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Author Archives: revmwlowry

About revmwlowry

Pastor of East Congregational United Church of Christ, Concord, NH I'm a husband, father, son, uncle, friend and pastor, having served churches in Maine, Ohio and most recently, New Hampshire; I'm also a true New Englander and "native Mainuh" who speaks Down East as a second language!

Get Out of the Boat!

(a sermon for October 15, 2017, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost; first in a series, based on Matthew 14:22-33)

And “immediately [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat” and said to them (in essence, at least), “You go on ahead… I’ll catch up later.”

If you read Matthew’s account leading up to our text for this morning, you can understand why:  Jesus, after all, had spent a very long day curing the sick; they’d all been involved in feeding a multitude of people with nothing more than loaves and fishes; and even now, there was the matter of getting this crowd over 5,000-plus to disperse.  And moreover, Jesus had been seeking to withdraw from there so that he could be alone to pray; so it just sort of followed that he would send his disciples on ahead to cross the Sea of Galilee.

For the disciples, however, it was a strange and uncertain experience!  They had not really spent all that much time apart from Jesus since they’d begun to follow him, and they were unsure as to exactly where they were supposed to go, or what they were to do when they got there; and, by the way, what if Jesus didn’t catch up with them; what if he “missed the boat,” so to speak… what then?  And if that weren’t enough, now it’s well into the night, the wind’s picking up and “the boat, battered by the waves, was far from land, for the wind was against them.”  And so now here we have all these disciples crowded together in a flimsy little boat; trembling and fearful for their lives and no doubt crying out, “OK, Jesus… you sent us out here… what do we do now?”

Every fall about this time, I’m filled with memories of days spent with my father walking through the northern Maine woods hunting for partridge; and later on as November came around, looking for signs of white-tailed deer.  When I was very young, of course, it was always about following close behind Dad as we worked our way through acres of hardwood ridges and black growth knolls; at that point, I wasn’t old enough to be out hunting on my own, and besides, I really didn’t know those woods all that well and most certainly would have gotten myself hopelessly lost!  But finally, the day came my father said, “Why don’t you go on ahead… I’ll catch up with you later.”  He made sure I had a compass, of course, and reminded me of some of the landmarks I ought to be looking out for; but finally Dad said, “You’ll be fine… just make sure you leave enough time to get back to camp before dark.”

And with that, my father headed off in one direction and I started out on the other.  And I’ve got to tell you that even now I still remember that sense of adventure in setting out into the wilderness, on my own, for the very first time; and that incredible feeling of great anticipation mingled with… abject fear!  Now, I’ve told you stories from this pulpit of those few times when I got myself turned around out in those woods, even long after dark; what I don’t think I’ve ever spoken about are all those many occasions when I almost got turned around, lost, or worse! These were times when I used my compass and still didn’t know where I was; when I didn’t recognize any landmark and every tree looked the same; when I kept an eye toward the western sky as the daylight grew dim and the air became damp and cold.  More than once, I remember saying to myself, “OK… now what I do?” and thinking how utterly mistaken my father was to believe I knew what I was doing!

But… and here’s the thing… I always (or almost always, anyway!) found my way back to camp; and along the way, I learned something… about how to calmly find my way through the wilderness; about that which my father and his friends always referred to as “woods savvy;” and also about how to be bold, because that’s where the adventure – and its opportunity – begins.

So here we have these disciples, in a boat far out from shore and in the midst of stormy weather.  You can imagine the scene: it’s the wee hours of the morning, and still very dark, but the wind’s howling; the rain’s coming down in sheets, and water’s swelling up the side of the boat and washing inside.  And even though most of them are fishermen (maybe because most of them are fishermen and know what kind of mortal danger the sea brings forth), they are… terrified, and moreover, wondering why Jesus would ever send them on a night like this!

