Sunday, August 20, 2017

Privilege and the Way of the Cross

In the wake of the alt-right and Nazi gathering last week in Charlottesville, many have challenged  the "white church" to do more to combat white supremacy and white privilege. It is true that we are often "allies" in little more than name. I hope that will change, and I say that as one who has too often been a nominal ally.

And so I've been heartened by a conversation that has begun among the leaders in this congregation about what we will do. One of those leaders, Kerry Searle Grannis, was in the regular rotation to offer the "Prayers of the People" last Sunday in worship. Here is what she said. You can find it and some more of her thoughts on her blog.

Come quickly, Lord, and bring your peace. We pray for this world, for the leaders of all the nations, and especially for our own leaders. Bless them with wisdom and forbearance. Help them to seek the wellbeing of all their people, even at the expense of power. Convict them with the full weight of the responsibility of leadership—that they use it to seek peace and to avoid war.

Come quickly, Lord, and heal us. We pray for those with special needs—especially those who can not rest at home because of fear of violence. We pray for all those who fear for their safety and dignity because of the color of their skin. We pray for those injured in Charlottesville. We pray for all those in need of your healing—for those who are sick, and who mourn.

Come quickly, Lord, and empower your church. We pray for your church—give it the courage and strength to proclaim your word to a fearful, broken world. Remind your church that while so many things seem so dark, that we tell the story of a light that is never overcome by darkness. Strengthen and uphold your church to stand up for justice, to stand up for peace, to work to end white supremacy.

Come quickly, Lord and help us to repent. Forgive us for the ways we have been complacent. When we have benefited from systems that oppress our brothers and sisters, when we have looked the other way because we weren’t directly affected. For all the ways we have failed to act, both individually and collectively, to end systems that harm people of color. Fill us with your sacrificial spirit—that we may gladly give up our own comfort for the sake of our brothers and sisters who suffer.

Come quickly, Lord, and renew us. We pray for the courage to proclaim the holy truth that racism and white supremacy are incompatible with your good news of love, justice, and inclusion. We give thanks for the faith leaders who sang and preached and prayed in Charlottesville yesterday. We pray for the day to come where all people recognize that each and every human being is created in your image, and we pray that you motivate and embolden us to work to hasten that day.

For all these things and all the ways our hearts are breaking, we pray. Fill us with your spirit and send us to build your kingdom.

I also encourage you to take in today's sermon by Diane Walton Hendricks, based on the conclusion of the Joseph story in the book of Genesis. (It should be posted on the church website soon.)  She does a splendid job of examining Joseph's own journey from privilege to the bottom and back to privilege, including the seldom mentioned part where Joseph then uses his privileged place in Pharaoh's court to enslave the people. It seems to be inevitable that privilege exploits others to its own advantage. That is unless it embraces the way of Jesus, the self emptying way of the cross.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Especially in the gospel of Luke, there is a theme of the lowly being lifted up while the rich and mighty and powerful, the privileged, are brought down. In the typical human, pattern this might simply lead to new groups at the top and bottom. But in the way of Jesus, the way of the cross, those at the top voluntarily give up their privilege in order to live into God's new day, that alternative community Jesus called "the Kingdom of God."

And that brings me back around to the question of what we will do, we of privilege. How will we in this congregation live out the way of the cross? How will you?


Monday, August 14, 2017

Stumbling Blocks and Off-Course Christians

"If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me..." So says Jesus in the opening verse of today's gospel reading. The word translated "put a stumbling block" is the basis for the English word "scandalize," Indeed you could easily hear the word "scandalize" if someone were to speak the Greek word to you. Jesus seems to be especially concerned that nothing happen to trip up "little ones," which refers not to children but to those learning to follow Jesus.

I suspect that Jesus' concern arises from the ease with which followers can be tripped up. Following Jesus is hard. His teachings are themselves scandalous. "Love your enemy... Blessed are the poor... Take up your cross... How hard it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven... Whoever wants to save their life will lose it..." The path Jesus walks and also calls his followers to walk involves self-denial and sacrifice. It involves giving oneself for the sake of the other, even when that other is enemy. No wonder Jesus knew that stumbling would be a problem.

All too often, church and society have worked together to create stumbling blocks. Nations and empires almost always desire power, and church has often been willing to legitimate the power of the state in exchange for safety. And so the Christianity of the church is often mostly about morality,  personal faith, respectability, and the status quo. The scandalous life of a disciple gets traded for believing the correct things and keeping your nose clean.

If you doubt that churches and Christianity often constitute the stumbling blocks Jesus condemns, look at churches' and faith leaders' stands against the poor or preferring "law and order" to justice for African Americans mistreated by police,  White Christians have used their "faith" to justify slavery, to oppose the Civil Rights Movement, and to condemn the Black Lives Matter movement. Just last week a prominent Baptist pastor said God had authorized Donald Trump "to take out Kim Jong-un."

More recently, President Trump, who was elected with huge support among professed Christians, who has been prayed over and had hands laid on him by evangelical pastors, has found it nearly impossible to call out white nationalists whose core beliefs deny that all human beings are created in the image of God. Mr. Trump, this one spoken of in Messiah-like terms by many Christians, speaks of those protesting the presence of Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville as though they are somehow as much to blame for the death and carnage as the white supremacist who deliberately killed and maimed those standing against evil, against his decidedly unChrist-like views.

All this brings me to the banner pictured above. It is the banner of "The Theological Declaration of Barmen," written by Christians, mostly from Germany, who objected to the rise of Hitler and to German state church's willingness to embrace Hitler. The state Lutheran church actually required its pastors to swear a loyalty oath to Hitler, despite strong objections from many pastors such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Confessing Church movement that arose among the Christians opposed to Hitler produced this faith statement that is part of my denomination's Book of Confessions. The declaration insists that Christians have no Lord but Jesus, that there is no segment of life that must be given over to some other Lord.

