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And Forget Not All His Benefits

(a sermon for November 18, 2018, the 26th Sunday after Pentecost and Thanksgiving Sunday, based on Psalm 103 and Luke 18:9-14)

It’s an old story; one I first heard way back when I was still in school, but one that still resonates with me even today.

It seems there was this minister, who along with his regular duties as a church pastor, volunteered as a chaplain at a nearby prison.  Every Sunday afternoon, he’d leave church and go to this prison, so to lead worship and to visit with the prisoners there.  He’d actually been doing this for years; and since many of those imprisoned at that particular facility were serving long, and in a few instances, life sentences, not only was there a lot of valuable ministry happening in that environment but also some close relationships were developing between the minister and a few of the prisoners.  Over time, you see, this minister had not only become a pastor to these inmates; he was also seen as a good friend.

Eventually, however, as often happens in the ministry the pastor and his family were called to serve another parish in another state; and because of this his ministry at the prison had to come to an end.  And so of course he went to the prison one last time so he could tell the inmates that he was going to be moving away and say good-bye.   And, as is also often the case in ministry, the prisoners were very disappointed by the news and yet still they were happy for the minister, and wanted to wish him well in his new call.  In fact, almost immediately it was decided they needed to have a going away party for him; and there in the dayroom/chapel of this prison, the inmates quickly put together an impromptu and makeshift celebration, complete with a mini-buffet made up of bits of food they’d been keeping in their individual cells! And as they shared in this feast, the prisoners gathered around the minister so they could shake his hand, embrace him and express their gratitude for all the times they’d spent together.

And then, at the end of it all, one of the prisoners presented him with a package that had actually been wrapped in a old newspaper “borrowed” from the prison library.  And the prisoner said to the minister, “Here’s a going-away present to you from all of us; but we don’t want you to open it here.  Wait until you get home, and when you do, know that it is the very best that we could give you.”

The minister took the package home, and when he’d told his wife all about the going away party, together they set the package on the dining room table and tore open the newspaper wrapping.  And there, inside the package… was his wallet, his reading glasses case, his comb, some of his pocket change, even a set of keys he assumed he’d misplaced months before!  You see, all the while they’d been hugging him and wishing him well they’d also managed to pick every pocket clean!  And then they gathered up all of that which they’d stolen from him, wrapped it up and gave it back to him as a gift.

The most these prisoners had to give, you see, was what they’d already taken from him.

Well, once again it’s almost Thanksgiving; and if I might be pastorally honest with you for a moment, every year about this time I must confess that I find myself wondering what I might say to you about thankfulness that you haven’t already heard time and time again, even already this morning as we’ve been worshiping together!  That we ought to be more thankful than what we are?  Oh, yes.  That ultimately it does seem a little silly to set aside only one day a year for giving thanks when our many blessings continue “from season to changing season?”  Most certainly. That despite whatever our lingering feelings may be about mid-term elections and toward the people who don’t agree with us about that (!), nonetheless in this nation we are an especially fortunate people and not only ought we be exceedingly grateful for that, but also that it behooves us to work to become good and generous stewards of what we’ve been given as we reach out to others in need?  Absolutely! 

Actually, to suggest from this pulpit that you and I need to be thankful in all things kind of seems to me to be pretty obvious.  Because I dare say that most of us here are very much aware of our blessings, and even if it might take a family gathering and some turkey and stuffing to speak our thanksgiving aloud, we do understand what it means for us to be truly grateful for what we’ve received.  So maybe the best thing for me to do this morning is to start us off on another round of “We Gather Together,” pronounce the benediction and send us all forth on yet another glorious Turkey Day Feast!

But… then I remember that old story from so many years ago about the minister and the prison inmates, and I think twice about that.

You see, it’s one thing to count our many blessings; it’s quite another to acknowledge where those blessings have come from.  When it comes to thanksgiving, we’re very good at showing forth pride in our accomplishments, great in touting the hard work and steadfast effort it’s taken to get where we are in this life.  We’re good even in affirming the kind of good choices we’ve made that have led us along right pathways; but when it comes to facing up to the fact that so much of what we’re thankful for has come about not by our own effort but by sheer grace?  Well… maybe not so much!

