Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Sermon video: Discovering Our Christ Identity

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

A Different Sort of "Me Too"

To you I lift up my eyes,     
    O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
As the eyes of servants
    look to the hand of their master, 

as the eyes of a maid
    to the hand of her mistress, 

so our eyes look to the LORD our God,
    until he has mercy upon us.

Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us,
    for we have had more than enough of contempt.
Our soul has had more than its fill
    of the scorn of those who are at ease,
    of the contempt of the proud.                                                                                             Psalm 123

If you've been online at all the last few days, you can't have missed the "Me Too" posts, women letting the world know that they too have been sexually assaulted or harassed. My own Facebook page is filled with friends, family, and colleagues who've added their "Me Too" to the growing list. And I can only assume that many others have chosen not to go public with their own experiences.

My initial response to the posts is a mix of sadness and anger. But if I am honest with myself, I also must admit to a reflexive reaction that attempts to soften the impact of all those "Me Too" posts. "Exactly how is 'harass' being defined," I thought to myself. Then I recoiled at my own (male?) reflex that wanted to find a way to make the problem less terrible. No wonder women don't feel safe calling out male behavior. They know from experience that even "allies" may be inclined to dismiss them.

My own male, knee-jerk reaction didn't make it out of my head, but I saw others that did, sometimes from people I assume to be very sympathetic to those posting "Me Too" online. "Women sometimes harass men," read a comment to one "Me Too" on Facebook. Likely a true statement and perhaps not offered with bad intent, but if not then surely another reflexive reaction that softens the impact, that makes the problem seem less terrible. Just as a culture of white supremacy finds it easy to believe African Americans exaggerate the bias, prejudice, and danger they face, so too male supremacy finds it easy and convenient to believe it isn't really all that bad for women.

The psalmist uses words that perfectly capture how easily those with status and power dismiss those who do not share that status and power. "Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud." In addition, the psalmist is quite sure that God will respond with mercy to the cry of those dismissed and scorned.

Jesus seems to agree, publicly proclaiming that he has come "to bring good news to the poor... release to the captives... to let the oppressed go free." Jesus spends much of his ministry with those who are dismissed, scorned, and held in contempt by the privileged, the powerful, the religious, the comfortable. And so one might well assume that the followers of Jesus, that the Church, would  be the champion of all who are scorned and held in contempt. But alas...

From time to time, I find myself deeply disillusioned with Church. It's not that I expect the Church to be perfect. It is made up of sinful people, all who are profoundly shaped and influenced by culture and society. My own reflexive minimizing of "Me Too" is a perfect example. But while any church will be imperfect and caught up in the larger sins of its society, surely the Church should still offer hope, should still be a beacon for those scorned and held in contempt. 

At times we are. We do engage in mission and ministry with those the society dismisses and abandons. But as anyone who has ever worked in a church will tell you, we spend a lot more time and energy worrying about ourselves than we do worrying about those Jesus said he came to help. 

My own "progressive" congregation is part of a denomination that has ordained women for decades and now ordains LGBT folk. We have a wonderful Welcome Table program that feeds hundreds and provides financial assistance for those in need. But we also have a white, male lead pastor (me) and a female associate pastor. I can count on my hands the members of color, and discussion about becoming more diverse can run into a fierce allegiance toward the white, Western forms of worship and music most prefer, even claims that these are "superior."

In ways sometimes intentional and sometimes not, we continue to model the white, male structures of our society. And if someone points this out, we have our own reflexive reactions that minimize the problem or absolve us of blame.

Perhaps I and many others in the Church could use a different sort of "Me Too" hashtag, one that says, "Yeah, me too. I'm a part of the problem." Perhaps that could help us better embody the words from my denomination's "Brief Statement of Faith." 
      In a broken and fearful world
      the Spirit gives us courage
          to pray without ceasing,
          to witness among all people to Christ as Lord and Savior,
          to unmask idolatries in Church and culture,
          to hear the voices of peoples long silenced,
          and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sermon: Discovering Our Christ Identity

Philippians 4:1-9
Discovering Our Christ Identity
James Sledge                                                                                       October 15, 2017

