Monday, November 28, 2016

But What Does God Think?

 Some of my more evangelical Facebook friends regularly post calls to praise God. A few of them engage in those manipulative posts declaring, "If you love Jesus you will share this." Psalms of praise are often cited, and the need for us to worship God and to pray is highlighted.

Some of these same people regularly share posts that attack Muslims as vile and evil, or that imply people on food stamps are addicts and social leeches. And so when I read today's passage from Isaiah, I couldn't help wanting to fling it at them. "When you come before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile... I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates."  See, God has no use for your worship when you don't care about the oppressed and the poor and weak.

But just when I'm feeling a little smug, I remember what I do for a living. I'm a pastor, and many of the members at my church see my primarily in worship. They evaluate me primarily by how well I preach and lead worship. Ultimately, I have to attract people to our worship services for me to be "successful" as a pastor, and I keep a wary eye on the weekly worship attendance figures.

My uneasiness is only amplified by the fact that we've entered Advent. I can get away with some non-Christmasy sermons for the first two Sundays, including some more somber sounding Advent hymns. But as the big day draws near, the carols will show up, along with familiar choir pieces and Bible verses that people love. It will culminate in some of the largest worship crowds of the year on Christmas Eve. It will be beautiful and moving with candles and carols and the story of Jesus' birth. Hopefully, God will be pleased.

I'm not suggesting that God will take any offense, but I do wonder about Isaiah and other prophets' critiques of worship that is divorced from social justice. I wonder about faith that doesn't somehow reshape and re-form us so that our concerns and priorities begin to mirror those of Jesus.

Modern American Christianity has some impossible expectations of worship. It is supposed to inspire, entertain, feed, comfort, uplift, and more. Church leaders spend a great deal of time trying to manage these expectations and provide worship that is both theologically appropriate but still sensitive to what people need and/or expect. But how often do we ask ourselves what God thinks of our worship? More to the point, how often do we ask ourselves what God thinks of us as worshippers?

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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Sermon: Walking in the Light

Isaiah 2:1-5
Walking in the Light
James Sledge                                                                           November 27, 2016

Well, we have arrived. On the secular calendar, at least, we are officially in the Christmas season. The Thanksgiving parades have passed by with Santa at the tail end, and no one can complain that it’s too early for Christmas or decorations at the mall.
When I was growing up, this was the time when genuine excitement about Christmas would kick in, when my brother and I would start to dream about what gifts would make for a perfect Christmas morning. We were raised in the church and attended Sunday School most every week, so we knew all about the “real” Christmas story with Mary and Joseph and a manger. It was a warm and beautiful story, very much a part of our family’s Christmas traditions, but that story had almost nothing to do with the excitement I felt as Christmas neared. If Christmas was going to change my life, make it better or happier in some way, it wasn’t going to be because of Jesus. It was going to be because of Santa, or at least some of his “helpers.”
I’m reasonably sure that my experience was not that unusual. Jesus may be “the reason for the season,” but most of our hopes at Christmas are not really about Jesus or Christian faith. We’re not much expecting all that much from Jesus or faith in this season. If Christmas is going to provide any magic, it will likely be through some moments of goodwill, the warmth of nostalgia, families gathered together, and the joy of children.
These last two help explain why not many will be here if you come to worship on Christmas, one of those dreaded years when it falls on a Sunday. Many, and I don’t exclude myself, would just as soon spend the morning at home with loved ones, enjoying the delight of children opening their gifts, or simply remembering such delight as we open our own.
Now if you’re worried that I’m about to get on a rant about how we’ve lost the real meaning of Christmas or how we need to de-commercialize it, you needn’t. I’m all for simplifying and toning down the conspicuous consumerism. But I think that we invest so much into the Christmas season because it speaks to some deep longings that we have, longings for goodwill among people, for families and communities to be united, for us to know once more the joy and hopefulness and even naiveté of children.
Such longings are hardly exclusive to Christians which is one of the reasons that Christmas appeals to many outside the Church. For a moment, the world can feel a little kinder, a little more joyful, a little more hopeful. For a few weeks, we can get caught up in something and at least imagine a slightly better world.
Perhaps that’s the best we can hope for. Swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks sounds wonderful, but what are the chances? The prophet spoke these words close to 3000 years ago, and since then we’ve just gotten better and better at war and killing. Maybe we should be happy for a little Christmas cheer and goodwill and leave it at that.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Surely Jesus Didn't Mean That

