Author: AJ Langston

A Feathered Thing That Perches In the Soul 

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January 6 2019 
Romans 5:1-5

    On this first Sunday of a New Year, I want to talk about hope.  The New Year awakens hope in each of us.   It’s a time to look forward to something fresh, something better.  
    Scientists tell us that even rats without hope drown in a jar of water in a little over three minutes but give them a glimmer of light and hope and they will swim for thirty-six hours.  The only problem is that I never did find out how the researchers gave the rats a glimmer of hope.  
    We are creatures of hope. .  You can see how elemental hope is to each of us by looking at how gullible we are about certain things:  Someone will say to us something like this:  
    ●    You’ll have him housebroken in no time.
    ●    The place will be crawling with great looking girls.
    ●    $50 tops, with tip and wine.
    ●    When the gas tanks says empty, there are always a couple of gallons left.
    ●    You can assemble it yourself in 15 minutes.
    ●    Your new kitchen will be ready way before Christmas.
    ●    It will come in under budget.
    ●    They’ll feel wonderful once you break them in.

    The saying that “there’s a sucker born every minute” is a non-theological way of saying that we are born to hope, to envision the best.
    Much of what we think of as “hope” is nothing more than secular optimism.  Biblical hope is radically different from secular optimism.  You know the line that the pessimist looks a glass and sees it half empty.  The optimist looks at the glass and sees it as half full.  Well, now I am told that a consultant looks at that glass and says, “It looks to me as if the glass is twice as big as you need.”
    Optimism is the belief that my dreams will come true, whereas, Biblical hope always has to do with the promise that God is with us, no matter whether my dreams come true or are shattered upon the anvil of life. 
    Paul writes in Romans, chapter 5 that “hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured  into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”   Biblical hope never disappoints us because it’s always rooted in God’s promises.    It isn’t rooted in what we what we want.  It isn’t rooted in our dreams or our schemes.  Biblical hope transcends all of that because it is rooted in the immutable, unchangeable will of God.  And God’s spirit, dwelling within us, continually prompts us to remember from whence our hope comes.  
    A dear friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer.  When I went to see her in the hospital, I said, “Susan, I am praying for you to get well.”  And she said something startling to me, “I don’t have to get well.”  I didn’t understand what she meant at the time.  She is something of an iconoclast and is always saying the most intriguing things.  But later, when I talked to her about her illness, I asked her what she meant when she said, “I don’t have to get well.”  She said, “I am the wife of a physician.  I read everything ever printed on my disease.  I knew that 35% of the women with this kind of breast cancer do not survive.  So I knew that I might not survive, but nevertheless, I was within the providence of God, and that superceded everything else.”
    That is what the Bible means by hope.
    Dr. Paul Tournier, a Swiss psychiatrist and devoted Christian insisted that the secret of his life was a special time of quiet he and his wife had each morning when they “listened to God.”  Even after his wife died, he still observed this custom.  He once showed a visitor a large notebook.  It was his quiet book, crammed with narrowly spaced handwriting.  He confided shyly. “I meet God every morning to listen to dreams and visions for the day.”  Small wonder that into his late eighties he continued to live with enthusiasm and a sense of adventure.
    That, too,  is what the Bible means by hope.    When we open our hearts to God’s sprit each day, God infuses us with a sense of enthusiasm and adventure.  
    When we say we that we have hope, we are not saying that everything is going to turn out exactly as we think it should.  But we are saying that each day, no matter what life throws in our face, God will awaken within us new images of what can be, new visions of the possible. 
    I confess as I look back on my life, I see that some of the best things that have happened to me have been the hardest things.    But no matter how low and depressed I would get, and believe me there have been many days in my life when I’ve felt lower than a pregnant ant, I never lost hope that God a will and purpose for my life, some grand design that I could not see.    I have come to see that God’s will is never known in prospect, only in retrospect.  
    I love the poetry of Emily Dickinson.  One of her poems is about hope:  
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.  
    When we trust in God, we are given the hope that even if our plans and dreams must change, there is still goodness and mercy ahead all the days of our lives. When we trust our lives in grateful abandon to our Creator, we are given the hope that nothing in life or death can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
    Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.    And that hope perches in our soul like a tiny, feathered bird, and sings sweetly–in the darkest nights and the brightest dawns–all the days of our lives.  

