Monday, August 14, 2017

Stumbling Blocks and Off-Course Christians

"If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me..." So says Jesus in the opening verse of today's gospel reading. The word translated "put a stumbling block" is the basis for the English word "scandalize," Indeed you could easily hear the word "scandalize" if someone were to speak the Greek word to you. Jesus seems to be especially concerned that nothing happen to trip up "little ones," which refers not to children but to those learning to follow Jesus.

I suspect that Jesus' concern arises from the ease with which followers can be tripped up. Following Jesus is hard. His teachings are themselves scandalous. "Love your enemy... Blessed are the poor... Take up your cross... How hard it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven... Whoever wants to save their life will lose it..." The path Jesus walks and also calls his followers to walk involves self-denial and sacrifice. It involves giving oneself for the sake of the other, even when that other is enemy. No wonder Jesus knew that stumbling would be a problem.

All too often, church and society have worked together to create stumbling blocks. Nations and empires almost always desire power, and church has often been willing to legitimate the power of the state in exchange for safety. And so the Christianity of the church is often mostly about morality,  personal faith, respectability, and the status quo. The scandalous life of a disciple gets traded for believing the correct things and keeping your nose clean.

If you doubt that churches and Christianity often constitute the stumbling blocks Jesus condemns, look at churches' and faith leaders' stands against the poor or preferring "law and order" to justice for African Americans mistreated by police,  White Christians have used their "faith" to justify slavery, to oppose the Civil Rights Movement, and to condemn the Black Lives Matter movement. Just last week a prominent Baptist pastor said God had authorized Donald Trump "to take out Kim Jong-un."

More recently, President Trump, who was elected with huge support among professed Christians, who has been prayed over and had hands laid on him by evangelical pastors, has found it nearly impossible to call out white nationalists whose core beliefs deny that all human beings are created in the image of God. Mr. Trump, this one spoken of in Messiah-like terms by many Christians, speaks of those protesting the presence of Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville as though they are somehow as much to blame for the death and carnage as the white supremacist who deliberately killed and maimed those standing against evil, against his decidedly unChrist-like views.

All this brings me to the banner pictured above. It is the banner of "The Theological Declaration of Barmen," written by Christians, mostly from Germany, who objected to the rise of Hitler and to German state church's willingness to embrace Hitler. The state Lutheran church actually required its pastors to swear a loyalty oath to Hitler, despite strong objections from many pastors such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Confessing Church movement that arose among the Christians opposed to Hitler produced this faith statement that is part of my denomination's Book of Confessions. The declaration insists that Christians have no Lord but Jesus, that there is no segment of life that must be given over to some other Lord.

These Confessing Christians were more interested in following Jesus than being respectable, secure, safe, or participants in the prosperity and greatness that Hitler initially brought to Germany. They would walk the difficult, scandalous path of Jesus, despite the cost. They would not be tripped up or pulled off course by their church's willingness to become the stumbling block Jesus warned of just so it could preserve the life of that institutional church.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christian should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.” I wonder what Bonhoeffer would think of the state of the Church in our day.

Is the Christian Church in America leading people into discipleship, into the difficult work of following Jesus, or is it trafficking in stumbling blocks that simply bless their members’ biases, beliefs, desires, loyalties, etc? The answer will vary from church to church, from congregation to congregation. But it behooves every congregation, and every Christian, to carefully consider whether their Lord, the one they follow, is Jesus or something else.

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Sunday, August 13, 2017

Sermon: Trusting God with Our Stories

Genesis 37:1-34
Trusting God with Our Stories
James Sledge                                                                           August 13, 2017

I’ve likely shared before how my father read Bible stories to me and my siblings when we were young. I can still see that big, Bible Story book with its colorful illustrations, including one from our reading for today. It showed Joseph in his “coat of many colors,”  translated a bit differently, a probably more accurately, in our verses.
(Genesis 37:1-4) Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. 2This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. 3Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. 4But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
In my childhood memories of the Joseph story, I had the impression of Joseph as a good kid mistreated by his mean, older brothers. I don’t know if the Bible Story book told it that way, or if I just assumed that Joseph, being the hero, had to be a good guy. But when you read the entire story, it’s obvious that Joseph’s brothers had good reason not to like him. And it was more than their father’s blatant favoritism, as the story makes clear.
(Genesis 37:5-8) Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers,  they hated him even more. 6He said to them, "Listen to this dream that I dreamed. 7There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf." 8His brothers said to him, "Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?" So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.
If I had ten older brothers who already hated me, I think I’d have the good sense not to tell them such a dream. Surely Joseph had to know that this would only make them madder. Perhaps he figured they wouldn’t do anything to him because he was Daddy’s favorite. But why tell them at all. If the dream were really true, they would see it soon enough. No, Joseph must have enjoyed this. He was a total brat or cruel or, more likely, both. Which probably explains why he went and did the same thing again.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Sermon: Seeing the Face of God

Genesis 32:22-31
Seeing the Face of God
James Sledge                                                                                       August 6, 2017

What a strange story marking the end of Jacob’s exile from his homeland. When he first left Canaan, fleeing the wrath of his brother Esau, he slept alone in the wilderness, fearing for his life, dreamed of a stairway to heaven, and there encountered God. To his surprise, God promised to be with him and bless him and bring him back home once more. Now, as he returns, Jacob encounters God once more.
Jacob is almost home. But the night before he arrives, he finds himself alone once more in the wilderness, yet again fearing for his life, fearing his brother Esau. He returns a rich man, with vast herds and flocks, and many servants. He also has two wives and twelve children. God has indeed been with him. God has also told him it is time to come home. But there is still the issue of Esau. Is he still angry? Does he still seek Jacob’s life?
Jacob sends messengers to tell Esau that he and his flocks and servants and family are coming, hoping to find favor with Esau. The messengers return with a report that Esau and 400 men are coming to meet them. Jacob is, understandably, terrified.
Jacob remembers God’s promises and the command to return home. He prays for God to protect his family. He also sends waves of offerings to Esau, hoping to appease him. Servants take flocks and herds toward Esau at regular intervals. Finally, Jacob sends his family and all that remains with him on ahead, leaving Jacob alone.
Jacob is alone and afraid, just like all those decades ago at Bethel. But this time there is no dream of a ramp to heaven. This night a man wrestled with him until daybreak. People sometimes speak of an angel wrestling Jacob, but as the story opens, it simply says “a man.” It soon becomes obvious, however, that this is no ordinary man.