Surely Jesus didn't really mean that.  Or surely he didn't mean it to have any sort of general application. You've likely heard such responses to Jesus words from today's gospel reading where he says, "Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." There must have been some particular problem with money and possessions for this one fellow whom Jesus addresses. Except Jesus also adds, "How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!"

Most of us think of wealth as a blessing. At Thanksgiving we will offer thanks for our nice homes and overflowing dinner tables. But Jesus speaks of wealth as a curse. Surely he didn't mean that.

Over the centuries, we Christians have become skilled at figuring out reasons why Jesus didn't really mean what he said. We feel little compulsion to love our enemies; we don't even want to love our neighbors, certainly not as much as we love ourselves. We're reasonably sure that we can serve God and the acquisition of wealth. Never mind what Jesus says. And we have absolutely no use for the crosses Jesus insists we pick up and carry.

Especially for Protestants, we got so focused on faith, often understood as little more than "believing in Jesus," that we nearly forgot about being disciples. We domesticated Jesus to the point that we can believe in him while ignoring most of what he says. This despite his Great Commission that speaks of making disciples by teaching people "to obey everything I that have commanded you."

One of the ways we domesticate Jesus is by insisting that faith should not be "political." But the basic claims of Christian faith are blatantly political. They do not belong to any particular political party or ideology, but they demand a loyalty to the ways of Jesus over and against the ways of earthly powers. If Jesus is king then Caesar is not. If Jesus is my Lord, then all earthly powers and allegiances lose any ultimate claims to my loyalty and service.

If Jesus has special concern for the poor and marginalized combined with deep misgivings about the wealthy and powerful, then I must share his point of view. And this will demand that I speak out against the wealthy and powerful who do not work for the good of the "least of these," who do not seek justice and mercy for all people. If Jesus is my Lord, I must join him, and the tradition of the prophets in which he stands, to speak truth to power.

Or I could just believe in Jesus and ignore pretty much everyone he says. It turns out that is a lot easier.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Trump Is President/Jesus Is King?

I've seen a number of Internet memes that are variations on this theme, "No Matter Who Is President, Jesus Is King." I won't argue with the sentiment. This coming Sunday many Christians will celebrate Christ the King, and the phrase "Jesus is Lord" is one of the most ancient and basic Christian faith statements. But what exactly does it mean so say that Jesus is King/Lord?

I could add that we Presbyterians, as part of the Reformed/Calvinist family, are really big on the sovereignty of God. No matter how things may seem, God is ultimately in charge, in control. But again the question of exactly what this means and how it works remains.

But back to the Internet memes, it isn't always clear what comfort is to be taken from those posts about Jesus as Lord or King. Some seem to imply that we shouldn't worry because whatever happens in this life/world doesn't matter very much. Others seem to say "Don't worry. Jesus has got this." Perhaps other reassurance is intended. I don't know, but I know I don't much care for either of these two options.

The very fact that Jesus entered into human history, healed those who were sick and hurting, and had compassion for their earthly difficulties shows that God is concerned with history, with plain old, run of the mill, human existence. Jesus teaches us to pray that God's will be done here on earth. To say that Jesus is Lord can't possibly mean that earthly events have no real importance.

But if we go to the other end and speak of Jesus' lordship meaning, "Everything will be okay," we have to deal with countless times in history when Jesus' lordship and God's sovereignty provide no deterrent to unspeakable evil being committed. The Holocaust, millions killed by Stalin, the evils of slavery, and the genocide of Native Americans barely scratch the surface of the horrors humans have committed. That Jesus is Lord/King clearly doesn't mean that things turn out well for everyone. But does this lead us back to option one? Hopefully we can say something more than, "Life is crappy, and then you die. But then it gets better."


