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Through the Puckerbrush

(a sermon for October 10, 2021, the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Mark 10:17-31)

It’s inevitable: every year just about this time when the leaves change color, there’s a chill in the morning air and as evening falls you can smell just a hint of wood smoke in the distance, immediately I am transported back to the days long ago when I was growing up and walking through the Northern Maine woods with my father.

I know… you’ve heard me speak of this from time to time in this pulpit (!), but even now I can’t begin to express to you just how formative an experience that was for me! I mean, with Dad as my guide, I got to know those woodlands like the back of my hand: I knew where the cedar swamps and high ridges all were; I knew where there were apple trees and places where partridge might hide; I walked through thick, black growth knolls where you were bound to see signs of white-tailed deer having passed through.

All these years later, I think I could still draw you a map of all the well-worn pathways, old tote roads, and “spotted trails” that wound in and through those woods; not that we used them very much, mind you! Now, you might recall that I spoke of those “spotted trails” in a message a few weeks ago, and how they served as a way home on the occasions when we would, shall we say, get “turned around” in the woods! But, as Paul Harvey used to say, here’s the rest of the story: you see, my father was always the kind of woodsman who, if there was a tote road on this side, and a clear and easy spotted trail on the other, would inevitably choose the puckerbrush standing in the middle through which to travel!

Puckerbrush: from the original Greek (just kidding there!), meaning, “Dense, tangled undergrowth or scrub consisting of invasive shrubs and small trees… (hence) a remote, inaccessible, or uncultivated area.” In other words, a wooded mess! But, you see, my father always found his delight tramping through the thickest of the thick, pushing back branches and climbing around the blowdowns to get where he wanted to go, even if where he wanted to go is just an old log somewhere where he could sit and ponder, all the while watching for signs of life and movement in the forest surrounding him.

I have to confess that as a kid that really used to bug me! I always figured that if a tote road or spotted trail could get you quickly and easily around a cedar swamp, then why not use it!  Why would anyone want to struggle through a huge mess of brush and blowdowns when you didn’t have to? Besides, it’s safer; because if you’re on a path, at least you know it’s going somewhere, and the chances are far less that you’ll find yourself lost on the pathway than if you’re stuck in the wilderness! Walking through the puckerbrush just seemed to me to be counterproductive and a big waste of time; but whenever I asked Dad about it, he’d always say, “Well, yes, it’s harder going this way; takes a little longer to go; you might not cover as much ground. But you’re never going to see a whole lot of deer out there in the clearing… they’re all hiding out here in the puckerbrush!”

Actually, as has been the case with a lot of things I learned from my parents over the years, I’ve discovered this to be a pretty good rule for life and living. Eventually, we all learn that by and large there are no easy answers, no quick fixes or short cuts in life; ultimately those things worth having come to us through hard work, devotion, wisdom borne of experience and some measure of suffering and struggle, as well as a certain amount of sacrifice! That’s not to say we wouldn’t prefer an easy pathway on which to walk – to win the lottery or suddenly discover you have a rich uncle who’s left you a fortune (!) – but I think most of us know that life’s real pathway generally winds in and through the puckerbrush of human experience with all of its joys and struggles. Last week you’ll remember how we talked about how in life and with faith, it’s the journey that matters and not the destination; well, let me just add something to that: that the journey of which we speak tends to take its route through the puckerbrushas opposed to the easy pathways… but then, it’s through the puckerbrush that life’s true meaning – and faith’s full purpose – is found.

In our text for this morning, Mark’s Gospel tells us that there was this man who literally “ran up and knelt before [Jesus]” as Jesus is getting ready to leave on a journey and asks him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  It’s not certain that this man was purposely seeking a quick and easy answer to such an important question; on the other hand, it’s clear that this was a man who knew how to get what he wanted.  We often refer to him as “the rich young ruler,” though Mark, in his version of the story, does not describe him as such. Here he’s just a man, but certainly a man who had “many possessions,” as well as what goes along with that: wealth, status, power; a sense of security that his place in the world had granted him. Even regarding his religion (!); what we find out here that this man knew the commandments and, moreover, had kept all of them since his youth. And yet he also knew that there was something he was missing in his life, and what he was missing was the security of receiving what God had promised to the faithful. 

