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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!

A Little Bit Lower Than God

(a sermon for June 7, 2020, the 1st Sunday after Pentecost, based on Psalm 8)

That particular summer had been incredibly hot and humid, and up at the lake, we’d been going for a lot of “night swims” before going to bed; and friends, let me just interject here that there are very few things in life more refreshing than swimming in a spring-fed pond in the dark of a hot August night! 

And this night was special: it was about 11:00, there was a new moon, the sky dark and unbleached by city lights, and one could see the expanse of the Milky Way stretched wide across the heavens.  Moreover, it was the night of the Perseid meteor shower that year, and for a good couple of hours floating there on the water, as John Denver used to sing, we saw it “rainin’ fire in the sky!” It was incredible!  But what I remember most is that all the while this was going on I was filled up with this incredible sense of wonder and it made me feel utterly and amazingly… puny.

It was one of those moments of life that comes around once in a while when you suddenly realize what a speck of dust you are in relationship to the universe!  I mean, it’s one thing to feel a part of nature in a way that’s up close and personal; but to be literally enveloped by an infinite canopy of stars, bearing witness to the grandeur and might of God’s creating power, you cannot help but feel so very small in comparison; not only in relation to the world around you, but also in relationship to that world’s creator!

“O LORD, our Sovereign,” sings the Psalmist in our text for this morning, “how majestic is your name in all the earth!  You have set your glory above the heavens… when I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”

 I dare say that that’s truly one of the big questions of life; quite possibly the biggest.  After all, it gets down to the basics of our very existence, yours and mine: why would God would ever be mindful of us, anyway?   Why should you and I ever think of ourselves to be anything more than mere specks on the vast horizon of the universe; just another entrée on the lower end of the cosmic food chain?   Not to sound callous here, but how could we possibly count for anything more than that in God’s eyes?

And yet, the good news is that we do.   As W. Sibley Towner of Union Seminary suggests, what’s clear from the opening verses of scripture is that in the beginning “God set all this teeming creation in motion for one reason above all others – to make human life possible… [to coax] from this buzzing mass of creatures a creature so like God’s own self that it was said to be the very image of God… [to be] the crowning glory of God’s creativity.”

Or in the words of the Psalm, “…you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.”  A little lower than God?  Amazing!  Rather than being regarded as something small and utterly insignificant, it would appear that in God’s sight we have no equal in creation!

What’s interesting is that biologists and anthropologists speak of how it is our ability to speak and communicate and reason that sets humanity apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.  Theologians, on the other hand, say that of all the creatures of the earth we humans are the only ones invited to talk to and work with God.  In other words, ours is a direct relationship with the Divine, the result of “God’s own image” of what we should be.  So in comparison to the vastness of the heavens, we might well be infinitesimal, but that doesn’t matter because in God’s eyes we are great, important and, and in a very real way, “large and in charge;” entrusted as stewards of all creation, and keepers of the relationship that God has with that which he loves.

Knowing that that’s what we’re meant to be, friends, has a way of changing how we view things:  the ways that we care for our environment, for instance; and the sanctity of life in all its many forms. It forces us to see that we have some responsibility regarding dominion over the works of God’s hands, and for the many gifts we’ve been given; most especially each other.  Yes, to be a steward of creation is to be steward of the people around us, all the people whom God has created and who God loves.  And that has everything to do with our relationships with one another, the choices we make in this life, and the differences those choices make in the care and nurture of those around us.

Way back when I was still both a student pastor and single, I was a regular patron of the local movie theater.  I just liked to go to the movies – always have(!) – and those days I used to go to almost all of them that came to town!  But I could always count on the fact that if the movie was, shall we say, questionable, the woman at the ticket counter (who, God bless her, happened to be a distant relative of mine, and knew I was a pastor) would lean over and very quietly say to me, “This one’s probably a little rough for you, dear.” 

At the time, that really offended me; I was an adult, after all, capable of making good and right decisions for myself, thank you very much!  But over time, I began to realize that some of my choices, especially as a young pastor, had an effect on others; such as, for instance, on the kids in my congregation who got busted for sneaking into an R-rated movie they were too young to see, but who told their parents it was OK because “Rev. Lowry was there!”  In retrospect, it wasn’t even that bad of a movie, but I realized this wasn’t the kind of message I wanted those kids to get from me; that by inadvertently glorifying something violent or degrading, I was not only devaluing my relationship with them, but also, in a very real sense, my relationship with God!

A small thing?  Probably… but the point is that if we’ve been created to be “a little bit lower than God,” then it follows that our lives ought to reflect the same kind of care and love God extends to his creation and the people who are part of it!

