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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!

For Whom Is Christ Risen Today?

(a meditation for Easter Sunrise 2019, based on John 20:1-18)

“Christ is risen – he is risen indeed!” 

Friends, that is the ancient greeting of this day, the clarion call and response of our Easter celebration.  Moreover, in one single proclamation, it encompasses the incredible, earth shaking good news that brings people of faith the world over together in triumph and victory: from small clusters of people sharing the chill of early morning on hillsides and shorelines to the multitudes who even now are gathering in sanctuaries and cathedrals filled with flowers and song.  It’s  the curious, the seeking and the believing together as one, all seeking out an empty tomb and a word of rejoicing from angels in dazzling white.  This is the “Day of Resurrection, “ and it truly unites us: for no matter our background, nationality, language, politics, tradition or even our denominational affiliation (!), as Christians we share at least this much in common:  the liberating and unifying gift of divine redemption in which we gladly proclaim, “Christ is risen–he is risen indeed!”

It’s a proclamation borne out of a singular moment: a happening, a one of a kind event and an old and familiar story in which we know the “where and when” so well, and yet never fails to stir our hearts in the retelling.  Mary Magdalene approaching the tomb “while it was still dark,” coming to this place that didn’t simply represent death, it epitomized the loss of any kind of hope; her discovery that the stone that sealed the tomb had been rolled away: Peter and John literally racing to the tomb so to investigate, only to find it empty, save for the burial linens, and then – almost inexplicably – going back home, presumably to ponder what might just have happened (!); and then there’s Mary, all alone and weeping outside the tomb encountering someone she assumed to be the gardener but then realizing (when he called her by name!) that this was, in fact, Jesus himself, risen from death!

“I have seen the Lord!”  says Mary to the disciples, and as we tell her story once again this morning it is as though we have seen him as well.  Yes, we know very well what happened on that day so long ago; even the smallest of details in this story resonate with us.  The fact is, we know how to tell the story; after all, as Christians this is the culmination of our Lenten journey to the cross and beyond!  So we know all about Easter; and we do know that “Christ is Risen Indeed…”

…but the harder thing for us to understand is why.

I don’t know about you, friends, but I have to confess that even as we’re out here “in the wee hours” shouting our alleluias and sharing ancient greetings I’m, well… humbled.  I mean, we’re singing songs of praise and giving prayerful thanks for love and light and life, but even in all of that I find myself wondering how, in the face of the most indescribably wondrous and miraculous event in all of human history, God saw fit to make it happen; how God would sacrifice Jesus on the cross and then raise him up in Easter glory.  What did it mean to do that… truly, what does it mean?

Truly, we know that Christ the Lord is risen today – Aleluia! – but perhaps the bigger question is why, and for whom?  For whom is Christ risen today?

It would be easy for me to proclaim that Christ is risen for you and for me who are seeking to be faithful and live life with integrity and purpose and love… Christ is risen indeed for those who seek to live in the light!  But… can the same be said for those struggling in the darkness of life… and the darkness of the soul?  Is Christ risen for the prisoner alone in her cell trying to find some kind of way to put her life back together?  Is Christ risen for children born the midst of poverty, or who live in fear of violence every single day of their lives?  Is Christ risen for the one who’s suddenly facing the loss of a cherished relationship or the destruction of a home?  Is Christ risen for those who struggle with disease, for those who grieve, for those who are lost or confused about their lives, for those who have felt every day and in every way judged and marginalized and disenfranchised?  Is Christ risen for those for whom death, in all of its many guises, is a way of life?

And the answer is… yes!

For those, as scripture might put it,  who are “dwelling in deep darkness,” it is hard to conceive that Christ is risen, that death has been defeated and that life is new; but it is precisely these for whom Christ has most surely risen.  Beloved, Jesus Christ was raised from the dead for all those who dwell in the darkness that they might have the light of life!

For me, one of the most powerful elements of the Easter story is how it happens “while it was still dark,” the time that’s no longer night but yet morning.  Darkness, by its very nature, is the time for grief and hopelessness, but Christ arose to banish that darkness forever; because of the resurrection the light of a new day shone forth and life began anew with infinite possibilities; resurrection is the the only way it could have happened!