If you look up the gospel reading for Christ the King Sunday, it features Jesus on the cross. Not exactly most people's image of a king. Surely this idea of a crucified King has to influence our notions of his kingdom, yet I'm not sure that has often been the case. More often we've imagined Jesus as a king who looks little different from earthly ones other than the addition of divine powers. In other words, we've turned him right back into the sort of king some who rejected him 2000 years ago wanted him to be.

Following similar logic, the Church has often been an imitator of human empire and power. Roman Catholics, who've been around since the days of Roman emperors, have buildings and vestments and ecclesiastical structure that would fit right in with an empire. We Protestants, because we've only been around for 500 years or so, have more modern and sometimes democratic trappings of power. We Presbyterians have a somewhat federalist looking denominational system which springs in part from our theology, but is also about power and control.

In the recent election, evangelicals largely supported Trump, not because he was one of them, but because he was seen as a way back into power. Many liberal Christians are in depression over Trump's election, at least in part because it means a loss of power. Both evangelical and liberal Christians say we follow Jesus, but neither of us is much enamored with his way of exercising power. Neither or us in much inclined to suffer for following Jesus.

I say this in full awareness of my own middle-class, white privilege where it generally possible to avoid suffering if I choose. I know that is not true for others, and I do not say to people who are oppressed or persecuted to embrace it as the way of Christ. I am speaking to those on the left and the right who relish the power we have and who dread the thought of losing it.

There is a line in the opening constitutional statements of my denomination speaking on the Church as the body of Christ that reads, "The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life." I think that articulates very well the way of Jesus and what it would mean to have Christ as King and Lord. I love the theology it expresses. But on some level, my paycheck is dependent on not living this out. And therein lies the problem.

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Sunday, November 13, 2016

Sermon: Agents of the Gospel

Luke 21:5-19
Agents of the Gospel
James Sledge                                                                                       November 13, 2016

I attended what was then known as Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, now called Union Presbyterian Seminary. Like me, most of my classmates were Presbyterian, but a sizeable minority came from other traditions. One of these was a young pastor already serving on the staff of a large church in a denomination that didn’t require its pastors to have a seminary education, but encouraged it.
One day in class he shared something that was creating a faith crisis for many in his congregation.  A young child had a serious, life threatening disease. The congregation had rallied to support the family, providing meals, caring for the other children so the parents could spend time at the hospital, and so on. They had also organized a prayer campaign. People signed up to ensure that someone was praying for this child at all hours of the day.
The members of this church put a lot of stock in prayer. They used phrases like “prayer warriors,” a term you rarely hear in congregations such as ours. Many of them were convinced that if they prayed faithfully and diligently, truly believing and trusting in God, the child would be healed. But the child was getting worse.
When my classmate shared this, the church staff had begun to discuss how they were going to handle the child’s imminent death. What were they going to say to those who had responded to the call for prayer warriors, who had trusted that God would intervene? How were they as the pastoral staff going to help people hold onto faith when an article of that faith had let them down?
I suspect that most of us have had, or will have, moments where the things we count on fail us. Even for those who are not particularly religious, there are objects of trust that are presumed to provide happiness, meaning, fulfillment, hope, etc. People may or may not equate such things with God, but when they fail to produce what was promised or hoped for, it can create a kind of faith crisis.
I’m sure there are people here today who had hoped, even trusted, that America was on a path to becoming more tolerant and welcoming of diversity. We had elected our first black president, twice, and would soon have our first female president. Many were sure that America had made too much progress to elect someone who engaged in openly misogynist behavior and whose rhetoric inspired racists. But for those with such faith, Tuesday’s election was devastating, threatening deeply held articles of hope and faith.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

What the Day Reveals

I did not see that coming, "that" referring to last night's election results. Like many, I assumed that Donald Trump had too many negatives to overcome. I assumed that Trump's relatively open embrace of racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry would turn off too many voters. I have relatives in small-town South Carolina, so I'm well aware that racism is alive and well, but I did not think its appeal so broad.