Not that the world sees things in this way.  Have you ever noticed that whenever we hear of someone who has been caught at some kind of immoral or unethical behavior – which seems to have happened a lot lately (!) – inevitably it’s described as “a human failing.”  Which is one thing, but such behavior is then explained away by saying that that person was “only human, after all.”   As if being human means that we’re bound to be failures at every level of life; as though our “human tendencies” are the lesser parts of our personalities!  

You see, that’s the very opposite of God’s intent, which is that our humanity is ultimately not  wrapped up in what’s bad or undesirable about us, but rather in what makes us precious in the sight of the Lord! 

Yes, friends, we are human, and we’re human because God made us that way:  crowned with glory and honor as we live out our lives in partnership with God; carrying out a vision of creation that’s been in place from beginning of time; equipping us and empowering us to take care of the world with joy and delight, protecting and nurturing one another with love and justice.  By the grace of God, dear friends, we have been shaped as the very pinnacle of all creation; you and me, dear friends!

Our challenge is live that way.

Truthfully, we do have that propensity toward self-involvement, and we do turn away from God far more often than we ever should; and if you want a theological term for that, it’s “original sin.” Moreover, you and I tend to fall into the temptation of not believing what we’re really worth, and that’s where patterns of despair, self-doubt and self-hatred take root.  But that’s why it’s good for us this morning to remember another central truth of our faith…

…that when God wanted to show the world his great and limitless love, God chose to come to us as one of us, as the example of the very pinnacle of his own creation: wholly God, yes, but also wholly human: in Jesus Christ our teacher, our brother, our Savior and our friend.  

What other assurance do we need of our place in God’s creation and our role in God’s plan?

Something to think about as we feast at the Lord’s table this day.  Thanks be to God, and

AMEN and AMEN!

© 2020  Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.

 

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A Fresh Capacity to Listen

   

(a sermon for May 31, 2020,  Pentecost Sunday, based on Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-21; a podcast version of this message can be heard HERE)

To quote a line from an old movie – Cool Hand Luke, I believe – “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate!”

Would you not agree that at the heart of many of our problems lay issues regarding communication, or perhaps more to the point, the lack thereof?  I know that as a pastor I’ve seen this countless times: when the core issue of some disagreement or conflict between couples, within families or even among church members (!) comes down to basic miscommunication and misunderstanding; you know, the old story of “I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize what you heard is not what I meant.” 

In truth, there is much that confounds our hearing and speaking and thus our understanding of one another: the tone of voice we use, our body language, the underlying emotion that shows forth the words we choose, not to mention our own preconceived notions of what’s being said to us!  All of this, and much more, contributes to an occasional failure to communicate; and when you combine this with the fact that we’re all different kinds of people who approach things in different kinds of ways, it’s no wonder that oftentimes it seems as though we’re speaking totally different languages!

 I remember years ago going with our youngest son Zachary and his 2nd grade class on a field trip to a nearby farm where maple syrup was being made.  Now this farm was owned and operated by this delightful older couple who’d been tapping trees on that land for years.  And when we get there the first thing that happens is that the wife leads us all down this wooded pathway to one of the big maples standing there and she shows the children how the sap is collected; she tells them about how native American children used to drink the sap like it was Kool-Aid; and then she pours some of the sap coming from that particular tree into paper cups so they could all taste it for themselves!  And I remember that the kids were enthralled by what she was teaching them. 

Well, from there we walk up to the sugar shack where her husband is waiting to tell us all about how the sap becomes maple syrup; and he proceeds to tell these 2nd grade children about the relative yield of syrup in relation to the sap collected, about the boiling point of sap and the type of firewood necessary to provide optimum and consistent heat, the different grades of syrup that gets produced, and even about the gauge of the stainless steel used in building the sap storage tanks!  The man went on and on with this litany of technical data relating to maple syrup production, even as the children’s eyes were glazing over!  In fact, I’ll never forget it; when it was finally done, and the man asked if there were any questions, one little boy just raised his hand and said, “You know, that’s a really big fire in there.”

Now I know he meant well, but that man might as well have been speaking Greek to those kids: they just didn’t understand!  It goes to show how easily it can happen that we fail to understand what’s being said to us and moreover, how it is that so often, we fail to be understood; and it’s how a lack of proper communication can so often make or break any semblance of community we might possibly have together!

But it’s especially true, I think, as regards the church.  Trust me here; after a lifetime spent in the church and nearly 40 years in pastoral ministry I can readily affirm that given all the diversity of thought and emotion and experience that exists amongst God’s people, it’s a wonder we even understand each other, much less have the kind of unity we seek!  The question is, how can we truly be a community of faith if we don’t communicate with each other, and how are we to communicate with each other if we can’t hear and understand each other?