Truly, the risen Christ comes to us in risen glory to banish our darkness, yours and mine; he comes in the middle of our sin, our pain, our regret and our grieving for all that has been lost in the midst of it all.  Jesus Christ is risen to assure us once and for all that we need not fear, because now, at last, darkness is done and the day has come!  The power of death has been defeated forever, and life has prevailed; and you and I and everyone who dwells in the deep darkness can now rejoice in the light; for a new day has dawned, a day of resurrection alive with the power of divine and limitless HOPE!

For whom is Christ risen today?  Quite simply, Christ is risen for all those who need to experience that divine rebirth of heart and spirit.  Christ is risen for all those who know deep within their souls that the night, as dark and horrible as it has been, is now over, and a new day ripe with joy and celebration is about to begin.  For all the hymns sung today, for all the lilies blooming in our sanctuaries, for all the fellowship that’s to be shared amongst families and friends it can scarcely begin to express the true scope of Easter joy that comes in the resurrection.  Ultimately, it’s a gift that we’ve neither earned nor deserve, and yet it’s ours by the grace of an infinitely loving God.

And what can you say to this, except that… “Christ is risen… he is risen indeed!”

This is a great and glorious morning, beloved…  and the wondrous good news of Christ’s resurrection is ours to proclaim! So let us go forth today doing just that in our worship, our celebration and the opportunity we have here, now and in every new day from now on, to live in the light of life we’ve been given.  We have seen the Lord, beloved, so let us not be reluctant, but bold to share that news to all the world, and for the sake of all who are still mired in darkness and who need to know what light and life and resurrection truly is.

One more time, then…  Christ is risen.  Christ is risen indeed!

Alleulia, and AMEN!

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on April 23, 2019 in Easter, Jesus, Sermon

 

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From Perplexed to Amazed

(a sermon for April 21, 2019, Easter Sunday, based on Luke 24:1-12)

Whatever else one can say about Easter, it’s to say the least – the very least (!) – it’s perplexing.

Or maybe not; you see, you and I have the advantage of, as Philip Yancey has put it, “reading the Gospels from the other side of Easter;” that is, we’ve come here this morning well aware of how the story turns out.  The moment those women discover the empty tomb, we already know what’s happened; such is our familiarity with the story that we don’t think twice at the thought of angels “in dazzling clothes” suddenly standing there beside them, nor do we feel the women’s terror at their question, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”   We’re not even particularly concerned as to what Peter might find when finally he runs to the tomb and stoops down to look inside, because – spoiler alert (!) – Jesus isn’t there, but has risen!

We’ve heard the good news and it’s that God has raised Jesus from the dead; and that not only sets the stage for the whole rest of the Gospel story – the two men on the Road to Emmaus who encounter the Risen Lord, the utter stubbornness of one “Doubting Thomas” because he hasn’t, the disciples’ grilled fish breakfast with Jesus on the beach, Peter pleading with Jesus three times over(!),“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you!”  (John 21:16) – not only all that and more, but there’s also the aptly named “Great Commission,” Jesus’ command to his disciples, and us, to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” (Matthew 28:19).  We know what happened there at early dawn on the first day of the week: Jesus is alive, and that says everything about who we are as believers and it’s the central truth of faith that makes us who we are as the church.  Because of the resurrection this is us, beloved, and that’s what we’ve come here on this Easter Sunday to celebrate and for which we give our God thanks and praise!

But as I said before, we know and understand this because we know the story inside and out; but what about those who were there on the day itself?  David Lose points out that despite all the variables on how the story gets told in scripture, “one of the common elements of the resurrection stories across the gospels is that no one expects the resurrection… and no one, quite frankly, believes it at first.”  It’s true; no matter our familiarity with the story or how much of centuries’ worth of faith and tradition has been layered upon the gospel accounts, the fact remains that Easter begins not with loud praises and triumphant songs of “hallelujah,” but  rather with some women bringing spices to the tomb in order to anoint Jesus’ dead body; these caring, grieving friends of the deceased seeking to do what needed to be done and have it be finished, only to encounter something unexpected, something unsettling, something terrifying, amazing and even hopeful all at once; but ultimately something that’s altogether impossible and utterly… perplexing.