These Confessing Christians were more interested in following Jesus than being respectable, secure, safe, or participants in the prosperity and greatness that Hitler initially brought to Germany. They would walk the difficult, scandalous path of Jesus, despite the cost. They would not be tripped up or pulled off course by their church's willingness to become the stumbling block Jesus warned of just so it could preserve the life of that institutional church.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christian should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.” I wonder what Bonhoeffer would think of the state of the Church in our day.

Is the Christian Church in America leading people into discipleship, into the difficult work of following Jesus, or is it trafficking in stumbling blocks that simply bless their members’ biases, beliefs, desires, loyalties, etc? The answer will vary from church to church, from congregation to congregation. But it behooves every congregation, and every Christian, to carefully consider whether their Lord, the one they follow, is Jesus or something else.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Sermon: Trusting God with Our Stories

Genesis 37:1-34
Trusting God with Our Stories
James Sledge                                                                           August 13, 2017

I’ve likely shared before how my father read Bible stories to me and my siblings when we were young. I can still see that big, Bible Story book with its colorful illustrations, including one from our reading for today. It showed Joseph in his “coat of many colors,”  translated a bit differently, a probably more accurately, in our verses.
(Genesis 37:1-4) Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. 2This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. 3Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. 4But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
In my childhood memories of the Joseph story, I had the impression of Joseph as a good kid mistreated by his mean, older brothers. I don’t know if the Bible Story book told it that way, or if I just assumed that Joseph, being the hero, had to be a good guy. But when you read the entire story, it’s obvious that Joseph’s brothers had good reason not to like him. And it was more than their father’s blatant favoritism, as the story makes clear.
(Genesis 37:5-8) Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers,  they hated him even more. 6He said to them, "Listen to this dream that I dreamed. 7There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf." 8His brothers said to him, "Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?" So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.
If I had ten older brothers who already hated me, I think I’d have the good sense not to tell them such a dream. Surely Joseph had to know that this would only make them madder. Perhaps he figured they wouldn’t do anything to him because he was Daddy’s favorite. But why tell them at all. If the dream were really true, they would see it soon enough. No, Joseph must have enjoyed this. He was a total brat or cruel or, more likely, both. Which probably explains why he went and did the same thing again.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Sermon: Seeing the Face of God

Genesis 32:22-31
Seeing the Face of God
James Sledge                                                                                       August 6, 2017

What a strange story marking the end of Jacob’s exile from his homeland. When he first left Canaan, fleeing the wrath of his brother Esau, he slept alone in the wilderness, fearing for his life, dreamed of a stairway to heaven, and there encountered God. To his surprise, God promised to be with him and bless him and bring him back home once more. Now, as he returns, Jacob encounters God once more.
Jacob is almost home. But the night before he arrives, he finds himself alone once more in the wilderness, yet again fearing for his life, fearing his brother Esau. He returns a rich man, with vast herds and flocks, and many servants. He also has two wives and twelve children. God has indeed been with him. God has also told him it is time to come home. But there is still the issue of Esau. Is he still angry? Does he still seek Jacob’s life?
Jacob sends messengers to tell Esau that he and his flocks and servants and family are coming, hoping to find favor with Esau. The messengers return with a report that Esau and 400 men are coming to meet them. Jacob is, understandably, terrified.
Jacob remembers God’s promises and the command to return home. He prays for God to protect his family. He also sends waves of offerings to Esau, hoping to appease him. Servants take flocks and herds toward Esau at regular intervals. Finally, Jacob sends his family and all that remains with him on ahead, leaving Jacob alone.
Jacob is alone and afraid, just like all those decades ago at Bethel. But this time there is no dream of a ramp to heaven. This night a man wrestled with him until daybreak. People sometimes speak of an angel wrestling Jacob, but as the story opens, it simply says “a man.” It soon becomes obvious, however, that this is no ordinary man.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sermon: Dysfunctional Families and a Loving God

Genesis 29:15-30
Dysfunctional Families and a Loving God
James Sledge                                                                                                   July 30, 2017

After stealing his brother’s birthright, Jacob must flee to escape Esau’s plan to kill him. He seeks refuge in the far away land of Haran, with the family of his mother. When Jacob arrives in Haran, he encounters shepherds at a well and asks them if they know Laban, the uncle  he’s never met. They do, and they inform Jacob that the young woman coming to water a flock of sheep is Laban’s daughter, Rachel. Jacob is overcome with emotion. He weeps and embraces Rachel, who runs to tell her father of Jacob’s arrival. There is a warm, family reunion, and Laban invites Jacob to stay with him.
During the midst of this family reunion, the story offers an odd note. It says, Jacob told Laban all these things, with no explanation as to what “these things” are. Does he tell of stealing Esau’s birthright and fleeing to Haran,? Does he tell of his dream at Bethel and God’s promise to be with him? The story doesn’t say. It leaves us to guess or assume.
But our story tellers surely chuckle as Jacob the trickster is himself tricked. Laban invokes  the tradition of the older sister taking priority over the younger, a reversal of what Jacob did to his older sibling. Perhaps when Jacob told Laban all these things, Laban took offense at how traditional lines of inheritance had been tossed aside in the house of Isaac.
Regardless, the dysfunction we saw in Isaac’s house seems only to get worse as Jacob joins his uncle’s family. We see a bit of this in our reading today. Jacob now has two wives, one that he loves and one that he doesn’t. Laban has used his own daughters as pawns and bargaining chips to make Jacob serve him. If Laban knows about the dream at Bethel, knows that God is with Jacob, perhaps he thinks he will benefit from Jacob’s presence. Now Jacob is bound to Laban for another seven years. And we’re just getting warmed up.
As the story continues, a bitter rivalry develops between Rachel and Leah. They vie for Jacob’s attention and to be mothers of his children. God comes to the aid of both women in times when they are ignored or oppressed. And both women give their maids to Jacob in order to produce more children. In the end, the unloved Leah will be mother to eight of Israel’s twelve tribes, with Rachel mother to four.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Sermon: The Crack Where the Light Gets In