That’s why it’s good news indeed that God has given us that which we need to understand; what Walter Bruggemann refers to as “a fresh capacity to listen,” that is, a new ability to truly hear and to respond.  It comes in God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, the miracle of Pentecost, that day which Bruggemann describes as “a veritable festival of listening,” involving people from the four corners of the world and every walk of life, each of whom hear in a clear and unalloyed fashion the good news of God’s love.

What’s interesting about our two texts for this morning is that they pretty much serve as mirror images of each other; the same story but with opposite conclusions.  First, there’s the story of the Tower of Babel from Genesis, in which human arrogance and sin leads to a judgment of separation and confusion.  Simply put, “in the beginning” God had given his people a common sense of understanding and the ability to speak the same language; it was ever and always God’s intent, you see, that we truly understand one another and that our lives be built from that understanding.  But when those same people became wholly attuned to the sound of their own voices rather than to listening to each other and most especially to God (as evidenced by the building of “a tower with its top in the heavens,” which was built solely as a monument to themselves), God rightly determined that this “speaking the same language” thing could never end well.  And so God “confuse[d] their language… so that they [would] not understand one another’s speech,” and then divided and scattered the people “over the face of the earth,” making it all the more difficult to understand and be understood! So what we have here is the judgment of God upon our own human tendency toward self-centeredness, isolation and alienation!

But then, in the Book of Acts we have God’s reversal of that judgment, when the Holy Spirit comes down from heaven with “a sound like the rush of a mighty wind,” through the streets of Jerusalem that were filled with “devout Jews from every nation under heaven,”  all speaking all their varied languages unknown to each other.  Except that now, by this miracle of the Holy Spirit, they heard… and they understood.  All of them – no matter their background or experience or prejudice – had that “fresh capacity to listen” to the good news told by the disciples, to hear “in [their] own native language… about God’s deeds of power;” about God’s intention that his Spirit be poured upon all flesh.  It was truly a miraculous day and a vibrant new beginning for God’s people!

One of the central gifts of the Holy Spirit is that because it is the real and living presence of God – one part of that “blessed Trinity” of Father, Son and Holy Spirit – it enables us to truly hear and understand God’s Word with a spiritual clarity unlike ever before; I dare say that in many ways, it is that “fresh capacity to listen” that makes us the church, in that we are called together to attune our ears and our hearts to that Word.  But what I want to tell you this morning is that there’s another part of that gift, one that we don’t always recognize: that in hearing and understanding God, by extension the Spirit also enables us to hear each other more clearly. 

Maybe you’ve heard of the concept of “active listening.” It’s an essential component of all manner of caregiving, and what it means is that if we are truly listening to someone, then we need more than just our ears; it takes careful and special effort to be attentive and sensitive to the person speaking.  In other words, active listening requires a “third ear;” one that listens with love in order to sense what’s really going on with that person; to go beyond the words spoken to get to the heart of what’s being said!  To put this another way, and I suspect that most of us can vouch for this, when somebody truly listens to us, not just with the ears but with the heart, we are given a message that we matter; that we’re not alone in whatever it is we’re facing; and that we’re loved.

That’s what the Holy Spirit gives us; that third ear, that fresh capacity and great ability to listen to those around us with love. For you see, as our hearts are opened to hear God’s voice through his Spirit, we begin to listen to each other with a spiritual sensitivity; we begin to understand the language of the heart; a language much deeper than words as it proclaims the truth of the gospel even as we show forth our love for one another.

Friends, how many times in our relationships with each other have we come away from some kind of conversation or conflict thinking that we’ve totally understood each other, when in fact we’ve actually only heard a small part of what’s been said; for that matter, how often does it happen that we’ve heard only what we want to hear and little more? How often have we been guilty of “turning a deaf ear” to those who stand in the need of love and healing, even and especially those who are the closest to us? And why is it that all too often we’re far more set on what we think we have to say than what we need to listen to? It’s a “failure to communicate” that leads to that which is much worse; and let me just say here that if this is damaging for us as family members, friends or loved ones, how much more devasting is it when such behavior becomes a catalyst for hatred and violence in this world, as we are witnessing right now!

This is not what God intends, beloved, for our language or for our lives; but the good news in our texts for this morning is that God has never been content to allow us to “babble” on without any understanding.  God sends us his own Holy Spirit so that we might truly listen with understanding, and respond in love.