And why wouldn’t it be?  I mean, the very thought that someone who was dead – three days dead, mind you – could have possibly risen to life; well, that’s just not possible, that’s against the laws of nature, because death is irreversible!  Dead is dead; and in a wonderful quote I read this week from Anna Carter Florence, “if the dead don’t stay dead, what can you count on?” Indeed, the logical response to anyone suggesting otherwise is disbelief!  So it’s no wonder at all that the rest of the disciples quite literally dismissed this news brought forth by the women as “an idle tale,” which, by the way, in the original Greek is leros, which is where we get our word “delirious,” and was understood by the people of that time as something akin to crazy talk; in other words, what these women were saying was nothing more or less than utter nonsense!

And as Luke tells the story, at least, that’s pretty much the end of it!  We do read about how Peter was moved to run and go check out the empty tomb for himself, stooping in to look inside at the grave clothes that were there, but even then we’re told he left wondering what might have happened; as The Message translates it, “He walked away puzzled, shaking his head.”  That’s it; Peter just goes home and nothing else happens!  You know, I have to confess that as someone who likes his stories to come to a clear, definitive, and triumphant conclusion, that’s kind of disappointing! I mean, I really want to have that scene from John’s gospel with Mary weeping outside of the tomb and mistaking the Risen Christ for the gardener (!); or at the very least, I want to hear Matthew’s account of a great earthquake and how “the angel rolled the stone away!” (As the song goes, “Alleluia, what a happy day!”)  Even in Mark we get the image of the women having “fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them.” (16:8)  But in Luke, all we’re left with is a not-so idle tale and unbelieving disciples; all in all an Easter story without much of any real, first hand evidence of the resurrection whatsoever!

Like I said, it’s perplexing, to say the least…but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.  Perhaps our being perplexed is in fact the first step toward… amazement… and even believing!

It should be said here that the lack of, shall we say, empirical proof as to Jesus having risen from the dead is nothing new. In fact, for over 2,000 years now, thinkers and teachers and scientists and theologians have discussed, debated and literally fought over seeking to provide some sort of historical “proof” of the resurrection; from the very beginning there has been skepticism as to the truth of what is the core belief of our Christian faith!  And yet, despite the lack of any kind of real physical evidence, we do believe in the Risen Christ!  We know in our heart of hearts that’s it true, to the point that our very lives both now and eternally are brokered upon it; indeed, the proclamation that we make as Christians that God is even now bringing forth his kingdom into the world is all because of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead!

We believe, you see… even though we weren’t there to see it happen, we still know it’s true; and we know it is because we’ve experienced it.

Ultimately Easter is more than a mere moment in history that took place just outside of Jerusalem two millennia ago on a morning not unlike this one; there is more to the resurrection than historical fact and empirical data and our understanding of what happened amounts to more than simply finding agreement in the differing accounts of the four gospel writers.  Easter, you see, is about what God has done in declaring once and for all that life is more powerful than death and love is more enduring than tragedy.  Easter is all about the overwhelming effect of God’s love to the world; a loved offered without partiality and in more abundance than the world had ever known can ever begin to comprehend.

Easter is the inevitable result of God reaching out to the whole world through Jesus, who died and rose again to demonstrate God’s love to those who don’t know about it and can’t begin to understand it because they’ve never really felt it as their own.   Easter is about love unwarranted and love undeserved but love that’s wholly offered; it’s about love extended, but not merely to the righteous uprights and those who already believe they’ve already proven themselves, but also and especially to those who believe themselves to be devoid of life and without any hope of redemption.  Easter says to each and every one of us that there is life for all from the Lord of all, demonstrated by the resurrection of Jesus Christ our Savior who has given us his victory over sin and death forever!

Actually, you know, at the end of the day this movement from being perplexed to feeling utter amazement comes down to a distance of precisely 18 inches!  That’s right, eighteen inches; that is, the distance from here, the head which insists on facts and evidence and provable data, to here, the heart, which knows the love of Christ and the truth of the resurrection.  Those eighteen inches are the difference between Easter being merely an interesting story and an intriguing possibility, and it being the key to our faith and hope in Jesus and his kingdom as well as our very lives as his disciples.