I don't think that everyone who voted for Trump is a racist, misogynist, or bigot. There are many factors that influenced voters, but still, Mr. Trump's campaign seems to have awakened a more public form of bigotry. People are saying publicly things they've kept to themselves before. It turns out that we - speaking of America - are not who I thought we were.

This turn of events has exposed a myth too often trusted by liberals and liberal Christians, a belief in progress. We've hoped that racism, sexism, and other bigotries would gradually fade in the face of progress. Simply discourage overt acts of racism, sexism, etc. and they will eventually die off on their own. We need merely wait them out. But progress, like all idols, fails to keep its promises. Progress can never end racism, can never bring the kingdom.

In the end, only God can set the world fully right, but in the interim, followers of Jesus are called to live in ways that bear witness to God's new day. Our waiting for God is an active waiting that shows others the hope and the shape of that day. From the time of Jesus this has meant living in ways that reflect God's rule and so are in conflict with the rule of Caesar, empire, and every power that oppresses or exploits or fails to seek the good of the least and most vulnerable. Our waiting requires a willingness to take up crosses, to give ourselves, and even to suffer, in order to embody the ways of Christ in a world that lives by different rules.

Today, on this day I did not expect, I find myself wondering what it means to embrace the way of Jesus at such a moment. I'm just beginning this process, but I offer these provisional thoughts in hopes that they will be helpful to some.

Reach out to those who are filled with fear, dread, terror, uncertainty, and more in the wake of this election. Jesus was most often to be found among those who were on the receiving end of power, and we should be, too.

If your image of America has been shattered, grief, lament, and even anger are appropriate. The Psalms are filled with anguished and angry lament, and many of us need to name and own the loss that we are feeling. At the same time, anger cannot turn to hate. I will not imagine that Donald Trump or any political party is somehow the embodiment of evil, anymore than I will imagine that my politics are the embodiment of good. I will pray those who are hurting, and I will pray as well for President-elect Trump and for all those who govern.

For people like myself and churches like the one I serve, do some deep soul searching. How often have we preferred being comfortable to living the gospel? How often have we been content to enjoy positions of racial and economic privilege? How often have our stances against hate, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. been little more than opinions shared with the like minded, stances that cost us nothing, stances that trusted in progress or the passage of time and refused to go near a cross?

Finally, what does following Jesus look like at this moment? What steps does Jesus call us to take, what concrete actions does he require of us if we are to be his disciples in the world? How will we embody the hope of God's new day, a day ruled by love, in a moment when so many seem to be driven by fear?

I certainly have my own fears at the moment, but as a Christian, I also have hope that newness and life can arise out of loss and death. And so I will keep looking and listening for where and how Jesus is calling me and calling the church to live in ways that declares to the world the possibility and hope that God is indeed making all things new.


A prayer for today from Father Richard Rohr:

All vulnerable and merciful God,
We do not know what is ours to do.
We feel scared and alone today.
We are tired of taking sides.
We cannot hold any more fear or anger or rejection.
And yet we know so many of our friends feel unheard and unwanted.
Help us trust that no feeling is final,
And that YOU will have the full and final word.
If You are indeed a Suffering God, may we hold this suffering with You for those who voted for Hillary Clinton, for those who voted for President-elect Donald Trump, and for the many who have felt excluded by our politics in the many ways that we do indeed exclude.
We offer ourselves as best we can to hold this Love outward and open toward all, just as You never cease to do toward us.
We believe You are praying this prayer through us.

Monday, November 7, 2016

The Kingdom and the Course of Human Events

Today and tomorrow will be anxiety filled for many people. As we await a final conclusion to the election campaign, will any new bombshells shake things up? Will our candidate, our party, prevail? Will we be rejoicing or cringing in horror when final outcomes are announced Tuesday night?