But that’s when it happens: something unexpected; something miraculous. The disciples look out beyond their boat into the raging storm and they see him – they see Jesus – walking toward them on the sea; walking on water!  And of course, their first response is to cry out in fear, assuming that what they’re seeing is a ghost; some kind of grim reaper or representative from Leviathan himself, the sea monster of biblical legend come to pull them into the deep and their sure and certain death.  But no… it’s Jesus, who immediately speaks to them, saying “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

It’s unexpected because by now the disciples are sure their lives are done; and it’s a miracle because everyone knows you can’t walk on water!  But here’s Jesus, doing just that; walking on water beyond all human capability and overcoming the utter chaos of deep, turbulent waters, all to let these fearful and panic-stricken followers of his know that “it is well,” and that the seas, while stormy now, would soon be calm for the journey ahead.   That, in and of itself is a powerful word; and it’s no wonder that at the end of all the disciples, “exhausted by the storm and overwhelmed by what they have witnessed… make the first profession of faith in Matthew’s gospel: ‘You are the Son of God.’” (Rev. Canon Michael Rusk)  This is a story that serves to remind us that in all of life’s chaos and confusion we can take heart, because are never alone; but in the presence of one who can and does calm our fears and promises, as the song goes, that we’ll be “safe and secure from all alarms.”  And that’s important to know, because life is filled with storms; the kind of chaos that threatens to undo us: disasters, natural and otherwise, descend; jobs disappear; relationships disintegrate; we lose touch with people, values and practices; death rips us apart.  It’s times like these when you and need to know that we have the Lord at our side to help us weather the storm until, quoting Ronald J. Allen here, “the water of chaos” is transformed “into the water of life.”

And that’s what happens here in the gospel… but that’s not the end of the story.  What also happens is that Peter – bold, impetuous, Peter – sees Jesus walking on the water and calls out, “Lord, if it is you,” (notice there’s a big “if” there) “command me to come to you on the water.”  And what does Jesus do?  He calls back to Peter, perhaps with a bit of a smile on his face, “Comecome!” And Peter – God bless him (!) – with the storm still raging all around them, gets out of the boat!  He doesn’t get very far, mind you, before fear takes over and he loses heart, sinking like a stone, that is, until Jesus reaches out and grabs Peter by the tunic and brings him to safety.  A few words about Peter’s lack of faith notwithstanding, it’s another powerful example of how, even in the worst of the storm – whatever kind of storm we’re talking about – and regardless of the depth of our despair in the midst of it all, the presence of the divine will ever be our safety and our salvation.  That is one “sure and certain” promise of our God; that God will be with us and stay with us in our need; giving us strength and hope until the seas calm, the chaos subsides, and the way ahead – with all its opportunity and purpose – opens up before us.

Because, yes, that’s the other piece of this story, one that quite honestly, I hadn’t thought too much about until recently.  There was, after all, a reason that Jesus sent those disciples on ahead to the other side of the Sea of Galilee; it was so that they could reach Gennesaret, where, if you read on in Matthew, there were more people who needed the presence and the touch of Jesus.  Likewise there was a reason, as unlikely as it may have seemed to them or to us, that Jesus invited Peter to step out on the open sea so that he could walk on water… it was because it was an opportunity; a chance for Peter to leave his fear behind, get out of the boat and live a truly “whole-hearted” life of courage and hope, with eyes and heart wholly fixed on Jesus and his kingdom.

And so should it be for you and for me, friends.  No, I’m not suggesting you head up to Winnipesaukee to try your and at a little surface sprinting (not to shatter any hopes, but that would likely be a fruitless endeavor… and cold!); but I would suggest to you that some faith-fueled boldness might well be in order for us; both as persons and a people of faith, even as a church, because ours is a God who encourages us “to cross rough waters and even step out of the boat in faith.”  But the thing is that this always comes with a promise.  I love what David Lose says about this:  God calls us to “more adventuresome lives of faith… God wants more for us, frankly, than simply safety and stability, and therefore God calls us to stretch, grow, and live into the abundant life God has promised us, trusting [as we do so] that God is always with us,” that God will grab us by the hand when we lose our focus or when fear overtakes us.  The journey may not always be easy, but once you’ve moved forward and the way ahead is clear; once you’ve caught sight of your destination and know the reason that you were so bold, won’t you be glad that you decided not to stay in the boat?

Well… even now the journey looms before us, and in many, many ways.  Even now, Jesus is calling us “o’er the tumult of life’s wild, restless sea” to come; to be bold and come out of the safety of our boats so that we might participate more fully as Jesus’ disciples and on behalf of the Kingdom of God; so that we can know the possibilities and the adventure of following God’s Spirit where it leads.

And that’s especially true, I believe, when it comes to our life together here at East Church.

As you know, we’re just about to move into our annual Stewardship Campaign here at East Church, a time when together as a church, not only do we reflect on our support of this shared ministry in the coming year, but also a time when we should pause a moment to seek and affirm God’s vision for our future. It is, as this year’s stewardship theme suggests, a “Journey to Generosity” that has its pathway in the way of Jesus; truly, everything we do here as part of our stewardship is in response to the one who is always with us; who stands out there in the midst of our own storms; who seeks to calm our fears until the chaos subsides; who lifts us up when we feel ourselves sinking like a stone.

