Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Best of Us - The Worst of Us

When I was a little boy, my father often played the folk music that had become popular in late fifties and early sixties. I grew up listening to Peter, Paul, and Mary, Joan Baez, and a group called the Weavers. They were from an earlier era but had been "rediscovered" in the folk music resurgence.

One particular song from the Weavers made an impression on me, a Woody Guthrie ballad entitled "The Sinking of the Reuben James." It was about a US ship sunk by German U-boats during World War II. Guthrie wrote the song during the war, but the version I learned from the Weavers, sung in 1960, had an added verse at the end.
Many years have passed since those brave men are gone
Those cold, icy waters, they're still and they're calm
Many years have passed and still I wonder why
The worst of men must fight and the best of men must die
I thought of those lyrics as I read about the heroes killed in Portland when they came to the aid of a Muslim woman being accosted by a white-supremacist. Two of the best in our society died at the hands of one of the worst. They died precisely because they did what was right, because they stood up to evil.

In today's gospel reading, Jesus sends "the seventy" out on a mission trip. As he instructs them for their work he says, "See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves."Clearly this is more than colorful speech, more than metaphor.

It is difficult to make sense of such a world, to understand how it is that the worst create pain and conflict, while the very best suffer and die as a result. We do not want it to be that way. Sometimes we insist it is not that way. That is why it is so tempting to "blame the victim," to imagine that people somehow deserve their suffering, their tragedy, their poverty, their loss.

Of course Jesus is the perfect example of that not being so. He is the innocent one who suffers at the hands of the guilty. He is killed for doing what is right, just as the two men in Portland were. In a very real sense, Ricky Best and Taliesin Namkai-Meche embodied Christ in a way that many who speak in Christ's name so often fail to do. That these two men gave themselves for someone who happens to be Muslim, a person many Christians feel free to hate, only makes their incarnation of God's love that much more poignant.  

I am heartened to hear so many people speak of Best and Namkai-Meche as heroes, as the best of humanity and American values. And yet, all too often, we prefer the ways and methods of the worst of us. We prefer the way of power and force and intimidation. We prefer to look for a reason that the other does not deserve our help. We prefer to look the other way in the face of suffering rather than risk ourselves to help, a tendency that only grows stronger the more different the other is from us.

In this time when hate is seeing a resurgence, when many feel freed to demonize the other based on their politics or faith or color or orientation or birthplace, I wonder if the tragic events in Portland last week might not have some small measure of redemptive power. If we can indeed embrace the actions of Ricky Best and Taliesin Namkai-Meche as the best of us, as a model we are all called to emulate, then perhaps their deaths will serve some lasting purpose.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Sermon: Bigger Plans

Acts 1:1-14
Bigger Plans
James Sledge                                                                                       May 28, 2017

According to the book of Acts, the risen Jesus hung out with the disciples for more than a month after that first Easter, speaking with them about the kingdom of God. Presumably he is continuing to teach his followers, just as he had done prior to his arrest and crucifixion. No doubt it was easier for them to understand certain things on this side of the resurrection.
Curiously, there is nothing at all on the content of Jesus’ teachings. Nothing about what Jesus said over those forty days besides the final instructions that we just heard. I can only assume that means there was no new content. Jesus didn’t cover any new ground. A refresher course, a bit of “Ok, now do you understand?” but nothing that we’ve not already heard.
All that makes the disciples’ question to Jesus even more startling. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Really? They’re still thinking about restoring Israel, about throwing out the Romans? After all this they still think Jesus is a local Messiah, sent to rescue them from their enemies? What a face palm moment.
I don’t know if Jesus did face palms, but if he did, he must be doing them still. His followers are still trying to turn Jesus into a Messiah who’s especially concerned with their group. The Jesus I grew up with was a white, European guy, and becoming a Christian was synonymous with acting like a white, European. We’re a bit more sophisticated on this nowadays. We know that Jesus was Middle Eastern and that faith transcends cultural divides. We know, as the Apostle Paul said, there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus, but we’re reasonably sure that becoming one means others becoming more like us, preferring our style of music, worship, politics, and so on.
Some Christians are convinced that Jesus is especially worried about America. Some of them voted for Donald Trump because they thought God would somehow use him to restore the kingdom to America.
A parochial, provincial view of what Jesus is about seems to be a perpetual problem for the followers of Jesus. We’re forever imagining a Jesus, a God, who is especially concerned with what concerns us, worried about what frightens us, interested in helping us acquire whatever it is we want. Never mind how many times Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross…”

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Bad Shepherds - Bad Budgets

  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.

