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.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sermon: Fulfilling Our Purpose

Matthew 5:33-48
Fulfilling Our Purpose
James Sledge                                                                                       February 19, 2017

What are some of the groups or organizations you belong to? I’ve never been a big “joiner,” but over the years I’ve been a member in good standing with a number of groups. I once was a member of the AWSA or American Water Ski Association. I’m a member of alumni associations at two universities and one seminary, and the AARP has sent me multiple invitations to become a member, but I always throw them away.
What does it mean to be a member of a group or organization? Why join the AARP or Water Ski Association or Chamber of Commerce or a club at school? Why are you a member of the groups you belong to?
Reasons for joining groups and organizations vary. I had to join the AWSA in order to enter waterski tournaments. I didn’t really ask to join the alumni associations, and the AARP promises me discounts on products and services along with various other benefits.
I’m not a member of the Smithsonian, though I could become one for $26.00. But I did recently have the chance to visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. You can’t really see it all in a day, but it is a remarkable experience.
The history portion is designed so that you start at the very bottom floor, well below ground, moving through dark exhibits about slave ships and the early slave trade. As you continue you, you move up through the Civil War, Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow and segregation, the Civil Rights movement, ending at the inauguration of our first African American president.
As I worked my way through sections focused on the Civil Rights movement with exhibits on the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Freedom Riders, and the March on Washington, the term “member” was largely absent. There were certainly organizations that one could join that supported the movement, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) or the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), but the big moments of the Civil Rights Movement weren’t about membership. They were about active participation.
I’m not sure how it was that the Church came to use the term “member” to speak of the participants in a local community of faith. After all, we already had a perfectly good word: “disciple.” It’s the word used for the first followers of Jesus and the word Jesus uses when he commands those disciples to begin building the Church. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
The Church’s job, according to Jesus, is to make disciples, something that happens by baptism and by obedience, by learning to obey the commands Jesus gives us. And the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ first big discipleship lesson.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sermon: Fulfilling the Law

Matthew 5:21-32
Fulfilling the Law
James Sledge                                                                                       February 12, 2017

Today’s Old Testament reading is part of a covenant renewal ceremony. Moses has led Israel for decades in the wilderness, but before they finally enter the land of promise, Moses reminds them of the covenant with God made at Mount Sinai, That includes the Ten Commandments, some of which Jesus recalls in our gospel reading. You shall not murder. Neither shall you commit adultery. Neither shall you steal. Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor. Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife.
Notice there’s nothing about coveting your neighbor’s husband. That’s because women were thought of as property. To covet a man’s wife was to think about stealing his property. Similarly, adultery was a property crime in that it damaged another man’s property.
Things had not changed much by Jesus’ day. Wealthy Roman women enjoyed a bit more freedoms, but by and large women were subordinate to and dependent on men. When a man divorced a woman – which could be done easily – she could quickly find herself in poverty and danger. We live in very different times, but residue of those ancient views is still with us.
I recently read a book by local colleague Ruth Everhart. It’s a memoir that begins with a home invasion at the place she and her college roommates rented in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Two intruders held the women for hours at gunpoint and raped them repeatedly. The rest of the book is about the long, long struggle to put her life back together, to become whole again. The title of the book is telling: Ruined.[1]
Perhaps some of you saw Ruth’s column in The Washington Post just before Christmas. She spoke of a religious “culture of purity” that celebrates the virgin Mary in ways that only add to the pain of those like her.[2] Religion has often enforced and encouraged standards of sexual purity that weigh much more heavily on women, echoes, no doubt, of a time when women were reduced to property.
So what to do with religious rules from ancient times and cultures? Christians have sometimes viewed this as an Old Testament problem that gets fixed by Jesus and the New Testament, but there are multiple problems with such a view.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Sermon: A Place for the Little People

Matthew 18:1-14
A Place for the Little People
James Sledge                                                                                       February 5, 2017

It’s not clear that anyone actually ever said it at the Academy Awards, but the phrase is closely associated with the Oscars. “I’d like to thank all the little people who helped me win this award.” I searched the internet and found times when it was parodied. Paul Williams, on sharing a win for best song with Barbra Streisand said, "I was going to thank all the little people, but then I remembered I am the little people."
Paul Williams’ self-deprecating humor aside, most of us do not want to be one of the little people. Somebody has to be the third string guard on the football team, the janitor on the movie set, or the mail room clerk at the company headquarters, but most people don’t aspire to such positions. We want to be the starter, the star, the big wig.
In the world Jesus lived in, children would have been numbered among the little people, and not just in stature. Unlike in our world, first-century children did not enjoy much in the way of status or rights. Childhood was short and hard. Until they could begin to take on adult roles, usually early in puberty, children were not regarded as full persons. No one tried to get in touch with their inner child, nor did they point to children as examples to be followed. All of which makes Jesus’ words more radical than we may realize.
Like many of us, the disciples don’t aspire to be one of the little people, and they ask Jesus what makes someone a star in God’s coming new day. “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Perhaps they expect it will be the one who can do miracles or who has the strongest faith or who understand the scriptures inside and out. But Jesus places a child, one of the unimportant, little people, in their midst and says, “Unless you change and become like this, you can’t be part of the kingdom at all.”
Ever since he first called the disciples, Jesus has been teaching them about how different the kingdom is from the world, how the first will be last, how those who mourn and are persecuted are considered blessed. Still, I suspect they were stunned by Jesus’ words.