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,


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?

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Sermon video: Drawn to the Water

Unfortunately, the camera does not capture the work of the young women playing Jesus and the Samaritan woman.

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Monday, March 27, 2017

God the Cheerleader

I saw a Facebook post the other day suggesting that many Christians suffer from “functional atheism.” By this the writer meant that our professed beliefs don’t translate into any concrete trust that God’s power is somehow with those who follow Jesus. Rather we imagine that nothing can happen unless we do it. I think this problem is pronounced among pastors. I know it afflicts me.

One reason that some pastors don't pray as often as you might expect; prayer isn’t seen as productive. It doesn’t actually accomplish anything visible. I suspect that many congregations would be uncomfortable with a pastor who announced, “I will be secluded in prayer for a few hours every afternoon.” But pastors’ own notions of what is productive may have more to do with infrequent prayer. When there is a lot to get done, it can feel like wasting time.

It feels like wasted time because we’re shaped by a culture that values production, efficiency, and busyness. But on a deeper faith level, this feeling emerges from a suspicion that God can’t really be counted on. Yes, the Bible has stories about the Holy Spirit empowering followers to do amazing things on Christ’s behalf, but how likely is that?

It is not as popular as it once was, but I’ve often heard the stories of Jesus feeding the multitudes explained as miracles of sharing. John’s gospel speaks of “signs” rather than miracles, and he tells of Jesus feeding 5000 in a manner that does not lend it self to sharing interpretations. Not only are there twelve baskets of leftovers, but the crowd witnessing it is ready to crown Jesus king because of this momentous event.

It’s a little hard to imagine that the crowd acts as they do because Jesus convinced them to share the lunches they had hidden under the cloaks, argued persuasively that there was enough for all if everyone pitched in. This, however, has not stopped preachers and scholars from suggesting that this is exactly what happened. There was always enough food, but people worried they’d be mobbed by the unprepared folks in the crowd if they revealed the lunch tucked in their pockets.

I suppose it would be no small feat convincing folks to share when they’re worried that revealing their meager provisions could turn the crowd into a hungry mob. Still, if that’s the best Jesus can do, if that’s all God has –  a convincing argument – well no wonder people don’t expect God to do much of anything.

For those of us who feel called to be the Church, to be the body of Christ in the world, surely we must expect more from God than a little cheerleading from the sidelines. I’ve never been clear on just how the mix of human agency and divine power works, but very often I’ve acted as though it all falls to the human side. If the pastor isn’t good enough, if the youth leader isn’t good enough, if the lay leaders are committed enough, and on and on, then nothing much is going to happen.

The humans look like the only gods in this sort of story. Perhaps we will scrounge up enough to give everyone a taste, but it’s hard to imagine everyone full and twelve overflowing baskets remaining.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Sermon: Hearing and Seeing

John 9:1-41
Hearing and Seeing
James Sledge                                                                                       March 26, 2017
John’s gospel is often misunderstood and misused by modern Christians who do not realize that John writes to Jewish Christians. His congregation is in conflict with synagogue leaders who threaten to throw them out over their non-orthodox beliefs. When John speaks disparagingly of “the Jews,” he does not use the term literally (true of many terms in John). It refers only to those powers-that-be who are threatening his community.

As he walked along, (Jesus) saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
“Why is this man blind?” ask the disciples. “What caused this?” Of course they already have assumptions about the causes. When they look at that blind man, they see him in a certain light.
“Whose fault is it that this man is blind?” It must be someone’s fault. There’s some reason that the only way he can survive is to stand on a street corner begging, like those people with their signs that I pass all the time in my car. Who’s fault is it?
The disciples look at the world and see it a certain way, and so they see a man who deserves his fate in some way, at least indirectly. If he hadn’t caused the problem himself, he was the product of bad family background.
Jesus seems not to see the world the same way the disciples do, that I do. He shows little interest in determining fault, but he does see an opportunity to show God’s love moving in the world, to be light in the darkness while there is the chance.
It’s an odd interaction. There’s spit and mud and a command. “Go to Siloam and wash.” The blind man hasn’t even asked Jesus for any help, but when Jesus speaks to him, he does just as Jesus says. And then he can see. Regardless of why he was born blind, regardless of why he’s there at Seven Corners with his sign every day, this is a wonderful moment. He won’t have to beg any more. Everyone that knows him will be celebrating.
But many of his neighbors don’t seem to recognize him anymore. He looks vaguely familiar, but he’s not a blind beggar. It must be someone else.
Way back when I was in elementary school, a girl with some significant learning and emotional challenges sat next to me. This was the 1960s, before there was much sensitivity to such things. She had few friends and struggled to keep up in class. It seemed likely she would have to repeat the grade.
One day we had our weekly spelling test, and Cathy was excited because she had spelled all ten words correctly. I knew better. I had seen her glancing at my paper, and I told the teacher. The classmate behind me agreed, and the teacher had her take the test again. She got them all correct again.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Sermon: Drawn to the Water

