Monday, August 8, 2022

Sermon video: Spirituality of Money (Luke 12:32-40)

Audios and videos of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sermon: Spirituality of Money

Luke 12:32-40
Spirituality of Money
James Sledge                                                                                     August 7, 2022

St. Lucy giving alms, Bernat Martorell, c. 1435
The Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona

 Several years ago, we were visiting my daughter and son-in-law in Austin, Texas, and we went into one of the many quirky little shops there. While looking around I stumbled onto a playing card sized refrigerator magnet that depicted a stereotypical image of Jesus in a robe with a shepherd’s staff in one hand. With his other hand he appears to be knocking on a door, and just above this image it says, “Jesus Is Coming.” Below the image it says, “Look Busy.”

Our scripture reading for this morning is part of a longer section on discipleship. As Jesus and his followers draw closer to Jerusalem and the cross, he is beginning to teach them how they are to live when he is no longer with them. The disciples are indeed supposed to look busy because they will be about the work of the kingdom, of God’s new day.

Jesus urges his disciples not to worry about and strive for the things of the world. He says, “Instead, strive for God’s kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.” It is in the context of this striving that Jesus speaks of selling possessions and giving alms, adding, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Where your treasure is, your heart will be also. In the gospels, Jesus talks a lot about money and treasure and their relationship to faith. I’ve never tried to verify it, but I’ve read that Jesus talks more about money and riches than he does about any other facet of human life. Clearly Jesus thinks that our relationship to money is a critical aspect of faith. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

This statement might seem simply to be an obvious statement of fact. If someone’s heart is really given to something, an activity, a cause, another person, then money tends to follow. If someone is totally onboard with a political candidate, really all in, then they are likely to donate money generously to the candidate, work as a volunteer making phone calls, or go door to door handing out campaign literature. It just makes sense that if someone has given their heart over to something, it will show up in how they spend the money and their time.

But I’m not sure that Jesus is simply stating a truism. Rather, I think he has the order reversed from a statement of fact. He’s saying that where you put your money, your heart will follow. That actually is in keeping with much that Jesus says about discipleship. He says that being a disciple starts with letting go, letting go of old ways, letting go of old priorities, and, according to today’s scripture, letting go of some of our treasure. It is a spiritual practice that helps form people into faithful followers of Jesus.

Monday, August 1, 2022

Sermon video: Generous to Others and God (Luke 12:13-21)

Audios and videos of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sermon: Generous to Others and God

Luke 12:13-21
Generous to Others and God
James Sledge                                                                                      July 31, 2022

The parable of the rich fool, 1585
print by Ambrosius Francken
Royal Library of Belgium

I’ve likely mentioned this in some past sermon, but many years ago, I saw a bumper sticker on a car that read, “The one who dies with the most toys wins.” I’m assuming that whoever created this bumper sticker meant it in a humorous way, but I also assume that the people who would buy such a bumper sticker were the sort who liked their grown-up toys.

The list of grown-up toys is practically endless. Sporting equipment would seem to qualify as toys of sorts. There are people who spends lots of money on tennis rackets, golf clubs, bicycles, running gear (my favorite), snow skis, and so on. There are actual toys such as video games, skateboards, and remote-control drones. And then there are the really expensive toys such as sports cars, boats, motorcycles, ATVs, and the like.

I’ve owned my share of toys over the years. I used to fly fish and water ski a lot. I have a closet full of running shoes. And I’ve had six different motorcycles over the years. These toys have brought enjoyment, thrills, fun, adventure, a sense of accomplishment, and more to my life, but are they the major component of what makes for a full and meaningful life?

To say, “The one who dies with the most toys wins,” even in jest, implies that what gives life fullness and meaning is accumulating things. To a degree, that is the message our consumer culture sends out. Acquiring more will make you happy, content, secure. To which Jesus replies, “… one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions."

So what does life consist of? If it isn’t an abundance of possessions that is central to life, what is? Another way to ask the question is what does is it mean to be truly alive and fully human?

Monday, July 25, 2022

Sermon: On Prayer (and the Bible)

Luke 11:1-13
On Prayer (and the Bible)
James Sledge                                                                                                 July 24, 2022

Arabic calligraphy of
the Lord's Prayer

Every Sunday in the bulletin, just below the “Prayers of the People,” there are two lists. The first says “prayer concerns,” and the second says “continued prayers.” The first list is where names go when we first learn of an illness or concern, first find out that someone is in the hospital. The second list is for ongoing concerns. These people were on the first list at some point, but we no longer tell the specifics.

I occasionally hear from someone who was on the prayer list, thanking me for the prayers they received. And sometimes these people tell me how they could feel the prayers and how they helped. No doubt most of us have heard a story of someone with a terrible illness who was being prayed for by many who then had an inexplicable and miraculous recovery.

Of course that is often not the case. People on the prayer list, people for whom I and many others have prayed for healing are sometimes not healed at all. Sometimes this seems especially tragic when a young person is sick and dies. Why are some healed and some not? Why does prayer seem to work sometimes and not in others?