It was, after all, those eighteen inches that moved Mary and the other women from confusion to fear to utter amazement.  It was those 18 inches that compelled Peter to leave the other disciples behind, so to run to the tomb to look inside for himself, and led him to be “wondering to himself what had [actually] happened,” which turned out to be the first steps of a far greater journey of discipleship.  It was 18 inches that opened the eyes of two travelers on the road to Emmaus so that they could actually see the Risen Christ who’d been walking with them all along; and it was 18 inches that a week later led Thomas to no longer doubt but believe, confessing from his heart that right before his eyes stood his Lord and his God!

And it’s the same 18 inches that will move you and me today from perplexed to amazed.  The good news of this day  and every day is that resurrection was not just some one-time-only event breaking of the laws of nature as we know them.  The resurrection of Jesus Christ is an on-going gift of grace that is fresh and brand new with every heart that is transformed and every life that is made into something glorious by virtue of his victory over death.  That’s how, as Craig Barnes has written, that despite the world’s constant attempts to make it into something else, Easter can never really be about bunnies, springtime or girls in cute new dresses.  Easter, he says, is “about more hope than we can handle,” because first, last and always it’s about our encounter with the risen Christ here and now and how Jesus is ever and always in our midst and in our hearts; ever present in the words we speak, in the love we show, even in our questions and our doubts.  Christ is risen, and he is here now to share his power – his truth, his love, his strength, his faithfulness, his glory, his victory over death and the grave – with you and me and all those who would receive it.

This is the gospel that we proclaim and  that we believe.  We may not fully grasp the depth of his Passion, or fathom the meaning of the empty tomb; but we stand amazed at it, shouting in wonder and amazement at his glory and embracing his love; rejoicing in the truth that whether we live or we die, we belong to Christ!

So let us rejoice, beloved, in the power of the risen Christ and in the power of transforming hope; let us proclaim the truth of how death has indeed been swallowed up in victory, to the praise of our brother, our teacher, our friend, and our Savior, Jesus Christ, crucified and risen!

Christ is risen, beloved…. He is Risen Indeed!

Alleluia!  And AMEN!

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on April 21, 2019 in Easter, Jesus, Joy, Life, Sermon

 

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As Though For the Last Time

(a meditation for Maundy Thursday 2019, based on Luke 22:7-23)

In his introduction of a booklet detailing the preparations and liturgy for an interfaith Passover Celebration, Gabe Huck writes the following: “There is a time when time stands still, motionless.  There is a time in religious life when time becomes eternal, beyond recount, beyond hour divisions.  There is a time when we leave the present to go back in memory, feeling and prayer to the past, to a past that is the very ground of our being.  There is a time when we return to the sources.  Such a time is Passover.”

And, might I add here, such a time is Holy Week, and in particular, Maundy Thursday.

It’s on nights and during services such as these that I am reminded of just how much of what we do in our worship is a matter of history, tradition and even, dare I say it… routine.  Take the way that we “do” communion in the church; that is, how we share in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  It is a part of our worship that steeped with ritual rooted in a very specific and appropriate liturgy that dates from the very beginnings of our Christian faith.  From the need for prayerful confession and pardon prior to coming to the table, through the so-called “words of institution” as spoken by Jesus himself, to the very ways that we actually partake of the bread and wine; these are things that happen – and have always happened (!) – just about every time we come to share in the bread and the cup.  With some minor variations, you see, in every church tradition, in every local congregation, in every “where two or more are gathered” amongst the faithful there is a similar sense of continuity and tradition in our communion; to the point where sometimes I fear it risks becoming something commonplace in our life together.

But not tonight.

Tonight, it’s different; tonight is for us that time when time truly “stands still, motionless,” a time when we do “leave the present to go back in memory,” coming together in humble imitation of a Passover Celebration long ago; of a truly holy meal that was the first and in a very real way the last of its kind.

Actually, as Luke records the story, at least leading up to that that fateful night there was nothing particularly unusual about this Passover meal – the seder – which was and is amongst Jews the festive celebration of the Exodus from Egypt and “God’s redemptive liberation of Israel from slavery and spiritual misery,” (from “The Passover Celebration”), a huge feast built upon the remembrance of things past and an expression of true faith.  It was also a celebration largely shared at home amongst family and friends; and so, like everyone else who was in Jerusalem that week, Jesus and his disciples would most definitely have shared in such a table celebration. So of course there would be a great deal of preparation involved and lots of ritual throughout, which is why much s said about Peter and John being sent to find the “man carrying a jar of water,” and going to “the large room upstairs” where “they prepared the Passover meal.”  It was tradition; something that’s still done by faithful Jews the world over.