John 4:5-42
Drawn to the Water
James Sledge                                                                           March 19, 2017
In this sermon, people playing the parts of Jesus and the Samaritan woman come to the well. They speak the words spoken by these two while the pastor narrates and offers some observations at several pauses in the action. As such the scripture reading is woven into the sermon itself. The congregation joins in reading the last verse of the scripture which also concludes the sermon.

So Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.  (Jesus walks out and sits down.)
7A Samaritan woman came to draw water (Woman comes to the well.), and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (8His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)

A Samaritan woman.  I’m not sure it is possible for us to appreciate the force of these words. We have no experience with the enmity between Jews and Samaritans or the status of women in Jesus’ day. But there are those we’d rather not talk to if we met in a strange or unfamiliar place. Perhaps our Samaritan woman, the one we don’t share things in common with, is a black male, a Syrian refugee, an illegal alien, an unhinged conservative, a raving liberal, a transgender woman.
That doesn’t apply to Nicodemus, the last person Jesus met. He’s a respected, educated, religious leader, a white Presbyterian of his day. He came to Jesus in the dark of night, impressed and curious, but also wary. This unnamed woman, an outsider many of us would rather not speak to, is approached by Jesus, a man she has never heard of, because he is thirsty in the noonday heat and needs her help.

10Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Living water. For Nicodemus the term was born again. In the gospel’s original language, both terms have double meanings. The literal meanings speak of being born a second time or of fresh, flowing water in contrast to that from a cistern. Figuratively they speak of being born from above or of life-giving waters. Both Nicodemus and this woman hear Jesus literally and so misunderstand him. For Nicodemus, this becomes a total roadblock.
But while this unnamed, female, outsider misunderstands as well, she remains open. Something about her, her lack of religious certainty perhaps, her need for water perhaps. “Sir, give me this water. I’m tired of being thirsty and I’m tired of having to come back here over and over. I’m tired of the all the drudgery and barely keeping my head above water. I’m tired of whatever I do not being enough. Sir, whatever it is you have, please give it to me.”

Monday, March 6, 2017

Sermon Video: Listening for Who We Are

Be warned. I have an extended coughing fit in this sermon.

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Sermon: Faith Prenups

Matthew 19:16-26
Faith Prenups
James Sledge                                                                                                   March 5, 2017

I’ve told this story before, but it’s a favorite of mine and, I hope, worth telling again. It took place a long time ago in Birmingham, Alabama, where James Bryan served as pastor at Third Presbyterian from 1889 until 1939. Over that time he became an influential and beloved figure in the city. Everyone knew Brother Bryan.
He was noted as an evangelist, for work on racial reconciliation, and especially for his work with the poor and homeless. There’s still a Brother Bryan Mission in Birmingham, along with a Brother Bryan Park and a statue of him that’s a well-known city landmark. 
Bryan thought of himself as pastor to everyone he met. One day he met a well to do businessman, and in their conversations asked the man whether he was a tither. The man was not familiar with this practice of giving the first 10 percent of one’s income to God, so Brother Bryan launched into a stirring biblical argument for tithing. 
The businessman responded, “Oh you don’t understand. I make a lot of money. Ten percent would be a whole lot more than I could afford to give to a church.”
Brother Bryan replied, “Well sir, I think we ought to pray about this.” He got down on his knees and cried out to heaven, “Cut him down Lord, cut him down! Lord, please reduce this man’s income so he can afford to tithe!”
 I don’t know if this story really happened, but I’m pretty sure it’s true. Many make a lot or have a lot that gets in the way of being a disciple, just like the rich man who visits Jesus.
This rich young man seems like a pretty good guy, the sort any church would want as a member. He’s serious about the biblical commands, so unlike that businessman, he did tithe. But like the businessman, there were things he could not let go of. He wanted to follow Jesus, but he went away grieving. The thought of what he would lose was just too much.
This story has unnerved Jesus’ followers from the moment it happened. It might have been an isolated story about one rich man except Jesus adds a blanket statement. “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven… it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.” This stuns the disciples. Like many of us, they think of wealth as a blessing. But Jesus speaks of it as a curse.
A lot of time in a lot of sermons has been spent trying to un-curse wealth, but the meager level of giving in many churches suggests that clinging to our wealth is still a major hurdle for those who would follow Jesus. But while a discipline of giving is critical for anything resembling spiritual maturity, I’m not sure that’s what today’s scripture is about.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Giving Love for Lent

It’s sometimes referred to as the Shema, from the Hebrew word that begins the command. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” This verse from Deuteronomy is the one Jesus quotes when asked for the “greatest commandment." He then pairs it with another from Leviticus. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

I wonder if either command is really possible, but I’m especially doubtful about loving God with all one’s heart, soul, and might. Do we ever really give our all to another? Think about the loving relationships that you have been a part of. Was there not always some small part of yourself that you held back? Can a psychologically healthy self be maintained without some holding back of that self?