And so, quickly, before he got away, the man came to Jesus.  If, the man reasoned, that which was missing was a lack of knowledge, he could study and learn what he needed to know. If there was something lacking in his performance of religion, or in his adherence to the law, he would discover what it was and do what needed to be done. If the answer to his emptiness could be bought or attained or earned, somehow, he would find a way to receive it; because that’s what you do when you’re a… rich, young ruler! All he knew is that he had to know. “What must I do,” he asked Jesus, “to receive eternal life?”

 For me, you know, the wonderful thing about this passage is that Jesus never condemns the man for his sincere, if misguided, eagerness. In fact, as The Message translates it, “Jesus looked him hard in the eye—and loved him!” Loved him, as it turns out, with what could only be referred to as “tough love.” “You lack one thing,” Jesus answered him. “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Of course, you know what happened: we’re told that “he was shocked and went away grieving,” because as we said before, “he had many possessions.”  This is, in fact, the only instance in the gospels where someone actually refuses to follow Jesus. For you see, Jesus had made an unreasonable request. It was too much to ask, too radical a sacrifice for this man to sell everything he owned because that meant giving up all that on which he had placed his trust and dependence for his life’s security… so there was nothing left for him to do but leave! 

Now I don’t know about you, but as many times as I hear that story, it’s still not the ending I’m looking for… I mean, shouldn’t there be a happy ending here with Jesus saying, “I’m just kidding you, man, come along with me,” or the man eventually giving up everything so he can follow Jesus, or at the very least with some sort of compromise in place so that the “rich young ruler” gets what he wants… a “win-win,” so to speak! But the story always ends the same way, with the man “walk[ing] off with a heavy heart.” [The Message]

Again, not the ending we’re looking for; but truth be told, we understand, don’t we? 

Some years ago now I heard of a clergy colleague who, I was told, was “struggl[ing] long and hard to understand his call to Christian ministry.” By that I mean that he appeared to have great gifts for becoming a pastor, and was sensing a true call to that kind of ministry; but in the end, he decided not to follow that call because he discerned that it would be too difficult for his wife and children to “downgrade” the lifestyle to which they had become accustomed. In fact, as I understand it, he ended up accepting a big promotion within his company in a new city, with more money and greater power. It seemed like the right thing to do, but as it turned out, he was miserable; saddened by what could have and perhaps what should have been; tormented by a conflict of priorities, the entanglement of values, and ultimately, regarding “the road not taken.”

Now, do not misunderstand me here; I cannot fault this man for the decision he made. We all want the best for our families, any decision of one’s life certainly should consider everyone involved, and I will be the first to say to you that while a life in ministry is very good and worthwhile and spiritually fulfilling, it is also rarely, if ever, easy; and it is most assuredly not a decision to be taken lightly!  And yet, here’s this man whose life was filled with wealth, security – perhaps even ease, to some extent, at least ease as the world views it (!) – but, a life that was empty where it counted; a man imprisoned by the very things in which he reasoned would give him his freedom, his comfort and his joy! So no wonder he was miserable!

What’s interesting here is after the rich young ruler walks away, Jesus continues to talk about how hard it will be for “those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.”  There’s that very familiar reference of the relative ease of a camel going through the eye of a needle compared to someone who is rich entering the kingdom of God… but in the end, what Jesus is talking about is less about money (per se!) than it is about all that which we might accumulate that keeps us from God; all of that which holds such primacy in our lives that it becomes for us the chosen pathway of our lives, the way that we perceive as easier, more comfortable, more convenient.

So given all that, I guess the question this morning becomes: when it comes to the kingdom of God, when it comes to inheriting eternal life what is the pathway we’re supposed to take? Do we take the tote road that’s wide and clear and easily circumvents the rough part of life’s journey?  Or do we follow the spotted trail, which, while a bit more difficult to follow, still gets you there in half the time and with even less struggle?  No, says Jesus, if you’re going to follow me, here’s what you need to do to get to where you want to be: let go of what you cling to, leave everything you have behind, set your compass and head right through the puckerbrush!

