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Living the Sabbath Life

(a sermon for June 3, 2018, the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, based on Mark 2:23-3:6)

I think it’s probably safe to say that we don’t observe the Sabbath the way we used to.

Actually, one of the mixed blessings of having been in the ministry as long as I have is that I’m able to see the difference; and I suspect there are a lot of you who can say the same!  Time was – and not so very long ago (!) – that Sundays were set aside as a true day of rest; a time for church, home, family and a bit of relaxation.  As a general rule businesses were shut down, and most stores were closed for the day; school activities – sports or otherwise – were prohibited; and if you were a kid, if you had something happening on a Sunday afternoon it usually involved a church youth group activity.  Depending on your own particular tradition of faith, you might not even have gone to the movies or played cards on a Sunday, because those were things that you simply did not do on the Lord’s Day (that; and because playing cards were at one time considered the “devil’s playthings!”).

Not that everyone always approached this as a wholly (and holy) Christian thing to do, or even something that was particularly religious in nature; it was simply understood that there ought to be a “Sabbath rest” from the burdens of the rest of the week’s work, all rooted in the creation story from Genesis in which God, overwhelmed from the glorious work of creation, exclaimed that “indeed, it was very good,” (1:31) and then “rested on the seventh day.” (2:2) From the very beginning, you see, the Sabbath was intended a blessing to us from God of both body and soul, and as such was to be thought of as holy.

Of course, you know what’s happened; actually a combination of things over time:  the repeal of the so-called “blue laws” that allowed every mall in the country to run full tilt all day on Sunday; the encroachment of more and more Sunday sports and other activities on the weekend landscape; as well as a changing economy that has fairly well mandated the necessity of a two-income family; and this is to say nothing of a culture and life that just keeps getting busier and more convoluted with every passing generation, to the point where church has become for many, a second or third choice, if it’s a choice at all!

And the thing is, it’s all happened very gradually, almost without notice.  I’ve always found it ironic that as a pastor, the Sabbath has always and ever been my busiest workday (!); but I must confess that over the years, little by little I’ve discovered that my “window of opportunity,” shall we say, for ministry on a Sunday has been slowly but steadily shrinking over the years; and that’s because there’s so much going on with people and families these days that there’s hardly room for anything else on a Sunday, much less more church activities!  Like I say, pastorally speaking, the Sabbath just ain’t what it used to be!

Now, I don’t say all of this to complain (well… mostly I don’t!), but simply to point out how much things have changed; and really, in this instance, only over about the past 30 years or so.  And yes, where Sundays and the life of the church are concerned, a lot of us – myself included, sometimes – feel like we’ve lost something sacred, and wish that things could go back to the way “it used to be.”  But that having been said, I also have to wonder… that if in the midst of all these changes to life and living it’s not so much that we’ve lost the Sabbath, but that maybe we’ve missed the point of it.

Because friends, as scripture describes it and proclaims it to the faithful, Sabbath isn’t meant primarily to be just another day off or an opportunity for a “time out;” it’s not to be thought of as a reward for a week’s worth of a job well done; it’s not even wholly about rest, at least not in the sense of an afternoon nap.  Sabbath is about much more than that: it’s about life, and within that life, faith. Sabbath is for the renewal of life – ours, yes, but also the life of all of creation – and it is for the sake of resilience so that each one of us is strengthened and empowered to do God’s work on Monday morning and every day that follows.  It’s about a true ministry of life, yours and mine; and to quote Karoline Lewis, “When the Sabbath is for the sake of life, then it means getting back in there and figuring out where life needs to happen.”

This is what lay at the heart of our text for this morning, two back to back stories from the 2nd chapter of Mark’s gospel in which Jesus has already begun to run afoul of the scribes and Pharisees; specifically, regarding the proper observance of the Sabbath.  First, we have Jesus and his disciples walking through “a field of ripe grain,” [The Message] and because they’re hungry and because it’s the only food available to them at the moment, the disciples start “pull[ing] off heads of grain” to eat.  This, of course, was a major breach of the Law regarding the Sabbath: not only was the work of picking the grain prohibited, so was their traveling through this grain field in the first place; and if that weren’t enough, so was eating food that hadn’t been prepared the day before!  Needless to say, the ancient laws of the Old Testament were quite rigid regarding how the Sabbath was to be observed; in fact, the book of Exodus points out that “everyone who profanes [the Sabbath] shall be put to death,” (17:14) and “whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people.” (Think about that as you go home today, friends!)