On the day of Pentecost, the people of God were made to truly hear and understand as “the Spirit gave them ability,” and in doing so became the church of Jesus Christ.  And today, in this time and place, you and I continue to be the Church as we seek to be attentive to that same Spirit in our lives: actively listening for the many and creative ways we can reach out in love and ease one another’s burdens, striving to dwell in unity and with true justice as we go about the work of God’s kingdom; on earth as it is in heaven!

But friends, our actually being the Church and living as true Christian disciples… all this starts with listening for, and then listening to the voice of the Spirit.  And the beauty part is that despite all the other noise in this world that threatens to block it out God has given us all that we need – our ears and our hearts – for us to truly hear and understand what matters. 

But, beloved, first we need to be attentive.  For who knows what the voice of the Spirit will be saying next; or for that matter, what might the Spirit is saying to us right now?

Let us be listening for, and then listening to that Spirit, beloved… and as we do, may our thanks be to God!

    AMEN and AMEN!

© 2020  Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.

 

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The People of What(ever) Happens Next

(a sermon for May 24, 2020, the 7th Sunday of Easter, based on Acts 1:1-14)

To begin with, this story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven represents the last gathering of Jesus with his disciples and marks the end of a long and remarkable journey: from the shores of Galilee where this disparate group of fishermen, tax collectors and societal outcasts first heard Jesus’ call, through the agonies of the cross, to the empty tomb and beyond; indeed, we’re told that in the forty days just past Jesus had “presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them… and speaking about the kingdom of God.”  But that was all coming to an end, and now as “they were together for the last time,” (The Message) Jesus is giving these disciples some last minute instructions for the way ahead:  “on no account” should you leave Jerusalem, but instead you “‘must wait for what the Father promised: the promise you heard from me.’” Soon, and very soon, you see, “you will be baptized by the Holy Spirit!”

Actually, truth be told, it all kind of has the look and feel of these makeshift graduation ceremonies we’ve been seeing online during this time of quarantine:  bringing some sense of closure to the situation with some last-minute words of advice but very little pomp and circumstance!  What’s interesting here, however, is that’s there’s also this baffling and rather disconcerting reference to a mysterious future that is just about to unfold!  But then again, I suppose that’s also part and parcel of a typical graduation ceremony: I remember at my seminary graduation, our seminary president, the Rev. Dr. Wayne Glick, stood at the podium and informed us in his rich, Appalachian drawl, “You people think you have learned all you need to know here at the seminary… well, I am here to tell you that the learning has just begun!”  What?  You mean to say that our full three years of engaging in intense biblical study, all that wrestling with theological conundrums both old and new, to say nothing of all of the “on the job training” that we faced as student pastors wasn’t going to be enough?  To employ the language of the Old Testament, “Oy Vey!”

But that’s the nature of these kinds of moments, isn’t it? You’ve reached this very important place in life’s journey when everything has rightly seemed to come into focus, and yet there’s often an uncertainty about it all that is both unsettling and even at times terrifying!

And so it is for the disciples; especially after they ask Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” and Jesus answers, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”

Can you even imagine what those disciples were thinking at this point?  Jesus, we’ve come all this way and have experienced so much; to the point where the kingdom is in our very grasp and now you won’t even tell us when it’s going to happen?  Nope… as The Message translates it, “You don’t get to know the time.  Timing is the Father’s business.” 

Oy Vey, indeed!  This was obviously not the answer they were looking for; they’d figured that now that the resurrection had happened everything else – for the world and for them – would most certainly fall into place.  But now they’re finding out that the way ahead is just about as uncertain as it was before, and the Kingdom… well, the Kingdom will come when the Kingdom will come, and that’s all you really get to know right now!    

But, Jesus goes on to say, even though you don’t get to know what happens next, “what you’ll get is the Holy Spirit.”  “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Power:  in the Greek, dunamis, meaning dynamic, dynamo or even dynamite; Witnesses: from the Greek word marturos, from where we get our word martyr!  So, in other words, what Jesus says to them – the very last thing that Jesus says to them, by the way (!) – is that the way ahead for you is still uncertain, but the Holy Spirit, which God has promised to give you, will provide you with the power, the dynamic, if you will, to keep on being my witnesses even when the way ahead proves to be very difficult; and moreover to do so with a clear sense of purpose and with joy!  You are being called to go “all in;” to live wholly and completely unto your faith, bearing witness to God’s enduring presence wherever you are and in whatever comes. What happens next?  In many ways, says Jesus, you are the people of what happens next!

And with that said, Jesus ascended into heaven. 