Entering the kingdom of heaven, you see, means trusting God and God alone to see us through the journey. Ultimately, it’s not about our rich, young ruling selves moving from riches to poverty, at least not in a literal sense, but rather moving ourselves from the life that shallow and empty to the life that leads to wholeness and fulfillment (which, by the way, might end up being the same thing… just sayin’!) It is about living the life that is truly holistic, in which all things work together for the good of heart, soul and spirit; in which the so-called “easy” pathways on which we’ve come to depend are abandoned in favor of the messy puckerbrush that inevitably comes in a life of faith.

And if that sounds difficult, well… it is. And know that Peter and the other disciples were just as “astounded” by Jesus’ insistence on this as we might be! It feels impossible that such a hard road could ever lead to such glory; and maybe, as Jesus says, it is, “if you think you can pull it off by yourself.” [The Message, one more time] But, then again, maybe you have “every chance in the world if you let God do it,” for by God’s grace and guidance all things are possible, even and especially for all those brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and children who leave everything for the sake of the good news, “the last [who] will be first.”

And yes, the way may well be hard… very hard! You’ll be walking through all the briars and brambles and you’ll be forced to slow down at times! And you’ll feel like you’re constantly getting turned around and cover no ground at all! But here’s the thing: along the way, you’ll find that which you’ll never be able to see out in the clearing, or down the end of the tote road. Everything that really matters, you see, is all there in the puckerbrush!

You just have to be willing to walk through there!

Thanks be to God who walks with us on that journey… and even through the puckerbrush. 

AMEN and AMEN.

© 2021  Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.

 

 

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It’s the Journey That Matters

(a sermon for October 3, 2021, the 19th Sunday After Pentecost, based on Mark 10:35-45)

I’ve mentioned before from this pulpit that for a time while I was in college and seminary, I worked nights and weekends for the Bangor Daily News, in various capacities as a security guard, phone operator and janitor. 

It was a great place to work, but looking back on it now, I realize that the real value of the job was in what the experience of working there taught me.  For instance, I learned that even before the days of online access, the fact that a newspaper actually gets published every day of the week is nothing short of a miracle, and it took more people to make it happen than just the reporters and photographers who get all the credit for it (or the blame, for that matter!). It also took copy editors, layout artists and typesetters; the guys with ink on their hands who worked the printing presses; the truck drivers who carried their bundles from one end of the state to the other; and, yes, the custodial staff who cleaned up the whole mess, so that the process could start up all over again the next night!  What I discovered early on that getting the paper out every day was a team effort, with every member of the team playing a valuable part; but I also came to see that not everybody saw it that way. 

In fact, I began to realize that some of the editors and creative people upstairs were quite oblivious to the efforts of the blue-collar workers downstairs; even and especially those who were cleaning up after them (I found out, for instance, that some of those people in advertising could not hit a waste paper basket on a bet!).  And oftentimes this obliviousness was to the point of being rude and insulting: there was one man on the maintenance staff, for instance, who was a good and hard-working employee; it was just that, well… he wasn’t that pleasant a person to be around.  He was clearly uneducated and crude in his speech, he had a tendency to shoot off his mouth from time to time, and if we’re being honest, personal hygiene was not a priority. I would watch people in that building go to extraordinary lengths to avoid having to talk to this man or even stand next to him; and the things that were said about him behind his back were often downright cruel!  It was kind of sad, actually, because in truth the man was very outgoing, he could be quite funny and even personable when he wanted to be.  But this was to no avail, because most everybody at that plant just looked down his or her noses at him.

Everybody, that is, except for one of the head executives at the News, the Publisher, in fact. Early almost every morning, just about the time I was ending my night shift, I’d see this man in the well-tailored three-piece suit down in the little lunch room we had there, drinking his morning coffee across the table from the janitor with the dirty jeans and mis-buttoned shirt.  They’d be trading hunting and fishing stories; talking about how the Red Sox did last night or rehashing the other headlines in the paper that day; all the while laughing together the way old friends do. Nothing all that amazing, really; just everyday workplace conversation exchanged between two people over a cup of coffee.