So here come the Pharisees, ever so quick to point this all out to Jesus, but Jesus is just as quick to remind them of a story about King David; how David had done something even more sacrilegious – stealing and eating bread from the temple that was reserved for the priests, and on the Sabbath, no less (!) – but how that was permissible because this was the one who was to be God’s anointed king, and the Law, however stringent, had to give way to need. Don’t you understand, Jesus says; don’t you get it?  “The Sabbath was made to serve us; we weren’t made to serve the Sabbath.” [The Message again] And then, in the most cutting response of all, Jesus adds, “So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

The point is brought home almost immediately afterward, as Jesus arrives at the synagogue and meets a man whose hand is withered and who desires to be healed; and immediately a decision has to be made.  On the one hand, it would almost certainly be true that if the Pharisees discovered this “unclean” man in the temple, he would not be permitted to stay and would be denied any participation in worship.  On the other hand, however, if Jesus were to actually heal this man’s withered hand – and on the Sabbath – he’d just as certainly be further raising the ire of the religious authorities!

In the end, the right decision was clear; because once again, “The Sabbath was made for humankind,” not the other way around!  The need for love and mercy in that moment exceeded the need for the exact letter of the Law to be followed; and the opportunity for Jesus to bring this man healing was far more important than whatever chastisement would be brought upon him by the Pharisees for doing so.  And with those fuming scholars of Sabbath day correctness looking on, here is what Jesus says (as translated by The Message): “What kind of action suits the Sabbath best?  Doing good or doing evil?  Helping people or leaving them helpless?”

And how do they respond to this?  In every translation the reaction is the same:  they’re angry, but even as their hearts were hardened, nonetheless “they were silent.”  Because in the end, how do you dispute the wonder of a healing act?  How can you squash a miracle of grace on the basis of a technicality of law?  How do you argue with life?

Let us not misunderstand here; by this flagrant act of breaking the Sabbath, Jesus was not flaunting the authority of the Law.  We recognize this all through the gospels: that Jesus regarded God’s law as holy and insisted that that the faithful need “to know, revere, and follow the law.”  But, in words of David Lose, “as important as the law is, it is – and shall always be – a means to an end, a tool, a mechanism in service to a greater purpose.”  Jesus knew that following the law is not what makes us who we are as God’s children; it is meant to help us live wholly unto that identity no matter what, no matter how, and might I add in this case, no matter when.

And that’s a truth that, on this particular Sabbath day, continues on in us.

The fact is that despite the rapid pace of life as we know it in these crazy, convoluted times we have not lost the Sabbath.  You and I are blessed with the invitation and opportunity – indeed, the mandate – to seek the kind of rest, resilience and renewal that is infused with holiness.  But what we need to remember is that our observance of the Sabbath is not to be thought of as the end of this week’s journey of faithfulness, but rather a pause for reflection before the next week’s journey begins.  From the very beginning of our creation, you and I are called to be living the Sabbath life; but ultimately that has much less to do with our stepping away from what we do than it does with getting ready for what is yet to be done!  God created us to love and support one another; to extend to others the same kind of grace and mercy and encouragement as Jesus has given us; to love as fully and openly and as sacrificially we have been loved.  Everything we do (or choose not to do) to keep the Sabbath is the way that we seek to be restored in this wonderful and triumphant ministry of life that we all share.

