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!

October 3, 2018


Is it just me, or does your mind also make interesting associations, and often in a split second?

Whenever I can smell the smell of licoriche in a candy store or a quickie mart, my mind immediately takes flight from the Miami airport, across the blue Carribean waters, to the northern coast of the Domincian Republc.  A nanosecond later, I am no longer in a checkout line paying for gas but am in a block-stacked sanctuary belonging to the Iglesia EvangĂ©lica Dominicana.  A smiling friend is handing me bread; in Spanish she says aloud what I can safely assume is something like, "The body of Jesus, broken for you."  And as a hunk of that torn bread nears my mouth, my nose is filled with the potent aroma of Anise -- a flowering plant in the family Apiaceae native to the eastern Mediterranean region and Southwest Asia. The Dominicans always serve anise bread at communion, one of a hundred little traditions of worship that localize the good news for their little corner of the world's increible neighborhood.

So in my mind, at least, the smell of licoriche (so similar to anise) is forever welded to the sacrament of communion, to the taste of a Caribbean Jesus in my mouth.

World Communion Sunday, which we celebrate this week, is for us an annual joyful reminder that the living body of Jesus is infinitely larger than our own ecclesiastical square footage tucked in along Wimbish Road.  Of course we know this in our minds; a drive up and down said Wimbish makes it clear that Jesus' people, although one, gather in many different tribes.  We are not World Changers; World Changers are not we; thank the heavens Jesus loves us all.

But the communion meal affords us the blessing of remembering his Oneness in other ways: touch, smell ... taste.  We see, touch, taste the various breads ... and we are struck again by the beauty of the good news: it is singular in its oneness -- Jesus is alive!  -- yet is is pluriform in its practice, worked out uniquely and locally in every zip code around this great green planet.  In Sabaneta de Yasica they bake in the anise seed so that the bread wakes up your senses.  In New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, they serve up the sugar-sweet shortbread.  In a homless shelter in downtown Pittsburgh, the break whatever bread was donated in excess the day before.  In Forsyth, Georgia, every week, another sourdough loaf appears from a bread maker just in time for eucharist.  One body ... many loaves.  One gospel ... many places.

World Communion Sunday.  God is licoriche and love.  Come hungry.

October 1, 2018

We Are They

When my pastoral ministry was presbytery leadership, I would often say to our congregations, "Remember that the presbytery is we; we are the presbytery."

My point was that the "presbytery," when functioning as a wider expression of the church, was not some bureaucratic entity over and apart from our congregations, some ecclesiastical monkey on our backs or some Big Brother only checking our minutes.  The presbytery is we: our pastors, our sister congregations and their elders -- our common life in Jesus our Christ.

It is true that the "congregation is the basic form of the church."  Like politics, all Christian ministry is local.  You cannot finally institutionalize or nationalize the body of Jesus; it lives and moves through relationships.  And yet a localized congregation by itself is not a sufficient expression of the Christian movement.  Churches need each other just like we need each other.  Sibling congregations need their siblings to share, encourage, and correct.

We see this lived out in the pages of our New Testament: The church in Corinth is not the church in Philippi, or vice versa.  They each need different interpretations of the one gospel message, which is why your Bible contains all these peculiar letters to churches with funny first century place names.  Yet they also need each other, learn from one another, and together with all the churches form a multifaceted expression of the community of Jesus.  At our best, it is not dissimilar to what we Presbyterians are up to in a presbytery.  Two truths are true:  Northminster is the basic form of Jesus' church.  And Northminster needs our siblings.  And they need us.

This month, we have the opportunity to practice the wider Christian expression we call presbytery.  On Sunday, October 14, we will abbreviate our Sunday morning worship so as to reconvene at 4pm for a Service of Installation led by our Flint River Presbytery.  Three elders and three preachers from sister congregations will lead us in worship and officially "install" me as your pastor.  It is a marriage ceremony, of sorts.  Vows will be taken, promises will be made, and prayers will be offered for a faithful and fruitful season of ministry -- together.  As I am now a member of Flint River Presbytery, there is a real sense in which my (new) spiritual fellowship is coming to meet with your (longstanding) spiritual fellowship, and together we are a better expression of Jesus' body.

We are particularly honored in this 4pm service to welcome as our preacher the Rev. Cindy Kohlmann, currently the Co-moderator of our national Presbyterian General Assembly.  Cindy, Deb Tregaskis Bibler (our terrific executive here in Flint River), and I all became good friends in recent years through a national learning cohort of presbytery executives.  This summer, Cindy was elected co-moderator of our General Assembly and well spend the next two years traveling around the denomination representing the best of what we hold in common with everyone in the Presbyterian Church (USA).  Cindy is as terrific a friend as she is a preacher, so I know we will be blessed by her presence with us.