Beloved, I believe that right here and right now our Lord is there calling us to boldness; to come out of our complacency and be disciples in new and creative and adventuresome ways; to move into our 176th year with faithful optimism and hearts for Jesus Christ.  I have said this to you often in recent weeks, and very intentionally: there is no limit to what this “little church” can do with faith, and in the love and joy that we have here in such abundance; but for these things to happen, first we have to get out of the boat!

“Come.”  That’s how Jesus is calling you, and you, and me; that’s how Jesus calls us all.  So how will you respond?  I hope that we’ll all give that some thought and prayer in the days to come…

…and with our thanks unto God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Fruitfulness

(a sermon for October 8, 2017, the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Matthew 21:33-46)

Let me just say this up front: this is one of the parables that I would have just as soon Jesus hadn’t told!

I mean, as Matthew shares it in our text this morning, what we’ve got here is a story about tenants turned tyrants.  It’s about the continued and increasingly violent refusal on the part of some vineyard workers to hand over the year’s harvest to the landowner; culminating not only in the beatings and deaths of several of the landowner’s servants, but also in the brutal killing of the landowner’s son!  And it’s all done for the sake of obtaining, or more accurately, stealing the son’s inheritance – that is, the land on which this vineyard was planted!

It’s a story that’s very dark and much more violent than we’d ever expect from the mouth of Jesus; and to say the least, it’s unsettling.  I don’t know; maybe it’s because we’ve already witnessed so much horrific and inexplicable violence this week in what happened in Las Vegas that it’s hard for us to deal with it today in the context of scripture.  Or maybe it’s simply when it comes to talking about the Kingdom of God, we’d much rather hear it being compared to a forgiving father, or a good Samaritan, or that impractical but incredibly loving shepherd who’d willingly leave the 99 sheep behind to seek out the one lost lamb!

But no… not in this parable; here we have Jesus telling about this beautiful and apparently fruitful vineyard – an image, by the way, very often serves in scripture to represent life, hope and stability – that’s now desecrated with blood and caught up in a cycle of hopelessness.  And the worst part of all, especially for those of us who love our happy endings?  When Jesus asks those hearing this story – his disciples, of course, along with members of the crowd and, no doubt, a few eavesdropping Pharisees – what they think will happen to those violent tenants when the owner of the vineyard comes, their answer is swift and decisive:  “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants” who’ll do what they’re supposed to do!

An example of some biblically based “frontier justice,” so to speak?  Or does this provide a frightening case of our first and all-too human instinct to respond to violence with yet more violence… either way, as I said before, it’s all pretty unsettling; especially when Jesus concludes this parable by telling all those present that “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruit of the kingdom.”

I’m guessing that’s not exactly the message we all came to hear this morning!  But there it is, right from the mouth of Jesus.

Now, to put all this into some kind of context, we have to understand that this parable has been traditionally understood to be Jesus’ condemnation of the religious establishment of his time – that is, the chief priests of the Temple and the Pharisees – as those who, by their opposing and rejecting him, are missing God’s plan for salvation and are going to lose the kingdom.  That’s why in the midst of telling this story Jesus also pulls out a verse from the Psalms (Psalm 118 (v. 22), to be exact!) about how “the stone that the builders rejected” was to become “the cornerstone” of a whole new world.  It’s no accident that this parable gets told very soon after Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and that it serves as one more catalyst leading to his betrayal, arrest and crucifixion a few days later; Matthew tells us that even the religious powers that be recognized that in these parables Jesus “was talking about them,” and they wanted Jesus to be “dealt with” sooner rather than later.

So there’s a political component in this parable that can’t be denied; and let’s be clear, Jesus doesn’t mince words here:  as The Message translates it, he says to them, “This is the way it is with you… whoever stumbles on this [cornerstone] gets shattered; [and] whoever the [cornerstone] falls on gets smashed.”  And moreover, it’s a statement about, in the words of Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, “what leadership looks like in the Kingdom of Heaven,” as well as a potent reminder to all of us in the here and now of what our purpose is as latter-day tenants in God’s vineyard.

That’s right, friends… beyond all the heavy drama of this unsettling parable of Jesus lies a deeper and more immediate question for you and for me, one that’s no less unsettling:  how are we doing taking care of that vineyard?

