Sunday, October 23, 2016

Sermon: Falling into God's Love

Luke 18:9-14
Falling into God’s Love
James Sledge                                                                                       October 23, 2016

Many years ago, I preached a sermon from today’s gospel reading where a couple of members helped me do a dramatic reading of the parable with just a little updating. The Pharisee became an upstanding church member and the tax collector was a drug dealer. The first change is obvious. Pharisees were the upstanding Protestants of their day. The second change perhaps needs more explanation.
Tax collectors in Jesus’ time were not civil service employees. They were part of a bizarre, corrupt system that permitted tax collectors to pry as much money as they could from those in their community. The Romans did not care how much they collected as long as Rome got the prescribed amount. Tax collectors could keep everything else for themselves. Tax collectors often used intimidation and threats to get as much as they could, often preying on the most vulnerable in society. And they became wealthy while helping out an occupying, foreign power. They made modern slum lords look charitable by comparison, and they were rightly despised.
And so in church that Sunday years ago, an upstanding church member thanked God that he was not like robbers and thieves and other sorts of low life. He certainly wasn’t anything like a drug dealer. He tithed and then some to his church. He served on committees and session and never missed a worship service if he was in town.
The drug dealer didn’t dare come up to the front of the church. He stayed off to the side and never looked up. He pulled at his clothes and hair as he said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” And you’ve already heard the parable so you know what Jesus said next.
A few days later, I got a letter (email was still fairly new) from a church members not at all happy with my sermon. Who would keep the church running, or pay my salary, he asked, if not upstanding church members like the one I had substituted for the Pharisee? It certainly wasn’t going to be drug dealers or others of that ilk.

Monday, October 17, 2016

But I Don't Wanna Descend

We modern people use the Bible very differently than did early Christians. For starters, they didn't have a Bible other than what we call the Old Testament. And what would later become the New Testament was not meant to tell the story of Jesus. The letters and the gospels were written for Christians who already knew Jesus' story. They were written to help people understand those stories better, and often they were written to address concerns in a particular congregation.

That means that when people first read the section from Luke that is today's gospel, they knew very well what it meant that Jesus "set his face to go to Jerusalem." They knew exactly what awaited Jesus there. The author of the gospel is reminding them that all the events reported in the coming pages happen against the backdrop of Jesus purposely moving toward Jerusalem and the cross.

I take it from Luke's gospel, the letters of Paul, and much else in the New Testament, that those early Christians struggled as much with the cross as I do. That's especially true in light of Jesus calling us to embrace the way of the cross, even to take up our own.

In today's verses, we learn than a Samaritan village doesn't receive Jesus "because his face was set toward Jerusalem." I'm not 100 percent sure what this means, but I assume that Jesus' focus on Jerusalem and the cross makes them think Jesus won't be doing any neat tricks for them.

I know how they feel. I want Jesus to do stuff for me, and when he's all fixated on the cross, I don't really want to be around him. I don't much care for talk of needing to deny myself, lose myself, take up my cross, and so on.

In his meditation for today, Richard Rohr speaks of "the path of descent," of how we are transformed only through the act of dying and rising. He writes, "As a culture, we have to be taught the language of descent because we are by training capitalists and accumulators. Mature religion shows us how to enter willingly and trustingly into the dark periods of life. These dark periods are good teachers."
But I keep asking Jesus to make things better for me. And I think that Jesus has abandoned me when things are bad for very long. I guess when it comes to "the language of descent," I'm a pretty slow learner.

Sermon video: Imagining Faith

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Sermon: Imagining Faith

Luke 18:1-8
Imagining Faith
James Sledge                                                                                                   October 9, 2016