I hope you'll make time the afternoon of October 14 to continue our Lord's Day worship later in the day and to welcome our presbytery into our worship space.  They are we.  We -- blessedly -- are they.

September 27, 2018

Wade in the Water

Thanks to apartment living here in Macon, I no longer count yard work among my domestic responsibilities.  I am not sad about this.  Not one bit.

What I will miss, however, are the post-yard-work showers.  Few middle class privileges outrank the feeling of washing off hours of raking, weeding, and mowing.  To watch the dirt, grime, and sweat circle the drain and disappear into the great gone -- sublime!  A fresh start at cleanliness.  Relief.

After several weeks sitting together in the witness of Acts chapter 1, this Sunday we begin three weeks on the sacraments -- BATH, MEAL, and BOOK.  World Communion Sunday (October 7) will be the midpoint in this short run of sermons, but this Sunday we go down into the BATH waters with a journey in John 9:1-12 -- Jesus' act of healing near a public pool called "Sent."

Lest baptism remain merely some remote or sentimental event in our distant infancies, we will consider what it means to say that, in Jesus, we are a "people of the bath."  His bath.  His dirt dissolving, grime gracing, sin-sweat solvent of a bath.  Come, after another week of walking around in the dirt of our lives, let's get cleaned up together in scripture.  "Go, wash in the pool" called worship.

See you again on the Lord's Day.   Bring a towel!

[photo: St. Francis Xavier College Church, St. Louis MO — RWH]

September 11, 2018

Another First

gather around
Feel the electricity
next and new
a morsel
of that first
great banquet:
the defeat of death
the flipping of scripts
my vivification
and see
how faithful
is our Provider
you feel:
The energy
The encouragement
That sense
that anything
is now
The gladness
that you came
are the holy
from my
of that
next and new

August 30, 2018

Coming in Peace

In my work supporting and coaching pastors, this preacher frequently found himself in the pew in recent years, listening to sermons -- and often first-Sunday sermons, no less.  Not long ago, a young, energized pastor landed in one of the larger congregations in the presbytery.  All eyes were on her first sermon.  She read the scripture reading, stepped out from behind the pulpit, faced her new congregation, and with a warm smile said, "I come in peace."

I loved that line.  From back in the cheap seats where I was sitting, you could feel large numbers of Presbyterians take deep breaths and relax.  "Since you called a young, Millennial pastor, you are probably worried I'm going to turn everything you care about upside down, hang a disco ball in the choir loft, and ruin your church."  We all laughed; some, nervously.

Your new pastor is too old to be labeled a Millennial, but I likewise come to you in peace.

Am I energized about returning to the pulpit, table, and font?  Am I looking forward to traveling with you in this meandering walk of discipleship?  Am I ready to place one foot solidly inside your wonderful facility, and another squarely in the community of North Macon?  Absolutely.  Do I want to turn you inside out in the first 6 months?  Absolutely not.

Instead, let's spend some months of Sundays giving thanks together for the Prince of Peace.  I can and do come to you in peace only because he himself has given us his shalom -- that gift of deep wholeness, of there-is-enough; a kind of spiritual abundance that puts us at ease and allows us to turn outward with loosened grips, to ask, Where is there not yet peace?  Where can we go with his shalom?  How are we being called again to be his peaceable people in such a peculiar time?

Here's the good news: Northminster is already Jesus' church; always has been, always will be.  Woe to the ambitious preacher who forgets that comforting promise and changes the carpet.  Likewise, woe to the comfortable congregation who forgets that disturbing challenge and nails down all the furniture.  But let us be clear: It is his challenge that changes us, by reformation ... not his full-time spiritual subcontractors by means of revolution.  Thank the heavens he is in charge.

And so, here's a modest proposal for this next year in our shared life: Let us relish in Jesus' peace -- soak in it and share it.  Let us practice that peace by not trying to change one another, but by listening, learning, and loving on one another.  Let us together take some time to take a fresh look at the good news of the resurrection and what it might mean for us in this new and next season.  Let us be at peace with one another, week by week, that we might again be People of Peace for the community all around us.

God has come to us in peace in our older brother Jesus.  That is all that matters.  Derivatively -- honored to be your next pastor and grateful to be your spiritual sibling -- I come to you in peace as well.  I cannot wait to learn what God has been up to in your midst.