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.

November 16, 2018

Rear View

Like many of your vehicles, I'm sure, my newly procured (orange!) Jeep has one of those backup cameras that allows you to see immediately behind you when you are in reverse.  Hindsight, literally.

Hindsight is an important spiritual vantage point.  To look back over one's experience, to make note and to take stock, to pay attention to matters that were difficult to see (much less understand) in the moment of living: these are the disciplines and privileges of rearward viewing.  I have a colleague who always reminds groups of pastors: It is not experience that teaches us; it is only by reflection on our experience that we learn.  The subtext of his wisdom is the truth that it is quite possible — for many, quite normal — to live life without ever reflecting on our purpose, our meaning, our reason for being alive.

Some would say, often quite proudly: "Don't ever look back!  Keep moving forward."  There is some truth to that mantra.  We can easily become ensnarled in our regrets, trapped by the power of unchangeable events, or held captive by our nostalgia.  We ought not live in the past, true, but neither can the past be avoided if we are to welcome a better future.  Looking back with open and honest eyes equips up to move forward.   The great Presbyterian missionary Harold Kurtz used to say, "Don't be afraid to make mistakes in living your life for Jesus.  Just make new ones."

For followers of Jesus, hindsight is the fertile soil of testimony.  When we look back and reflect, paying attention to our lives, we are put in a position to imagine more clearly what the living God has been up to in our lives and in the life of the world.  A wise person once said to me, "Providence is mostly a doctrine of hindsight."  We are usually better able to discern what God is up to when we pay attention to the backup camera of our lives.  Perhaps the best predictor of God's better future for us are the currents of blessing, healing, and illumination in our past.  It is why we look back so often to Jesus' morning resurrection.  The early church seems to be saying on most of the pages of our New Testaments: "God pulled off this amazing feat on that original Sunday morning.  So pay attention.  God is likely getting ready to do the same in your life."

What is your hindsight testimony these days?  Where have seen God at work in your life?  What story are you telling about where Providence has taken you thus far?  Are you afriad to turn on the backup camera in your life?  Or can you imagine where God might be leading you next, based on where God has led you in the past?

November 8, 2018

Vital Veterans

Four years ago this month, during a two week ecclesiastical visit in Africa, I departed and locked my hotel room one evening, only to discover that my traveling companion's room next door was being secretly searched by what I could only assume was an official from the country's hardline Islamic national government.

We two pastors were there visiting Presbyterian schools that for years had been supported by congregations in our presbytery.  Our visit was largely unscathed, and the room tossing was relatively innocuous in the scheme of pressures, but our visit proved to be another reminder to us of what remarkable religious liberties we followers of Jesus in America often take for granted.  "Listen," I once said to a Presbyterian congregation at the start of our worship. "Hear that?" Silence.  "No one is coming to stop us."  Many of the planet's Christians cannot take the sound of that silence as a given.

Whatever the many shortcomings of our American-style democracy, a Christ-follower from the United States only needs a brief taste of another, more repressive political context in order to appreciate what it means to come and go in this gospel unhindered and unsuppressed.  And to the extent those religious liberties have been preserved and protected by those who have served in our nation's military forces over the years, I believe as Chrsitian disciples we owe American veterans our deep gratitude.   Freedom to be free in Christ, and freely to share his light and love — it is not free.

Given that this year Veterans Day officially falls on a Sunday, as an act of Christian discipleship — if not also as an act of American citizenship — let us give thanks to God in prayer for those who have served to keep religious freedoms free.   At the top of my list is my own father, who served in the Army during the Korean conflict; along with him, countless other veterans I have known and loved in the congregations I have served.  Heartfelt thanks to those in our Northminster ranks who have served.

Who's on your hallowed list?  For what aspect of religious liberty are you most grateful?  What will you do for the Good News this week with the freedom we enjoy?

November 2, 2018

Dedicated Saints

In conversations leading up to Flippy Denton's recent funeral, someone was sharing with me some sweet and funny stories from Flippy's life.  When the gentle laughter trailed off, and there was a holy moment, this person looked at me with tender eyes and said, "Flippy was a fine Christian woman."  I could not imagine a better period that could placed at the end of a life's sentence.  Thus followed more stories; these, tales of kindness, hospitality, and forgiveness — marks of a dedicated disciple of a dedicated Savior.