Yes, part of it is that so many of us live out of the principle that if we want something bad enough and work hard enough for it, it can be ours; truly, that’s at the core of the American Dream, and something to be thankful for, especially in these times!  But friends, that philosophy only goes so far; the whole truth, and what we ought to understand as people of faith is that everything we have, everything we are and everything we can ever hope to be comes to us by the loving and gracious hand of God!  When it comes to true thanksgiving, we’re much like those prisoners in the story in that we are only able to draw from that which we’ve received; and what we’ve received – indeed, what we’ve taken – is wholly from God, who is the source of all our blessing!

And when we realize that; when we come to grips with the truth that every bit of the glory and achievement of our lives comes from something and someone other than ourselves, than the way we approach Thanksgiving – not to mention our whole approach to life and living – cannot help but change!

Our gospel reading for this morning illustrates what we’re talking about quite beautifully; a parable of Jesus that is actually directed to some in his company who quite convinced that their own good names and their better nature was that which would most certainly confirm their righteousness before God!  It’s a story of two prayers and two “pray-ers” and how very different they can be:  first, there’s the Pharisee who “went up to the temple to pray,” specifically to pray a prayer of thanksgiving according to the custom of the time.  And in that regard let’s be fair; this Pharisee, as a learned elder of the faith, was doing exactly was he was supposed to do in terms of proper religious observance.  By all appearances, he was doing everything right and was the very model of faith.

Unfortunately, then the Pharisee opens his mouth.

Oh, the prayer starts out alright:  “God, I thank you,” but from there every word has very little to do with God and everything to do with his own arrogance.  As The Message translates it, the Pharisee “posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid…”  (and at this point he pauses to make a grand and dismissive gesture to another man in the temple, “standing far off” so not to be noticed) “…or heaven forbid, like this tax man.”  And then he goes on with his very self-aggrandizing oration, complete with references to his twice a week fasting and what he puts in the offering plate!  In other words, for all the Pharisee’s many words, there’s no real thanksgiving involved here; this is nothing more than self-congratulation.

And what about that tax collector, who was “slumped in the shadows” as The Messsage describes him)?  He’s also come there to pray, but in fact he cannot even bring himself to “even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’”  It’s not an eloquent prayer by any means, nor was it in keeping with temple ritual; and in all honesty, this man doesn’t even actually say “thank you” in any kind of usual or traditional way.  But it was utterly honest; and in confessing his own weakness and hopelessness the tax collector did the only thing he could possibly do, which was to turn to the only one who could provide him forgiveness, and mercy, and life: only God.  It was a simple and yet all-encompassing request for mercy, and in that there was an overriding affirmation that everything he ever had or could ever hope to have would come from God and God alone.

In other words, true thanksgiving.  As Jesus himself put it, “This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God.” (The Message)

The point here is in prayer – as in any act of thanksgiving – it is the humility of spirit that makes all the difference.  It is knowing – really and truly understanding – where our blessings have come from.  It is the confession of your own hearts that that the only source of our hope, our life, our health, our food and everything else that gives life its richness, its purpose and its joy is ultimately not us, but God and God alone.

And no, I don’t believe that Jesus is suggesting in this parable that we ought to carry on like great spiritual martyrs, wearing the misery of unworthiness on our sleeves.  Things like mercy, forgiveness and love; these are gifts that have been given freely out of the grace and infinite love of God, and they are given that we might rejoice in it.  But by the same token we can never allow ourselves to become like Little Jack Horner in the nursery rhyme, proclaiming with every new blessing, “What a good boy am I!”  True thanksgiving happens when you and I are humble enough to know that it is never our goodness that ought to be proclaimed, but God’s.