Genesis 28:10-22
The Crack Where the Light Gets In
James Sledge                                                                                                   July 23, 2017

Jacob is alone and on the run. The con-job that stole Esau’s blessing has backfired. Now his brother seeks to kill him, and he must flee for his life. He runs toward Haran, the homeland of his mother. Presumably her family will take him in.
Jacob is in grave danger, but he is not the only thing at risk. God’s original promise to Abraham and Sarah is in jeopardy as well. When God first spoke to Abraham, saying, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you,” the country God told him to leave was Haram. But now Jacob has left the land of promise, returning to the place Abraham and Sarah had left.
This danger to the promise was spoken by Abraham a generation earlier. When Abraham was old and near death, he sent one of his servants to Haran to find Isaac a wife. But he made that servant swear a solemn oath that he would not let Isaac accompany him, would not let Isaac journey back to Haran. And so our story speaks a double sense of threat, of danger, the threat to Jacob’s life as well as the threat to God’s plans.
Jacob may be unaware of that second danger. Up to this point, the story has been silent on Jacob’s knowledge of the promise, or of God for that matter.
And so Jacob, alone and on the run, stops to rest for the night. He must have been terribly frightened. Perhaps Esau is in pursuit. And if Jacob knows about God and the promise, he likely fears that God is angry with him as well.
In the midst of the threat of his brother and possible divine punishment, sleep must have been difficult. But harried and worn out by his journey, he takes a stone for a pillow, and somehow falls asleep.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sermon: Remembering Our Stories

Genesis 25:19-34 (27:1-45)
Remembering Our Stories
James Sledge                                                                                       July 16, 2017

“A wandering Aramean was my father.” That famous line is the opening of a statement the people of Israel were to say when they offered their first fruits at the Temple. The full statement traces that wandering Aramean’s journey to Egypt, where living as an aliens, the descendants become great and numerous, were oppressed by the Egyptians, rescued by God, and finally, were brought into the good and bountiful land of the promise.
The statement functions a little like a creed such as the Apostles’ Creed. However, it is not primarily a statement of beliefs. Rather it is a claim to a particular and peculiar identity. This is who I am. This is my story. This is what it means to be this strange community of Israel that is called by God and exists only within its relationship to God.
Identity is rooted in story. Families have stories; communities have stories; cultures have stories. Many would argue that the partisan splintering in our nation today has been greatly aided by the loss of a shared story, a family story. They exist, but we’ve forgotten them, lost them, or can’t agree on them, and so, in a very real sense, we don’t know who we are. Something similar may well be happening in the Church.
Perhaps this is the ultimate goal of individualism paired with consumerism, to reduce each of us to agents of wanting and acquiring with identities built solely on what we can accomplish and get. But we have a deeper identity, a true identity as God’s beloved children. It is an identity rooted in stories of faith that need to become our story. “A wandering Aramean was my father.”
People often think of Abraham, that consummate man of faith, as this wandering, Aramean father. He fits the bill, but so does his grandson, Jacob. If anything, Jacob is the one in whom Israel sees itself. His stories are Israel’s stories. Israel’s identity is deeply bound to that of Jacob, its wandering ancestor.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Sermon: Provision and Testing

Genesis 22:1-14
Provision and Testing
James Sledge                                                                                                   July 2, 2017

I had a relative who was missing a good bit of one finger, and there was a family story about why. I don’t know that the story was true. I suspect not, but it goes like this. When this person was a child, her sibling or cousin – I don’t remember which – told her to put her hand down on a bench and he would cut off a finger with a hatchet. She complied, and he swung the hatchet. She assumed he wouldn’t actually go through with it; he assumed she would move her hand. Like I said, I doubt it’s true, but it’s a good story.
That story came to mind as I was thinking about the story we’re going to hear from Genesis where God commands Abraham to make a burnt offering of his son, Isaac. As with my family story, it seems like a story that could go horribly awry with one false move.
It is a frightening, even terrifying story. Christians have sometimes played that down by saying it prefigures Jesus and resurrection, trying to distract our attention from the horror of a story where God demands that Abraham put his son’s life in danger.
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” 3So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him.
Why on earth would God do such a thing? Surely this is simply some primitive story from a time when human sacrifice actually happened. Surely it has nothing to say to us. And yet this story was probably just a startling and frightening to the people of Israel. Israel abhorred the human sacrifice practiced by some of the cultures around them.
And while the origins of this story may well be primitive, the story as it appears in Genesis is quite sophisticated. It has a remarkable symmetry to it, a pattern that seems intended to guide our understanding. Three times Abraham is addressed and three times he responds with “Here I am.” Abraham is addressed by God, then by Isaac, and once more by God in the form of an angel. But in only one of those times does Abraham actually converse.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Sermon: Meeting God in the Story

Genesis 21:8-21
Meeting God in the Story
James Sledge                                                                                       June 25, 2017