You see, the beauty part of so many of Jesus’ parables, including this one, is that it becomes very easy for us to hear the story and point fingers of blame on people like the scribes and Pharisees. It’s truly the “low hanging fruit” of this story (pun intended!); but in fact in these parables Jesus always manages to find a way for us to take a long hard look at ourselves, if only we will have eyes to see.  And in this parable, what we need to see is who we are in the midst of the story and who we are as God’s people, and that’s workers in God’s vineyard.  Our charge, our task, our job is to care for that vineyard; and what that means is that you and I are the ones called to do the kingdom’s work: to care for God’s people, to embody God’s righteousness in how we live and in the ways we relate to others, to do justice and love kindness in all things, to be good stewards of creation and everything else we’ve been given… all of this, and more, is what grows in kingdom soil.  And friends, we’re the ones who are charged with doing the gardening!

And, the thing is, it’s not an unfamiliar task for us in the church, nor an unpleasant one; as we’ve been saying quite often in recent weeks, everything we do as around here, from Sunday worship services to Saturday night bean suppahs, ultimately has to do with caring for God’s vineyard!  Everything we’re about as a church has to do with who we’re working for:  it’s where our fellowship is nurtured; it’s the place that mission and outreach begins; and it’s the way things get done here.

But here’s the rub, courtesy of this still very unsettling parable… what happens when the owner of the vineyard returns for “the produce at harvest time?”  At the end of the growing season, so to speak, and the harvest is done, will it be said of us that we were “a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom?”   Ancient Palestinian politics aside, this is the question that Jesus asks of each one of us here, and it’s an crucial one; for I don’t need to remind you again of what the consequences are for those whose “fruitfulness” is not what it should be!

During the summers while I was in college, I worked as a “Cabin Boy” at a very rustic resort on the coast of Maine; basically carrying luggage and catering to the needs of our guests who desired to have an “authentic Maine experience,” but on an American plan and with gourmet meals!  And it was a great summer job; I met a lot of very interesting people, I got to hang out near the ocean, and I learned over the course of four summers what it means to work for tips!  But I must confess that part didn’t always come easily to me; I always did fairly well with tips, but in retrospect it always made me a little uncomfortable, and so I kind of held back on doing that which might have garnered me a bit more “remuneration,” shall we say!  In fact, one year my boss actually critiqued me on this and suggested that I did not put myself out there enough for the guests; and he said to me (and I remember this, because it stung at the time), “Just imagine the tips you’d get if you just made a little more effort!”

Now, let me be clear:  I am not suggesting in any way that you and I, individually or collectively as Christians or as the church, are not doing enough; in fact, from this pastor’s perspective, it’s just the opposite… and thank you, and thank God for that! But what I would suggest to you today is that we should always be mindful that what we do do always shows forth the fruitfulness of our faith and of our love.  We must always remember that this is God’s vineyard, not yours or mine; and that ultimately, we’re the tenants in that vineyard, caring for God’s kingdom in everything we do.  And hopefully, we’ll be known as very good tenants; the kind who put forth the effort to do, in love, for all those who God loves.  Friends, most especially in these times when one tragedy just seems to lead to the next, you and I who would call ourselves followers of Jesus must put forth all the effort that we can to bear good fruit for Jesus’ sake and for the sake of his kingdom.  To quote Karoline Lewis once again, we need to be “the kind of tenants that tenaciously tend the call to being the salt of the earth and the light of the world,” to be an example “to the world of leadership that seeks to care for the meek, that works for righteousness, that advocates for peace,” and to be the kind of people who “exercise justice [and] to work for a world where the Beatitudes are not aspirational but actually possible and palpable.”

Because let me tell you something else: the tragedy and violence and darkness that so often seems to prevail in this world is, in the end, “no match for love and life and forgiveness and peace.” (David Lose) That is the fruit that matters, beloved; and it is the fruit that you and you and you and me are nurturing by our very lives, even here on Mountain Road, steeped in the soil of the kingdom.  We can never be deterred from our work of faithful action, of unending compassion, inclusive care, and the resolve to do what God would have us do, no matter what.

And so, in the words of an “alternative verse” of one of my favorite songs:

“Brothers, sisters all around,
This is where our garden’s found
In the church our hope abounds
Where God’s own people grow.
So water them with love and prayer
Trust the promise that we share
Do our part and then prepare
For God’s first fruits to show!
(from “The Garden Song,” by David Mallett; author of additional lyrics unknown)

Indeed… by God’s grace and through his strength… “inch by inch, row by row,” let us make this garden grow!