And if you’re somehow struggling with that; if you’re wondering how it’s even possible to be that humble, or maybe if you’re seeing all the hoopla of the holidays looming on the horizon and perhaps need to remember what Thanksgiving is all about, then let me give you this reminder in the words that were read (and danced!) earlier this morning:

“Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.  Bless the LORD, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits – who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”

It is worth noting, you know, that the Hebrew word that we translate as “soul” is nephesh, which actually is better understood as one’s “inmost being;” the nephesh, the soul, is in fact all of who a person is; it is everything you and I are.  So true thanksgiving, beloved, involves much more than a word of grace spoken around the table; it’s much more than simply being aware of our many blessings.  True thanksgiving is when we are moved to bless God with everything we are.  True thanksgiving, if I might quote Paul Myhre here, is when our every breath “inhales and exhales praise. It is [our capacity] to know God and to exclaim that God has done and that God continues to do amazing things.”

We are truly blessed, you and I; we have been gifted, nurtured and sustained by a loving, divine hand.  So for the nourishment of good food, the shelter of a warm home, the love of family and friends, the caring support of this family of God’s people, for the times of celebration in which we danced for the sheer joy of it and for the times of sadness in which we found strength in crying on one another’s shoulder; and for the moments when even in great weakness we found the strength and hope that we needed…

… may the thanks of our inmost soul be unto God.

Happy Thanksgiving, friends, and

AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on November 18, 2018 in Jesus, Old Testament, Psalms, Sermon, Thanksgiving

 

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“Dance, Then…”

The pastor on the dance floor at his daughter’s wedding!

(a sermon for November 11, 2018, the 25th Sunday after Pentecost, based on 1 Peter 2:1-10)

It’s actually one of the great assurances we’re given in Holy Scripture, and also affirms very succinctly who we are as the church: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.”

Of course, how we got from what we were to who we are now; that’s another story… in fact, it’s the biblical story, and what a story it is!

I love how in his wonderful little book “History, Herstory, Ourstory,” the late Rev. David Steele managed to encapsulate the whole biblical narrative by describing it as a ballet. He wrote that the story of the bible is “about how… God calls people into the Dance. About how [God] works with individuals here, small or large groups there, getting their ears tuned to the music, teaching them the rudimentary steps, putting them in touch with the unique rhythms and movements [God] has implanted in their souls. [And, yes] it’s about how people resist [that call]; how they get tired of practicing; or how they feel burdened with two left feet and just want to watch.”

But, Steele goes on to say, this particular ballet is also about “the patience and persistence of [God], who keeps at the job of getting people ready for that final number, with a cast of billions, where every person holds her head up high, [where] no one is a wall flower, [where] each one dances his unique steps, and the total choreography is so stunning, so intricate, yet so profoundly simple that as we dance it our breath is taken away… the story of the Bible is about the Dance of Life,” concludes Steele, and its music is called the kingdom of God.

Well, speaking as one of those who has perennially felt burdened in his life with two left feet, I appreciate that parable; for it reminds me that at least regarding our faith, we’re all dancers in God’s sight and that we are all meant to be a part of this wonderful ballet that God has lovingly created especially for us!

I know I’ve shared with some of you already that of all the preparations leading up to the two weddings of our daughter and son this past summer and fall, the thing that worried me the most was… the father/daughter dance!  Not that I didn’t want to do it; on the contrary, I’d been dreaming of that moment from the time Sarah was born, just as I’ve always known that someday I’d be dancing at my sons’ weddings.  It’s just that… I’m not a good dancer; I mean: I’m. Really. Not. A. Good. Dancer!  Now, I’ve always tended to blame this on the fact that as a teenager I was pretty shy and very awkward, and so I didn’t go to a whole lot of dances in high school; and even when I did, and for years afterward I was usually in the band, so I wasn’t dancing then either!  But any and all excuses aside, the fact remains that I just was never very good out on the dancefloor, and the last thing I wanted to do was to embarrass both myself and my daughter on her wedding day!