Back in the late 80s there was a hit song by Bobby McFerrin entitled “Don’t worry, Be Happy.” It was the first a cappella, number one song, with all words and accompaniment voiced by McFerrin. It was infectious, and many resonated with the words. “Ain't got no place to lay your head; Somebody came and took your bed, Don't worry, be happy. The land lord say your rent is late; He may have to litigate; Don't worry, be happy.”
Perhaps this is good advice, an antidote for our anxious, worried age. Perhaps being happy can be a discipline, like the practice of gratitude that has become popular of late. Some say that keeping a gratitude journal changes their perspective and helps them to see the good in the world. Perhaps we can find happiness and get rid of worry in similar fashion.
In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul sounds a bit like McFerrin. He speaks of not worrying about anything and rejoicing always. He is in prison when he writes, but no matter. Don’t worry, rejoice.
But does that really work, especially in the face of the news of late. Horrible fires in California. Many areas of Puerto Rico still cut off from help and aid. People still are hospitalized in Las Vegas with terrible wounds, and many more grieve loved ones lost there. Surely none of us would dare say to any of these folks, “Don’t worry, rejoice.”
But Paul is not recommending rejoicing as a pastoral care technique or a strategy for dealing with trouble. His rejoicing is not so that something will happen. His rejoicing is something that he cannot help because of what he experiences in his relationship with the risen Christ, because he is “in Christ.”

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Sermon: Fearless Living and Nominal Christians

Matthew 21:23-32
Fearless Living and Nominal Christians
James Sledge                                                                                       October 1, 2017

I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture twice since it opened a year ago. I know that many of you have been, and I hope all of you will take the time to see it at some point. On both my visits there I was struck by a quote etched into the glass covering one of the displays.
It’s by Olaudah Equiano who, along with his sister, was kidnapped as a child in Africa and sold as a slave in America.. Equiano gained his freedom prior to the American Revolution, left the colonies, and settled in London. There he wrote his memoir and became something of a celebrity and important figure in the British abolitionist movement.
He had become a Christian while still in the colonies, but he must have struggled to reconcile his faith with what he had seen done by Christian slave owners.  In 1789 he said, “O, ye nominal Christians! Might not an African ask you—Learned you this from your God who says to you, Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you?”
In the little research I’ve done, I found nothing to suggest that Equiano ever abandoned his Christian faith, but his lament is commonly echoed by those in our day who have given up on the church. They see little difference in those inside the church and outside it, other than the claim of faith. Like Equiano, they might ask what exactly we learned from our God, from this Christ we say is or Lord, our Master.
This problem of faith existing more in name than in action is apparently nothing new. Jesus addresses it in this morning’s gospel reading. He is teaching in the temple on the day after his big, parade-like entry into Jerusalem. Jesus had caused a ruckus then by coming to the Temple, driving out those selling animals for sacrifice, and turning over the tables used to exchange foreign, profane coins into those that didn’t violate the commandment on images and could be used for offerings. Now Jesus is back, no doubt attracting the same sort of sick and poor and sinners and riff raff he always does, and the leaders approach him.
“What gives you the right to do all this?” they ask. But Jesus doesn’t answer their question. Instead, he asks them about what authority they do recognize. “Answer that, says” Jesus, “and I’ll tell you where my authority comes from. Did the baptism of John comes from God?”
 They do not recognize John the Baptist as having divine sanction, but they are unwilling to say so publically. So Jesus moves on, telling a parable of two sons told by their father to work in the vineyard and then asking, “Which of the two did the will of  his father?”

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Sermon video: Absurd Love - Absurd Community.

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sermon: Imagining a New Reality

Matthew 20:1-16
Imagining a New Reality
James Sledge                                                                           September 24, 2017

I was still in elementary school Elvis Presley’s movie career ended, but his movies ran on television regularity when I was growing up, and I probably saw most of them. I can’t say that I recall very much about them. Elvis didn’t really make cinematic masterpieces, but there is one that made a bit of an impression on me.
I don’t remember the name of the movie or the larger story line, but I do remember a court hearing where an unscrupulous child welfare worker tries to take away the adopted children in an odd, extended family where Elvis is a adult son. Most vividly I recall two, young, twin boys among these adopted children. I didn’t remember their names, but thanks to the internet, I now know they were Eddy and Teddy.
In a recurring gag, these boys have to share a candy bar. I could have this backwards, but we’ll say Eddy would always break the bar in half, but not actually in half. One piece was always significantly larger. Naturally Teddy noticed this inequity and complained about it. At which point Eddy would bite the extra length off and hold the two pieces up again, satisfying Teddy that he was now getting an equal share. Near the movie’s end, Teddy figures out he’s being scammed. And during the court hearing, when Eddy pulls the trick yet again, Teddy grabs the two pieces from him, bites off the extra length himself, and hands one of the now equal parts back to Eddy, with the judge as an astounded, sole observer.
Now I have my doubts that any real child would have taken as long as Teddy to figure things out. In my experience, issues of fairness are pretty high on children’s radar from an early age. “That’s not fair,” is a common childhood lament, and most parents have to deal with the “fairness” issue from time to time.
Did you ever wonder why children become so concerned over whether or not a sibling of friend got a bigger slice of cake or a bit more ice cream? If I have a tasty slice of cake, why does it really matter if anyone else’s slice is a little larger? Why is this a fairness issue?