Unless you know the book of Genesis well, you are likely unaware of a small problem with the story we just heard. When Hagar walks out into the wilderness with her meager provisions of bread and water, she also carries her child, who by the way, is in his mid to late teens. You hear a lot about helicopter parents, but I’ve never seen a mother carrying her teenage boy on her shoulder.
Now some may be thinking, “Wait a minute. The story doesn’t say a thing about how old the boy is.” True, but an earlier story that tells of the child’s birth, as well as his name, Ishmael, says that Abraham was 86 years old then. He’s 100 when Isaac is born and children were typically weaned at around three. You do the math.
Of course now that I’ve pointed out this problem, I should add that the problem isn’t really with our story. The problem is modern people who don’t know how to listen to Israel’s faith stories, our faith stories.
Like some other parts of the Old Testament, Genesis is a collection of stories, many of which existed independently before being woven together. And because the editors who do this don’t share our interest in precise history or facts, they make no effort to harmonize our story, one clearly about a very young child, with another that makes him much older.
These editors were not stupid people. They were the intellectuals of their day. But they were not writing history or recording events. They were perfectly willing to leave intact and honor stories as they received them, stories that people probably already knew anyway. They wove these into a larger fabric to help Israel wrestle with what it meant to be the people of God, especially in a time when Israel had suffered defeat and exile.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Calling God to Account

Give ear to my words, O LORD;
   give heed to my sighing.
Listen to the sound of my cry,
   my King and my God,
   for to you I pray.
O LORD, in the morning you hear my voice;
   in the morning I plead my case to you, and watch.

For you are not a God who delights in wickedness;
    evil will not sojourn with you.
   - Psalm 5:1-4

I suppose there is some small comfort in knowing that psalmists in ancient Israel strained to find God in the events of their lives. According to some authorities, the cry of lament is the most common of all the psalms. There is nothing new about looking at the world and  wondering why God does not act to set things right.

Events of recent days surely qualify. A politically motivated shooting just miles down the road from the church I serve. The horrific loss of life in a London apartment fire where the dangers were known but ignored because it was low income housing. The death of a college student detained and abused by a repressive North Korean regime that does the same to its own citizens on a daily basis. A terrorist attack against Muslims in London that may well have been "revenge" for previous terror attacks by ISIS. Yet another horrific act near the church I serve, a 16 year old Muslim assaulted and killed as she and friend walked from early morning Ramadan services, headed to IHOP for breakfast before the day of fasting began. It may not have been a hate crime, the local Muslim community is understandably on edge. I could continue endlessly. Give ear to my words, O LORD; give heed to my sighing. Listen to the sound of my cry.

I occasionally reread a sermon from the great John Claypool, originally preached following the death of his young daughter from leukemia. In it, he recounts a letter he received from his friend and fellow preaching great, Carlyle Marney shortly before his daughter died. Dr. Marney admitted to having no word for the suffering of the innocent, but he added, "I fall back on the idea that our God has a lot to give an account for." (from A Chorus of Witnesses, Thomas Long and Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. editors, page 120)

I know quite a few people of faith who would be troubled, even offended by such a statement, but I feel certain the psalmist would resonate with it. How could God be a God of justice, a God who cared especially for the weak, the poor, the oppressed, and the hurting, and let things go so awry? The psalmists ask such questions regularly. Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? (from Ps. 44)

Perhaps it is an act of faith to acknowledge that the world is not a God intends and that we feel helpless. Perhaps it is an even greater act of faith to beseech God, even demand that God rouse Godself and act, while we align ourselves with those who suffer in this world so bent on hate and destruction.

Yet all too often, we people of faith become agents of hate and destruction. From terrorists who distort and tarnish their own Islamic faith, killing in the name of God, to Christians motivated by fear who discard the teachings of Jesus in order to abandon the refugee, neglect the sick, and hate their neighbor, we people of faith are all too often guilty of working against God.

Forgive us, Lord. Hear our cry. Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love. (from Ps. 44)

Click to learn more about the lectionary. 

Sermon video: Telling Stories



Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Sermon: Telling Stories

Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Telling Stories
James Sledge                                                               June 11, 2017, Trinity Sunday

When Naomi was a child growing up in Jerusalem, her parents often told her stories about Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Joshua, Deborah, King David and Solomon. From these stories and more, she learned that God cared for Israel. She was part of God’s chosen people.
Their God was better, more powerful than the gods of other nations. Jerusalem was a light on a hill and Israel was special, exceptional. And so when the Babylonian armies showed up, Naomi was not worried. Babylon’s gods were no match for Yahweh.
But Babylon’s armies had destroyed Jerusalem, had destroyed the great temple that Solomon had built. They had marched Naomi, her family, and the leaders and well to do of Jerusalem, off to Babylon. Every day Naomi saw the temples of the Babylonian gods; now and then, one of the Babylonians teased her and asked what had happened to her God.
About that time, Naomi heard a new story, told by the religious leaders who had been brought from Jerusalem along with the other, defeated Israelites. The story went like this.
1In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  Or maybe it was the Spirit of God, Naomi wasn’t sure because  ruach could mean wind, spirit, or breath.