The good news here was that my daughter Sarah – the dancer, the dance teacher, the dance choreographer (!) – offered to give me a few lessons so that at the very least I would have a few “dance moves” ready for the reception; and so for several nights the week before the wedding, together with Sarah’s Matron of Honor and my wife Lisa, we practiced hard in our living room – Oillie barking at us the whole time (!) – just to get those moves down!  And you know what; come the reception, it actually all was pretty good!  The father/daughter dance went very well; Lisa and I enjoyed being on the dance floor together; and though I’ll never be confused with anyone who’s ever been on “So You Think You Can Dance,” it was a whole lot of fun… and it was fun again – and, might I add, a whole lot easier (thank you, Sarah!) – at our son’s wedding reception last month!

But having said all that, here’s the thing that I’d like to say about dancing: the ultimately, you get nowhere doing it! Understand, I’m not speaking here of the choreographed dances that Sarah teaches at the studio, or the routines you might see on “World of Dance.” No, what I’m talking about here is what happens when the music starts up, and you step out on to a dance floor and you start moving to the music: no matter how long the music plays or how long you keep dancing, at the end of it all you end up pretty much at the same place as where you were when it began! But there’s nothing wrong with that; because dancing, you see, is not about reaching a point of destination; it’s about the dance itself!  It’s all about the promise of the moment; the rush of your heartbeat; the joy of casting aside inhibitions for just a little while!  Dance is about celebration, about laughter shared with a caring partner; about the freedom to be who you really are! And the best part is that when it’s all done, even when you’ve ended up where you started, all you can think about is that you want to go again!

And so it is with the “Dance of Life” that David Steele was talking about there. It seems to me, friends, that so much of the comfort and joy that comes with faith is in what happens along the way.

There are a whole lot of people, you know, who approach their spirituality as though it were for them an intended destination; that is, they approach faith with the attitude that once certain objectives have been met, special goals have been achieved, and specific disciplines are maintained, the will have finally reached that one specific place they wish to be with God, whatever they conceive God to be. Indeed, this is not a terribly alien concept; it’s the focus of many Eastern religions including Buddhism and Taoism, and truth be told, it was a central concern of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time: the idea that the full purpose of life is in discipline directed toward the end of reaching a state of some sort of personal and spiritual perfection.

This is what I mean when I speak of faith as a destination, and a goodly number of Christians knowingly (or unknowingly!) live unto that rule; but understand me when I say to you that it is not a faith stance in which many people find satisfaction and fulfillment.  In fact, it’s been my observation as a pastor that for people like this, the ultimate destination always seems to be just a few steps beyond where they are; that perfection, whatever that means always seems to waiting beyond the next horizon. God’s righteousness, his acceptance and his love; for them it’s always somehow dependent on that “that one more thing” they need to do, that final change in behavior or lifestyle or identity that’ll make everything alright.

I had a parishioner many years back who I would consider and did consider to be a very faithful man. But he also never seemed to be all that comfortable or even happy in his faith; because where faith was concerned, by his own admission he’d never felt as though “he gotten there.” It’s not that he was brand new to things related to faith: he’d in fact grown up with a strict religious upbringing that belied an unsettled home life; and once he was old enough to be out on his own, he’d abandoned the church completely for years. Only when he was on his second marriage and his youngest daughter was born did he make a cautious reentry into a relationship with God.

The interesting thing is after so many years away from the church, he jumped right in. He became very active in the congregation I was serving; he was one of my chief cheerleaders for a lot of projects, led Bible Study, and eventually even took a two year course in lay ministry. He was a pilgrim in the best and truest sense of the word: but he was never happy.  In one way or another, he was always struggling with faith; not so much about having faith, but rather about what it meant to have faith, and being faithful. Maybe it was his upbringing that held him back; perhaps it was his own lack of self-esteem or a lingering fear that God was judging him for who he was or for what he’d been in the past; I was never sure, and neither was he. But I will say he always used to say to me, usually with a touch of sadness in his voice, “I’m a long way from where I was, but I have a long way to go.”

At one point he went out and bought himself a very nice, leather-bound Bible; one that he went on to read cover to cover, a chapter at a time, a couple of times over; and one that he asked me to inscribe for him. And though even to this day I’m not always sure what to write on the inside of a Bible (I always get this looming sense of impending posterity when I think too long about things like that!), I knew just what to write for him: I included a couple of verses that I knew held some meaning for him, but then below those verses, I wrote the words, “Remember that faith is a journey, and not a destination.”