Categories: Weekly Sermon

Stars and Stables

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December 23 2018

Christmas would not be Christmas without the star OVER  the stable of  Bethlehem.  There are only two nativity stories in the Gospels.  The Gospel of Luke tells of the pregnancy of Elizabeth, who will be the mother of John the Baptist.   And the pregnancy of Mary.   Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem in order to report for the Roman census.  Then the  birth of the baby in the stable, the shepherds rushing to the manger, the heavenly choir singing Gloria in Excelsis Deo.

Matthew on the other hand tells about the three Magi who see a new bright and mysterious star rising in the east.  They make the long journey to Palestine where they are intercepted by the venal ruler, Herod.  And Herod–and now and I can just see him twirling his moustache, his dark eyes dancing about–Herod  tells the three Magi: “When you find the child come and tell me so I can come and worship him.”  You bet.

Some wag speculated on what would have happened if there had been three wise women instead of three wise men..

They would have asked directions, 

arrived on time, 

helped deliver the baby, 

cleaned the stable, 

made a casserole, 

and brought practical gifts. 

But what they would have said when they left? 

“Did you see the sandals Mary was wearing with that gown?” 

“You know that baby doesn’t look anything like Joseph!” 

“Can you believe that they let all of those disgusting animals in the house?” 

“I heard that Joseph isn’t even working right now!” 

“And that donkey that they were riding has seen better days too!” 

“Want to bet on how long it will take until you get your casserole dish back?”

Symbolically the wise men suggest the significance of the Christ child to the world at large.  Though born in Israel Jesus Christ has come for all humanity.  Matthew told this story with an O.T. prophecy in the back of his mind: “Gentiles shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your rising (Isaiah 60:3) 

But beyond the symbolism of this story the reality is that Magi embarked on a long, dusty journey following the star until it stood over the place where the young child lay.   And what a come down that had to have been.  Looking for a king they find a baby.  Anticipating a palace they find a stable. 

Let’s put on our imagination hats today and think about what the star represents and what the stable represents.

The star represents a vision that reaches us from outside from beyond, from above.  “Hitch your wagon to a star” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1862 in his essay on Civilization.     If Emerson  were writing today he probably would change that line to “Hitch your SUV to a star.” Maybe it would best be put by simply saying, “Hitch your life to a star.”  Look up, pick out a star, a goal, a project, and follow it wherever it leads.

The stable, on the other hand, represents the harsh realities to which our visions often lead.   We Christians romanticize the stable.  Really, it was a place that stank– dark and dank and depressing.  What a disappointment it had to have been for Joseph and Mary for the first night of their child’s life in such an unappealing place.  

But this is the way our visions often end up.  This is the way life comes to us, a mixture of stars and stables.  And we spend our years trying to understand and to reconcile the two.  

So let’s plunge a bit deeper into these two realities, the star and the stable, and see what they might mean for us.  

The star.  Many of us grew up believing we could be anything we set our hearts to. After all, this is America, the land of opportunity.  “You can do anything You can be anything as long as you work hard. And keep at it.”   Failure,” writes Og Mandino, “will never  overcome me if my determination to succeed is strong enough.” 

That’s an appealing axiom , but I thought about it one day  when I was driving from my home in Lichfield Park to the White Tanks and saw a group of field workers harvesting watermelons. No matter how hard they worked , no matter if they doubled their quota in a day, and doubled it again the next day,  they would never get far beyond that field.  What I wouldn’t give to be able to ask each of them, “What is your guiding star.”  And my hunch is that you have to have a certain modicum of privilege before you can even begin to think about a guiding star.

I look back about the young men who were in seminary with me.  (There were no women in my graduating class.)  They sallied forth to change the world, to come into a local church and shake it and shape it so that it was a transforming agent for the congregation and the community.  The gates of hell, so they thought, would not prevail against it. 