Pentecost sermon video: Drunk on the Spirit



Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Sermon: Drunk on the Spirit

Acts 2:1-21
Drunk on the Spirit
James Sledge                                                                           June 4, 2017 – Pentecost

How many of you have ever seen someone speak in tongues? If so, I’m guessing it probably wasn’t at a Presbyterian church. I’ve only seen it once. I was visiting a service with a group of other seminary students. It was a huge service, with hundreds of worshipers, and it happened a good ways away from me. To my admittedly untrained eye, it looked like an odd combination of worship hand-waving and a seizure. I couldn’t hear it well, but what I could was unintelligible.
When the subject of speaking in tongues comes up in the New Testament, it usually speaks of something similar to what I saw. There’s even a technical name for it, glossolalia, from the Greek words for “tongue” and “speak.”
You could attend hundreds of Presbyterian churches and never see anyone speak in tongues or do anything labeled Pentecostal. For me, Pentecost has little to do with the glossolalia version of speaking in tongues. It’s about our reading from the book of Acts, where tongues instead refers to speaking in other languages.
This is a version of Pentecostal that a Presbyterian can handle. The Spirit gives the disciples abilities they hadn’t had before. I’m perfectly fine with being Pentecostal if it means the Spirit unearths some previously unknown talent. I’m happy with the idea of the Spirit empowering us to do things we didn’t know we were capable of. I could be that sort of Pentecostal. Thank you, Luke, or whoever writes the book of Acts, for giving us this tamer, more palatable version of speaking in tongues.
But there is something odd in the story. After telling us that people from all over could hear the disciples speaking in their native languages and that everyone was amazed, the story adds, But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” Even Peter seems to accept that reasonable people might think the disciples are drunk. His defense is, “We may look drunk, but hey, it’s only nine in the morning.”

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Best of Us - The Worst of Us

When I was a little boy, my father often played the folk music that had become popular in late fifties and early sixties. I grew up listening to Peter, Paul, and Mary, Joan Baez, and a group called the Weavers. They were from an earlier era but had been "rediscovered" in the folk music resurgence.

One particular song from the Weavers made an impression on me, a Woody Guthrie ballad entitled "The Sinking of the Reuben James." It was about a US ship sunk by German U-boats during World War II. Guthrie wrote the song during the war, but the version I learned from the Weavers, sung in 1960, had an added verse at the end.
Many years have passed since those brave men are gone
Those cold, icy waters, they're still and they're calm
Many years have passed and still I wonder why
The worst of men must fight and the best of men must die
I thought of those lyrics as I read about the heroes killed in Portland when they came to the aid of a Muslim woman being accosted by a white-supremacist. Two of the best in our society died at the hands of one of the worst. They died precisely because they did what was right, because they stood up to evil.

In today's gospel reading, Jesus sends "the seventy" out on a mission trip. As he instructs them for their work he says, "See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves."Clearly this is more than colorful speech, more than metaphor.

It is difficult to make sense of such a world, to understand how it is that the worst create pain and conflict, while the very best suffer and die as a result. We do not want it to be that way. Sometimes we insist it is not that way. That is why it is so tempting to "blame the victim," to imagine that people somehow deserve their suffering, their tragedy, their poverty, their loss.

Of course Jesus is the perfect example of that not being so. He is the innocent one who suffers at the hands of the guilty. He is killed for doing what is right, just as the two men in Portland were. In a very real sense, Ricky Best and Taliesin Namkai-Meche embodied Christ in a way that many who speak in Christ's name so often fail to do. That these two men gave themselves for someone who happens to be Muslim, a person many Christians feel free to hate, only makes their incarnation of God's love that much more poignant.  

I am heartened to hear so many people speak of Best and Namkai-Meche as heroes, as the best of humanity and American values. And yet, all too often, we prefer the ways and methods of the worst of us. We prefer the way of power and force and intimidation. We prefer to look for a reason that the other does not deserve our help. We prefer to look the other way in the face of suffering rather than risk ourselves to help, a tendency that only grows stronger the more different the other is from us.

In this time when hate is seeing a resurgence, when many feel freed to demonize the other based on their politics or faith or color or orientation or birthplace, I wonder if the tragic events in Portland last week might not have some small measure of redemptive power. If we can indeed embrace the actions of Ricky Best and Taliesin Namkai-Meche as the best of us, as a model we are all called to emulate, then perhaps their deaths will serve some lasting purpose.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Sermon: Bigger Plans

Acts 1:1-14
Bigger Plans
James Sledge                                                                                       May 28, 2017

According to the book of Acts, the risen Jesus hung out with the disciples for more than a month after that first Easter, speaking with them about the kingdom of God. Presumably he is continuing to teach his followers, just as he had done prior to his arrest and crucifixion. No doubt it was easier for them to understand certain things on this side of the resurrection.
Curiously, there is nothing at all on the content of Jesus’ teachings. Nothing about what Jesus said over those forty days besides the final instructions that we just heard. I can only assume that means there was no new content. Jesus didn’t cover any new ground. A refresher course, a bit of “Ok, now do you understand?” but nothing that we’ve not already heard.
All that makes the disciples’ question to Jesus even more startling. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Really? They’re still thinking about restoring Israel, about throwing out the Romans? After all this they still think Jesus is a local Messiah, sent to rescue them from their enemies? What a face palm moment.
I don’t know if Jesus did face palms, but if he did, he must be doing them still. His followers are still trying to turn Jesus into a Messiah who’s especially concerned with their group. The Jesus I grew up with was a white, European guy, and becoming a Christian was synonymous with acting like a white, European. We’re a bit more sophisticated on this nowadays. We know that Jesus was Middle Eastern and that faith transcends cultural divides. We know, as the Apostle Paul said, there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus, but we’re reasonably sure that becoming one means others becoming more like us, preferring our style of music, worship, politics, and so on.
Some Christians are convinced that Jesus is especially worried about America. Some of them voted for Donald Trump because they thought God would somehow use him to restore the kingdom to America.
A parochial, provincial view of what Jesus is about seems to be a perpetual problem for the followers of Jesus. We’re forever imagining a Jesus, a God, who is especially concerned with what concerns us, worried about what frightens us, interested in helping us acquire whatever it is we want. Never mind how many times Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross…”

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Bad Shepherds - Bad Budgets

  Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
          whose hope is in the LORD their God,
  who made heaven and earth,
          the sea, and all that is in them;
  who keeps faith forever;
         who executes justice for the oppressed;
          who gives food to the hungry.