This Sunday we do double duty in worship.

First, we celebrate our Protestant version of All Saints Day.  It is our time together to remember those who in the last year have left our earthy fellowship and now wait in the safe care of the risen Jesus until the resurrection; the "church triumphant," the ancient Christians called them.  It is a day to give thanks for the witness of Flippy, Tom Goodwin, and all those many others who, despite their own shortcomings, have shown us what faithfulness looks like.

Second, it is Dedication Sunday: the culmination of three weeks of Stewardship emphasis.  We will gather our Time and Talent cards, together with our financial pledges, and we will dedicate ourselves afresh to the ministry of Jesus in and around us.  We've deliberately kept this season simple this year, looking ahead as we are to a fresh new season of being church.

In truth, the two duties go naturally together.  How do we best learn the art and grace of the stewardship of God's gifts in our lives?   Mostly by watching others do it well.  From whom have you learned the shape of giving?  Who has taught you the generous way of Jesus Christ?  For that matter, who is watching you, learning the moves of discipleship from the gait of your walk?

Let us gather this Sunday, to remember God's saints and to dedicate ourselves to the same.

October 31, 2018

Soil Tests

They are like trees planted along the riverbank,
bearing fruit each season.
Their leaves never wither,
and they prosper in all they do.

— Psalm 1 (New Living Bible)

A chief challenge of the times in which we live is that most of us are cut off from the real sources of our food.  Ask a child from whence cometh apples and—no real fault of her own—she is likely to say “from the store.”  Never mind the toil of those who labor in groves far away; never mind the remarkable yield of such productive creatures as fruit trees, doing their thing season after season. Fruit just happens in our world.  Unlike earlier generations, so much more agrarian than our own, most of us have no daily connection to its upbringing.

The convenience of the produce section of Fresh Market not withstanding, there are implications to this cutoff for our Christian walk.  Spiritual fruit does not simply happen in our lives. Just as no farmer would propose standing before a bare field and simply shouting “make fruit!” … so we cannot expect our lives to bring forth signs of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-25) without proper planting, tending, and harvesting.  It turns out that modernity contains an ironic twist for believers: The more convenient the world around us, the more challenging it becomes to nurture within us a deep and abiding Christ discipleship.  Last time I checked, Kroger doesn’t carry piety.

Still, “those who delight in the law of the Lord, meditating on it day and night, they are like trees planted along the riverbank.”  This is not mere moralizing on the Bible’s part.  Think less of the psalmist wagging his finger at us and more of a fellow student who has lived long enough to figure out that soil matters, where we plant our lives makes a difference.  The psalmist can look back over his life and appreciate that good farming makes for “bearing fruit each season.” (Matthew 13:3-8)

Remember this background as you prepare your Stewardship Packet this week.  Without much reflection, we are tempted to look upon pledge cards and time commitments as narrow one-way streets.  “The church needs more from me,” we might sigh, scribbling down some hasty numbers.  Turn it back in on Sunday, and we’re off the hook for another year.

But your new pastor invites you to resist this flattened view of discipleship. Instead, consider this matter of stewardship as a busy two-way street.  There is no doubt that a congregation needs from God’s people their time, talent, and treasure in order to do the ministry Jesus is calling us to do.  The arrow pointing from you to the church is clear and obvious.

But there is also an arrow flowing toward us.  We need the church.  We need it in our lives to call us to attention, to take notice of our walk with Jesus, to consider the soil in which we are planted.  Stewardship materials are soil tests:  Am I bearing any fruit?  Am I growing or dying? Am I planted by streams of righteousness or by ditches of degeneracy?  Am I cutoff from the true source of my life or is there living water flowing through me?  (John 4:13-14)  It is the difference between casually plunking a bag of apples down in your cart ... or spending a day in an orchard—planting, fertilizing, harvesting.

