Sunday, June 25, 2017

Sermon: Meeting God in the Story

Genesis 21:8-21
Meeting God in the Story
James Sledge                                                                                       June 25, 2017

Unless you know the book of Genesis well, you are likely unaware of a small problem with the story we just heard. When Hagar walks out into the wilderness with her meager provisions of bread and water, she also carries her child, who by the way, is in his mid to late teens. You hear a lot about helicopter parents, but I’ve never seen a mother carrying her teenage boy on her shoulder.
Now some may be thinking, “Wait a minute. The story doesn’t say a thing about how old the boy is.” True, but an earlier story that tells of the child’s birth, as well as his name, Ishmael, says that Abraham was 86 years old then. He’s 100 when Isaac is born and children were typically weaned at around three. You do the math.
Of course now that I’ve pointed out this problem, I should add that the problem isn’t really with our story. The problem is modern people who don’t know how to listen to Israel’s faith stories, our faith stories.
Like some other parts of the Old Testament, Genesis is a collection of stories, many of which existed independently before being woven together. And because the editors who do this don’t share our interest in precise history or facts, they make no effort to harmonize our story, one clearly about a very young child, with another that makes him much older.
These editors were not stupid people. They were the intellectuals of their day. But they were not writing history or recording events. They were perfectly willing to leave intact and honor stories as they received them, stories that people probably already knew anyway. They wove these into a larger fabric to help Israel wrestle with what it meant to be the people of God, especially in a time when Israel had suffered defeat and exile.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Calling God to Account

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.
   - Psalm 5:1-4

I suppose there is some small comfort in knowing that psalmists in ancient Israel strained to find God in the events of their lives. According to some authorities, the cry of lament is the most common of all the psalms. There is nothing new about looking at the world and  wondering why God does not act to set things right.

Events of recent days surely qualify. A politically motivated shooting just miles down the road from the church I serve. The horrific loss of life in a London apartment fire where the dangers were known but ignored because it was low income housing. The death of a college student detained and abused by a repressive North Korean regime that does the same to its own citizens on a daily basis. A terrorist attack against Muslims in London that may well have been "revenge" for previous terror attacks by ISIS. Yet another horrific act near the church I serve, a 16 year old Muslim assaulted and killed as she and friend walked from early morning Ramadan services, headed to IHOP for breakfast before the day of fasting began. It may not have been a hate crime, the local Muslim community is understandably on edge. I could continue endlessly. Give ear to my words, O LORD; give heed to my sighing. Listen to the sound of my cry.

I occasionally reread a sermon from the great John Claypool, originally preached following the death of his young daughter from leukemia. In it, he recounts a letter he received from his friend and fellow preaching great, Carlyle Marney shortly before his daughter died. Dr. Marney admitted to having no word for the suffering of the innocent, but he added, "I fall back on the idea that our God has a lot to give an account for." (from A Chorus of Witnesses, Thomas Long and Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. editors, page 120)

I know quite a few people of faith who would be troubled, even offended by such a statement, but I feel certain the psalmist would resonate with it. How could God be a God of justice, a God who cared especially for the weak, the poor, the oppressed, and the hurting, and let things go so awry? The psalmists ask such questions regularly. Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? (from Ps. 44)

Perhaps it is an act of faith to acknowledge that the world is not a God intends and that we feel helpless. Perhaps it is an even greater act of faith to beseech God, even demand that God rouse Godself and act, while we align ourselves with those who suffer in this world so bent on hate and destruction.

Yet all too often, we people of faith become agents of hate and destruction. From terrorists who distort and tarnish their own Islamic faith, killing in the name of God, to Christians motivated by fear who discard the teachings of Jesus in order to abandon the refugee, neglect the sick, and hate their neighbor, we people of faith are all too often guilty of working against God.

Forgive us, Lord. Hear our cry. Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love. (from Ps. 44)

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Sermon video: Telling Stories

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Sermon: Telling Stories

Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Telling Stories
James Sledge                                                               June 11, 2017, Trinity Sunday

When Naomi was a child growing up in Jerusalem, her parents often told her stories about Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Joshua, Deborah, King David and Solomon. From these stories and more, she learned that God cared for Israel. She was part of God’s chosen people.
Their God was better, more powerful than the gods of other nations. Jerusalem was a light on a hill and Israel was special, exceptional. And so when the Babylonian armies showed up, Naomi was not worried. Babylon’s gods were no match for Yahweh.
But Babylon’s armies had destroyed Jerusalem, had destroyed the great temple that Solomon had built. They had marched Naomi, her family, and the leaders and well to do of Jerusalem, off to Babylon. Every day Naomi saw the temples of the Babylonian gods; now and then, one of the Babylonians teased her and asked what had happened to her God.
About that time, Naomi heard a new story, told by the religious leaders who had been brought from Jerusalem along with the other, defeated Israelites. The story went like this.
1In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  Or maybe it was the Spirit of God, Naomi wasn’t sure because  ruach could mean wind, spirit, or breath.

Pentecost sermon video: Drunk on the Spirit

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Sermon: Drunk on the Spirit

Acts 2:1-21
Drunk on the Spirit
James Sledge                                                                           June 4, 2017 – Pentecost

How many of you have ever seen someone speak in tongues? If so, I’m guessing it probably wasn’t at a Presbyterian church. I’ve only seen it once. I was visiting a service with a group of other seminary students. It was a huge service, with hundreds of worshipers, and it happened a good ways away from me. To my admittedly untrained eye, it looked like an odd combination of worship hand-waving and a seizure. I couldn’t hear it well, but what I could was unintelligible.
When the subject of speaking in tongues comes up in the New Testament, it usually speaks of something similar to what I saw. There’s even a technical name for it, glossolalia, from the Greek words for “tongue” and “speak.”
You could attend hundreds of Presbyterian churches and never see anyone speak in tongues or do anything labeled Pentecostal. For me, Pentecost has little to do with the glossolalia version of speaking in tongues. It’s about our reading from the book of Acts, where tongues instead refers to speaking in other languages.
This is a version of Pentecostal that a Presbyterian can handle. The Spirit gives the disciples abilities they hadn’t had before. I’m perfectly fine with being Pentecostal if it means the Spirit unearths some previously unknown talent. I’m happy with the idea of the Spirit empowering us to do things we didn’t know we were capable of. I could be that sort of Pentecostal. Thank you, Luke, or whoever writes the book of Acts, for giving us this tamer, more palatable version of speaking in tongues.
But there is something odd in the story. After telling us that people from all over could hear the disciples speaking in their native languages and that everyone was amazed, the story adds, But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” Even Peter seems to accept that reasonable people might think the disciples are drunk. His defense is, “We may look drunk, but hey, it’s only nine in the morning.”