But the sight of it made a big impact on me; because here were two men from completely different places in life: one at the top of the corporate ladder, the other working for that minimum wage, one respected for everything he was, the other ridiculed for everything it was perceived he was (!); but both of them living and working together, earnestly and joyfully.  It served as an apt reminder for me that whether we’re talking about the task of putting out a newspaper six days a week or dealing with all the various and sundry challenges of life, though we might be at different places on the road, we’re all on the same journey; and ultimately, it is the journey that matters.

Which, when you think about it, is also a pretty apt description for what our shared journey as God’s people is all about.

Our text for this morning is a story about “pride of place,” that is, the all-too-human desire to be first and greatest.  Specifically, as Mark tells it, it regards a request by James and John, two of Jesus’ disciples, to be granted favored positions beside Jesus in the kingdom of heaven.  “Grant us,” they say, “to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  It is worth noting here that this was not the first such discussion amongst the disciples; in the previous chapter of Mark, they’d already been squabbling about who among them was the greatest, and in both instances, the debate comes right on the heals of Jesus explaining to the disciples about how “the Son of Man will be handed over the chief priests and the scribes” and be condemned to death and be killed “and after three days… rise again.”  So what we have here pretty much reflects a complete misunderstanding and denial on the part of the disciples as to what Jesus was telling them; sort of a selective hearing, really, as though all they were interested in was the fame and glory that would come from being a follower of Jesus!  It’s reminiscent of a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Jesus Christ Superstar,” when even as they’re falling asleep in the Garden of Gethsemene, the disciples are singing, “Always hoped that I’d be an apostle/Knew that I would make it if I tried/Then when we retire we can write the gospels/So they’ll still talk about us when we’ve died.”

It’s a clearly inappropriate request that James and John make to Jesus (and they knew it, too, by the way: did you notice that they begin the request by saying to Jesus, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you,”  which does seem to suggest they were expecting a negative response!) but what’s interesting is that Jesus does not respond with anger or a rebuke; he just answers simply and not unkindly, you don’t know what you’re asking!  “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”   Of course, James and John – starry-eyed, overconfident disciples that they are – answer that they can and they will!  But Jesus says that while that might well be true, “to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” 

Jesus then proceeds to turn this whole notion of “sitting in glory” upside down, letting all the disciples know – because by this time, Mark tells us, the other ten disciples had become “angry” with James and John (they “lost their tempers,” says The Message) – about how “whoever wants to be great must become a servant [and] whoever wants to be first among [them] must be your slave,” after the manner of Jesus himself, the Son of Man who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

To put this another way, what we need to realize is that where the kingdom of heaven is concerned, those who see themselves as closest to Jesus are going to have to put themselves in the places of those who would appear to be the farthest from it!  Do not think, Jesus says, that because you are here with me now that you’ve arrived at the final destination, that you have all the right answers, and that you’ve won the door prize. Do not forget that I have called you to follow me where I go, and where I’m going is to the lost… and the hurting… and the dispossessed… those who are crying out for love, and for God’s hope.

What James, John and the others had yet to learn, and what we too often forget in our own lives is that faith is a journey, not a destination.  William Willimon puts it this way: “Christianity is not a set of beliefs, first principles, propositions.  It is a matter of discipleship, following.  Faith in Jesus is not beliefs about Jesus.  It’s a willingness to follow Jesus… a simple willingness to stumble along behind Jesus.  The faith [you see] is in the following.”  And following Jesus means “imitating the moves of the master in all we do,” what Martin Luther himself referred to as “the nature of God to exalt the humble, to feed the hungry, to enlighten the blind, to comfort the miserable and afflicted, to justify sinners, to give life to the dead, and to save those who are desperate and damned.” 