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sermon: Absurd Love - Absurd Community

Matthew 18:21-35
Absurd Love – Absurd Community
James Sledge                                                                           September 17, 2017

The problem of needing to know more about a scripture passage’s context in order to understand it has showed up so frequently of late that I wonder if we don’t need a Bible version of that real estate adage, “What are the three most important things in real estate? Location, location, location.” Except our answer would be “Context, context, context.”
Take today’s reading. It’s not a stand-alone parable. Our verses are the final lesson in a larger set of teachings, the last big teaching moment Jesus has with his disciples prior to Jerusalem and the cross. That says something about their importance. And because Matthew uses private moments with the disciples for Jesus to speak directly to the Church, that says something about how important these words are for us.
There is an interesting ebb and flow in these teachings. They start with Jesus saying that we must become like children to be part of God’s kingdom, that those who are humble like a child are called greatest in the kingdom. Jesus then shifts from actual children to “little ones,” a phrase that speaks of those new to faith. Here the emphasis is about how terrible it is to cause a little one to stumble, and about the great lengths we must be willing to go to avoid stumbling ourselves. Jesus goes on to say how important these “little ones” are to God, telling the parable of a shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to find the single lost one.
Jesus then shifts gears, insisting that this community also be a place that holds its members accountable. He lays out a method for confronting those who sin. Meet privately first. If that doesn’t work, a few members should speak to the person. If that fails the entire congregation gets involved, and finally, the offender is to be cast out.
It is in this context of holding community members accountable that Peter speaks in our reading this morning. Quite likely Peter is thinking of the elaborate process Jesus has described of confronting offenders alone, then with a few members, then before the congregation. Perhaps Peter has in mind some difficult folks he worries will abuse this process. They’ll cause trouble and resist correction until they’re on the verge of being thrown out. But later they’ll go back to their old ways, and the process would start over again. Surely there have to be some limits to this. “Is seven times enough, Jesus?”

Monday, September 11, 2017

Mixed Feelings

Like most Americans born prior to the early 1990s, I can recall where I was and what I was doing when I first heard that an airliner had struck one of the twin towers in New York City. Now comes another 9/11, and people are remembering. My Facebook feed is filled with posts of pictures labeled "Never Forget," tributes to first responders and those who died, and calls for God to bless America.

I must confess that I experience mixed emotions as I remember. Some 9/11 memories are horrific and terrifying, but they are not the cause of my mixed feelings. It is important to remember failures and sufferings in order to prevent their happening again. My jumbled feelings are more about what happened in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Take the frequent refrain of "God Bless America." I hope God does bless America, but in a 9/11 context that request often seems to include an unspoken corollary. "And curse our enemies." We might well expect God to be against those who commit horrendous acts of terror, but that's different from God being pro USA. As a verse from this morning's psalm says,
         The LORD is good to all,
             and his compassion is over all that he has made
. (Ps. 145:9)
The God becomes a flag-draped, star-spangled God, we have abandoned the God of Jesus, of the Bible, and embraced a tribal idol.

On a more positive note, many recall the days after 9/11 and wistfully remember the pause in the bitter partisanship that has come to dominate American politics and life. For a brief moment, the shared crisis overcame division. In similar fashion, the desire to help recent hurricane victims can momentarily bring disparate folks together in common cause for good.

Our coming together post 9/11 did feel good, but it had an element not found in response to natural disasters, an enemy. Having a common enemy can be tremendous unifying force. Osama bin Laden was as much the enemy of Democrats as he was of Republicans, of liberal as conservatives, and the threat he posed dwarfed the enmity between political parties, making it seem trivial for a time.

Sometimes we humans seem to need enemies. They provide an "against" by which to define our group, and enemies are often a more powerful, unifying force than anything our group is "for." Fear is a powerful motivator, and enemies merit fear. But fear is also a great manipulative tool, especially when used to inflate a true enemy or even to create one where none exists.