But this time, you see, it was different.  To begin with, Jesus makes a point of saying how much he’d been looking forward to sharing this Passover meal with them “before I enter my time of suffering,” [The Message] and how it would be the last one they’d eat together until they’d do so together in the Kingdom of God!  “I’ll not drink wine again” until that Kingdom comes.  And then, again after having given thanks and broken the bread according to tradition, Jesus gave it to his disciples and said, “This is my body, which is given for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.”  Same thing after supper with the cup:  “This cup is the new covenant written in my blood, blood poured out for you.”

Suffering?  A last meal?  A new covenant written in blood? One thing was for certain; this wasn’t the usual liturgy employed at a Passover celebration!  And then there was all of Jesus’ talk about betrayal, and how the Son of Man was going down a path that had already been marked out, “but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!”  You have to wonder what the disciples were thinking at that moment; I mean, it’s not like Jesus hadn’t already spoken of how the Son of Man would be betrayed into the hands of sinful men, but here?  Now?  At the very moment we’re gathering to feast and rejoice at God’s providence and redemptive power for his people Israel, what do you even mean by suggesting  the Son of Man is to be betrayed?  Who would ever… who could ever do something like that?

It was unsettling, to say the very least, and it’s no wonder that as Luke tells the story, almost immediately the disciples start squabbling a bit amongst themselves and then, of course, Peter – good ol’ Peter – offers up his verbal assurance that he would never, ever betray Jesus, even as Jesus predicts that this denial would, in fact, happen not once but three times!  All at once this Passover celebration had become something different, and I have to imagine that in those final moments of that Maundy Thursday evening – though they didn’t yet have a clue as to just how much things were about to change forever, and even less why – somewhere down deep in their hearts the disciples knew that they were all together sharing this sacred meal in the same time-honored way that they’d always done for the last time.

And they could not have possibly articulated this, but I also wonder if when Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them – just before the betrayal; before the denials of one and the desertion of many; before the arrest and the scourging, the jeers and mocking; before the cries for his execution; before they nailed his hands and feet to a wooden cross; before the hours and hours of agonizing pain and suffering as the life drained out of him; before he finally breathed his last; just before everything on earth and heaven shifted forever – I wonder if in that singular moment of “communion” offered to them by their Master and friend Jesus if perhaps time stood still for the disciples, motionless; in anticipation of eternity entering in.

I wonder.

In a few moments, you and I will return to feast at the Lord’s Table, to once again know his presence in broken bread and in a shared cup.  And though tonight we’ll do so in a way different than how we usually share communion in our worship here, nonetheless, we’ll be following a liturgy and tradition that’s been ours for generations as the Church of Jesus Christ.  So in many ways, tonight should be no different than any other time we eat a piece of bread and share a tiny sip of wine from a common cup…

…except tonight it is different.

Tonight we remember the night long ago when this holy meal was shared the first time; how it was given, and what Jesus said about it, and how the disciples responded and what it all meant, especially as we remember everything that was to follow. We remember how praise and celebration gave way to betrayal and desertion; how “hosanna” became “crucify,” and how the claim that “I will never deny you” becomes “I don’t know the man;” and ultimately, we are reminded of how the sins of all humanity are atoned by the sacrifice of the divine.  Tonight, in the bread and the wine, we’ll remember all that happened on that fateful night; but also, if we’re remembering correctly and well,  we’ll also recall how we were there when they crucified our Lord and how, in so many ways, in our weakness, shame and utter humanity, we still are.

There’s nothing routine or commonplace about this meal we’re about to share, beloved.  This is no less than the gift of a holy meal, one that reminds us of whose we are, and what we have been given, now and eternally, by grace and infinite love. So let us come to the table; but not out of a sense of tradition or routine, nor because it’s what’s expected of us.  On this night of nights, let us come to this holy feast with open and willing hearts, ready to receive all that our Lord is so wanting to give to us;  let us approach this table as though we are coming to this meal for the very first time… and also the last.

Thanks be to God in Jesus Christ our Savior.

AMEN.

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on April 18, 2019 in Communion, Holy Week, Jesus, Lent

 

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