March 29, 2019

Found but Lost

The fifteenth chapter of Luke and the "parable of the Prodigal Son" have been for many years fertile soil for preachers and therefore familiar ground for congregations.  Indeed, the images are rich and memorable: the younger son insisting on cashing out his inheritance early; the whorish squandering of his monies in foolish Las Vegas living; a wised-up, sobered prodigal, down on his news asking for forgiveness from a father who has every right to judge.  He is we, our preachers have often said: We are each the Prodigal.  We are all saved by grace alone.

True enough. But a fresh reading of the whole of Luke 15 reveals that the oft-preached Prodigal Son story is actually a gateway narrative for the climactic story Jesus really wants to tell. It is the sad song of an older sibling, with its own provocative images: an embittered, resentful older son who stubbornly refuses to join in on the Prodigal's welcome home party.  While the DJ cues up the homecoming dance, the older son is passive-aggressively out in the parking lot — declaring his disapproval of the father's lavish grace.

Who are we in the full story of Luke 15?  Are we the once-lost? Are we the have-always-been-here found?  Are we the younger or the older brother?  Are we guilty ... or are we angry?  What side of God's grace do we most need to hear in this stage of life?  ... the unfettered welcome home of the foolish prodigal? ... or the pat-on-the back "you have always been with me" ... but "we need to celebrate" reminder to a resentful older sibling?

Join me Sunday morning in Luke 15 as we celebrate the good news that both brothers — the lost and the found — are welcomed back by the Father's sumptuous, unmerited favor.

March 21, 2019

Redirection

737 Max crashes.  New Zealand shootings.  Mozambique cyclones.

Where do your heart and mind go when the news of more far off human pain hits your ears?

Like many of you, I was raised in a family that valued staying current on world affairs.  Walter Cronkite was a nightly fixture in our house.  My father had the Times Picayune in front of him for an hour a night.  Presbyterian faith + the value of education + access to newspapers and networks equaled regular conversation about current events, near and far.  Surely one part of loving this world that "God so loved" is staying educated about its happenings.  True enough.

But that was before the World Wide Web and the 24/7 news cycle.  These days, with the onslaught of ticker tape news feeds and pundit-talking-heads and round-the-clock media, one wonders if discipleship calls for more restraint in the consumption of news.  With so much data available to us now, I worry about a kind of spiritual-sadness inebriation that leaves us insensible to so much macro and maybe also numb to the micro in and around our own lives.  Perhaps Lent is a season to take a step back from the Big News ... in order to take a step forward into our Small Souls?  I am not adovcating retreat, merely rest, and reflection.  Each of us must work out that balance for ourselves.

In Sunday's lectionary reading, Luke 13:1-9, Jesus' disciples are ruminating on the news of more human tragedy.  When the conversation shifts to human causality — Who's fault is this? — and the matter is brought to their Teacher, Jesus offers a curious response.  Redirection.  To be sure, sometimes politicians and diplomats use redirection as a means of misdirection.  But in Jesus' case, our Teacher uses a moment of public gossip to remind his followers about the frailty of life and the resulting call to spiritual readiness.  Jesus: We can obsess about macro matters we cannot control ... or we can be spiritual stewards of those micro matters about which we can do something.  After all, what good is worry for the whole world if it wrecks our ability to love locally?

March 15, 2019

Highs and Lows

Life in this world brings with it some highs and some lows, especially when one leans into the good news and seeks to love God and neighbor. Ups and downs: That much is clear. Apparently it was not so different for Jesus in his public ministry. This Sunday we sit together before a another memory from the Gospel of Luke. Last week we sat with Jesus in his 40-day tempting and testing wilderness. This week, we hike with a few of Jesus' first disciples as together they climb toward a mountaintop and experience a high of all highs — a magical moment of heavenly overlap the church clumsily labels "transfiguration." Who wouldn't want to stay right there, basking in the glow of God? But mountaintop highs can't go on forever, at least not in this life. With Luke's help, Sunday we'll see what happens on the other side of the mountaintop, when Jesus takes the high of heaven down to the lowest of earth. Read and prayer this encounter ahead of time — Luke 9:28-43 — and help your preacher find the good news when we all gather again this Sunday.