“As they were watching,” Luke writes, “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”  Just like that.  It’s no wonder that apparently, the disciples spent a long time “staring up into the empty sky;” also no wonder that it took two men “in white robes” to stir them out of their reverie, saying, “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” This Jesus, “who was just taken from among you to heaven will come as certainly – and mysteriously – as he left.”   The message was clear:  the time for standing around was over. There would be a moment when Jesus would return, but for now the next part of their journey – this immense, mysterious and seemingly improbable journey – was just beginning.

I love what Barbara Brown Taylor has written about this; in her book Gospel Medicine she says that “no one standing around watching them that day could have guessed what an astounding thing happened when they all stopped looking into the sky and looked at each other instead.   But in the days and years to come it would become very apparent… with nothing but a promise and a prayer, those eleven people consented to become the church and nothing was ever the same again, beginning with them.  The followers became leaders, the listeners became preachers, the converts became missionaries, the healed became healers.  The disciples became apostles, witnesses of the risen Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit… [and] surprising things began to happen.” 

They became the church… they were formed into a gathered community of people bound by a common mission and a shared calling, to witness unto the resurrection of Jesus Christ; beginning in those times and situations where perhaps only two or more were gathered, but then maybe as it could be shared throughout Jerusalem, and then to Judea and Samaria, and then… who knows, maybe even “to the ends of the earth.”  It was a mission that started small, but grew; and it is a mission that has endured throughout the centuries…

… and it is the very same calling that is extended and continues in you and in me today… most especially today.

That’s right… lest we forget in these strange and uncertain days we’re currently living through; this story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven? This tale of an ongoing mission, and of a time that exists between “the now” of the world as we currently know it and the “not yet” of the world as it is promised will someday be?  Friends, it’s our story just as much as it was theirs; as Jesus’ disciples and the church of this generation, we are “the people of what happens next… whatever happens next.”

In every generation, you see, the question has always been the same:  when is the church truly being the church of Jesus Christ?  Now, how that question is answered – and the way that faith gets expressed and acted upon – that has most certainly grown and adapted over the course of all those generations and in keeping with ever-changing times and new challenges, including the one we’re facing right now in this age of pandemic.  There’s hardly been a day that has gone by as of late – especially this past week (!) – when we haven’t wondered aloud how we’re supposed to actually be the church when we can’t even come together for worship together in our sanctuary?  Under all these limitations we’re under, how can we ever be considered in any way, shape or form “essential?” Well, here’s the thing: ultimately, whatever our current situation or ongoing challenge, the answer to that question never changes:we are ever and always the church when we are living wholly and completely as witnesses of the Risen Christ!

In other words, beloved, sanctuaries or no, we are essential.

We are essential when we speak boldly of the truth of Jesus’ teachings (by our words, if necessary, but much more importantly by our example) unto people and unto a world that is hurting profusely and is desperate for hope, for love, and for a peace that the world cannot provide.  We are essential when we make the commitment to not be passive about an uncertain future or by allowing ourselves become somehow diminished by not being able to do so many of the things we’re used to doing as a church.  We are essential when we let the power of God’s own Holy Spirit become our very dynamic as persons and as a people, so that we might truly be part and parcel of “whatever happens next” for the sake of God’s Kingdom within us and all around us, starting right here from Concord, New Hampshire and beyond “to the ends of the earth,” even if it happens by way of Facebook Live.   At the end of the day, you see, the measure of being an effective “witness” can never be measured by the size or the scope of the effort; but rather by its sincerity and the depth of its love.

But it all starts, you see, right here… right now… in the very places where we are quarantined.

Beloved, each and every one of us are called to be witnesses to the Risen Christ and serve as living testimony to the Kingdom of God taking root and flourishing in our midst. Maybe it comes forth in many and creative ways we’re caring for one another as family and friends; maybe it’s found in an encouraging word shared in a phone call, a card or a letter, a facetime chat or ZOOM session; could be it’s shown in the small but powerful ways we seek to reach out to others with “goodie bags” and other not so random acts of kindness; or maybe it’s simply in living as an example of how patience, quiet strength, good humor and “grace under pandemic” shows forth a deep and abiding faith in God’s providence.  But whatever it is and however its manifest, ultimately it serves to proclaim both our allegiance to Christ and what it is, for the sake of our faith, we intend for one another, for our families and friends, for our community and for our world.

And so, by the grace of God in Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit working within us, let us be bold in our witness, most especially in these continued days of challenge; and let the good news of the Kingdom be heard and seen… in us.   

May God in Christ bless our witness, and may our thanks for all things be unto God. 

AMEN and AMEN!

© 2020  Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.

 

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