we see. Far too often, we have assumed that if we just weren't overtly racist or prejudiced, everything would get better and be fine. All the while we were blind, oblivious to our own privilege, not noticing the plight of our neighbor.

But the news assaults our blindness. Regularly we are confronted with evidence of what we have not seen, of what we have walked right by without noticing. Some are clinging to the blindness, like addicts clinging to their addiction and insisting there is nothing wrong with them. But more and more of us are beginning to see. At least I hope so. God, I hope so.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Pessimism, Idols, and Church Decline

I've always thought of myself fundamentally as an optimist. I won't claim this is something that emerges from a deeply held faith. It's just how I am. Maybe it was how I was raised. Maybe I inherited it from my family. It's not a Pollyanna, everything is okay sort of view, but it is a sense that somehow, in the end, things will turn toward the best.

But I have to confess that such a view has become more difficult for me, and if my original, optimist bent did not emerge from my faith, the current, more pessimistic turn certainly challenges my faith. When I look at the horrible loss of life in Syria, the resurgence of openly racist views in Amerian politics, or the increasing income disparity in our country, it is difficult to thing things are going well. It is also easy to wonder where God is in all this.

Terrible situations in the world are hardly new, and it is helpful to recall this. Today's morning psalm speaks of "destroying storms," clearly referring to something other than actual weather. It also says, "I lie down almond lions that greedily devour human prey; their teeth are spears and arrows, their tongues sharp swords." There are many who could easily pen the same words today.

Yet the psalmist still speaks optimistically of such forces falling into the traps they constructed for others. I don't know if this is a statement of hope, or if it is rooted in events that have already transpired. Has the psalmist experienced God acting to set things right? Or does the psalmist simply trust that this will indeed occur?

My own, Christian faith is in a God most fully known in Jesus. This God is most often to be found in the midst of human suffering. This God speaks of being manifest in the poor, the hungry, the prisoner, the sick, the stranger. And this Jesus clearly expects that his followers will continue to be found in the midst of suffering. He clearly expects that his followers will live at odds with the ways of the powerful and wealthy. Yet the Church, especially the American Church, very often looks little like the Jesus whose body it claims to be.

My recent, more pessimistic view of the world has challenged my faith, but I wonder if that faith is in a false god, an idol. If so it is an idol that the Church has helped construct. It is a god who aligns easily with American materialism, consumerism, and individualism, all of these at odds with the message of Jesus. It is a god who hangs out with the rich and powerful, and who wants you to be rich and powerful. It is a god of trite promises to those with faith and not much concerned with a just and equitable society. It is a god who says "Blessed are those who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, but screw those who are disadvantaged or who don't work hard enough to overcome all their disadvantages."

The Church I grew up in, a church that too often proclaimed an American, capitalist god, is in decline, perhaps in large part because a lot of people have lost faith in such a god. American churches of all sorts and types and theologies are shrinking, loosing members at an accelerating rate. The younger they are, the less likely Americans are to be part of any church. That might seem one more reason to be pessimistic, but it may be one place where I can feel hopeful. Perhaps the decline of the Church I grew up in will mean the death of the idol it helped create. And perhaps, somewhere in the aftermath, we can rediscover the living God known in Jesus.

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Monday, September 12, 2016

The Mirror That Is Donald Trump

Our church congregation recently utilized a sophisticated survey instrument designed to measure energy and satisfaction, reveal strengths and weaknesses, and give us a better understanding of just who we are. After the results had been tabulated, our congregational leaders received a three hour long presentation of findings that walked us through charts and graphs and interpretations of the data. It was a very positive report, describing a healthy congregation, doing well and with a great deal of potential to do greater things. Of course we have our weaknesses; every congregation does. And I found the discussion of those most illuminating.

The report listed a number of performance areas such as worship and music, governance, morale, education, spiritual vitality, conflict management, and more. We were ranked above average in most of them but had two very low scores. We scored in the 21st percentile in an area we already knew was one to work on. When we saw this score we began discussing ways address it, suggesting ideas that might help us improve.

Then came our other low score, in the second percentile. That's correct, a 2. This would seem to be an area where we would work even harder to improve than the previous area, but the response was entirely different. Rather than suggestion on ways to improve, the discussion focused on why the score had to be wrong.

The first low score had produced no question about the score's validity, but the second score really unnerved us. It said something about us that we didn't want to hear, and so the survey instrument must be wrong. We eventually moved past this initial, knee-jerk reaction, although some still don't fully embrace the survey's findings. From my standpoint as a relatively new pastor (here just over four years), the findings are spot on, mirroring my experience of the congregation when I first arrived. But the findings are too out of sync with the congregation's self-image, too disturbing for some.

In the long run, I think the information from the survey will be a great benefit to us. We may not like the information, but we will make better decisions and plans if they are based in reality rather than in a more pleasing but false picture of ourselves.

The success of Donald Trump's presidential campaign has provided our nation with a similar bit of helpful information, though it may be even more unnerving than that low score our congregation received. Trump's success has defied all manner of convention. It began with calling Mexicans "rapists" and move on to calls for banning Muslims from entering the country. At every step of the way, pundits and experts and lots of everyday folks assumed the campaign could not last. How could it with its regular appeals to fear and bigotry. Far too few Americans shared such views for Trump to garner the sort of support needed to win the nomination, much less a general election.

As Trump moved through the primaries and captured the nomination, people had to keep reassessing how this could be so. His success flew in the face of a self-image of America that many people held. You can hear it in the "This is not the America I know" statements that have been made following yet another statement by Trump that would seem to be so far outside accepted norms that it would surely doom his campaign.

