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?

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.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

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.”