Sunday, December 24, 2017

Sermon: The View from Our Bubbles

Isaiah 9:2-7
The View from Our Bubbles
James Sledge                                                                                       December 24, 2017

Recently I was talking with someone about how we American increasingly live in little bubbles of our own making. Our Facebook and Twitter accounts are often echo chambers of like-minded people passing around articles and statements that nearly everyone there already agrees with. Because of the high cost of housing around here, many of our children attend schools filled with people just like them.
Churches often reflect these bubbles. Martin Luther King once said that 11:00 on Sunday mornings was the most segregated place in America. It’s changed, but only a little. And in the identity driven politics of our time, churches are increasingly segregated by where members fall on the political spectrum. One more echo chamber. We also tend to be financially homogeneous. Even churches that do a lot of social justice work and advocacy on behalf of the poor often have no poor members. They just don’t fit into the church’s bubble.
Many of us spend much of our time in an affluent, privileged bubble. We have contact with people who aren’t part of our bubble, but it tends to be sporadic and at the edges of our lives. We can volunteer at our Welcome Table meal program and spend part of our afternoon with people from a different world, but we can step back into our bubble whenever we wish.
Our Welcome Table guests aren’t part of our world, and can be easy to imagine that the bubble they occupy is at least partly of their own choosing. So too, we like to think we earned a spot in our comfortable, well-off bubble, our bubble that insulates us and makes it easier to ignore those outside it.
Inside our cozy, comfortable bubble, I wonder if we can really hear the Christmas story, hear it in the way the author intended. Neither the Christmas story nor our Isaiah prophecy are written for comfortable, secure people. Only shepherds attend Jesus’ birth. If these shepherds lived in our time, they would occupy a very different bubble from ours. Some of us would likely joke about their being from West Virginia or living in a double-wide. They would probably like hunting, love their guns, and consider us snobby elites.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Sermon: Savoring Old Stories

Isaiah 35:1-10
Savoring Old Stories
James Sledge                                                                           December 17, 2017

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes find it hard to watch the news these days. O I’ll watch the network news if I’m home in the evening. And I’m one of those dinosaurs who still goes out to pick my newspaper from the driveway every morning. I look at every page most mornings, but I don’t always read all the articles. It’s too depressing.
I can only read so much about the latest shooting, or the terrible wildfires and devastating hurricanes and how both will likely become  more common with climate change. I can only stomach so much information about racial hatred going mainstream, or about legislation that benefits the wealthy at the expense of the poor.
I see many online who respond to all this with a visceral anger. I can still feel anger, but I’m probably more inclined toward despair.
I’m reasonably certain that others are struggling with today’s news as well. Over the past year, I’ve frequently seen a cartoon from The New Yorker’s David Sipress posted on social media. A well-dressed man and woman walk on a city sidewalk, and the woman says, “My desire to be well informed is currently at odds with my desire to stay sane.”
I assumed that the cartoon was drawn for our current situation, but turns out it’s from the 1990s and Sipress can’t even remember what events inspired it. He did republish it in a New Yorker article earlier this year about how he’s trying to stay sane these days. A prominent strategy is rationing his intake of news.
Of course other people have more personal reasons for anger or despair, from those facing terrible disease or tragedy to those who constantly must navigate the institutional racism of our culture to those who’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted but felt they could do nothing for fear of losing their jobs, healthcare coverage, and respectability.
A time with the news being troubling and depressing, when people feel anger or despair, is the setting for the prophecy we just heard. So too, Mary’s Magnifcat is spoken into a time when Israel was under the thumb of Rome, when being poor or disabled or widowed or orphaned was often a death sentence, when hope for the future seemed grim.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Sermon: Countercultural Preparation

Isaiah 11:1-9
Countercultural Preparation
James Sledge                                                                                       December 10, 2017