February 28, 2019

Less Is More in Lent

The forty day season between Ash Wednesday and Easter morning (minus the Sundays) known as Lent is something of an enigma for many Presbyterians.  If you grew up Protestant before the late 1960s, Lent was likely not a part of your spiritual upbringing.  In fact, many mid-century Protestants would have probably shunned the season (and other liturgical seasons like it) as being "too Catholic."  It is true: the Protestant reformers of Europe did push back on many of the calendars, observances, and seasons that marked medieval Catholic worship in Europe and later brought to America, concerned as the new Protestants were about liturgical rites taking on a life of their own and overshadowing the preaching and teaching of the New Testament.

However, our English word "Lent" simply means "spring" and as a Christian observance, its roots are much older than the squabbles of the Reformation era.  Lent originally developed as the final season of spiritual preparation for those new followers of Jesus being readied to be baptized on Easter Sunday.  As these preparations usually called for self-examination and repentance, the six week period became known as a time of intense piety and sacrifice.  Some of that spiritual DNA comes down to us in the form of "giving up something for Lent," but in the ancient baptismal preparations, the spirit of that sacrifice was less about "going without something I love" and more about "making more room in my life for prayer, worship, and service."  The point of Lent was not to add to your spiritual suffering, but to take away from your daily burdens — for Jesus' sake.

That last point is instructive for us.  Lent need not be a dark, serious time of feeling more guilt.  Indeed, as a springtime season even the creation all around us welcomes more sun after cooler months.  Rather, let Lent be some weeks during which we offload one or more of life's distracting comforts ... in order to make room in our daily lives for what the Protestant reformers would have called "deeper piety" — personal examination, silent prayer, spiritual reflection, preparation for public worship, acts of mercy among our neighbors, etc.  If eating less chocolate or binging less Netflix or skipping Starbucks in the morning helps you welcome fresh piety ... great!  But remember, the point is not so much additional suffering (especially first world suffering!) for suffering's sake, but rather additional prayerful consciousness for Jesus' sake.  Less of one thing makes room for more of another.  Lent need not be any more complicated than that.

So, no, Lent is not a native experience for many Presbyterians of certain generations.  But since the late 1960s there has been among American Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike, a much greater awareness that we could probably stand to learn from one another the various ancient practices of discipleship, of following Jesus.  I for one am grateful for Lent's arrival on our Presbyterian scene in recent decades.  I appreciate its sharper focus, its simplicity, and its call to pay closer attention to how we are remembering our baptisms and following Jesus in our daily lives.

This month, we will follow the ministry of Jesus through the gospel of Luke, as the lectionary gospel readings serve up living examples of his lordship and love.  I'm looking forward to making this Lenten journey with you for the first time.

January 30, 2019

Gifted Gifts

Presbyterians have a large gene labelled Modesty running around in our spiritual DNA.

Most of our parents taught most of us to 1. stay nice and quiet during the worship of God, and 2. never to brag.  Makes sense. You can add to these parental prohibitions a strong emphasis in our Reformed tradition on glory always being given to God and not to humanity.  Even faith itself is a gift, we say.  Boasting is the cardinal Presbyterian sin.

Given all of this, the invitation to talk about ourselves in the context of faith and church likely leaves many of us feeling a bit uneasy.  Even more, the language of "spiritual gifts" might sound to some like it better belongs in one of those other Christian churches, perhaps one on a cable access channel.  Bottom line:  Is the naming aloud of our spiritual gifts — be they communal or individual — a form of bragging?  Is it, inevitabily: "I have the spiritual gift of wisdom ... Look at me!"