   The LORD sets the prisoners free;
        the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
   The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
          the LORD loves the righteous.
   The LORD watches over the strangers;
          he upholds the orphan and the widow,
          but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

Psalm 146:5-9

Often it is difficult to trust that the psalmist's words are true. Over and over the Bible speaks of God's special care for the poor and the weak. Over and over Jesus says the same, at times going so far as to speak of wealth as a curse. Not that we're much inclined to agree with him.

Now comes the first proposed budget from Donald Trump. Many evangelical Christians voted for the president, seeing him as someone who would advance a Christian agenda. If this budget -- one that gives huge tax cuts to the rich, financed by slashing programs for the sick and the poor --  is part of that Christian agenda, then clearly the term "Christian" does not refer to the ways of God or the teachings of Jesus.

I confess that I find faith in a God who is especially concerned for those who are poor, oppressed, hungry, strangers, or bowed down difficult to hold onto right now. I wish I were better at seeing the long view of things as Jesus could do, as the prophets could do. They could somehow look at a world struggling mightily against the ways of God and still have hope, still glimpse a day when the lowly were lifted up, when those Donald Trump calls "losers" were exalted.

And so right now, when my own words fail me, perhaps the best I can do is to borrow words from one of those prophets. Ezekiel spoke against the rulers, the shepherds of Israel. "Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them... Thus says the LORD GOD, I am against the shepherds."

What was it that allowed prophets to see such a day? What allowed Jesus to speak of the poor lifted up and the powerful brought down when he knew that the powerful would execute him? 

O God, give me faith to see and speak the hope of your new day in Jesus. It seems so very far away.

Addendum: After writing this I was driving to the regular meeting of my presbytery, our regional governing council. I had another stop on the way and so travelled a different route than I typically use. It took me by the South African embassy with the statue of Nelson Mandela out front. Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for years by the shepherds of his nation, who surely despaired that he would die in prison. As I drove by that statue of Mandela, showing him walking out of prison with his fist raised in the air, I couldn't help but feel a twinge of hope, a nudge from God to keep looking to the horizon and the coming of God's new day.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Sermon: Construction Materials

1 Peter 2:2-10
Construction Materials
James Sledge                                                                                       May 14, 2017

When I meet people for the first time on a Sunday, no one ever asks me that standard question, “So what do you do?” But when I meet people outside of church I do get asked that. Sometimes when I say that I’m a pastor people will respond, “What church?” When I say “Falls Church Presbyterian,” it almost always elicits a shrug. I have to tell them that we’re on East Broad Street, but usually, that’s still not enough. Finally when I say that we’re the stone church just down from Applebee’s, I finally get, “O yeah, I know where that is.” Sometimes they’ll say something about how pretty it is.
We do have a beautiful stone building, so it’s not surprising that people have noticed it even if they’ve never actually read our name. Buildings are an important part of most churches. When a new church first starts, it may meet in school or a movie theater, but that’s temporary. Even before the first worship service at the movie theater, people are thinking about plans to acquire land and build a building.
For many people, a church building is what makes it feel like church. That likely explains why I get a fair number of phone calls from people who attend other churches but want to get married here. Sometimes they’re at one of those churches meeting in a movie theater. More often, their church has a building, but it’s a contemporary space that doesn’t look like a church. For their wedding, they want a church building that looks like a church.
Church buildings are important and so we have a committee dedicated to our building and grounds. That committee has to worry about keeping up all our buildings and property, making sure there are plans for when we need a new roof or a new boiler or have to repave the parking lot. It takes a lot of work and a lot of money to keep all our buildings in good, working order.
Not that anyone thinks church is just the buildings. Many of you likely know the old rhyme where you form a church building with your hands and fingers. “Here’s the church and here’s the steeple. Open the door and see all the people.” Without those people, a beautiful church building would be nothing but a museum.
That’s why along with that committee that makes sure our buildings are well cared for, there are other committees focused on what people do in the buildings. People discuss and plan for worship, Sunday School programs, youth groups, mission efforts such as our Welcome Table program, fellowship events, and much more.
As important as buildings are – providing a place for worship, Sunday School, youth groups, Welcome Table, etc. – who we are as a church is more about what people here do.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

On Receiving Help and Love

The following was written for the upcoming church newsletter.