How many Christmas shows have you seen so far? Many that I grew up with have already made their annual appearance. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and A Charlie Brown Christmas have all run at least once. It’s amazing their staying power. Rudolph first ran in 1964, and Charlie Brown the following year.
I’ve seen these programs so many times that I can easily recall scenes from them. In A Charlie Brown Christmas, Linus explains the true meaning of Christmas to Charlie Brown, reciting from the gospel of Luke. “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.”
The story Linus tells is well known to many of us. Like the Christmas shows themselves, we encounter it every season. It is warm and familiar. For me it evokes memories of long ago Christmas pageants and my father reading it before bed on Christmas Eve.
The story is nostalgic for many of us, and so we may overlook how odd and subversive it is. In the midst of imperial Roman might, in the shadow of a Caesar called “Lord, Savior, Son of God,” a rival king is born, a different Savior and Son of God. Amidst the pageantry and royal finery of empire, the birth of a competing Lord is witnessed only by shepherds.
The contrast is absurd. Caesar, with all the might a of superpower at his disposal versus a baby, his parents, and a small entourage of dirty shepherds. What chance does this new king have? Why tell such a ridiculous story? Why would anyone choose to align themselves with Jesus rather than the emperor and all his vast wealth and power?
Our reading from Isaiah this morning has its own fanciful, absurd scenario. Wolf and lamb, leopard and kid, lion and calf, and children playing with poisonous snakes. It’s lovely and all. It makes for a great painting, but if anything, it is even more ridiculous than Jesus as an alternative to Caesar. It can’t really happen. It’s against the natural order of things.
But there is another scene in our reading that is much less absurd. It speaks of one from the house of David who will have God’s spirit, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. This one will truly discern the will of God and so bring justice for the poor and weak. Yes, the scene lapses into a bit of hyperbole at the end, but the core of it is not at all fanciful, not at all ridiculous. Indeed we claim these very things for those we baptize.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Sermon: Sheep, Goats, Identiy Politics, and the Way

Matthew 25:31-46
Sheep, Goats, Identity Politics, and the Way
James Sledge                                                   November 26, 2017 – Christ the King

In the past, I’ve questioned whether it might be time to retire the term “Christian.” To my mind it has become a meaningless label that anyone can bestow on themselves. The label tells little about how a person acts. Quite often it does not mean that the person diligently seeks to follow the teachings of Jesus. It’s simply a label that wants to claim some bit of divine blessing for that person and their views. Hillary Clinton says she is a Christian. Donald Trump says he is one. Some members of the alt-right insist they are Christian. And Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore claims to be a champion for Christians.
Speaking of Roy Moore, the recent controversies around charges that he preyed on high school students when he was in his thirties, along with ardent support for him from some evangelical Christians, have prompted a number of articles and blog posts about the term “Christian” losing its usefulness. Moore helped this process along when he was the Alabama Supreme Court chief justice. He insisted on a display of the Ten Commandments, even after the US Supreme Court ruled that unconstitutional. In so doing, he only drug the term “Christian” further from any notion of doing what Jesus said, instead coopting the term as one more label in the identity politics that have so divided our culture.
When you think about it, the Ten Commandments are a rather odd choice for a Christian symbol, Yes, the commandments are in our Bible, but there is nothing distinctly Christian about them. They don’t come from any teaching of Jesus. Why not the Beatitudes? Why not “Love your enemies.”? Why not, “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 in heaven.”?
We seem to have reached a point where “Christian” is such an empty label that we have to modify it to give it any real meaning: Evangelical Christian, Mainline Christian, progressive Christian, and so on. And even then, these labels likely tell us more about people’s politics than about how serious they in actually following Jesus.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Sermon video: Like Staying Woke

Audios of sermons and worship are available on the FCPC website.

Sermon: Entrusted with a Great Treasure

Matthew 25:14-30
Entrusted with a Great Treasure
James Sledge                                                                                       November 19, 2017

