Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Church or Jesus

Psalm 15

1   Help, O LORD, for there is no longer anyone who is godly;
          the faithful have disappeared from humankind.
2   They utter lies to each other;
          with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.
3   May the LORD cut off all flattering lips,
          the tongue that makes great boasts,
4   those who say, “With our tongues we will prevail;
          our lips are our own — who is our master?”
5   “Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan,
          I will now rise up,” says the LORD;
          “I will place them in the safety for which they long.”
6   The promises of the LORD are promises that are pure,
          silver refined in a furnace on the ground,
          purified seven times.
7   You, O LORD, will protect us;
          you will guard us from this generation forever.
8   On every side the wicked prowl,
          as vileness is exalted among humankind.

I've not read the Newsweek article featured on the cover picture. I stumbled onto the picture doing a Google search from something else, but it's an intriguing title: "Forget the Church - Follow Jesus." Not having read it, and can't really weigh in on what the article says. I do think it is nearly impossible to follow Jesus without a church community of some sort. That said, quite a few instititutions that call themselves "church" don't seem terribly interested in following Jesus.

I suppose that is why the Church must be reborn from time to time. 2017 will mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation on October 31, 1517, the date Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to door of the church in Wittenberg. That would lead to a long period of upheaval, conflict, and change that would help usher in the modern era.

I wonder if many churches in our day aren't just as detached from the teachings of Jesus as Luther thought the church of his day was. We have associated church with our political views, our nation, our agendas and issues, and those things guide us more than anything Jesus says or commands. In the past, Mainline denominations have gotten into bed with the powers that be. In the most recent election, many evangelicals cast their lot with Donald Trump in the hope he would further issues dear to them. In neither instance does Jesus seem to have been the primary driving factor.

Such problems are hardly unknown to the people of Old Testament times. Israel's history is filled with stories of their falling away from the way of God. Often they continued to maintain the religious rituals and offer their worship and prayers to Yahweh. But, as a cursory reading of the prophets will show, they did not live in ways that were pleasing to God.

Today's psalm seems to address such a time. Surely the psalmist would have no trouble writing some of those same words in our day. "They utter lies to each other; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak." Our "post-truth" world with its "alternative facts" is far removed from Jesus' command that our truthfulness be so sure that we need never swear an oath. (Matthew 5:33-37) And I'm not sure that is any less true inside the church than outside.

Is there a way to undo this, to do church in such a way that people don't see a disconnect between church and following Jesus? If so it will surely require the church to focus its life more on Jesus and the way that he teaches. For Mainline churches like my own, that may mean less talk of a generic God and more attention on the person of Jesus. For more conservative churches that already insist on the centrality of Christ, it may mean letting go of a Christ who functions as part of a salvation formula and recovering the Jesus of the gospels. But regardless of what sort of church, there is much work to be done.

Church will always have its failings. It is filled with humans after all. But if its central purpose is not to embody the way of Jesus, then that Newsweek title cease to be a provocative, eye-catching statement and become the conventional wisdom accepted by many.

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Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sermon: What Does God Want from Us?

Micah 6:1-8
What Does God Want from Us?
James Sledge                                                                                       January 29, 2017

I feel confident in saying that this congregation has more lawyers in it than any congregation I’ve served or been a part of. I mention that because it means many people here should recognize what’s going on in our scripture passage. Rise, plead your case… The scene is a courtroom, a cosmic one. Mountains and hills and the foundations of the earth are seated as a jury. Israel is subpoenaed to testify, for God has a case against her.
I’m not sure why our translation says the Lord has a controversy with Israel. Better, Yahweh has a lawsuit. But what is it that has caused God to take this step, to take God’s own people to court?
Here, once more, we encounter the problem of dealing with short snippets of scripture in worship. God’s lawsuit makes little sense without what comes before. The evidence against Israel is already before the court, but we don’t know it if we’ve not read the book of Micah. There Micah rails against the wealthy who enrich themselves at the expense of the poor, pushing families off ancestral lands in order to expand vast holdings. He condemns politicians who have sanctioned such activities and religious leaders who have invoked God’s blessings on an economic boom for the wealthy built on the suffering of the poor.
This was not appreciated by the wealthy and powerful. “One should not preach of such things…” they complain. I’m reminded of the old joke about parishioners complaining when the pastor leaves the expected confines of faith, belief, and the spiritual. “He’s stopped preaching and gone to meddling.”
The rich and powerful are not much different in our day than in Micah’s. They still want religious sanction without religious critique. Donald Trump, like every president before him, invited religious figures to pray at his inauguration, to associate God’s blessings with his presidency. At this inauguration and others, those asked to pray are chosen and vetted to ensure that they know and appreciate their proper role, as Micah clearly did not.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Beloved Daughters of God

That's me on left wearing red stole.
When you remember that Jesus and the gospel writers who tell his story were products of a patriarchal society that thought of women as less than fully human, it is remarkable how well women fare in the gospel story. (That women are primary witnesses to the resurrection is astounding considering that women could not serve as legal witnesses.)

