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!

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.