A wise elder in a previous church once said from the pulpit: “God is not an accountant.  God looks at our hearts.”  This is another way of inviting us not to confuse the apple (our giving) with the tree (our lives).  God desires our hearts, not our wallets; still, our wallets—perhaps more than anything else—will likely show in what kind of soil we are planted.  Our fruit will tell us about our soil, if we are open to learning.

Let us be open to learning.  You could make quick work of your Stewardship materials and be done with it for another year.  That is your choice to make.  But your pastor invites you to dig a little deeper.  Let us all commit to take some soil samples in this new season, to remember again the source of our abundant life.  Let us press beyond an easy, convenient faith to instead discover (again!) the “joys of those who do not follow the advice of the wicked … but [instead] delight in the law of the Lord.”

From whence cometh our fruit?

October 25, 2018

Four Dimensions

"My God, my Father and my Savior, since it has pleased thee to preserve me by thy grace through the night just ended and until the present day, grant that I may use it entirely in thy service and that I may, say, and do nothing but to please thee and to obey thy holy will, so that all my actions may redound to the glory of thy name and the edification of my neighbors."

Sunday is Reformation Day among us Protestants, an annual date intended for the celebration of our heritage as spiritual children of the 16th century Christian reformation in Europe.  The quotation above, a sentence from a prayer by reformer John Calvin -- arguably the father of what would later become our Presbyterian way of being church -- is not only a nod to our Reformation roots but also a lovely prayer for the middle week of our stewardship season.

All of life, every sleeping and waking breath, is fundamentally a generous gift from a magnanimous God.  That perspective is the only proper starting point for considering our role as stewards of God's good gifts.  So the question before us this week is not merely "What am I giving to the church?"  Calvin taught us, instead, to ask always: "What have I been given by God?  What has God entrusted to me in this life?  What time, talent, and treasure is Jesus calling me to share as a pointer for others to God's love and light?"

Sunday morning in worship we return again to the witness of Ephesians 3:14-21, this time with a close look at verses 18-19:  Paul's prayer for us that we "may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God."  Paul celebrates the four dimensions of God's generosity in our lives, a grace that spills over in every direction.

How WIDE are we being called to make our Northminster fellowship?  To what LENGTHS will we go to share and model the good news that God is love?  How can we continue to HEIGHTEN our worship, that it would always be a showcase for God's story?  In a world marked by tight and trite soundbites, how can we plumb the DEPTHS of the gospel in ways that inspire and equip others to walk in his way?  I myself am confident that if we attend to these sacred quesions, and are open to being ourselves a part of God's answers, the money we need to be the church naturally follow.  This is how, in Calvin's words, all our actions "redound to the glory of thy name and the edification of my neighbors."

Let us together grasp all the dimensions of the gospel at work in our lives.

October 12, 2018

Homiletical Gumbo

In my childhood years, my mother Lucile would spend the better part of a day chopping up onions, celery, and bell peppers.  I can still hear the TAP TAP TAP of the knife on the cutting board.  Later in the long process, her aluminum cauldron on the stovetop would come to a low boil.  The house would begin to smell like onions, garlic, and bay leaves.  Into the pot: okra, crab meat, and later on, oysters.  The whole menagerie would cook down for what seemed like hours.  It was hard to wait until dinner time, but a few stolen pieces of hot french bread and butter would usually make the waiting bearable.  Then, at last, soup's on.

Gumbo was a staple of my childhood growing up on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, north of New Orleans.  So maybe that's why it is also my favorite working metaphor for learning to listen to the witness of scripture.  Like a deep seafood soup, scripture listening takes some time to cook down to a meal of discernement flavored with faithfulness.  And likewise, the necessary, traditional ingredients are many.  Each one matters.

This Sunday, we finish our short stint through the sacraments -- BATH, MEAL, BOOK -- with a taste of what it means for us as Presbyterian disciples of Jesus to be steward's of the good Book.  We'll serve up a helping of Luke 4:16-30 -- Jesus first "sermon," in his hometown church building.  The story has all the needed ingredients for a good gospel gumbo: the rich promise that the Spirit of God speaks to us, again and again, through the pages of the scripture.  Laissez les bons temps rouler!