The New Testament is chockablock full of language about the gifts Christ gives to his church, in every generation and in every place.  Ephesians 4 is my favorite example, where the apostle lists a sacred chain of invisible gifts that are given by the Spirit for building up the visible church.  The logic of Paul's gift-talk seems to run like this:  God gives good gifts to those God calls to faith, gifts for blessing the whole of the faithful, all so that the faithful can become the kind of persons whose lives and love bring glory back to God amid a watching and wanting world.

It is this logic that hedges against bragging.  Our gifts come from God, not us.  No one can claim original ownership.  And when gifts bear fruit in the church and in the world, the taste of said fruit will develop an appetite in others for the divine, not for us.  Glory (emphasis, reputation, legacy, credit) goes back to God, not to us.   In short, spiritual gifts are gifts to be given away.  There is no room in that chain of logic for self-referential bragging.  But given the mandate to use them for blessing, there is also no need to keep the whole matter under wraps.  Indeed, there is a real sense in which we need each other to help each other discern what our own gifts might be.  That calls for conversation, and prayer, and encouragement.

There is freedom in the grace of gifts, freedom to ask of our lives and of a congregation's culture: What particular invisible gifts has God entrusted to me and to my visible community?  All disciples and all communions share Jesus in common, as well as his faith, hope, and love.  But beyond those sacred universals, what are the particular marks of God's gifting grace in our history?   Asking these questions, sharing in this discovery, and celebrating our findings — this activity is not bragging; this is stewardship.  To whom much is given (by God), much is expected (by God).  Staying clear about what has been given TO us helps us stay alert to those moments when grace invites us to give AWAY the spiritual blessings Christ has deposited in our communion.

What gifts of a spiritual nature has the Holy Spirit invested in your life?

January 17, 2019

Lagniappe Lord

"We picked up one excellent word, a word worth traveling to New Orleans to get; a nice limber, expressive, handy word: 'lagniappe.' They pronounce it lanny-yap. It is Spanish, so they said. We discovered it at the head of a column of odds and ends in the Picayune, the first day; heard twenty people use it the second; inquired what it meant the third; adopted it and got facility in swinging it the fourth. It has a restricted meaning, but I think the people spread it out a little when they choose. It is the equivalent of the thirteenth roll in a "baker's dozen." It is something thrown in, gratis, for good measure."
Mark Twain wrote those words in 1883 in his travelogue Life on the Mississippi.  In my lifetime, my late father, John Hawkins, used Twain's favorite new word frequently in his everyday banter.  "Lagniappe."  Makes you feel like you know some fun French, even if you don't.  "Just a little something extra," my dad used to say, with a wink.  "Just because."  And the kids in line at the church picnic, waiting for his homemade ice cream, were ever so grateful for his generosity.

Sunday's gospel reading is a lagniappe moment in Jesus' ministry, a story with a wink built in.  John arranges his rich gospel collection in such a way that Jesus' first remembered miracle is an entirely unnecessary one: transforming a large batch of everyday water into a vivifying wedding wine.  John 2:1-11.  No blindness is cured; no leprosy healed.  No lame legs are given new traction; no dark demons dethroned.  Just some wine.  Just because.  At a wedding party in a side-road town called Cana, our Lord simply does a heaven-shaped favor for an everyday family throwing a party, lubricating the evening with wine when the supplies run out.  It is a lagniappe miracle, a sign pointing to heaven — gratis, for good measure.   Furthermore, it turns out the Son of God likes a good party as much as most of us (secretly) do.  Who knew?

What does it suggest about the nature of God the Father that Jesus the Son performs a lagniappe miracle as a sign of heaven's shape?  How does a beverage give a fresh taste-test of God's true heart?  What does it mean to be a wine-flavored church in this sour-water kind of public season?  Where have you noticed the Holy Spirit turning ordinary moments into kingdom encounters in your life?  What must we run out of, and then have transformed, before we will trust afresh that we serve a generous God, our lagniappe Lord?

December 1, 2018

Peaceful Intruders

Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and singing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”  (Luke 2)

Who knows the last time you brushed passed an attendant of the Almighty.