If you’ve ever explored the buildings here at Falls Church Presbyterian, you’ve no doubt noticed that things have been added onto many times over the decades. The back of the sanctuary, the narthex, and steeple date to the first construction in the 1880s. Since then there’ve been a number of additions, expansions, and renovations, the last being the new Fellowship Hall, kitchen, and classrooms added less than fifteen years ago.
As with many congregations, these building and renovation projects involved stepping out on faith. Would there be enough money to pay the mortgage? Was the hope that the church would grow well founded? Prior to seminary, I was on the Session of a church that decided to build a new sanctuary. It’s now clear that was a great decision, but at the time, it was a difficult one. Many were worried about the cost and the risk the congregation was taking on, not to mention worries that growth might change the character of the congregation.
I was not here for any discussions about whether to build or renovate, although I was here for the discussion on hiring a full time youth director. That’s not permanent like a building, but it also involved stepping out on faith, of saying this is an investment in the future and we trust that the money will be there.
When you’re part of a church that isn’t brand new, you inherit a treasure from those who came before you. You’re entrusted with structures, a music program, children’s programs, Christmas Eve and Easter traditions, and so on. That means that most churches have to decide how to take good care of their treasure and how to utilize it well, But decisions about utilizing treasure sometimes run afoul of the desire to care for and protect it.
In the first church I served as pastor, the Mission Committee wanted to find a significant, ongoing project that would engage a lot of volunteers on a regular basis. Such an opportunity almost fell in our lap. A local homeless ministry was building a day center not from us that would allow them to accommodate more people, and they were seeking additional churches to host five homeless families for a week at a time, multiple times a year.
It was quite a system. On Sunday afternoon, a truck arrived with portable beds and mattress that had been taken out of another church early that morning. Volunteers would set up five bedrooms for families who arrived that evening and left around seven each morning. Supper and breakfast were provided, along with bag lunches for the day. The following Sunday morning, volunteers would turn bedrooms back into classrooms and put the beds back in the truck that would move on to another church later that afternoon.
It seemed a perfect fit. We had a number of classrooms that were not used during the week. The day center was less than a mile away, making transportation back and forth easy to manage. It needed a lot of volunteers to set up and tear down, serve as hosts, make supper and bag lunches, spend the night, tutor children, etc. It was exactly the sort of opportunity the Mission Committee was looking for, and so they brought a recommendation to the Session that we become an Interfaith Hospitality Network congregation.
Many greeted this as a wonderful opportunity, but not everyone. Some were worried about added wear and tear on our building and added risks from families and children we didn’t know using our classrooms and kitchen as their home for a week. For some, the need to take care of the treasure bequeathed to us made this a risk they did not want to take.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Sermon: Like Staying Woke

Matthew 25:1-13
Like Staying Woke
James Sledge                                                                                       November 12, 2017

“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” So says Jesus to his disciples in a final round of teachings just prior to his arrest and crucifixion. Our reading is part of a larger section sometimes referred to as a second sermon on the mount. It takes place on the Mount of Olives, and just as happened in the previous mountain sermon, Jesus sits down, the pose of a rabbi who is teaching, and his disciples come to him.
They ask about the timing of God’s coming new day and the signs to look for. Jesus speaks of suffering and difficulties, but nothing that will allow anyone to predict the event. When it gets here, you will know it, says Jesus, but don’t listen to anyone who claims to know the date.
Then Jesus tells a series of four parables, each addressing some aspect of his return and a final judgment. The first two speak of wisdom and foolishness in regards to awaiting Christ’s return, with our reading is the second of that pair. It features wise and foolish bridesmaids, but exactly what sort of wisdom Jesus is recommending is not immediately obvious. He says, “Keep awake,” but both the wise and foolish bridesmaids fall asleep.
Parables typically are not allegories, but this one may well be. Jesus is the bridegroom who appearance is delayed, and the bridesmaids, all of them, are followers of Jesus who have made plans to be there for the great banquet, the glorious feast of God’s new day.
That makes this a parable about and for insiders, followers of Jesus. That makes it a parable addressed directly to us, challenging us to think about whether we are wise or foolish. But what exactly does that mean? Both wise and foolish fell asleep. So what does Jesus mean when he says to us, “Keep awake.” ?
There may be a couple of hints found in Jesus’ earlier Sermon on the Mount. Two issues from that sermon seem to reappear in this parable. In both, Jesus speaks of those who call him “Lord, lord,” expecting to be embraced when the kingdom arrives, only to be told that Jesus does not know them. In the first sermon, these people are ones who did not do God’s will. Does the foolish bridesmaids lack of oil somehow speak about this?
Apparently the job of bridesmaids was to provide a lighted procession from the bride’s family home to that of the groom where the ceremony took place and his parents hosted the wedding feast. Weddings were the big social event of that day with the party starting at the bride’s house. When the groom arrived, the entire wedding party journeyed to his family’s home in a lighted procession led by the bridesmaids.
 In the first Sermon on the Mount, Jesus also speaks of lamps and light. “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Are the foolish bridesmaids somehow unwilling or unprepared to do the good works asked of them? Are these foolish bridesmaids somehow unaware of effort required of them?