Dear Friends,
As some of you may well know, I like to think of myself as strong and self-reliant. I’m convinced that I can handle anything that comes my way. This has often served me well. During my flying career an emergency didn’t rattle me. It was simply a problem to be dealt with.
However, there is a significant downside to my self-image. I can become very frustrated when I’m unable to do something. There are plenty of things I know I’m not good at, but when I think I should be able to do something but cannot, or do it poorly, I often beat myself up pretty badly. To make matters worse, asking for help can feel like failure. And so I’m not very good at either asking or receiving help.
That likely explains why only after things got really bad, only after my wife had encouraged me for months, did I seek help for a deepening sense of sadness, burnout, and depression. Even then I hoped that a few sessions with a counselor would let me figure everything out and quickly get back to “normal.” I certainly wouldn’t need ongoing therapy or medication, a certainty that quickly disappeared.
I have a long way to go in getting back to “normal,” whatever that is, but I hope I’m on the right path. I’ll spare you any more details of what already feels to me like oversharing. I felt compelled to share, however, for a couple of reasons. The first is that I’m hardly the only person who puts off getting treatment for mental health issues because it feels like admitting to failure or weakness. Perceptions have changed in recent years, but there is still a stigma attached to mental illness. I hope my sharing is one more small chip knocked out of that stigma.
I also see a faith dimension to this. At a very basic level, Christian faith is about being open to receiving help. Our Presbyterian/Reformed Tradition understands relationship with God and faith itself as a gift freely given to us by a loving God. Jesus is the embodiment of a love that is not earned but is simply received. One does not merit or deserve it. Jesus doesn’t love me because I’m so lovable but because God is so loving. But I tend to measure my own worth by what I accomplish. And so I have trouble loving myself, much less believing that God could love me, really love me.
Our society encourages a culture of performance, and this emphasis on achievement seems only to be growing. We began putting pressure on our children to perform, to do well, to engage in “enrichment” activities and sports at an earlier and earlier age. No parent means to say, “I’ll love you if you do well, if you are successful,” but no doubt some of our children hear just such a message.
The church also gets caught up in our culture of performance, but that is a distortion of the gospel. At its heart, the gospel is and always has been counter-cultural. That is why is says silly things such as the last shall be first, the poor are blessed, and being part of God’s new day isn’t about more success but about letting go and becoming more like a little child. (Children had little “worth” in Jesus’ day.)
As the church, we are called to embody Christ and his gospel. That means being a community where people experience the love of God that is not dependent on measures of performance or success. That means being able to accept and love ourselves, and it means being able to accept and love those around us whether or not they “deserve” it based on our personal measures of success or worth. Perhaps there is no greater gift we could give our children, our neighbors, or ourselves than to rest so fully and completely in God’s boundless love in Christ that it transformed us into agents of Christ-like love.
Grace and peace and love,

James

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Sermon: Becoming Christ

1 Corinthians 12:4-31 (May Renew Group reading)
Becoming Christ
James Sledge                                                                                                   May 7, 2017
Today’s reading does not come from the lectionary as it does most Sundays. This week we hear the passage chosen to facilitate discussion among our congregation’s Renew Groups that are meeting in members’ homes to discuss who we are as a congregation. This passage is from a letter that addresses a congregation experiencing tensions and divisions. Paul has just chastised them for the way they do Lord’s Supper, introducing the notion of “discerning the body” in that meal. Now he continues to use this image of “the body” as he discusses spiritual gifts.
Most all of us have things that we’re good at, some sort of gifts or talents. That’s not to say that the world recognizes all talents as equals. If your talent is throwing a football, designing software applications, or doing intricate surgery, that may bring you a great deal of income and prestige. But if your talent is teaching young children, carpentry, or growing a lovely garden, you will likely not have such lucrative career options.
Of course we don’t value gifts and talents just from a financial standpoint. Sometimes we just wish we had a certain talent. There are many talents I admire, but the one that makes me envious is musical talent. I love music and wish I were more musical. I tried to play guitar when I was young, but I just don’t have much talent, and I’m a little jealous of those who do.
The notion that some talents are better than others or more desirable than others shows up pretty much everywhere, including at church. Different congregations have different pecking orders. In one, deep biblical knowledge and teaching ability might be greatly esteemed. In another it is a beautiful singing voice. In another, certain leadership skills, and in another, gifts for caring and nurturing community. Often you can tell a good bit about a congregation by the sorts of gifts that get you noticed or admired.
I suppose it’s only natural that certain gifts are more esteemed. Some are in short supply and harder to find. If a congregation really values the role of music in worship, musical talent is going to be at more of a premium than in a congregation where music is less emphasized.
However this can lead to problems. A hierarchy of gifts can develop that divides a congregation into actors and spectators. Some people are happy just to be spectators, but many want something more. It’s hard to feel really a part of community if you don’t feel like you contribute to it in any significant way.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter Sermon: A Visit to the Cemetery

Matthew 28:1-10
A Visit to the Cemetery
James Sledge                                       April 16, 2017, Resurrection of the Lord

I suppose it’s something of a stereotype. The women are the ones still trying to care for Jesus. There’s not much they can do, but they can at least go to the cemetery. They’d been briefly on Friday, but the Sabbath had interrupted, and they are observant Jews. Now, with the Sabbath over and morning breaking, they head there again.
I’m not sure where the men are. They’ve been AWOL since Thursday night, running away when Jesus was arrested. Peter makes a brief appearance outside the home of the high priest but denies knowing Jesus when people think they recognize him, and he’s not been seen since. Perhaps the men are in hiding, fearful that they could be arrested as well.
Or perhaps they’re upset and angry at how things played out. A week ago they were on cloud nine. They had visions of being part of Jesus’ cabinet with he took power. Yes, he had spoken repeatedly about a cross, but Jesus often talked in riddles. They had bet that Jesus was different from all those other Messiahs who appeared and then got executed by the Romans. But now he was dead. Some of them probably felt Jesus had let them down.
Regardless of where the men are, two women named Mary head to the cemetery early on a spring morning. Perhaps they stopped at the local Safeway to pick up some flowers. That’s the sort of thing you do when you visit a cemetery.
Most of you have probably made such a visit, perhaps taken some flowers, too. It’s a  perfectly normal sort of thing to do. People do it all the time. People also go to cemeteries just to be there. They are quiet, peaceful places, often garden-like. There may be benches where you can sit and meditate.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Sermon video: You Are the Ones



Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sermon: Be Like Jesus


Philippians 2:1-11 (Matthew 21:1-11)
Be Like Jesus
James Sledge                                                                                       April 9, 2017