According to the long-winded preacher in Hebrews (13:2) in your New Testament, it could have happened on Tuesday, on the way out of the Post Office. Then again, that may have just been your local interloper.  Whoever it was, Hebrews says: "Be nice.  Could be an angel on the loose."

Tis the season for intruding divine agents, like when Christmastime Joe is awoken in the middle of the night to the news of a paternal custody hearing (Matthew 1). He gets a nocturnal visitor.  No, not the Lunesta butterfly; middle-aged Joseph gets a dream.  And an angel.  And a word from the Lord.  “Wake up, fella.  Time to be a daddy.”

Adolescent Mary gets a visit, too (Luke 1).  That encounter always makes me chuckle: “… sent by God, to a town called Nazareth.”  Really?  Backwater Nazareth? I can see evanescent Gabriel trying to type N-A-Z- into his loaner GPS.  It blurts back, in a soothing British tongue, “Unknown destination.”  Indeed.  Who knew the Divine Word would be carried through gestation in a commoner’s womb?  She’s a nobody, this girl -- at least by the world's expectations.  The mandate from heaven: “Go surprise her, Gabe. I am doing a new thing.”

They’ve got a quite a list of clients on their website, these meddlesome messengers:  Cast off Hagar, down by the water (Gen 16).  Old man Abraham, with his PG-13 knife in the air (Gen 22).  Used-car-dealer Jacob, in a fuzzy stupor (Gen 31).  And of course, who can forget the canon’s best-known ass: ridden by Balaam, who is greeted by an angel from the side of the road (Numbers 22).  They all add the same comment on Facebook’s official Angel page: “Watch out, people.  You just never know what a day will bring. They come out of nowhere! OMG.”

They appear.  They hover.  They greet.  They intrude.  They show up by streams, in byways, or in the cursed middle of the night.  They even have an auxiliary unit that sings and dances and puts on quite a Sunday show (Isaiah 6). (But who cares for that contemporary music, anyway?  I prefer the standard old hymns, thank you.)

My favorite of all the angelic interruptions?  This one: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”  Even a third-shift trick of no-name shepherds gets an impromptu flash-mob in the sky, on the dodgy outskirts of Bethlehem.  The choral anthem they sing turns out to be no less than the news that the glory that already floods God’s space (heaven) will now be spilling over into our space (earth) in the form of a lasting shalom, i.e. a goodness and grace that will not fade even after the holiday rush is over.  And its (his) name is Jesus.  So sings the Newsboys, a band from Austrailia:

Entertaining angels
By the light of my t.v. screen
24-7 you wait for me
Entertaining angels
While the night becomes history
Host of heaven, sing over me

Angels.  Everywhere.  Speaking.  Surprising.  Summoning. I like that God is into a great deal of subcontracting when it comes to handing out messages.  That’s good for the economy, in these uncertain times.  And it means some group of them might just show up on your back stoop.

So watch your step on the 24th night of this Advent month, when, home from the Candlelight Service, just after dark, bedecked in last year’s Christmas-gifted bathrobe, just before heading to bed, you wheel out the trash can from under the back porch, and strewn across the crisp night middle-Georgia-sky over your neighbor’s yard, high above his crumbling tool shed and the wife’s composting garden, there is in the lower atmosphere a merry band of supernal beings, warming up with pitch pipes for the big revelatory number, carolling a new song from heaven, complete with a personalized summons to send you packing in a whole new direction in what remains of your gifted life, and all in the name of Jesus.

When and if this happens, don’t say I didn’t warn you (Luke 2).  And maybe you already have your own tale to tell of peaceful intruders.

Either way, be at peace. God still speaks.

O Christ, our Living Lord, made known to us in the humor of scripture’s stories and in the holiness of the incarnation, we welcome your word of peace and likewise pray for more of it around the world in our own day and time.  We are honored to bear your name, and grateful once again to celebrate your remarkable advent among us as a lowly child.  Send your angels to your church once again, that we might sing and sign your news.  Amen.