And, by the way, don’t get me wrong here; speaking both as a child of God and your pastor I do believe, with all my heart (especially now as the more leisurely summer months are getting underway!) that living the Sabbath life does include sharing in “the act and attitude of Christian worship.”  Our coming together here every Sunday morning; our songs and prayers; our proclamation of God’s Word; our shared moments of laughter and tears and silence and fellowship and even the after-church refreshment:  all of it combines to offer up praise and thanksgiving to God Almighty, but also to prepare our bodies and our souls for the work that awaits us as disciples of Jesus Christ.  But then again, so does the time we get to spend today with our families, our friends and our other assorted loved ones; so does that opportunity that might just present itself, wherever we are this afternoon, to reach out to someone in need in any one of a multitude of ways; so does seizing a few private few moments of personal prayer and reflection while hiking, or fishing, or maybe even lounging outside in an Adirondack chair; so does, occasionally, a well-placed afternoon nap with the sound of the Red Sox playing  in the background.

We were made for the Sabbath, beloved; that’s what Jesus said.  So let’s make this Sabbath count for the something as we ready ourselves for the week ahead… and today, let’s start by feasting at the Lord’s table, that we might know Jesus’ presence in the bread and the wine.

Thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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“From Away”

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  –Galatians 3:28 (NRSV)

It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I speak “Down East” as a second language; and that despite my feeble efforts to suppress the impulse, it tends to slip out from time to time, even from the pulpit!

I’m referring, of course, to the dialect that is native to New England in general and Maine in particular; an accent that has long been part of the folklore in these parts, thanks in large part to the classic “Bert and I” stories recorded by Robert Bryan and the late Marshall Dodge. To be honest, what I speak is less that than it is a hybrid of the voices of people I grew up with, as well as those of some of “the locals” with whom I worked during summers years ago as a cabin boy at a rustic resort on the Maine coast; my friend Darrell and I were constantly attempting good-natured impressions, and I’m afraid that for me it stuck!  As a result of all this, however, over the years I’ve developed a fondness for the subtleties of dialect (yes, there is an Aroostook County accent, just so you know!) as well as a great love for good storytelling and especially an appreciation for Maine humor.

For the uninitiated, Maine humor is predicated on understatement (Visitor: “Have you lived here all your life?”  Mainer: “Not yet.”) as well as the gentle tweaking of strangers, fools, tourists and out-of-staters in general, all of whom are referred to as being “from away,” that is, not from the State of Maine. In other words, if you aren’t a native, then you simply don’t “get it!” The notion that one needs to have been born somewhere on the north side the Kittery bridge is the stuff of many a downeast story, not to mention the starting place for a great many folks’ grumbling each year between Memorial and Labor Day.

All these stories are unique to the culture and heritage of the Pine Tree State, and that’s why I love them; and yet what’s always been interesting to me is how well these stories hold up wherever they happen to be told.  For instance, after nearly six years now living and pastoring here in New Hampshire, I can tell you that the same kind of wariness that exudes from your average “Native Mainuh” is also found in great abundance here in the “Live Free or Die” State.  Even in places as far away from the Maine coast as the cornfields of Ohio (where I also pastored a church for several years), I soon discovered that my twice-told stories of farmers and fishermen getting the best of the “flatlanders” rang true. And as a clergy-type, I can well attest to the fact that one even tends to see a few of these stories play out in the life of your average church; from that greenhorn minister who unwisely runs afoul of some long-cherished congregational tradition to the Sunday morning visitor who discovers very quickly that he’d inadvertently sat down in “Mrs. Johnson’s Pew!”  I guess no matter where you are, there are always going to be people “from away” who threaten to interfere with life as it’s always been; just as, conversely, there will always be those quick to point out the interference!

What I’m talking about is all in good fun, of course… except when it’s not.