Faith is a journey.  Faith is the dance borne out of love received and acceptance given.  It’s about being claimed by the God who loves you for who you are right here and right now.  It’s about freedom from the worldly powers and values that shackle us and hold us back; it’s being freed to truly be the people that we’ve always been intended to be.  Faith is about being led in God’s Dance; where you live in the world, but you’re not of the world and because of this the music of Life pulsates through every fiber of your being; it’s what sets your feet to motion and makes your spirit soar; it’s the music of that proclaims that the kingdom of God is dwelling within you!

Or, as Peter wrote to those early Christians who themselves wondered where their faith was taking them: “…you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

The good news, beloved, is that God loves us! God really does love us as we are, and where we are!  And that’s even considering that God has already seen our awkwardness as we’ve tried out our various “life dance” moves with some modicum of grace and dignity.  Oh, yes, God sees our failures and our rebellion, to say nothing of our self-imposed moral lapses,; and yet God is not embarrassed to call us daughters and sons. Even as we’re struggling with how we can dance without looking like a fool, here’s God coming take our hand and so that he might lead us in in the dance; helping us not to stumble, but picking us up when we do; lovingly reassuring us so that we might understand that sometimes even a little foolishness is the way we learn!

But here’s the best part: God loves us so much that he wants us to know that we’re not going to be dancers someday – that is, if we ever learn the right steps, or if we ever get the rhythm right in our heads – no, God loves us so much that he assures us that we’re dancers now!  We’re dancers of light, beloved; we’re God’s own chosen people, sent forth in love with the promise that whenever in faithfulness we dance the Dance of Life to the music of the Kingdom of God, it will be a beautiful thing indeed!

“Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.”  That’s who we are, beloved, and as God’s people we are also dancers, each and all; and it’s good that we take a moment to remember that. Truly, we are as The Message has translated this passage, “God’s instruments to do his work and speak out for him.”

So… in the words of the hymn we’re about to sing:

So, dance then, wherever you may be.
I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.
I’ll lead you all wherever you may be.
I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.
                                   “Lord of the Dance,” words by Sydney Carter

Praise be to the Lord of the dance, and may our thanks ever and always be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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Remembering the Future

(a sermon for November 4, 2018, the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4)

You might call him… “The Unknown Prophet.”

Because in truth of fact, we really don’t know all that much about the prophet who is named “Habakkuk.”  His words occupy a scant three chapters near the end of the Old Testament, and he’s almost overlooked amid a sea of so-called “minor prophets,” sandwiched between Nahum and Zephaniah. Even the meaning of his name is shrouded in mystery:  some biblical scholars have suggested that Habakkuk means “to embrace” or “to clasp,” as in hands clasped in prayer, while others say that it’s simply a boy’s name derived from an ancient Hebrew word for a certain plant or vegetable!  We’re not even totally sure when Habakkuk lived and prophesied; he might have been a contemporary of Jeremiah, and could have lived around about the 5th Century B.C.; again, we just don’t know for sure.

We do have a sense, however, that this particular prophetic word – it’s referred to here as an “oracle” – was given, as one commentator has put it, “in a time of dread,” in anticipation of an impending invasion by a foreign enemy, more than likely the Babylonians who had already invaded Judah, taken over Jerusalem and destroyed the temple, and now threatened total control over Palestine as a whole; a situation that did not sit at all well with Habakkuk.

In fact, if it sounded as though the words in those first few verses we read this morning were rife with anger, you heard correctly; indeed, though it is one of the shortest books of the Bible, the Book of Habakkuk remains one of the most poignant and painful passages found in all of Holy Scripture!  Biblically and literarily speaking, this particular passage is considered to be a “lament,” (that is, a profound expression of loss) but that’s putting it mildly; what we actually have here is quite literally a complaint unto God!  It’s all right there in the very first verse: “O LORD, how long shall I call for help, and you will not listen?  Or cry to you, ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?”   How long, O Lord?  After all, the “wicked surround the righteous,” and we are most definitely outnumbered!  I ask for justice, he says, yet all I see is destruction, strife, and contention.  I ask for peace, yet all there is before me is hopelessness and fear.  Judgment, he says “comes forth perverted.”