Today's gospel reading is a good case in point. Jesus is headed to the home of Jairus, an important synagogue leader, to tend to his sick child. But Jesus is interrupted by an unamed woman. Not only is she unamed, she is unclean. Under one of those laws that only makes sense to patriarchy, women were considered unclean during their menstrual flow. And this woman has been bleeding for 12 years. For 12 years she has been deemed unfit to participate in community life.

This likely explains why she approaches Jesus as she does, not speaking to him but using the crowd as cover so she can get close and touch his clothes. It's a great plan until Jesus notices and demands to know who touched him. Caught, the woman comes forward in fear. Surely Jesus will be angry that his important mission has been interrupted by a destitute woman, and an unclean one at at that.

Instead, Jesus calls her "Daughter." He commends her faith and, declares her healed, and says she is "saved" or "made whole." (The word can mean "made well," but that seems a bad translation when Jesus uses a different word to speak of her being "healed.") Jesus embraces her and restores he to life in the community, not at all what the woman, or anyone else, had expected.


I participated in the Women's March on Washington on Saturday. It was an incredibly uplifting event, and despite suffocating crowds and difficulties finding a place to see or hear the speakers because of unexpectedly large turnout, the spirit of the day was remarkably upbeat, light, and joyful. Not that everyone appreciated that. Yesterday one of my Facebook "friends" posted a meme with a crowd picture and this caption. "In one day Trump got more fat women out walking than Michelle Obama did in 8 years." 

Jesus may have responded to an unimportant, unclean woman with surprising kindness, insisting on her worth as a child of God, but patriarchy dies slowly. The author of the meme seems to view "women" as a derogatory term, one made worse when combined with "fat." That is not unexpected considering that patriarchy values women largely as sexual objects.

In the gospel stories, Jesus has many encounters with women, and never does he dismiss them or speak ill of them. He saves his ire for those who criticize his interaction with women and others considered sinners.  It is religious leaders who draws lines of exclusion and keepers of patriarchy whom Jesus condemns. But we still seem not to have fully learned the lessons Jesus teaches.

Sermon video: Choosing the Right Arc

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Sermon: Choosing the Right Arc

Matthew 4:12-23
Choosing the Right Arc
James Sledge                                                                                       January 22, 2017

I did not get down there for Martin Luther King Day last week, but his memorial is one of my favorite spots. I especially like walking along and rereading his quotes carved into the granite walls that arc along the memorial. One of my favorites is, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Dr. King was a pastor, but his status as civil rights icon means that many don’t appreciate how much Christian faith drove his civil rights work. It was about much more than people of color gaining the same fundamental right enjoyed by whites. It was also a deeply Christian activity that sought to embody God’s kingdom, God’s new day.
For Dr. King, the hope that all people would someday be one was not rooted solely in  what is possible if human beings strive hard enough. It was also rooted in the certainty of his faith that glimpsed a day when all divisions were ended, when what the Apostle Paul wrote came fully to pass. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
My fondness for Dr. King, and for his quote on “the arc of the moral universe,” caused me to do a double take when I happened upon an online column in The Washington Post with this quote.  “The arc of the political universe is long, and it doesn't have to bend toward progress or justice or anything else good. It can point backwards if that's where we aim it.”[1]

Monday, January 9, 2017

Foolish Faith

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.
The boastful will not stand before your eyes;
      you hate all evildoers.
You destroy those who speak lies;
      the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful.
Psalm 5:1-6

Clearly the author of Psalm 5 is facing some sort of difficulty. No details are given, but presumably those who are evil doers, who are boastful, deceitful, and speak lies, are the people who cause the psalmist to sigh and cry and plead to God. His plea is rooted in his understanding of God’s character as one who will not abide boasting, deceit, and lying.

I’d like to think the psalmist is correct, but there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Lies, boasts, and deceit seem very popular these days, and I’ve seen little indication that God is about to intervene against those who are so fond of them.