I must confess that as a pastor, I sometimes do stand amazed at the strange contradiction that often exists within the life of the church: how on the one hand, we’re called to be offering up what our denomination refers to as an “extravagant welcome,” biblically encouraged to seek out those whom the world routinely leaves on the outside looking in and to invite them to be part of our Christ-inspired circle of faith and love; and yet, on the other hand, how quickly and easily we tend at times to dismiss from our fellowship and affection those who are a bit “different” from our regular congregants. After 30-plus years and several pastoral charges, I’ve actually seen this unfold in quite a number of ways; ranging from the kind of innocuous concerns that routinely arise from personality conflicts that, let’s be honest, can exist in any congregation, all the way down to the mostly subtle but nonetheless cruel examples of exclusion that come about as a result of bad habits, misbegotten traditions or a wide array of deeply held prejudices. Yes, to be sure, issues of racism, gender inequality and homophobia can enter into it; then again, so do things like age, economics, classism and even geography.  And lest anyone think this happens only to those who sit in the pews, please know that more than once as a pastor I’ve been informed by well-meaning parishioners that unless I’d been born in that town or grew up in that congregation, I would have no hope of ever understanding what’s best for the church (oh, well… such is the curse of being “from away!”).

But wherever one happens to be on the receiving end of such an attitude, I have to say it’s a shame. As I said before, it is not only the mission of the church to welcome all those who want and need the love of God in Christ in their lives and to bring them into the fellowship of a true community of faith and love; it’s also our grand opportunity to benefit from all the diversity, vitality and fresh perspective these people bring to our shared ministry in Christ’s name. Truly, it is our “Great Commission” from Jesus himself to welcome those who are “from away;” and great things do happen for the sake of Christ and his Church when we stay focused on that mission.

That’s one of many reasons I continue to feel very blessed to be pastoring this particular little corner of Christianity, for the people of East Church really do seem to live out of that calling.  Ours is a church family diverse in background and experience but grounded in the knowledge that we are indeed “all one in Christ Jesus,” bound together by our unity in the Spirit and through our love for one another, a love that extends outward (and then draws inward) in countless ways both large and small. At the risk of sounding a little boastful here, one of the great joys of what I do is that I get to see this every day: whether it’s in the faith and joy expressed in our times of worship, in the food, fellowship and laughter that’s shared around the table, or in all the important work of care and outreach that happens “from season to changing season,” there is a vibrant ministry of love and acceptance that runs through everything we do as a church; and it is enhanced by every new person who comes in the door to share in the good life we have together.

Because ayuh, we’re all God’s children… no matter where we’re from!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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Jesus Who Prays For Me

(a sermon for May 13, 2018, the 7th Sunday of Easter, based on  John 17:6-21)

What a feeling it is to realize that you have been prayed for.

It’s been almost 20 years now, but as you can imagine, the events surrounding our oldest son’s first surgery for the removal of a pituitary tumor are still indelibly etched in our family’s collective memory.  All of it: from the discovery, after a long search, of the tumor itself and the decision that something akin to brain surgery (the first of what turned out to be four such procedures over the next ten years or so) would be necessary to remove it; through the countless doctors’ appointments, consultations and follow-up visits; and leading up to all those horrible hours spent in hospital waiting rooms waiting for news.  It was a difficult situation, to say the very least; and this is to say nothing of the hard realization that all the medical advances in the world mean nothing when it’s your kid being wheeled into the operating room!

But that said I also have to say that what I also remember about that time was being awed, amazed and utterly humbled by the prayers being prayed for our son.  Now, we knew that our families and our friends would be praying for Jake as he was going through this, and that of course meant everything; and given not only that we were members of a close-knit church family but also that I was pastor of that congregation, we were very grateful to know that the church would be praying as well!  But I guess what was surprising was the depth, intensity and the utter expanse of that prayerfulness; as revealed by the women who gathered in the sanctuary on the morning of the surgery so that they could pray together at the exact moment the doctors were operating; or as evidenced by the prayers coming from the people in other churches in town, as well as from those at Jake’s school, others throughout the community and even from perfect strangers (!) who would came up to us in the supermarket to embrace us and let us know in a variety of ways that they’d been praying for us.

Friends, over the course of several months we got cards and letters from people we hadn’t heard from in forever or barely knew at all; and not only that, but also notes from churches out of town (and even out of state!) who wished us well and who wanted us to know that Jake’s name had been brought up in prayer concerns during morning worship!  I think my favorite, however, were the cards and pictures that came to us from an anonymous someone in Connecticut – we never did find out exactly who – but which was always signed by their cat, “Mittens;” as in, “Mittens is praying that Jake feels “purr-fect” very soon!”

