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.

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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.