Psalm 146:5-9

Often it is difficult to trust that the psalmist's words are true. Over and over the Bible speaks of God's special care for the poor and the weak. Over and over Jesus says the same, at times going so far as to speak of wealth as a curse. Not that we're much inclined to agree with him.

Now comes the first proposed budget from Donald Trump. Many evangelical Christians voted for the president, seeing him as someone who would advance a Christian agenda. If this budget -- one that gives huge tax cuts to the rich, financed by slashing programs for the sick and the poor --  is part of that Christian agenda, then clearly the term "Christian" does not refer to the ways of God or the teachings of Jesus.

I confess that I find faith in a God who is especially concerned for those who are poor, oppressed, hungry, strangers, or bowed down difficult to hold onto right now. I wish I were better at seeing the long view of things as Jesus could do, as the prophets could do. They could somehow look at a world struggling mightily against the ways of God and still have hope, still glimpse a day when the lowly were lifted up, when those Donald Trump calls "losers" were exalted.

And so right now, when my own words fail me, perhaps the best I can do is to borrow words from one of those prophets. Ezekiel spoke against the rulers, the shepherds of Israel. "Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them... Thus says the LORD GOD, I am against the shepherds."

What was it that allowed prophets to see such a day? What allowed Jesus to speak of the poor lifted up and the powerful brought down when he knew that the powerful would execute him? 

O God, give me faith to see and speak the hope of your new day in Jesus. It seems so very far away.

Addendum: After writing this I was driving to the regular meeting of my presbytery, our regional governing council. I had another stop on the way and so travelled a different route than I typically use. It took me by the South African embassy with the statue of Nelson Mandela out front. Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for years by the shepherds of his nation, who surely despaired that he would die in prison. As I drove by that statue of Mandela, showing him walking out of prison with his fist raised in the air, I couldn't help but feel a twinge of hope, a nudge from God to keep looking to the horizon and the coming of God's new day.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Sermon: Construction Materials

1 Peter 2:2-10
Construction Materials
James Sledge                                                                                       May 14, 2017

When I meet people for the first time on a Sunday, no one ever asks me that standard question, “So what do you do?” But when I meet people outside of church I do get asked that. Sometimes when I say that I’m a pastor people will respond, “What church?” When I say “Falls Church Presbyterian,” it almost always elicits a shrug. I have to tell them that we’re on East Broad Street, but usually, that’s still not enough. Finally when I say that we’re the stone church just down from Applebee’s, I finally get, “O yeah, I know where that is.” Sometimes they’ll say something about how pretty it is.
We do have a beautiful stone building, so it’s not surprising that people have noticed it even if they’ve never actually read our name. Buildings are an important part of most churches. When a new church first starts, it may meet in school or a movie theater, but that’s temporary. Even before the first worship service at the movie theater, people are thinking about plans to acquire land and build a building.
For many people, a church building is what makes it feel like church. That likely explains why I get a fair number of phone calls from people who attend other churches but want to get married here. Sometimes they’re at one of those churches meeting in a movie theater. More often, their church has a building, but it’s a contemporary space that doesn’t look like a church. For their wedding, they want a church building that looks like a church.
Church buildings are important and so we have a committee dedicated to our building and grounds. That committee has to worry about keeping up all our buildings and property, making sure there are plans for when we need a new roof or a new boiler or have to repave the parking lot. It takes a lot of work and a lot of money to keep all our buildings in good, working order.
Not that anyone thinks church is just the buildings. Many of you likely know the old rhyme where you form a church building with your hands and fingers. “Here’s the church and here’s the steeple. Open the door and see all the people.” Without those people, a beautiful church building would be nothing but a museum.
That’s why along with that committee that makes sure our buildings are well cared for, there are other committees focused on what people do in the buildings. People discuss and plan for worship, Sunday School programs, youth groups, mission efforts such as our Welcome Table program, fellowship events, and much more.
As important as buildings are – providing a place for worship, Sunday School, youth groups, Welcome Table, etc. – who we are as a church is more about what people here do.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

On Receiving Help and Love

The following was written for the upcoming church newsletter.