This particular campaign has occupied us in ways I don't recall previous ones doing, both captivating and horrifying us. Clearly there are important issues at stake. Still, I wonder if we don't sometimes overstate potential impacts. I wonder if we don't imagine the events that captivate and horrify us to have more earth shattering import than they truly do.

I have written previously of how I find it impossible to reconcile Christian faith with the stances taken by Donald Trump. I do think that those Christians who've made supporting Trump an article of their faith have done tremendous damage to the Christian "brand." But this does not mean that any sort of ultimate outcomes are riding on Tuesday's results. I think it unlikely that the apocalyptic scenarios imagined by some on the right or the left will materialize.

This is not to underestimate the human capacity to create genuinely terrible scenarios. Even a cursory study of history will reveal all manner of terrors that humans have wrought, but that doesn't mean that everything that scares us has such potential.

I will vote tomorrow and have my own worries about the consequences of the election results, as well as of the campaign itself. Yet as a Christian, I worry that we are overly fascinated with human capacity while nearly oblivious to that of the Divine. Surely there is some measure of myopia here.

In today's gospel reading, Jesus tells a parable that can be a little unnerving. Someone, clearly an important and powerful individual, sent out invitations to a fancy banquet, but when all was made ready, many of those invited has more pressing matters. Some of their excuses are pretty lame, but some sound legitimate. (I think my honeymoon would win out over anyone's party.) But the host makes no distinctions. People are herded in from the streets to fill the party, and the host vows that none of those originally invited will be allowed in.

This parable becomes especially problematic when we turn it into an allegory with the host playing the role of God, a God who is easily offended and remarkably unforgiving. But parables rarely work well as allegories, and this one isn't telling us anything about the character of God. Rather it is making a point about the all surpassing importance of the kingdom, of God's new day.

We humans tend to be caught up in our own events, some of them trivial and some of them  important. But followers of Jesus must always have an eye on something bigger. Just how this "something bigger" intersects with our daily living can be an interesting and difficult negotiation, but if we do not have some sense of what God is up to, we will end up attaching ultimate importance to what we are.

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Sunday, November 6, 2016

Sermon: Trick Questions

Luke 20:27-38
Trick Questions
James Sledge                                                                                       November 6, 2016

When I was 13, my brother and I discovered the comedian, George Carlin. We laughed at his seven words you couldn't say on television, when our parents weren’t around to hear. But I was also intrigued by his take on growing up Catholic. I knew nothing about Catholics or Catholic schools, but Carlin's stories about questioning and challenging the teachings of the church resonated with my own, early teenage questions and doubts.
Carlin told of creating elaborate scenarios to trip up the priests and make them look foolish. One story involved the requirement that Catholics receive communion at least once between Ash Wednesday and Pentecost.  Not doing your “Easter duty” was a mortal sin.
“Father, suppose that you didn’t make your Easter duty, and it’s Pentecost Sunday, the last day. And you’re on a ship at sea, and the chaplain goes into a coma. But you wanted to receive. And then it’s Monday, too late. But then you cross the International Date Line.” No doubt the priests loved it when little George Carlin raised his hand in class.
The Sadducees in today’s gospel engage in something similar, though the stakes are a lot higher. They devise an elaborate scenario to trip up Jesus and make him look foolish, but this isn't a game. They see Jesus as a threat, and they desperately want to discredit him.
The Sadducees were a small, wealthy, conservative faction of Judaism. To them only Torah the Books of Moses – the first five books of our Bible – were scripture, and they found no evidence for resurrection there. By contrast, the Pharisees and Jesus considered most of what we call the Old Testament scripture, and they found support for resurrection in the prophets and other writings. However, this resurrection wasn’t about going to heaven. It was a hope for a new age when all would be made new, and the dead raised.
These Sadducees have watched as Jesus evades the traps set for him by other opponents, but now they take their turn. No doubt they are a little surprised that this country rabbi, an uneducated rube from the backwoods of Nazareth, has successfully matched wits with religious experts. But they have Moses on their side. They have Torah. I imagine that they are snickering a bit as they lay out a George Carlin like scenario.