Such questions can feel especially poignant and difficult when part of this morning’s scripture is brought to bear. Jesus says, "So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Taken in isolation, these verses might well lead one to think that when prayer doesn’t work it must be the fault of the one doing the praying. Somehow they didn’t say the right words or pray the right way. Perhaps they didn’t have enough faith. There must be some reason that God didn’t respond to those prayers.

Sermon video: On Prayer (and the Bible) (Luke 11:1-13)

Audios and videos of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Monday, July 18, 2022

Sermon video: Doom and Gloom (Amos 8:1-12)

Videos and audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sermon: Doom and Gloom

Amos 8:1-12
Doom and Gloom
James Sledge                                                                                                 July 17, 2022

The Prophet Amos
by Irving Amen (1918-2011)

You may or may not be aware that this congregation recently became part of something called VOICE or Virginias Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement. VOICE is a coalition of around 50 faith communities who work together to address systemic social justice issues in northern Virginia. Getting well connected with VOICE hasn’t been easy during a pandemic, but I think you will be hearing about initiatives we want to get involved with in the future.

Recently another church member and I attended a VOICE meeting that discussed trying to address some of the issues in what is a woefully inadequate Fairfax County mental health system. Even people with means struggle to access any sort of emergency care for a family member experiencing a mental health crisis, and the situation is even more dire for people who are poor.

Among the many things I learned at this meeting is that the rules for the state of Virginia require that any mental health medications for Medicaid patients must be prescribed by a psychiatrist. No prescriptions from general practitioners allowed. But here’s the catch. Not a single psychiatrist in Fairfax County accepts Medicaid patients. Good mental health care is difficult to find for anyone, but if you are poor, it is nearly impossible.

Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring ruin to the poor of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Sermon video: Forsaking Tribal Gods (2 Kings 5:1-14)

Audios and videos of sermons and worship available on the FCPC webpage.

Sermon: Forsaking Tribal Gods

2 Kings 5:1-14
Forsaking Tribal Gods
James Sledge                                                                                     July 3, 2022

Naaman Bathing in the Jordon

Woodcut from the Cologne Bible, 1478-80

 I love July 4th, patriotic music, and fireworks. I’ve always felt very fortunate to live in the US, and I love all the history that is so much a part of the Washington, DC area. But I’ve never been very comfortable with the intersection of worship and July 4th. Even in this fairly liberal congregation, I’ve had people get upset that the worship around the 4th wasn’t patriotic enough.

I once had a colleague who decided to confront such thinking head on. He chose the July 4th weekend as the Sunday to remove the American flag from the sanctuary, and he preached a sermon on why. It did not go over all that well.

More common is some sort of nod to the holiday by singing a patriotic hymn, making sure to give thanks for the nation in prayer, or, my favorite, putting some 4th of July illustrations in a sermon that isn’t about the 4th at all.

My queasiness about bringing July 4th into worship grows out of two very different ways in which patriotic worship tends to go astray. On the one hand, it easily devolves into worshiping the nation. Worship that it supposed to celebrate and glorify God ends up celebrating and glorifying various aspects of our country.

On the other hand, patriotic worship has a troubling tendency to recast God into to some sort of local, tribal deity who is especially concerned with America. It is all well and good to say, “God bless America,” but that too often carries with it the unspoken caveat, “over and above all others.”

My issues with patriotic worship have always made me deeply appreciative the lectionary’s Old Testament reading for today. Every three years, this passage shows up on the Sunday between July 3rd and 9th which means it’s always close to July 4th. And this passage totally blows up the notion of God as a tribal deity. In fact, it undermines a lot of popular notions of divine power and access to that power.

Monday, June 27, 2022

Sermon video: Lottery Ticket Faith (Luke 9:51-62)

Audios and videos of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sermon: Lottery Ticket Faith

 Luke 9:51-62
Lottery Ticket Faith
James Sledge                                                                                     June 26, 2022

It seems like something of a lost cause, but the Presbyterian Church has long taken a vigorous stand against gambling, including state sponsored gambling such as lotteries. Countless governing bodies of the Church have repeatedly stated that lotteries, usually approved with the promise of additional funding for schools, are the most irresponsible and regressive sorts of government fundraising. Rather than simply requiring the most well off in society to pay for essentials like a good education, the state preys on desperate people who see lotteries and gambling as their best hope out of poverty.

Nevertheless, state after state has passed a lottery, and the state gambling racket continues to grow and multiply. Lotteries have become a part of the American landscape, and even those Presbyterians who ardently worked against their continued spread probably can’t resist the temptation to buy a ticket now and then.

Official Presbyterian policy calls on church members to boycott lotteries and gambling as an article of faith, a matter of principle. Such action is unlikely to change anything, and not many of us are gambling addicts who are personally endangered by lotteries and such. At least I hope that most of you are not the sort of who fill the lottery coffers by buying hundreds of dollars in tickets. Surely not many of you think of the lottery as a good investment. Anyone counting on lottery winnings to get the kids through college, to pay for your retirement, to help you buy your first home, to pay off student loans?  It might be wonderful to win one, but most of us wouldn’t think of entrusting our future to the lottery. And if you do, you have a problem.

Not many of us are going to cash in the life insurance policy, empty the savings account, forego retirement planning or college savings, and bet it all on the lottery. Lottery tickets are something we buy with discretionary money.