Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter Sermon: A Visit to the Cemetery

Matthew 28:1-10
A Visit to the Cemetery
James Sledge                                       April 16, 2017, Resurrection of the Lord

I suppose it’s something of a stereotype. The women are the ones still trying to care for Jesus. There’s not much they can do, but they can at least go to the cemetery. They’d been briefly on Friday, but the Sabbath had interrupted, and they are observant Jews. Now, with the Sabbath over and morning breaking, they head there again.
I’m not sure where the men are. They’ve been AWOL since Thursday night, running away when Jesus was arrested. Peter makes a brief appearance outside the home of the high priest but denies knowing Jesus when people think they recognize him, and he’s not been seen since. Perhaps the men are in hiding, fearful that they could be arrested as well.
Or perhaps they’re upset and angry at how things played out. A week ago they were on cloud nine. They had visions of being part of Jesus’ cabinet with he took power. Yes, he had spoken repeatedly about a cross, but Jesus often talked in riddles. They had bet that Jesus was different from all those other Messiahs who appeared and then got executed by the Romans. But now he was dead. Some of them probably felt Jesus had let them down.
Regardless of where the men are, two women named Mary head to the cemetery early on a spring morning. Perhaps they stopped at the local Safeway to pick up some flowers. That’s the sort of thing you do when you visit a cemetery.
Most of you have probably made such a visit, perhaps taken some flowers, too. It’s a  perfectly normal sort of thing to do. People do it all the time. People also go to cemeteries just to be there. They are quiet, peaceful places, often garden-like. There may be benches where you can sit and meditate.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Sermon video: You Are the Ones

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sermon: Be Like Jesus

Philippians 2:1-11 (Matthew 21:1-11)
Be Like Jesus
James Sledge                                                                                       April 9, 2017

When I was a young boy, my grandmother would sometimes sew matching Easter sport coats for me and my younger brother. There are pictures of the two of us in our pastel shorts, plaid jackets, and bow ties. Some years the Easter baskets made the picture as well.
I’m talking about Easter a week early because when I was a kid, Palm Sunday and Easter pretty much ran into one another. Palm Sunday was when you started the pre-Easter celebration. The new sport coats and ties and Easter dresses would have to wait another week, but on Palm Sunday we got to wave our palm branches and parade around, pre-game festivities before the big event.
I’m sure I learned about the Last Supper, Jesus’ arrest, and the cross. They must have  come up in Sunday school. Plus the Lord’s Suppers that happened four times a year were mostly focused on Jesus’ sacrifice. But for me, Holy Week started with a parade, and then, next stop, Easter baskets and candy and new clothes and an overflowing church singing and celebrating. From one celebration to the next.
If only there were not a cross between this Sunday and next. That would make this whole Easter business so much easier. Christianity without a cross would be so much more fun. The crowds in Jerusalem who shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David! could just keep shouting. They could join me in exchanging their palms for Easter baskets and new sport coats.
But it turns out there is a cross, and the crowds don’t much care for it. Jesus was supposed to rescue them, throw out the Romans, make their lives better, put the Democrats or the Republicans in power, depending on how you read your scriptures. But Jesus gets himself arrested and by Friday the crowd is shouting, “Let him be crucified!”
We have an advantage over the crowds. We’ve seen how this movie ends so we can just stay away on Thursday and Friday if we want. We can skip the cross and exchange our palms for Easter baskets and new Easter outfits.
But not if Paul has anything to say about it. What a spoilsport. Just because following Jesus has gotten him beaten, run out of town, and imprisoned more times than he can count, he seems to think that all Jesus’ followers need to embrace the cross.
Of course Jesus says the same thing, says that no one can be his follower without taking up their cross. He’s pretty insistent on that point, but his own disciples run when Jesus gets arrested. They didn’t yell, “Let him be crucified!” like the crowds, but like the crowds, they hoped to exchange palms for Easter baskets and new sport coats.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Slaying Our Villains

The disciples want Jesus to tell them who is to blame for the man’s blindness. Being blind presents  significant challenges to people in our day, but in Jesus’ day, blindness typically meant begging to survive. Obviously such a situation must have been the result of someone’s failure. And so the disciples ask if it was the man’s sin or his parents.

We’ve got other options. This person is poor because he won’t apply himself. That person is on drugs because her moral character is lacking. There are terrorists because Islam is evil. Things are bad because of the Democrats, or is it the Republicans? Him or his parents?

Reasons and explanations make for a more orderly world. It’s nice to know that this action tends to lead to that outcome. It helps us make better decisions and to learn from our mistakes. But we humans have a bad tendency to think we know more than we do. We over generalize when it suits us. “I’ve worked hard and done well for myself. Therefor hard work gets people ahead, and people in poverty are there because they are lazy.” Our generalizing is even true now and then, which only makes it more enticing.

I should add that this problem is totally non-partisan. It simply takes different forms depending on one’s point of view. We all have different villains that we blame for “how things are.” Perhaps our villain is a breakdown of morality or perhaps it is corporate greed and malfeasance. Perhaps it is the One Percent or perhaps it is the welfare state.

Often there is enough evidence to convince some that our villain is THE cause. And we agree that the only solution is to slay our villain. Whatever problem we are considering, we tend to approach it like the disciples when they saw the blind man. We look for villains. And very often the question of whose fault it is becomes so consuming that we forget to ask, “What can we do to help?”

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Sermon: You Are the Ones

Matthew 5:13-16 (April Renew Group reading)
You Are the Ones
James Sledge                                                                                                   April 2, 2017
Today’s gospel reading does not come from the lectionary as it does most Sundays. This week we hear the passage chosen to facilitate discussion among our congregation’s Renew Groups that are meeting in members’ homes and discussing who we are as a congregation. This passage is a portion of the so-called Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5:1 – 7:29. These teachings come immediately after the Beatitudes.
Today’s gospel reading is a small portion of what is usually called “The Sermon on the Mount.” I’m not sure that’s the best title. Jesus isn’t really preaching; he’s teaching. Here’s how Matthew describes the scene. When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak and taught them saying… What follows are the Beatitudes, then our verses for this morning and then much more after that.
Jesus is teaching his disciples, but they are not the only ones who hear. The crowds are there as well. Jesus may not be speaking directly to them, but they still overhear. Do they think Jesus is also speaking to them as they listen in?
These crowds aren’t followers, aren’t disciples. They’re curious and intrigued. They may hope Jesus can cure their ailments or help in some other way. But as they listen in from a distance, standing at the back of the church with one foot still outside the sanctuary, it’s not clear what will come of their encounter with Jesus.
Jesus has just offered his strange list of those who are blessed, favored by God: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek and the merciful, the peacemakers and those who are persecuted. The very last blessing shifts from “Blessed are,” to “Blessed are you…”  “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account,” says Jesus. After all, that’s what happened to the prophets before you.
And then, in the verses we just heard, Jesus doubles down on that word “you.” “You are the salt of the earth.” But that translation doesn’t really capture the force of what Jesus says. Jesus literally uses a double “you,” and maybe a better way to render this in English would be “You are the ones who are the salt of the earth… You are the ones who are the light of the world.”
 All of these yous are plural by the way. “You all are the ones… You guys are the ones.” Obviously the disciples seated around Jesus hear him saying that they are “the ones,” but what about the crowds? What about those on the edges listening in? What about those at the back of the sanctuary? What about those who are thinking about bringing a child to Vacation Bible School? What about those who like Christianity and the idea of Jesus but are not involved in any sort of ministry or mission? Is Jesus speaking to them?