What is Christian faith? How do you know if you have it? These would seem to be central and crucial questions for Christianity, church, or whatever label you use to describe those who say they follow Jesus. Yet I’m not sure we how much agreement there is on the answers.
For some, faith is mostly about belief, belief about who Jesus is and what he accomplished, belief in the truth of his teachings, belief in the veracity of the Bible, and so on. For others faith seems to be about knowledge or information. People say, “I can’t share my faith with others because I don’t know it well enough.”
Some people think  of faith as hope or trust that God is somehow guiding things toward a good outcome. This hope may be vague or specific. It may be focused mostly on personal benefits such as wealth or health or getting into heaven. Or it may be focused on the flow of history, on the “arc of the moral universe.”
For some people faith includes specific forms of piety and practice. For others, it’s simply the notion that there is a God, some higher power. And there are other possibilities.
In the reading from Luke that we heard last Sunday, Jesus makes a connection between faith and gratitude to God. And in our reading this morning, Jesus again connects faith to concrete behaviors on the part of his followers.
Jesus tells a brief parable with two characters, a widow and an unjust judge. If Jesus were telling the parable in our day, the characters might be different. But in Jesus’ day of male dominated patriarchy, widows were among the most vulnerable. As females, they did not have full legal status, and without a husband or adult son, it was difficult for them to hold onto property or possessions. They could easily end up on the streets, reduced to begging. Presumably this widow’s opponent has taken advantage of this situation.
We may be unfamiliar with the precarious position of widows in Jesus’ day, but we know all about unjust judges or other office holders who utilize their position for personal gain, with no regard for basic morality or God’s concern for the weak and vulnerable. We know all about a world where innocents suffer, where raw power preempts justice.

Oct. 9 sermon video: Gratitude, Salvation, and Generosity

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Sermon: Gratituded, Salvation, and Generosity

Luke 17:11-19
Gratitude, Salvation, and Generosity
James Sledge                                                                                       October 9, 2016

When we lived in Raleigh, NC, around twenty years ago, we often took our girls to the State Fair in the fall. One year, we parked, got out of the car, and joined the flow of humanity making its way toward the entrance. As we got close, the flow diverted like a creek parting around big rock. It wasn’t a rock, of course. It turned out to be a pair of street preachers. They were loud and animated, and everyone was giving them a wide berth while avoiding eye contact, looking back only after having passed by.
We stayed with the flow and did the same. I too turned once we passed and watched them shout at the crowd coming toward them. If I heard exactly what they were shouting, I don’t remember it, but I can make some pretty good guesses. Many of you probably can as well.
They might have been telling us we needed to repent. They might have asked if we knew what would happen to us when we died. They might have wanted to know, “Are you saved?” though in my experience, those last two are just different ways of asking the same thing. “Accept Jesus and you will be saved, meaning you’ll get into heaven.” They might even have had a sign quoting the Apostle Paul. “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
I recall this encounter at a fair because our gospel reading this morning also raises the issue of being saved. You likely missed it because the word translated “saved” in that quote from Paul gets translated differently in our gospel. Jesus says to the Samaritan, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well." But it could also be translated, “your faith has made you whole,” or “your faith has saved you.”

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Sermon: Job Description

Luke 17:1-10
Job Description
James Sledge                                                                                       October 2, 2016

Way back in my high school days, I had a wrestling coach who was something of a yeller and screamer. He had a well-deserved reputation for being tough, and for building tough, winning teams. Back in my day, high school coaches who yelled and screamed were not all that unusual, but even then, this coach had a reputation for being especially intense.
I loved this coach. He was the best coach I ever had in any sport. Most of my teammates felt the same. At practices near Christmas time, a steady stream of former wrestlers on college break would come back to work out with us. It was a special fraternity.
Coach really cared about his wrestlers despite all the yelling. Yelling was his way of pushing us to do our best, and he often said, “You don’t need to worry if I’m yelling at you. That means I love you and care about you. It’s when I don’t yell at you that you should worry.”  But I don’t recall that ever happening.
Most of us had a unique devotion to Coach, but there were those who didn’t feel that way. I recall a handful of teammates who didn’t respond well to Coach’s methods. I think that Coach’s intense manner, his yelling and screaming, only worked when you really knew that he loved you and cared about you. I had no doubt about this, but had I not felt that way, I suspect I would have experienced his yelling differently.
When I hear Jesus speak about faith the size of a mustard seed and being like worthless slaves, I cringe a bit. But I suspect those first disciples heard Jesus differently. They’d come to know Jesus intimately in their journeys with him. They’d experienced first-hand his tender care and love for them.
But hearing Jesus more like I used to hear my wrestling coach is not the only reason that my initial cringe may not be warranted. The way we read scripture in worship, a few verses ripped out of their larger context, can be misleading. Too often we hear Jesus without much connection to the larger narrative, to the ongoing story of the gospel.
I think it’s important for us to try and put ourselves in the same place as those disciples if we are to hear Jesus correctly, and that includes more than simply appreciating their close, intimate relationship with him. These disciples have also begun to understand that Jesus will soon leave them. And as they draw near to Jerusalem, and Jesus speaks of the difficult work ahead, they freak out a little. They worry that they are not ready.