Following 9/11, some felt the need to make an enemy out of all Islam. It made things simpler, neater, and for Christians it had the added benefit of making our group the "good guys" and theirs the evil enemy. Creating such an enemy proved so compelling that many embraced the idea despite a complete lack of logic of facts to support it.

Enemies, especially those deemed mortal enemies, lose their humanity to some degree. Their deaths become necessary, even a good thing to be celebrated. When all of Islam becomes the enemy, the death of civilians ceases to matter so much. The same thing happened with Nazis and Japanese during WWII. Wholesale slaughter of civilians was seen as acceptable.

I wonder if Jesus' commands us to love our enemies because he wants to undermine our ability, our apparent need and desire, to demonize "the other." If we took Jesus seriously and truly saw our enemy as another neighbor to love, how might things look different? Put another way, if America actually were a Christian nation, how might our post-9/11 response have been different?

And so, on 9/11, I will engage in somber remembrance and reflection. I will mourn for those who died, for those who continue to die from terrorist attacks, and for the many more civilians who have become "collateral damage" in our war on terror. I will hope for lessons learned that may prevent future 9/11s, and I will pray for peace in the world. And I will wonder if the world, or Christians for that matter, will ever actually embrace the way of Jesus.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Sermon: Wearing Jesus

Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
Wearing Jesus
James Sledge                                                                                       September 10, 2017

The first church I served as a pastor was in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was part of New Hope presbytery, and I served on the presbytery’s mission committee. One of the issues facing us was a call to participate in a boycott of the Mt. Olive Pickle Company.
The cucumber growers in eastern North Carolina used immigrants in the “quest worker” program to harvest the crops Mt. Olive used to make pickles. These migrant workers moved from place to place, following the harvest seasons up the coast. The wages were low, and the conditions in the camps that the growers provided were often appalling. But the workers had little recourse other than to return to their home country.
The boycott emerged through the efforts of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, or FLOC. They wanted to Mt. Olive to buy only from growers who paid a decent wage and provided minimal working and living conditions. But Mt. Olive said they couldn’t do that. They did not buy cucumbers directly from the growers. In a system that seemed to serve little purpose other than to provide for such an excuse, growers sold cucumbers to grading stations that in turn sold to Mt. Olive. They could then say, we don’t deal directly with any growers. How can we tell them what to do?
And so FLOC called for a boycott. The National Council of Churches, which many mainline denominations belong to, got on board, and so New Hope Presbytery’s mission committee met with representatives from FLOC, Mt. Olive, and others in order to make a recommendation to the presbytery about whether or not to join the boycott.
We held a Saturday event in the town of Mt. Olive, at Mt. Olive Presbyterian Church, where various folks spoke for or against the boycott. One of the stronger voices against was the pastor at Mt. Olive Presbyterian. Pickle company managers and executives were faithful members there, and their pledges kept the church going. This, he claimed, meant the church had no right to criticize their employer. The denomination, he said, had no business judging their employer or them. They were people of faith who supported their church. What right did the church have to turn around and criticize their means of earning a living?
The presbytery didn’t agree and ended up supporting an, ultimately, successful boycott. But Americans often do view faith as a private matter of the heart, not open to judgment, even from the church. This idea showed up in last year’s presidential election. Pope Francis commented on a proposed border wall, "A person who thinks only about building walls... and not of building bridges, is not Christian.” Candidate Trump fired back. “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful. I am proud to be a Christian. No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith,”[1]
I suspect a lot of Americans, even ones who don’t like President Trump, tend to agree, but Jesus and the Apostle Paul do not. Jesus makes clear in today’s verses that the faith community should confront members who live contrary to his teachings. It is to be done as kindly as possible, seeking reconciliation and restoration, but it must be done. Previously, in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that calling him Lord does not matter if you don’t do God’s will. “By their fruits you will know them,” he says. That raises an interesting question. What is it that Christians are known for?

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Justice in Our Hearts And Souls

I marched in the Minsters March for Justice yesterday in Wasthington, D.C. I nearly didn't. It had popped up on my social media, but so did a lot of other marches and events. Plus this one had Al Sharpton's name attached to it, and I'm not a huge fan. Fortunately, someone reminded me of the event yesterday after worship, and that got me to thinking about why I has so easily forgotten it.