It turns out that that the acid test of our faith, yours and mine, is ultimately not so much doctrinal as it is experiential; not so wrapped up in our proclamations as by how closely we’ve walked with Jesus in the ongoing journey of life and faith.  It is no accident that the earliest name for followers of Jesus, according the Book of Acts, was “The Way.”  A way of life and of faith, yes, but most prominently, a way of walking.  To believe in Jesus means you are not going to be staying in one place in your life: it means movement, and growth, and change in tandem with the Lord’s purposes and not our own; it means walking the way of Jesus Christ even as you walk along your own pathways of life.

And that’s an important distinction.  All too often we church people do tend to carry ourselves and our faith as though we have somehow achieved something fixed and stable, that we’ve made this onetime decision for Christ that requires nothing more from us than to accept the “rights and privileges thereof.”  Too many of us act like James and John in that we assume our “religious” nature is more than sufficient to get us to the head of the line where the Lord is concerned.  But that’s not the gospel, you see; the gospel tells us that there’s not a single one of us here who will be able to say we’ve arrived at that final destination until that moment we stand face to face with the Lord and not one second sooner!  And the truth inherent in our faith and discipleship is that each one of us has a long way to go yet!  Each new day, every new experience, each new step along the way always ends up as another twist and turn along the pathway of our walk with Jesus; a journey of service… and servanthood.

And here’s the thing… ours is not a journey taken alone.  There are others along the way; plenty of others, as it turns out.  Some have been on the road a long time, while others are just starting out.  There are more than a few travelers who are struggling with the first few steps of faithful living – if they’ve taken those steps at all – and perhaps there are a few who have stumbled a bit and are trying hard to get back on track; basically, these are people who are at different points along the road, but who are on the same journey as you: all the more reason to reach out to them as we’re on “the Way.”

As a pastor, I get asked a lot what it is that sets the church apart from the rest of the world.  And I understand the question, to be sure – in fact, I could offer up a few answers to that kind of question – but maybe the better question is what is it about the church that brings it closer to the rest of the world!  And the answer to that question is found on our journey as the church, as true disciples of Jesus Christ; what happens along the way in our worship, our work, our fellowship, and the love we share with others… all others!   Because when it comes to being the church, beloved, it’s the journey that matters:  it’s how we embrace one another even if at times we don’t quite have the same point of view, or view the horizon in quite the same fashion; it’s how we care for those lagging behind at least as much as we look toward those who are leading the charge; it’s how everything we seek to do, individually and collectively, is done as a servant of all. 

The church is never about “lording it over others,” in the manner of the Gentiles, “the Godless rulers” that Jesus spoke of; nor is it ever to be in first place and best of all; at the end of the day, it’s not about the destination of glory! You and I, as true disciples, are called to model ourselves after the Son of Man who “came not to be served but to serve,” to give our lives to others willingly, earnestly, joyfully and lovingly.  It’s the journey that matters; and so might it always be for you and me along “the Way.”

Thanks be to God who gathers us together for that journey!

AMEN and AMEN.

© 2021  Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.

 

 
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Posted by on October 3, 2021 in Discipleship, Faith, Jesus, Life, Sermon

 

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Beloved of God, Imitators of Christ

(a sermon for September 26, 2021, the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, based on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10)

For me, the seeds of faith were sown early on. 

Church certainly had a lot to do with that: I went to Sunday school; was part of the youth group; I played bass guitar and sang in our church’s junior folk choir (led, I’ll have you know, by an expatriate Greenwich Village flower child; and in lieu of choir robes and it being the ‘70’s, we wore these incredibly cool, hand-embroidered muslin tunics as direct evidence of that!).  Moreover, I was blessed to be raised in a family where faith was gently and genuinely expressed, in church and out. It was no accident that at most of the family gatherings I recall while growing up, there was music being played, and inevitably that music included, yes, the “old” gospel hymns.  Even to this day, I cannot hear “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” without hearing my father playing the piano and my Aunt Louise singing!

Looking back, there were actually many incredible people and defining moments over the years that had a role in shaping and nurturing my faith in God, just as the beauty and wonder of nature and the unending grandeur of creation had a profound impact on my worldview and how I approached life itself.  Truly, the warmth of a summer day, the smell of wildflowers growing on a hillside, and as John Denver used to sing (and so did I!), “sunshine on my shoulders” made me happy!