When I was a young boy, my grandmother would sometimes sew matching Easter sport coats for me and my younger brother. There are pictures of the two of us in our pastel shorts, plaid jackets, and bow ties. Some years the Easter baskets made the picture as well.
I’m talking about Easter a week early because when I was a kid, Palm Sunday and Easter pretty much ran into one another. Palm Sunday was when you started the pre-Easter celebration. The new sport coats and ties and Easter dresses would have to wait another week, but on Palm Sunday we got to wave our palm branches and parade around, pre-game festivities before the big event.
I’m sure I learned about the Last Supper, Jesus’ arrest, and the cross. They must have  come up in Sunday school. Plus the Lord’s Suppers that happened four times a year were mostly focused on Jesus’ sacrifice. But for me, Holy Week started with a parade, and then, next stop, Easter baskets and candy and new clothes and an overflowing church singing and celebrating. From one celebration to the next.
If only there were not a cross between this Sunday and next. That would make this whole Easter business so much easier. Christianity without a cross would be so much more fun. The crowds in Jerusalem who shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David! could just keep shouting. They could join me in exchanging their palms for Easter baskets and new sport coats.
But it turns out there is a cross, and the crowds don’t much care for it. Jesus was supposed to rescue them, throw out the Romans, make their lives better, put the Democrats or the Republicans in power, depending on how you read your scriptures. But Jesus gets himself arrested and by Friday the crowd is shouting, “Let him be crucified!”
We have an advantage over the crowds. We’ve seen how this movie ends so we can just stay away on Thursday and Friday if we want. We can skip the cross and exchange our palms for Easter baskets and new Easter outfits.
But not if Paul has anything to say about it. What a spoilsport. Just because following Jesus has gotten him beaten, run out of town, and imprisoned more times than he can count, he seems to think that all Jesus’ followers need to embrace the cross.
Of course Jesus says the same thing, says that no one can be his follower without taking up their cross. He’s pretty insistent on that point, but his own disciples run when Jesus gets arrested. They didn’t yell, “Let him be crucified!” like the crowds, but like the crowds, they hoped to exchange palms for Easter baskets and new sport coats.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Slaying Our Villains

The disciples want Jesus to tell them who is to blame for the man’s blindness. Being blind presents  significant challenges to people in our day, but in Jesus’ day, blindness typically meant begging to survive. Obviously such a situation must have been the result of someone’s failure. And so the disciples ask if it was the man’s sin or his parents.

We’ve got other options. This person is poor because he won’t apply himself. That person is on drugs because her moral character is lacking. There are terrorists because Islam is evil. Things are bad because of the Democrats, or is it the Republicans? Him or his parents?

Reasons and explanations make for a more orderly world. It’s nice to know that this action tends to lead to that outcome. It helps us make better decisions and to learn from our mistakes. But we humans have a bad tendency to think we know more than we do. We over generalize when it suits us. “I’ve worked hard and done well for myself. Therefor hard work gets people ahead, and people in poverty are there because they are lazy.” Our generalizing is even true now and then, which only makes it more enticing.

I should add that this problem is totally non-partisan. It simply takes different forms depending on one’s point of view. We all have different villains that we blame for “how things are.” Perhaps our villain is a breakdown of morality or perhaps it is corporate greed and malfeasance. Perhaps it is the One Percent or perhaps it is the welfare state.

Often there is enough evidence to convince some that our villain is THE cause. And we agree that the only solution is to slay our villain. Whatever problem we are considering, we tend to approach it like the disciples when they saw the blind man. We look for villains. And very often the question of whose fault it is becomes so consuming that we forget to ask, “What can we do to help?”

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Sermon: You Are the Ones

Matthew 5:13-16 (April Renew Group reading)
You Are the Ones
James Sledge                                                                                                   April 2, 2017
Today’s gospel reading does not come from the lectionary as it does most Sundays. This week we hear the passage chosen to facilitate discussion among our congregation’s Renew Groups that are meeting in members’ homes and discussing who we are as a congregation. This passage is a portion of the so-called Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5:1 – 7:29. These teachings come immediately after the Beatitudes.
Today’s gospel reading is a small portion of what is usually called “The Sermon on the Mount.” I’m not sure that’s the best title. Jesus isn’t really preaching; he’s teaching. Here’s how Matthew describes the scene. When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak and taught them saying… What follows are the Beatitudes, then our verses for this morning and then much more after that.
Jesus is teaching his disciples, but they are not the only ones who hear. The crowds are there as well. Jesus may not be speaking directly to them, but they still overhear. Do they think Jesus is also speaking to them as they listen in?
These crowds aren’t followers, aren’t disciples. They’re curious and intrigued. They may hope Jesus can cure their ailments or help in some other way. But as they listen in from a distance, standing at the back of the church with one foot still outside the sanctuary, it’s not clear what will come of their encounter with Jesus.
Jesus has just offered his strange list of those who are blessed, favored by God: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek and the merciful, the peacemakers and those who are persecuted. The very last blessing shifts from “Blessed are,” to “Blessed are you…”  “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account,” says Jesus. After all, that’s what happened to the prophets before you.
And then, in the verses we just heard, Jesus doubles down on that word “you.” “You are the salt of the earth.” But that translation doesn’t really capture the force of what Jesus says. Jesus literally uses a double “you,” and maybe a better way to render this in English would be “You are the ones who are the salt of the earth… You are the ones who are the light of the world.”
 All of these yous are plural by the way. “You all are the ones… You guys are the ones.” Obviously the disciples seated around Jesus hear him saying that they are “the ones,” but what about the crowds? What about those on the edges listening in? What about those at the back of the sanctuary? What about those who are thinking about bringing a child to Vacation Bible School? What about those who like Christianity and the idea of Jesus but are not involved in any sort of ministry or mission? Is Jesus speaking to them?