But alas!  A few years later they have been laboring away in a small church in a podunk town.  The church members are petty and vindictive.  These pastors sadly realize that their  little parish is a dull reflection of the status quo.  They have followed their star but it has led to a stable.  And those of us who have been in the local church fully understand that every parish, including this one, is a mix of grime and glory. 

So what should we do, those of us who recognize that our star sometimes leads us to a stable?  Should we give up?  Should we conclude that our imagination and vision are destined to be smashed  upon the anvil of history? 

In my lifetime I have known many people who are afflicted with too much stable and not enough star.  They are forever looking on the dark side of life.  They are disbelieving, cynical, and  doubting.  They have never stood in the light of a grand vision that gives meaning to their years.  

Let me tell you.  It’s tough to live in this world without some kind of vision, however modest.  Do you know that verse from Proverbs 29? “Without a vision the people perish.  And we understand that, because if you don’t know where you are going any road will take you there.  

Wouldn’t we love to have been  privy to the conversation of the three magi on their way back to their homes in Persia?   Were they disappointed in what they found?  Did they regret the long journey?  Or were they just confused not really understanding why the star led them to that stable.  My guess is that within their lifetime they never understood it, never knew anything about the baby who would someday grow up and be acknowledged as the Savior of the world.

And more than once in my lifetime–and I suspect yours–we have felt that the bright star has led us to some disappointing stable, but we will never truly know until we,  from the vantage point of the other side of this life,  look down from heaven and review the whole sweep of our years.

Without a vision,  without a star to lead us, we perish.   I think about particularly in our retirement years.  I can’t for the life of me understand how someone can retire and then spend their days playing golf, or bridge or traveling.    I don’t want to embarrass our friends Dick and Ruth Langford, but here they are in their 70’s having started a small organization in 2011 that has mushroomed into something incredible. 3500 school bags packed since last August.  

This leads to the take home question for the day.  What is the star overhead for you?  Where is God leading you to at this point in your life? 

The other morning I was at Ground Control coffee where I go nearly every morning to drink a latte on work on our bulletin and my sermon for a week. A  young woman was sitting near me, working away at her laptop.  She got up to get a refill of her coffee and came back by me and asked, “What are you working on?  A book?”

“No, a sermon” I said,  and then I told her what I do.

“What’s the sermon about?” she asked.  

“It’s called Stars and Stables,” I replied and then I told her what the star represents and what the stable represents.

And then I asked her, “What do you do?

She’s a nurse, works two days a week at Banner Estrella and teaches two days a week at Grand Canyon University.

Then I asked her, “What’s is your guiding star?”   

She said she wants to go back to school and become a psychiatric p.a.  .  She has so many friends and acquaintances with psychiatric problems, depression, p.s.t.d, addictions, and on and on.

Then I asked her “Why this?”  And she said that a friend once told her that she needed to immerse herself into the pain of the world to discover her true vocation.  Her friend said, “Find a need and fill it.  Find a hurt and heal it.”

I said to her, “You know, that will preach.”  And she said, “I too am a Christian.”


This sermon was inspired by a sermon preached at the Riverside Church, New York City by Dr. Ernest T.  Campbell entitled “Of Star and Stables.”  December 22, 1968.  As a young pastor I thought he was the finest preacher I had ever heard.  

Categories: Pastor's Message

Crop Walk 2018

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We had a beautiful day for our Crop Walk this year. There were 75 walkers in all. We had 11 walkers from our church and turned in just over $1,000 and had plenty of delicious cookies that everyone enjoyed after their walk. Some of us walked just over 1 mile and several others walked the full 3 miles. We also were able to stop and visit with the workers at Justa Center. Justa Center is a day center that helps homeless seniors. They are the recipient of 25% of the money that was raised at the Crop Walk this year. Thank you to all those who walked, all those who donated and all those who made cookies.

You are an awesome and generous church family.