It was in and through all of this (and so much more besides) that God became for me much more than some nameless, faceless entity “out there” in the cosmos, but rather someone very real and very present to me in my life.  This was how I began to discover that Jesus Christ was more than simply the lead character in a series of familiar Bible stories, but in fact a teacher, a savior and a friend: my friend!  Friends, I remember times out sailing with the power of a warm summer wind billowing out the sails and pushing my little boat down “the pond” with a force I couldn’t see or truly understand, and wondering if this is what it felt like when the Holy Spirit came to the disciples “like a mighty rushing wind,” (Acts 2:2 ESV).  And the best part of all was realizing that all of this had everything to do with life, the universe… and me!  Little by little, you see, I was becoming utterly convinced that I was loved by a God far greater than I could even begin to comprehend, and that somehow, someway that same God had chosen me – me (!) – for purposes I hadn’t even yet begun to dream!

What an incredible, powerful, life-changing feeling that was… and you know what, folks?  Almost every day I wish I had that feeling back!

Now, do not misunderstand: this is not to say I no longer experience the presence and power of God in my life; because I do, all the time! I feel it in the ministry we share in this congregation; there’s a palpable sense of the divine in the times of joy and sorrow that we share together as God’s people.  It’s there in miracles, both large and small, that are part and parcel of our daily lives.  I know that God is there with me in the midst of it all – there’s never been a doubt in my mind of that, even in the more difficult experiences of my life – it’s just that there was something in the faith experience of those days long ago that was clear, and unalloyed, and not muddled by the challenges and all-too-gray areas of human life. 

But then, you know what I’m talking about here, right?

I mean, who among us have not wished at some time or another (perhaps even right now!) that we could just go through our days without so much… else (!) relentlessly pulling at us? Worries about finances, worries about the future in general and retirement in particular, worries about health concerns, worries about the welfare of our children and grandchildren, worries about the utter uncertainty of these very strange days we’re living in: there is, I dare say for most of here, times and situations when life and living can become so overwhelming that we’d give just about anything to be reminded once more of that greatest of affirmations, that we are beloved of God, and that God has chosen us; that God has sought us out for something real, something dynamic, something fit for the kingdom of heaven.

I think that’s why I gravitate so strongly to our text for this morning, the very beginning of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians: which in fact is just such a reminder – to that community of early Christians but also to us 21st century believers – that God has reached out to each one of us through the Holy Spirit and that God has named and claimed each one of us through baptism.  And we know this, as Paul has proclaimed it, “because [the] message of the gospel came to [us] not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” 

What that means is that God wants our joy to be full, desires that our thirst be quenched at the well of living water, wishes for our hunger to always be satisfied with living bread; and so God seeks to give us that experience of power and presence, that which connects us with the divine in our own lives.  For me it was found on those afternoons sailing “on the pond” or playing guitar on a grassy hillside; for you maybe it happened in and through a worship experience – a wedding, a funeral, a Sunday morning that hit you in a way like ever before – or maybe in a relationship with another that opened your eyes and your heart to something bigger than yourself; or could be it was in that inexplicable moment of clarity and peace when everything in your life was at its most chaotic and stressful! But however it unfolded for you, you recognized it as that sure and certain awareness connecting you to the source of joy and life; the assurance that you are both beloved and chosen by God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

And the thing is, friends, we all need to be reminded of that sometimes.

And as it turns out, so did the Thessalonians.  In fact, biblical scholars tell us that this particular epistle to the early church in the Greek city of Thessalonica is one of the earliest letters that Paul wrote (if not the very first) was essentially a letter of encouragement.  Paul, you see, had been instrumental in bringing the Thessalonians to Christ, and in many ways they were the very model of just about everything this new community of believers was meant to be.  In fact, these people had this incredible reputation for a strong and steadfast faith; biblical commentator Sarah Dylan Breuer writes that the Thessalonians’ faith “was known such that there was no need to speak about it, because the lived it out with consistency and integrity.  In other words,” Breuer goes on to say, “they didn’t shout about having turned from idols; they LIVED in a way that proclaimed God’s lordship… in their lives.”