Struggling to explain Trump's success while holding onto a vision of a tolerant, post-racial America is getting more and more difficult, not that people aren't trying. It reminds me a bit of our church leadership trying to hold onto its image of our congregation while making sense of that second percentile score. And just as it's helpful for our congregation to grapple with a  self image that doesn't mirror reality, the same may be true of that America we thought we knew.

Trump's campaign success has placed a mirror in front of our faces, a mirror that reveals an image many of us don't like. I'm not suggesting that all of his supporters are racists or bigots, but clearly many are. Many others are perfectly willing to tolerate Trump's open flirting with white supremacists and others who seemed completely out of the mainstream not so long ago. And if we are willing to look in the mirror and not turn away, we may learn some hard truths that allow us to make better decisions and plans than we would by holding onto a more pleasing but false picture of ourselves.


When the Supreme Court invalidated much of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, it did so in part because the America of 2013 was much changed from nearly 50 years earlier. The election of an African American president surely pointed to a very different racial landscape, and clearly things are different. They have changed and largely for the better, but the hope of many that racism and bigotry would simply fade away over time was overly optimistic. 

I have my own, anecdotal evidence that says as much. I grew up in the South and still have occasion regularly to visit small town South Carolina. There I've witnessed college-educated, pillar-of-society sorts routinely use the N-word and explain their disgust for President Obama and his family as being because "They're just not like us." But perhaps my encounters are aberrations. Perhaps they don't represent a significant portion of the population, even in South Carolina or other parts of the deep south. But then along comes Donald Trump, appealing directly to this presumably fringe population and winning.

Perhaps Trump is an aberration, or the product of some perfect storm of middle and working class angst, economic uncertainty, dislike for Hillary Clinton, and more. Perhaps. But I think we would do well not to turn away from the glimpse of ourselves Trump's candidacy has provided. It is a gift, and like that unwelcome finding in the survey our congregation took, it may even guide us to a better future.

For those of us who find the view in the mirror of Donald Trump disturbing, perhaps it will jar us out of our complacency. Simply not being  overtly racist ourselves is not enough. Many of us in mostly white, mainline congregations are especially culpable here. We quote Martin Luther King and preach tolerance; we're proud of ourselves for such tolerance, even as we worship in our mostly white churches and live in our largely white suburbs. Sometimes we even manage to enjoy our white privilege at the same time we're feeling smug about how open and tolerant we are.

But Trump has given us a mirror. Hopefully, we will make good use of the disturbing picture we've seen.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Sermon: Street Parties & Country Club Problems

Luke 15:1-10
Street Parties & Country Club Problems
James Sledge                                                                                       September 11, 2016

I don’t know how common it is now, but at one time, big steeple churches often included  a country club membership as one of the perks for their senior pastor. I suppose they reasoned that because many of them were country club sorts, they wanted their pastor to be able to join with them.
I’m not a golfer, and so I’ve not spent that much time around country clubs other than the occasional wedding reception. The closest I’ve ever come to a country club membership was joining local pools back when our girls were younger. And I don’t remember much about that process because my wife handled all that.
The pools we belonged to weren’t anything exclusive, but you still had to be a member. There was some sort of application process and once you joined you had to pay the annual dues to maintain your membership.
My guess is that joining a country club involves a similar, if a bit more selective, sort of process. There is an expectation that members will meet certain standards, and so you may have to be sponsored by an existing member, provide references, talk with a selection committee, and so on. How much you get vetted depends on how exclusive the club is.
Church congregations sometimes get compared to country clubs, for obvious reasons. You can become members, and once you do there is some expectation that you give financially, pay annual dues as it were. Some congregations feel exclusive, even if there is no formal vetting process for prospective members. And like real country clubs, many congregations once had rules against minorities joining or women serving in leadership roles.
Typically, church congregations use informal, often unintentional standards to maintain whatever level of exclusivity they expect. And so congregations can usually be labeled by income levels, race, education, and more. Such things may not have been conscious choices initially, but over time, they become standards that are enforced to some degree.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Sermon: A Death in the Family

Jeremiah 18:1-11
A Death in the Family
James Sledge                                                                                       September 4, 2016

I’ve recently been reading a new book that’s getting a lot of buzz, The End of White Christian America. It’s a fascinating read, especially if you’re a bit on the wonkish side. It is helpful in understanding a great deal of what is happening in American society these days, everything from Black Lives Matter to the current, bizarre political season. But before delving into all of this, the book opens with a tongue-in-cheek obituary.
 After a long life spanning nearly two hundred and forty years, White Christian America— a prominent cultural force in the nation’s history— has died. WCA first began to exhibit troubling symptoms in the 1960s when white mainline Protestant denominations began to shrink, but showed signs of rallying with the rise of the Christian Right in the 1980s. Following the 2004 presidential election, however, it became clear that WCA’s powers were failing. Although examiners have not been able to pinpoint the exact time of death, the best evidence suggests that WCA finally succumbed in the latter part of the first decade of the twenty-first century. The cause of death was determined to be a combination of environmental and internal factors— complications stemming from major demographic changes in the country, along with religious disaffiliation as many of its younger members began to doubt WCA’s continued relevance in a shifting cultural environment.[1]
The obituary continues, as they typically do, with some of the notable moments from the deceased’s life and then concludes,
WCA is survived by two principal branches of descendants: a mainline Protestant family residing primarily in the Northeast and upper Midwest and an evangelical Protestant family living mostly in the South. Plans for a public memorial service have not been announced.[2]
White Christian America has something of mixed legacy. It gave us American democracy but also gave us racially based slavery, the Civil War, and racial divides that persist to this day. As noted in the obituary, Presbyterianism is one of its children, and we are just beginning to process the death of our parent and figure out what it means for us.