Categories: Newsletter

How we lost our parking lot and got it back

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One evening Session was meeting and a man entered the meeting. He had a facial feature a little different than some and I believe he was of a group of people that some are hard to deal with in the business world, you figure it out. If I say much more, I get in trouble. His name was Louis Becker. Louis drove an old car that should have been pulling a spare car, so if the front car broke down Louis could get in the spare car and continue on his way. Anyway, again, read between the lines.

Louis had a paper showing that he had purchased the church’s lot. The church was delinquent with a legal matter and the lot went up for sale. The church could buy the lot back for what

Louis paid in the foreclosure sale. Also, Louis wanted a receipt for a donation in the amount of the full cash value of the property. Session did not like his request of the receipt but if we got the lot back, we played by his rules. Some people make their living this way. Remember my description of Louis.

The lot had grown up with tall weeds before it was paved. If a kid wanted to skip church, he could have hid in the weeds and his folks never would have found him until he came out into the open. At this time, we had no church family that came by the lot on Monroe Street (the south of the lot). If they did, the weeds covered the Public Hearing sign. Becker got his information from a government office in Phoenix, went to the hearing, and bought the lot for the delinquent small sum.

Member Roy Christy was the chairman of the Board of Trustees. The church did not have a street mailing address, only a P.O. Box 96. The delinquent notice was sent to Roy Christy 10236 North 83rd Avenue, Peoria. Unable to deliver the notice, it was returned and the lot was sold as abandoned property and Louis took advantage of us.

Later the lot was paved so now we should live Happily Ever After. Over the past years, the church business has not been a fun time but the lot is ours now.

Categories: Newsletter

Christian Education News

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I have such exciting news to share! Sheila Kyer (aka: Emilie & Natalie’s Mom) has been promoted from Sunday School Teacher/Youth Leader to our new Christian Education Coordinator!

Sheila has been coming to PPC since Lizzie and Emilie have been in preschool; they’re 13 now! She became an official member a few years ago with her husband Keith, but had been an “honorary member” for years.

Sheila has helped with VBS for many years and has been helping me to plan and prepare a lot of it for the past 3 years. She’s also been teaching Sunday school for a few years now and has always been a big part of our youth activities. Sheila is a hard working crafty person who goes above and beyond for the youth and education of the church.

I appreciate Sheila and all of the Christian Ed staff so very much. They all work diligently to ensure our church youth have a great experience, both educationally and fun wise here at PPC. Without them I couldn’t be an effective director or teacher.

Thank you all for all that you do!

If you see Sheila around, congratulate her on the new title and say thank you to any of the Christian Education staff for their hard work as well.


Shannon Langston

Christian Education Director

Categories: Newsletter

Session News

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Again, there is not much news to report from the November Session meeting.

Church Treasurer, Donna Davis reported from January 1st to October 31, 2018. In the past, the month before December is a better month for income received as people want to catch up by the end of the year. Thank you Donna for your detailed report. It is always appreciated.

It was approved to take part in the Christmas Joy Offering, December 9th and 16th. It is to help financially retired ministers who’s pension was frozen years ago and inflation has set in.

The Clerk reported that the Session record books were examined on November 3rd in Chandler and were approved without exceptions.

The Pastor’s, the Treasurer’s, the Deacons’, and all committee reports were received. The next regular Session meeting is December 10th at 5:30pm.

Categories: Newsletter

Operation Christmas Child

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For the second year in a row the youth of our congregation participated in the Shoe box Minis- try – Operation Christmas Child. After a successful spaghetti dinner and media sale, 7 kids and 4 adults went shopping. Each of our youth were responsible for shopping for two shoe boxes with a specific age range and gender. They were reminded of the customs restrictions of no food, liquids or war toys. We are so proud of the thoughtfulness, care and consideration that went into the planning and packing of each box! Not only were they filled with practical items such as toiletry kits and school supplies, each child received a new hat,

a hand knitted stuffed animal, and toys or art supplies. The youth packed 14 boxes total, which is 4 more than last year. Additionally, they have set a new goal for next year of 25 boxes. Many thanks to the congregation for your support in helping our youth achieve their service project goals.