To say the least, this is heavy stuff.

One of my seminary professors back in the day used to tell us again and again that the point of all preaching is ultimately to bring the “there and then” of God’s word to the “here and now” of our lives today; that our task was ever and always to interpret these ancient texts of the Bible in such a way that it will proclaim timeless and divine truth that will sustain us along our own pilgrimages of faith.  And needless to say, that can often be difficult; after all, we didn’t live 2,500 years ago during the Babylonian exile; very few, if any of us can speak to what it must have felt like to have been torn from our faith and ancestral homes for a length of time that by now had spanned many generations.  Quite honestly, the kind of things that Habakkuk is lamenting here seem “long ago and far away” to our 21st century ears!

Or does it?

Actually, it seems to me that right about now we know a great deal about what it is to live in “a time of dread.”  I mean, in the past couple of weeks alone our eyes and ears have beheld the worst of what the world and its woefully misguided people can dish out; from the Synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh to the bombing threats throughout the country, all of it underscored by the ongoing and increasingly divisive and hateful rhetoric that has permeated both the airwaves and our political discourse as the mid-term elections are approaching.  And the saddest part of all is that this kind of violence and hatred is swiftly becoming “the new norm” in our culture!   It’s no wonder that so many these days are looking at this situation we’re in as a nation and a people, and desperately asking the question, “How long, O Lord, how long?”

Perhaps Habakkuk’s lament isn’t all that removed from our own after all!

For that matter, anyone of us who has ever hoped and prayed to the Lord with their whole hearts for some semblance of relief in their lives – the healing of a sickness, the solution to a problem, the resolution of a conflict, the lessening of deep and profound grief – only to continue feeling the pain of those experiences all the more deeply also knows what it is to cry out in the midst of our tears, “how long, O Lord, how long?”   When we’ve “been through the ringer,” so to speak, we know what it is to wonder where God has been and why nothing has seemed to have changed.  In the words of H. Beecher Hicks, Jr., writing about his own “dark night of the soul” in his book Preaching Through a Storm, “[The Psalm does say,] ‘weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes with the morning.’  But what I want to know is, ‘how long is the night?’”

That’s what Habakkuk’s lament is all about; and sadly it’s just as relevant “here and now” as it was “there and then.”  But the good news is God’s Word does indeed have something to say to us amidst our own “times of dread.”  You see, the thing about laments – most especially those of the biblical variety – is that they always begin in utter despair but they end in the sure and certain hope of God.  And our text for this morning shows us just that: the movement of Habakkuk’s own dialogue with God, going from confusion and uncertainty to faith and purpose; from challenging God to heeding God’s Word!  Turns out, you see, that the Lord has very specific advice in how we are to deal with these “times of dread,” and it starts with remembering the future: but not the dreaded future of our fear and despair, but rather the envisioned future; the promised future that God had already set before us, but which may have gotten lost in our hearts somewhere along the way

Actually, in those couple of verses in the second chapter of Habakkuk are three steps for remembering God’s promised future; and the first is to write it down.  “Write the vision,” the Lord says.  “Make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.”  In other words, be clear about what it is that God has set before you and let it loom large in your lives for you and everybody else to see.  If you truly believe in the providence and guidance of the Lord our God, then proclaim it; proclaim it again and again, and not in a small way but in a fashion that can be clearly understood.  Then the vision becomes palpable and real even if everything else around you seems to discount it.