Perhaps I’m nitpicking. No doubt God makes allowances for such limitations, but even then I wonder about this command to love God with our all. I certainly don’t do it, and in twenty plus years as a pastor, I’ve not run across anyone I thought was close to pulling it off. Even taking into account the hyperbole typical of biblical/Middle Eastern speech, what does it mean to fail so regularly to keep what Jesus says is the most important commandment?

Of course we Protestants have a long history of neglecting the commandment/obedience side of faith. However it isn’t our theology that has led us astray so much as popular thinking and practice. Our theology correctly points to the love and grace of God that is offered to us simply because that’s how God is. We can’t get God to love us by being obedient. But too often this truth has been perverted to say that we don’t need to be obedient. Pop theology and practice speaks of faith in Jesus being all that’s needed. In such thinking, faith replaces obedience, but that is not so.

Consider those loving relationships you have had with other people. Think especially about the love a parent has for a child. When a child comes into the world she doesn’t usually have any accomplishments to merit love from her parent, but most parents are wired to love their children anyway. Such love simply is. But if a child never learns to respond to that love, never learns to love back, it will be a messy relationship. Her parent may never stop loving her, but just knowing and trusting that she is loved is not sufficient for a relationship.

Marriages and other loving partnerships are similar. One person in a partnership may love the other deeply and give of herself as fully as is humanly possible. But if the other does not respond, never choosing to love back, the relationship is doomed. Even if the one doing all the loving never stops, the relationship cannot work.

The biblical commands are how we love God back. Unfortunately, religious folks have tended to think in terms of requirements and formulas. Such thinking often views commandments/obedience as the old formula now replaced by a new formula of belief/faith. But Jesus rejects such thinking. He even insist on those old commandments to love God with our all and to love neighbor as ourselves, saying that they embody all the “law and the prophets.”

That brings me right back to where I started, those impossible commands to love. I’ve chased myself around in a circle, but perhaps I gained one small insight along the way. Thinking about those human relationships I mentioned above, I would say that on the whole my wife is probably better at loving me than I am at loving her. That imbalance can create problems, but I do try to love her, and I do try to get better at it from time to time. I may not be very good at it, but I do love her back. I do respond to her love, and somehow it is enough to keep the relationship going, even when it is far short of my all.

I have confidence that God is even more tolerant than my wife, which is a good thing because I’m even worse at loving God than I am at loving my wife. But I am trying to work on it. I am trying to get better. Maybe what I need to “give up” for Lent is a little bit more of myself to God.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Sermon: Listening for Who We Are

Matthew 17:1-9
Listening for Who We Are
James Sledge                                       February 26, 2017 – Transfiguration Sunday

When you watch a movie or read a novel, do you ever relate to one of the characters? How about a story or fable with a clear moral or lesson like some of Jesus’ parables?
Consider the parable of the lost sheep where the shepherd leaves the 99 in search of the one. It is endearing partly because we realize that we may get lost now and then. But if we don’t identify with the lost sheep, if we think of ourselves as good little sheep who would never stray, the parable may be less appealing.
The parable of the prodigal is similar. It’s beloved because many like the notion that God welcomes us back and celebrates our return no matter how badly we’ve strayed. But if we only identify with the elder brother, the good, well-behaved, dutiful son whom Dad never celebrated or rewarded, we may not like the parable so much.
Today’s scripture is not a parable so this whole discussion may seem pointless. But Matthew expects us, as the Church, to identify with some of the characters in the story.
We modern folks struggle to use the gospels as originally intended. For ancient people, history and myth were not necessarily at odds, and truth was not primarily about facts. Our modern notions of truth lead us to read the gospels as accounts of what happened. Even those who don’t take these accounts literally still tend to hear them as reports of events.
An online joke shows a Sunday School picture of Jesus teaching the disciples. He says, “Okay everyone, now listen carefully. I don’t want to end up with four different versions of this.” It is funny, but it also misunderstands why we ended up with four gospels.