Shannon and Sheila

Categories: Newsletter

What is Per Capita

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Per Capita is a tax on every Presbyterian member. It is used for General Assembly, the Synod, and the Presbytery administrative expenses. The General Assembly is all of the Presbyterian churches in the United States. They Synod of the Southwest is all of the Presbyterian churches in Arizona and New Mexico. The Presbytery of Grand Canyon (ours) is all of the churches in the Phoenix area extending to the New Mexico line to the east, to the California state line to the west and to the Utah state line to the north. Southern Arizona churches are in the de Cristo Presbytery.

Our Church Treasurer, Donna Davis, will send a check in from the General fund to the Presbytery of Grand Canyon to cover this. Per member tax for 2019 is $36.25. If each member is able to pay their tax of $36.25, that will be a big help for the church’s treasury. But if one is unable to pay their tax, the church will cover the amount with no questions asked. We are fortunate that we do not have to go to Jerusalem to pay our tax as was in the Bible days. When paying your Per Capita Tax, mark your footnote “Per Capita Tax”, please. END OF SERMON

Categories: Newsletter

Mary’s Story

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Lule 1:26-45
December 16 2018 

    It’s fascinating to me to read Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus.  When we read Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus the story begins with Joseph, and he is quite perplexed by it all.  Mark begins his gospel with Jesus as an adult, sallying forth into Galilee and preaching that the kingdom of God is at hand.  John begins with his towering theological treatise on the incarnation, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God.”
    But Luke is in no hurry to get to the birth of Jesus.  He meanders along, beginning with the old priest named Zechariah, serving in a podunk village…and his wife Elizabeth, who gets pregnant after menopause.  For years Elizabeth has lived a disgraced and empty life in a culture that put a premium on child bearing.  Now joyfully and miraculously pregnant, she closets herself away from her incredulous neighbors to contemplate the goodness of God to her.
    Then Luke shifts his story to another woman, living far away in Galilee.  We know nothing about her.  Luke gives us no details  about her parents, her growing up years, what she’s like.  We only hear about Joseph, her fiancé, and he is descended from the royal line of King David.  She’s a virgin, and like old Zechariah, she, too, is visited by an angel.  But while Zechariah dithers in doubt, she accepts the angels word in faith, “Be it done to me according to your word.
    She is pregnant, but not married.  Having this child and staying in her home town under these circumstances represents the risk and terror of ostracism and disgrace.
    In a situation she does not understand, in the midst of a situation over which she has no control, in a situation where she can imagine no future that is not foreboding, she surrenders herself to the will of God.  She does not understand, but she trusts. “Be it done to me according to your word.”
    Mary’s dilemma raises all sorts of questions for us.  Where was her mother and father when she needed them?  What about her sisters, her brothers?  Shy did she have to travel to far-off Judea to get support and encouragement from her cousin, Elizabeth.  Did she leave her home-town out of the shame of an unwanted pregnancy, not wanting to face the knowing stares of a tight-knit community?   As he so often does, Luke tells us none of this, and leaves the details to our imagination.
    But what Luke does hand to us is these two women, two powerless nobodies, who suddenly are thrust front and center of God’s plan for the redemption of the world.  All the men are absent or silent.  Herod is away at his palace.  Speechless Zechariah is writing notes.  Joseph is dithering about as to whether he should get involved.  It’s these two women, cousins, both pregnant, who understand and believe what God is doing.  One is old and has no children.  The other is young and has not husband.  But both are pregnant.  And God is at work.  
    When you think of these two women, you can’t help but think of the long line of women in the Bible who are linked together and bless each other.  The Hebrew midwives conspire against the Pharaoh.  Miriam and Jochabed, conspire with the Egyptian princess to rear little Moses.  There’s Ruth and Naomi, Mary and Martha, Susannah and Joanna, Jesus’ wealthy female supporters, Euodia and Syntyche. Lois and Eunice.
    Mother-daughter, grandmother-granddaughter, cousins, friends, all share the strengths of vulnerabilities of being women, knowing often without words the lives and emotions of the other.  
    I envy the friendship which women share.  Men have a harder time at it.  We are so competitive with one another.  Men could take lessons from the deep and sustaining friendships which are so prevalent in Biblical society and in our society.
    But Luke’s main point here isn’t female solidarity, but rather to hear these two women proclaim the mystery of faith.  Luke’s main concern in telling this story is theological rather than personal.  First, he holds up the blessedness of Mary.   In her womb grows the miracle of the incarnation, the coming of God to join the human race.
    Our Roman Catholic friends raise her status by naming her sinless, immaculate, and perpetually a virgin.  I think they miss the point.  It’s Mary’s faith, her trust in God, that makes her blessed.  Elizabeth reiterates this truth when she says, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.  Mary believes in the promises of God, promises that will lead her to sorrow, while at the same time they lead to the salvation to the world.  
    The second theological truth Elizabeth preaches to us is about the fruit of Mary’s womb, the son to be born.  “Why has this happened to me that the mother of my Lord comes to me.”  The mother of my Lord.  In this simple statement Elizabeth announces the astounding truth about the child Mary bears.  He is the Lord.  Adoni.  The Hebrew word for God himself.  He is to be God incarnate.  And Mary is his mother.
    Psychologist Thomas Holmes has developed a stress scale,
based on an assigned numerical value of stress-producing
experiences.  These experiences usually involves changes–the
loss of a job, moving to a new community, a new relationship,
CHRISTMAS!   Yes, Dr. Holmes has computed that simply living
through the stress of Christmas earns you 14 points on the stress
     If you look at the Virgin Mary’s situation, you can see that
she earns a lot of points on the stress scale.  
          PREGNANCY, for instance, earns 40 points.
          A CHANGE IN LIVING CONDITIONS–25.  (Mary stayed with
          her cousin Elizabeth for three months.)
          Surely there must have been words between them when she
          discovered that he had not made reservations at the
Dr. Holmes says that people get sick at 200 points.  I calculate
that Mary’s ordeal earned her a whopping 424 “stressed out”
     Well to ease Mary’s stress, the angel Gabriel has confided in her this eye-popping news:   Despite her age and barrenness, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth is also pregnant.  The mystery of Advent grows in ever widening circles, revealing that God’s surprising
work can take place–
     in age or youth, 
     in the temple or in odd places like Nazareth, 
     in barrenness or virginity.  