Dear Friends,
As some of you may well know, I like to think of myself as strong and self-reliant. I’m convinced that I can handle anything that comes my way. This has often served me well. During my flying career an emergency didn’t rattle me. It was simply a problem to be dealt with.
However, there is a significant downside to my self-image. I can become very frustrated when I’m unable to do something. There are plenty of things I know I’m not good at, but when I think I should be able to do something but cannot, or do it poorly, I often beat myself up pretty badly. To make matters worse, asking for help can feel like failure. And so I’m not very good at either asking or receiving help.
That likely explains why only after things got really bad, only after my wife had encouraged me for months, did I seek help for a deepening sense of sadness, burnout, and depression. Even then I hoped that a few sessions with a counselor would let me figure everything out and quickly get back to “normal.” I certainly wouldn’t need ongoing therapy or medication, a certainty that quickly disappeared.
I have a long way to go in getting back to “normal,” whatever that is, but I hope I’m on the right path. I’ll spare you any more details of what already feels to me like oversharing. I felt compelled to share, however, for a couple of reasons. The first is that I’m hardly the only person who puts off getting treatment for mental health issues because it feels like admitting to failure or weakness. Perceptions have changed in recent years, but there is still a stigma attached to mental illness. I hope my sharing is one more small chip knocked out of that stigma.
I also see a faith dimension to this. At a very basic level, Christian faith is about being open to receiving help. Our Presbyterian/Reformed Tradition understands relationship with God and faith itself as a gift freely given to us by a loving God. Jesus is the embodiment of a love that is not earned but is simply received. One does not merit or deserve it. Jesus doesn’t love me because I’m so lovable but because God is so loving. But I tend to measure my own worth by what I accomplish. And so I have trouble loving myself, much less believing that God could love me, really love me.
Our society encourages a culture of performance, and this emphasis on achievement seems only to be growing. We began putting pressure on our children to perform, to do well, to engage in “enrichment” activities and sports at an earlier and earlier age. No parent means to say, “I’ll love you if you do well, if you are successful,” but no doubt some of our children hear just such a message.
The church also gets caught up in our culture of performance, but that is a distortion of the gospel. At its heart, the gospel is and always has been counter-cultural. That is why is says silly things such as the last shall be first, the poor are blessed, and being part of God’s new day isn’t about more success but about letting go and becoming more like a little child. (Children had little “worth” in Jesus’ day.)
As the church, we are called to embody Christ and his gospel. That means being a community where people experience the love of God that is not dependent on measures of performance or success. That means being able to accept and love ourselves, and it means being able to accept and love those around us whether or not they “deserve” it based on our personal measures of success or worth. Perhaps there is no greater gift we could give our children, our neighbors, or ourselves than to rest so fully and completely in God’s boundless love in Christ that it transformed us into agents of Christ-like love.
Grace and peace and love,


Sunday, May 7, 2017

Sermon: Becoming Christ

1 Corinthians 12:4-31 (May Renew Group reading)
Becoming Christ
James Sledge                                                                                                   May 7, 2017
Today’s 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 to discuss who we are as a congregation. This passage is from a letter that addresses a congregation experiencing tensions and divisions. Paul has just chastised them for the way they do Lord’s Supper, introducing the notion of “discerning the body” in that meal. Now he continues to use this image of “the body” as he discusses spiritual gifts.
Most all of us have things that we’re good at, some sort of gifts or talents. That’s not to say that the world recognizes all talents as equals. If your talent is throwing a football, designing software applications, or doing intricate surgery, that may bring you a great deal of income and prestige. But if your talent is teaching young children, carpentry, or growing a lovely garden, you will likely not have such lucrative career options.
Of course we don’t value gifts and talents just from a financial standpoint. Sometimes we just wish we had a certain talent. There are many talents I admire, but the one that makes me envious is musical talent. I love music and wish I were more musical. I tried to play guitar when I was young, but I just don’t have much talent, and I’m a little jealous of those who do.
The notion that some talents are better than others or more desirable than others shows up pretty much everywhere, including at church. Different congregations have different pecking orders. In one, deep biblical knowledge and teaching ability might be greatly esteemed. In another it is a beautiful singing voice. In another, certain leadership skills, and in another, gifts for caring and nurturing community. Often you can tell a good bit about a congregation by the sorts of gifts that get you noticed or admired.
I suppose it’s only natural that certain gifts are more esteemed. Some are in short supply and harder to find. If a congregation really values the role of music in worship, musical talent is going to be at more of a premium than in a congregation where music is less emphasized.
However this can lead to problems. A hierarchy of gifts can develop that divides a congregation into actors and spectators. Some people are happy just to be spectators, but many want something more. It’s hard to feel really a part of community if you don’t feel like you contribute to it in any significant way.