Politics has long been a realm of “spin” and stretching the truth, but our current president-elect has taken this to new heights. In one of his latest tweet storms, Mr. Trump insisted that he had never mocked a disabled reporter despite an often shown video of him doing just that. Where is this God who destroys those who speak lies?

It is possible that the psalmist may be asking just such a question. It is not at all unusual to find people in the Bible pleading with God, appealing to God’s character in an attempt to move God to action. Such pleas are not so much statements of fact about God as they are attempts to sway God. “Remember who you are, God, and act accordingly. Remember your promises to uphold the weak and vulnerable. Remember who you are, O God, and save me!” (For a remarkable example of this sort of speech, read how Moses talks God out of destroying the Israelites following the golden calf episode in Exodus 32:1-14.)

If the psalmist is speaking in this manner, demanding that God be true to Godself and take action, I wonder if it worked. Israel suffered through long periods of corrupt and inept leadership without any divine intervention. Despite the words of psalmists and the insistence of prophets, God’s timetable was often excruciatingly slow.

Modern people have often “solved” this problem by relegating God to the spiritual realm. This God is primarily concerned with the disposition of souls after they’ve died and not much interested in the created order. Such a notion is extremely difficult to find in the pages of the Bible, but that has done little to dissuade those who think the primary work of Christian faith is to get one into heaven.

The fact is that living as though God was the destroyer of those who speak lies has always been a minority position. Faithfulness has always been difficult, always been costly, and always been seen as foolish by most people. There are just too many things that are easier to trust than God. There are too many ways of living that are easier and seemingly more rewarding than following the commands of Jesus.

And the Church is often of little help. Like Israel before, it also succumbs to the promises of power and wealth. It ignores the plight of the poor and oppressed if there is any real cost or loss of prestige involved. We prefer being safe and respectable to speaking like psalmists or prophets or Jesus.

Nevertheless, faith has remained all these centuries. Always, it seems, there are a few who take seriously Jesus’ call to deny self and follow him. Like Jesus who goes to the cross despite the obvious foolhardiness of such an act, there are those who take up their crosses. I want to, but oh how I wish God would provide a little more assurance that it’s a good idea.

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Sunday, January 8, 2017

Sermon: Glimpses of God's New Day

Matthew 3:13-17
Glimpses of God’s New Day
James Sledge                                                                                       January 8, 2017

I have a number of books featuring sermons by Barbara Brown Taylor, along with a book by her on preaching. She’s famous for being a great preacher, and I’ve quoted her in sermons often. But a few years back she wrote a very different book entitled Leaving Church: a memoir of faith. It is about just what the title suggests, and here’s a bit from the introduction.
By now I expected to be a seasoned parish minister, wearing black clergy shirts grown gray from frequent washing. I expected to love the children who hung on my legs after Sunday morning services until they grew up and had children of their own. I even expected to be buried wearing the same red vestments in which I was ordained.
Today those vestments are hanging in the sacristy of an Anglican church in Kenya, my church pension is frozen, and I am as likely to spend Sunday mornings with friendly Quakers, Presbyterians, or Congregationalists as I am with the Episcopalians who remain my closest kin. Sometimes I even keep the Sabbath with a cup of steaming Assam tea on my front porch, watching towhees vie for the highest perch in the poplar tree while God watches me. These days I earn my living teaching school, not leading worship, and while I still dream of opening a small restaurant in Clarkesville or volunteering in an eye clinic in Nepal, there is no guarantee that I will not run off with the circus before I am through. This is not the life I planned, or the life I recommend to others. But it is the life that has turned out to be mine…[1]
When the book came out, many of the pastors I socialized with agreed with one colleague who labeled Taylor “a whiner who never should have entered ordained ministry in the first place.” But I could not dismiss her so easily. I resonated with some of her frustrations with church and the world. And if anything, this last year has left me with an even more skeptical and frustrated view of the world, its institutions, and humanity. 
This can prove challenging for faith, and the combination of post-Christmas let down, winter doldrums, and news of the latest shooting doesn’t help. Christmas speaks of peace on earth, of God decisively entering into human history, and God’s new day beginning to appear. But all these centuries later and the kingdom seems a long way off. The world is still a place of horrible suffering, violence, greed, and selfishness. And the church often just shrugs. Worse, the church is too often an agent of prejudice, greed, hate, and violence.
Today, barely out of the Christmas season and moving into the heart of winter, we hear once more of the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry as he comes to the Jordan to be baptized by John. It is a strange story, one that troubled those early Christians who wrote the gospels. After all, John the Baptist said quite plainly that he baptized people for repentance. So why would Jesus come to him for baptism?