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Sermon: Passionate, Fearless Love

Matthew 22:34-46
Passionate, Fearless Love
James Sledge                                                                                       October 29, 2-17

A version of today’s gospel reading appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which all follow the same basic timeline. But only Matthew has the question about the greatest commandment as part of Jesus’ final confrontation with his opponents. In Matthew, this is the last effort to catch Jesus in some mistake, to outwit him in some way.
 Perhaps Matthew wants to highlight two issues for his Jewish congregation before  he gets to Jesus’ final teachings and then his arrest and crucifixion. Perhaps he wants to highlight Jesus as the faithful and reliable interpreter of the Law and the Prophets, the chosen successor to Moses, and who Jesus is as Messiah, the anointed one of God.
Using a quote from the Psalms to talk about Jesus as Messiah probably doesn’t grab us like it might have people in Jesus’ day. The way Jesus uses scripture to prove his point was typical of rabbis in his day, but it doesn’t sound all that convincing to me, or perhaps to you.
But Jesus’ words on the greatest commandment have resonated down through the centuries. People with little connection to church may well be familiar with, “Love God with heart, soul, and mind. And love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus of course quotes from what we call the Old Testament. After all, he’s been asked which commandment from there is number one. Jesus names his  choice, calling it “the greatest and first commandment,” but he’s unwilling to stop with just one, adding a second that is “like it.” Taken together, says Jesus, obeying these two commandments will keep you in line on pretty much all the rest.
In my experience, many people tend to move quickly past the greatest and first commandment, turning the focus on loving neighbor. That happens in the gospel of Luke, where the person questioning Jesus has an immediate follow-up. “And who is my neighbor?” To which Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan.
But we’re in Matthew, not Luke, and there is no follow-up to Jesus’ statement on the greatest commandment. There are simply the two commandments, and one of them is the greatest and first commandment. It is also the longer commandment, with more elaborate language. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And so I wonder if we wouldn’t do well not to be in a rush to get to the one about loving neighbor. I wonder if we wouldn’t do well to linger here a bit and consider what it means to love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Sermon: Whose Image Is This?

Matthew 22:15-22
Whose Image Is This?
James Sledge                                                                                       October 22, 2017

In the time of Jesus, Palestine was a colony under Roman rule. Rome allowed a certain level of self-governance, but they retained ultimate power. They levied heavy taxes, a burden that often fell especially on the poor. Many Jews resented the Romans, their armies and taxes. Open rebellion had broken out around the time of Jesus’ birth, and would break out again 30-some years after his death. 
At the same time, many Jews found Roman occupation beneficial. It brought peace and stability to an unstable region. Commerce benefited from Roman presence. Besides, except for brief periods here and there, Israel had been occupied by some power for centuries.
In our gospel reading this morning, pro-Roman Herodians become unlikely partners with Pharisees in an effort to trap Jesus. Normally you wouldn’t expect these two groups to have anything to do with one another, but here they join forces against Jesus, hoping to force him into either a pro-Rome or anti-Rome statement. “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
The question is more difficult and volatile than it may appear. These taxes could only be paid with Roman coins such as the one pictured on the bulletin. Its inscription says “Caesar Augustus, son of God, Father of His People” on one side and “Tiberius Caesar, Son of Augustus, High Priest” on the other. For Pharisees, who meticulously tried to keep the Commandments, this coin, with its divine pretensions and graven image, violated a couple of them. They objected to using such coins at all. Perhaps that’s why they needed the Herodians’ help, but our scripture simply says they brought (Jesus) a denarius, and “they” seems to include the Pharisees.  Strange that they appear unfazed by this idolatrous coin. 
“Whose head is this, and whose title?” Jesus asks. That is not in dispute; it is the emperor’s. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  Or as some of us learned from an earlier Bible translation, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…”
Speaking of Bible translations, I’m not sure why our Bible translates Jesus’ question, “Whose head is this?”  The word Matthew uses is the same word in his Bible’s creation story where God says, “Let us create humankind in our image.”
When the Emperor Augustus or Tiberius put their image on coins, it is an explicit statement about whose coins they are. It’s not unlike the branding that companies practice today when they emblazon their names and logos on their buildings and equipment. 
“Whose image is this?” asks Jesus. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 
But as so often happens when people try to trap Jesus, he does not really answer their question. He doesn’t say what things are the emperor’s and what are God’s.  Does the emperor’s image on the coin really make it his? And what of the image of God that we bear? 
The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it.  So begins Psalm 24, a psalm that Jesus no doubt knew well. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 

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?