I’m reminded here of those billboards that you still see along some highways across the country; you know the ones, the ones that say things like, “You know that love your neighbor thing?  I meant it. God;” or “Will the road you’re on get you to my house? God;” or my personal favorite, “Don’t make me come down there! God.”  This was one way, albeit one a bit unconventional, of writing the vision; of expressing the truth of a spiritual, Godly life in letters quite literally large enough for everyone to see.  The point is that those of us who are people of faith need to know and express what we believe, and to do so boldly.  That does not mean “forcing” our faith on people, but it does mean staying focused on our faith even when “the vision” seems blurred in the face of circumstances that at the moment seem bleak and barren.

So write the vision; and secondly, be patient.  Because the vision, however it is expressed – in health, through wholeness, in freedom or in peace – awaits an appointed time:  “It speaks of the end,” says the Lord, “and does not lie.  If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.”  Many times over the years as a pastor I have spoken with people whose primary spiritual struggle has been with the belief that their prayers are not being answered quickly enough.  Don’t misunderstand, I don’t mean that quite as harsh as it sounds (!); it’s simply speaks to a very human truth that for most of us it is difficult to prayerfully wait out the struggle; that is, to let the Lord work out the good in his time and fashion, and not ours.  Maybe it has to do with the fact that in this high-tech era we’re too used to quick gratification and resolution:  I mean, we like our TV shows ”on demand,” our computers to be speedy and glitch free, and our conflicts to be swiftly resolved; it’s not in our post-modern sensibilities tohave to wait weeks, months or years for things to “work out.”  Or maybe the truth is that we’re losing the capacity to completely trust God, letting go of our own control of whatever situation is ours and trusting that God’s Spirit will lead us in directions, however measured that lead will be.

One of the other great lessons I learned back in seminary as I did clinical pastoral education at Eastern Maine Medical Center is that as a pastor I couldn’t always instantly “make it all better.”  As a young buck of a pastor, that was hard for me!   I wanted to bound into the rooms of these sick people and “fix ‘em right up,” spiritually speaking at least.  But, as one of my advisors reminded me, most of these folks had been sick for a long time.  They didn’t need quick fixes; they needed to know that God was with them slowly and steadily, bringing them strength and healing with every long, passing moment.  Be patient; for with every passing moment God is working his vision out; slowly, steadily and even in the face of all opposition.

So be patient… and finally, says the Lord, live in faithfulness.  “Look at the proud!  Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live in faith.”  It’s important for those of us who seek to keep the faith to live faithfully; and that means being faithful to the law, just in our own relationships, and pious (in a good way!) about our own religious observances.  Throughout scripture, we are called to choose life over death.  When we choose life, we are making the choice to live in fidelity to God; and the fullness and abundance of life is our reward.

In other words, beloved, at some point in our struggle, it ceases to be about what’s wrong with things.  It stops being about our fear over the elections or how the people who don’t agree with us are going to ruin the world; it’s not even about whether or not everything is working out for us as it should.  It stops being about whose fault it is, or how bad we’ve been hurt by what they’ve done to us.  At some point, it starts being about how we are, how we live, how we choose to respond to these times of dread, and whether or not we truly know God’s vision and remember his future as we live this life.

For us as God’s people, a full life is always defined by faithfulness; and in faithfulness, we can live joyfully, no matter what.  That’s how some people can move on from the tragedies of their lives somehow stronger than before; that’s how someone in the worst of circumstances can talk of how God has given them a sense of peace and the ability to celebrate life.  It’s a willingness to trust God in the longer range and wider scope of things, to face all the questions of justice and mercy and fairness head on and choose to live life faithfully as God’s people no matter how unjust or unfair life or the world might be.

The truth is, as the Psalmist has said, “weeping may endure for a night,” and the night may well be a long one; but joy will come with the morning!   So the question is, how we will live as the long night progresses?  How will we keep the faith? How do we keep on keeping on in this time between the now and not yet, between the promise and the prize, between the vision and its reality?  How will we live, beloved?  Will we remember God’s promised future, or will we let fear and dread cloud our memory?

The choice is ours to make, beloved; but remember that is the righteous who live by their faith, and it’s righteousness that helps us to know, even in the most uncertain of times, the presence of a power for joy and purpose and love… and that surely will change everything for the good.

For the future our Lord intends and even now is fashioning for you and for me…

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN.

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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