But now, you see, this new church was facing all manner of political and social turmoil, not to mention all the persecution that goes along with it.  The Thessalonians had felt this incredible awakening in their faith, and the surge of the Holy Spirit in their lives; and they were convicted in that faith.  But with suffering taking the place of rejoicing on a daily basis, it was now becoming a struggle to hold on to what had inspired them in the first place.

That’s what happens to us, and that what happened with the Thessalonians; and that is why Paul goes on from this affirmation of these Christians being chosen of God, to declaring that they are also supposed to be “imitators of Christ.”   Actually, what Paul says here is “you became imitators of us and of the Lord,” which as is typical of Paul’s writing, and initially comes off sounding as though he’s saying, “you do what I do, you do what Jesus does,” so you’re great.  But that’s not exactly what it means: the original Greek here, in fact, suggests that to be an imitator of Paul or Christ means that you keep the faith in spite of persecution; that rather than rolling up into a ball and hiding from the difficulties and challenges of life, you continue, even amidst the worst of what life has to dish out, to receive with joy what God in the Holy Spirit has given you.  What matters is not that bad things happen, or that the stresses of life just keep piling on – because, yes, they do and, yes, they will – but that in and through it all you keep an attitude of joy and faith as you seek to be an imitator of Christ Jesus.

What we all too often fail to understand, you see, is that the defining moments of our faith – the “mountain-top” experiences of our lives, if you will – are not supposed to be the end-all, be-all events of life, but are meant to be the moments which inspire us to be imitators of the one who gave us the experience in the first place.  We’re beloved of God in Jesus Christ, and we are chosen of God; but we are chosen so that in whatever follows in the uncertain nature of living we might be empowered to bring the word of the Lord to all those around us, equipped to express by word and in deed the love we have received and which we know for certain is real, so that our joy be made manifest in everything we do.

To put it another way, the trick in dealing with seeming hopelessness in this life is to inspire hope in others; that is, the very hope we’ve been given.  And the key to finding hope in a bitter and hurting world is to be imitators of Jesus Christ in those places of sorrow; to be able to say to others just as it’s been said to you – you are the beloved of God and God has chosen you!  And it is a ministry that has the same effect of throwing a pebble on the surface of a pond – the ripples those pebbles create grow and grow, in ever-expanding circles until it touches every shore.

In his book, Don’t Cry Past Tuesday, Charles Poole asks the question, “Do you look like God?”  And as odd as that might sound, he goes on to explain, “they just got back from the funeral home, picking out the casket and setting the time for the service.  You had cleaned their house and cut the grass before all the out-of-town family started coming in.  And for a minute there… you looked just like God.”

“They had just gotten her home from the surgery and got her into bed, when they heard the doorbell.  You were standing there at the screen door with a casserole, biscuits and a pie. And when they got to the door and saw you, for a minute there, juggling your Tupperware and your Pyrex dishes on the front step… you looked just like God.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Poole goes on to say. “They know God does not look like you.  They are not going to worship you or confuse you with God.  They know that God is not like you.  It’s just that… sometimes, you are just so much like God!  When you are with people for God, when you greet someone with the embrace of unexpected acceptance and unearned affection; when you listen, listen, listen to them and hold them up and befriend them, then when they see your face,” by golly, “it looks like God.”

What do you think, friends?  Can it be said of you that, at least sometimes, you look like God.  You are beloved of God, after all, and it is true that God has chosen you as his very own; you know that.  But the question is, can you open yourself to the inspiration of God’s spirit to live out that great and glorious claim in a world that way too often piles on the difficulties and spins way out of control?  Will you go out of here today to witness to God’s love and acceptance in an ever more exclusive culture?  Can you embrace the joy even when there are those around you that would prefer to hang on to the anger?  Can you change the world, if only a little bit?

Can you be an imitator of Jesus Christ?

You have no idea how faith will be renewed, and of all the good you’ll do… for others, yes, but even for yourself.

I hope and I pray that we will try; and that as we do that our thanks will be to God.

AMEN and AMEN!

© 2021  Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.

 

 

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