And as we do that work, may our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
 

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Out Beyond the Big Rock

“The Big Rock,” just off to the right…

Beneath the waters just offshore of our summer home in Maine lies a rather sizeable boulder, placed there (or so I presume) by glacial movement eons ago and which remains as a prominent feature of an already rocky lakebed.  But given its large flat surface and the fact that it is also perched just so at the “dropoff” to deeper water, for at least a couple of generations of children in our family it’s always been “The Big Rock,” a great place to play and a natural boundary between swimming in relative safety and “going out over your head.”

I remember well as kids how we’d always use the Big Rock as our own underwater diving platform; as this was the one place where, if we dared, we could push out to swim out beyond where our toes could touch the bottom.  Of course, when we were very young and still depending on something akin to a “doggie paddle,” it was more than enough to keep our feet firmly planted on that stone precipice.  After all, venturing out that far from shore was hard, not to mention potentially dangerous; much better, we reasoned, to experience the beauty and wonder of the lake from a safe distance! On the other hand, however (and we all figured this out pretty quick), there were a whole lot of fun, exciting and even important things awaiting us if only we’d take the risk and simply learn to swim!

Fast forward a “goodly” number of years but still headed “uptacamp” every summer, this year I found myself looking out at the Big Rock with gratitude for the countless dreams and adventures that it had inspired in me over the years; glad that whatever fears or doubt I might have had at the time, eventually I’d made the decision to be bold enough to dive into those deeper waters…

…which, come to think of it, isn’t all that bad of a parable about what it means to live a life of faith.

All through what’s been, to say the very least, a very tumultuous summer we’ve nonetheless been given some wonderful glimpses of what can happen when people of faith dare to go out beyond their own safe places into the deeper water. I stand in admiration, for instance, of my clergy colleagues and the committed laity who bravely linked arms to stare down white supremacists in Charlottesville to show that love and equality are more than simply words.  Or consider the willingness of church people across the nation and beyond to gather up resources and immediately go and join the ranks of “first responders” in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria, or to leave home and family so to travel to Mexico to assist in recovery efforts following the tragic earthquakes there. This kind of faith-inspired outreach requires courage and more than a little boldness, and yet it’s clear that such an effort yields a harvest of love and mercy that our world sorely needs about now.

Even back in our own little corner of Christianity here on Mountain Road, again and again I’ve witnessed the same kind of boldness in the ways our people are living out their calling as disciples and as the Church.  It’s so interesting – and very gratifying to me as pastor – that whether the concern is one of stewardship, mission and outreach or simply doing what it takes to be a truly welcoming and inclusive congregation, hardly a week goes by around here without someone coming up with some new and creative way for us to be about the work of Jesus Christ in our life together. As a result, wonderful things happen; in the process challenging us to boldly move beyond the false assumptions that we’re too small, too old, too budget-crunched, or too set in our ways (!) to ever accomplish great things – or at least to accomplish small things in a great way – for the sake of God’s kingdom. And it’s all because someone, in faith, decided that it’s better to go deeper than to cling to the safety of shallow waters.

I’m actually reminded here of the words to a Vacation Bible School song from some years ago (for those who remember those VBS days, this one was from the year of “S.C.U.B.A.” which, by the way, stands for “Super Cool Underwater Bible Adventure!”): “I wanna go deep; I wanna obey;I wanna love God more every day.  (“I Wanna Go Deep” by Carol Smith)  Back then, it served as a tuneful reminder to our kids that when we trust God and love God, life becomes an adventure filled with many opportunities for bringing joy to others.  But the kicker, so to speak, and the part I always remember, came in the middle verse: “Faith’s not supposed to be ankle deep! Ready to swim? It’s time to leap! I’m not wadin’ in… instead, I want to be in over my head!”

It seems to me that this is one message that’s as applicable to us grown-ups as it is our children!  Now more than ever, in fact; as I have been fond of saying to the congregation as of late, in times like these – where tragedy, violence and division have become sadly commonplace – the first and best thing the church can do is to truly be the church.  But for that to become our reality requires from each of us the readiness to leap out from all of “the Big Rocks” of our lives, so to swim out over our heads into the deeper waters.

For the sake of the world in which we live, as well for the realm to come, may God grant each one of us the courage to take the risk.

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
 
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