Strange how easy it is to think God only works through people I like, who agree with me, share my politics, or don't rub me the wrong way. I also wonder if I didn't appreciate an excuse to forget the event. Pastors getting mixed up in events deemed "political" can have a downside. It's safer to stay at church, to confine my "witness" to the pulpit. Unfortunately, my own sermon yesterday called me out on this. In it I wondered if I would have been one of those white, moderates Martin Luther King was so disappointed in, quoting from his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." So when someone at fellowship time after worship asked if I as going...

I'm glad I went. There was a diverse group of Jews and Christians of various sorts. I did not notice any Muslims, but a Sihk spoke from the podium. Martin Luther King III led us as we walked from his father's memorial to the US Justice Department, tying up traffic and inconveniencing a couple of Segue tours.

As we gathered in front of the Justice Department, I noticed the inscription high up over the building's entrance. "Justice in the life of the state is possible only as first it resides in the hearts and souls of the citizens." (Thanks to Mary Ward Logsdon for reminding me that the quote is from Plato.) And I found myself wondering about the hearts and souls of people in our country today.

The Bible calls us to "let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." These words from the prophet Amos follow immediately on words on how God hates the people's worship, their claims of faith. Let me see justice and righteousness, says God. (Righteousness is one of the religious sounding words that may confuse people, but it simply means things set right, judged by the standards of God.)

I often find it odd that so many Christians, those who say they follow Jesus, are so concerned with matters of right belief but largely unconcerned with matters of justice and righteousness. Jesus stood firmly in the tradition of prophets like Amos, and his most basic proclamation was of God's approaching kingdom, the day when justice and righteousness would envelope the earth. Jesus even teaches us to pray for that day when the kingdom arrives, when God's "will is done on earth as in heaven."

Yesterday's march reminded me how badly the Church has lost its way on this, but it also showed me how many people long for the Church to hear Jesus' call, to love neighbor, to reach out to the least of these, to work for justice and righteousness, to do these and more even if it is hard or costly or dangerous. That is what it means to take up the cross.

The Church in modern America lost its way in part because it went along with notions of faith as a private, personal thing, divorced from matters of justice, lifting up the poor, and revealing God's love to the world. But that is not to minimize the significance of faith as a heart matter, to ignore the need for internal conversion. Justice needs to reside in hearts and souls. Love needs to cast out hate and fear. As the Apostle Paul would say, the old self needs to die and be replaced by a new creation in Christ. And that's not so much about getting one's ticket punched for heaven as it is about living a new life now, one that shows the world God's new day of justice and righteousness and love and hope.

One of the morning psalms today is 146, and it picks up on both the internal trust and hope of faith, along with what it is we hope and trust for, that Christ calls us to work for.

   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.

I'm indebted to yesterday's march, and yes, to Al Sharpton, for helping me to experience that connection between faith and hope and justice in the heart and the work Christ calls me, calls the Church to do.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sermon video: Seeing the Face of God.

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Sermon: Jesus Is Lord, But I Have Others

Exodus 1:8-2:10
Jesus is Lord, But I Have Others
James Sledge                                                                                       August 27, 2017

In one of his letters to the church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul tries to straighten out some confusion there. The Corinthians were enamored with being spiritual and saw speaking in tongues as the proof that a person had the Holy Spirit. But Paul flatly rejects that idea. Writes Paul, No one can say, “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.
I’m not so sure. Anyone can speak those words. All manner of people do while acting completely contrary to Jesus’ teachings. White supremacists profess him. Jesus knew this sort of thing would happen and said, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father I heaven.”
But Paul isn’t talking about mouthing the words. He’s talking about a risky, subversive statement, one counter to another statement of Paul’s day, “Caesar is Lord.” Roman emperors were called “King of kings and Lord of lords.” Augustus, emperor when Jesus was born, was called “savior of the world, son of God, bringer of peace.”
To say “Jesus is Lord,” to call him Savior, Son of God, Prince of Peace, and lots of other things early Christians called Jesus, was to say “Not Caesar, but Jesus.” We might be able to say “Jesus is Lord” with little thought as to what it means or requires of us, but not so when Paul wrote, No one can say, Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.
You’ve noticed the banner I hung I hung behind me, one of many in the back of our sanctuary representing the faith statements of our denomination. This one goes with the Theological Declaration of Barmen, written by Lutheran and Reformed Christians in 1930s Germany who said “Jesus is Lord of all,” and our ultimate loyalty and allegiance is to him, not the nation, not the Nazis, not Adolf Hitler. It was a dangerous, subversive statement, not unlike when the first Christians said “Jesus is Lord.”

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.

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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)

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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.