     As we move toward the birth of Jesus one week from today, I
hope we can linger for a little while in that little hut in the
Judean hill country with Elizabeth and Zechariah and Mary, if
only to learn how God comes to us in the mostunlikely places, at
the times we least expect it.  
     The big word we use at Advent is waiting.  We talk a lot
about waiting for God to come into the world and into our lives. 
But we’ve got it all wrong.  The big word is waiting, but it’s
not our waiting that Advent is all about.  Instead, God is
waiting for us, waiting for us to believe, to trust, to open our
eyes to the unexpected.  
     The good news of Christmas is that God doesn’t stand at a
distance, waiting for us to come to Him.  Instead, in Jesus
Christ he has come all the way to us.  

Categories: Weekly Sermon

I Am Your Church Budget

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Through me, families are launched in marriage, persons are baptized, the young are trained in Christian character.

I provide a Church School and youth activities for children. I provide music to enrich your worship, preaching and pastoral services to help you live more nobly.

I heat and cool your church buildings and try to keep it in repair for your comfort and use. I do your custodial work.

I reach out to your community and country, preaching, teaching and healing in Christ’s name. I help train ministers in seminaries and I provide assistance to those who have retired after years of faith service to God in the church.

It is through me that the sick find spiritual strength, the troubled and discouraged are steadied. I go out into the world, preaching the Gospel in every language.

I carry God’s Word to every race and nation.

I am your church budget. Believe in me, support me, that I may carry on in your name. With your help I make possible all these services. As your budget, I am You at work.

Your contributions are my foundation.

I am your money, your prayer, your concern – -translated into action.

Categories: Newsletter