It was amazing, it was uplifting… and it mattered.  It not only offered up to us a large measure of comfort and encouragement at a time when it was sorely needed, it also revealed something to us of the love of Christ in the midst of all our worry and stress.  All those prayers, no matter what their shape or form, made a real difference in our lives; it was such an incredible feeling, and so very important for us to know that our son was being prayed for; that Lisa and I and our whole family was being prayed for; and that there those out there who cared about us and who loved us and, moreover, who trusted God to hear them and respond to them as they prayed for us!

Those who have been there know what I mean when I say that this was life-affirming and in many ways, life-changing; and that’s why we should never underestimate the meaning of what we do together in our prayer time every Sunday morning.  There is power in prayer, and there is love expressed in the act of prayer; which is what makes it all the more remarkable to discover through our text for this morning that in the midst of those final moments just before the events of his crucifixion begin to unfold; even as, as David Lose puts it, he is “anticipating an immediate future that will include betrayal, trial, condemnation, beating, and execution,” Jesus stops everything to pray or those he loves… for his disciples… for those closest to him… and for you and me.

This passage from John’s gospel we’ve shared this morning continues on with what’s referred to as Jesus’ “farewell discourses,” but biblical scholars and church theologians often talk about these verses from the 17th chapter as being Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer.”  This is a reference to Old Testament tradition, in which the temple priest would go into the “Holy of Holies,” which was the central-most part of the temple, so to offer up prayers of the people and bring a sacrifice as a payment for their sins.  In our Christian faith, of course, we understand that Jesus stands as a mediator between God and ourselves; offering up the one, true sacrifice – himself – as the final and complete payment for our sin before God.  So… the tradition of the church has always held that this prayer of Jesus in John’s gospel represents Jesus acting as our temple priest; quite literally standing before the throne of grace offering up prayers for his people in preparation for the sacrifice that’s to be made.

And that’s certainly true; in fact, these are verses central to our whole understanding of Christian theology; in particular the idea of Christ’s atonement for our sin, all for the sake of our salvation before God!  But I also have to say that because of how incredibly rich and dense the language in John can sometimes be, we can easily miss how very personal a prayer this is.  I mean, think of it; Jesus is speaking these words to his heavenly Father just prior to that moment in the garden when Judas and the soldiers come to arrest him.  Jesus knows that his hour is nigh, that very soon now he’s going to have to leave his disciples; and so he wants them to be prepared for what’s going to happen next.  Actually, you know, if you read all through these “farewell discourses” in John, you realize that up till this point, Jesus has been giving his disciples a whole series of last minute teachings – about his nature, about the sure and certain hope of life eternal, about peace that the world can’t give nor take away, and about the disciples’ own mission of love moving forward; three chapters’ worth of these teachings in John’s gospel (!) – but now, the lessons are done and in these last few moments before what’s destined to happen happens Jesus needs to pray for them!

And it makes sense; after all, these are the ones who have been the ones closest to Jesus, and these are the ones – whether they understand it or not at this point – who will carry on his ministry! Certainly Jesus wanted his disciples to have the protection and the assurance of God the Father in every uncertain moment that was to come to them, in the days and years to come.  So yes, he would pray for them, which in and of itself is an act of great love and affection; but – and this is important – it turns out that it’s not just the disciples that he’s praying for… Jesus is praying “not only on behalf of these” but also “on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word,” (vs. 20)   and that includes you and me, “that they may all be one.”

And I don’t know about you, but the very idea of it fills me with awe: that the very same Jesus who in his moment of deepest despair would seize that time to pray for his disciples is also the Jesus who prays for me!

And what a prayer it is!   It’s certainly not a prayer that all will go easily for his disciples, because Jesus knew it wouldn’t; that it couldn’t!  It’s interesting to note that all throughout this prayer, Jesus talks about how the “world” that hated him would also hate his disciples “because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.”  The Greek word that’s used here for “world” is kosmos, which more than just suggesting the physical nature of the earth, really means that which is totally alien and hostile to God’s intention to love and redeem all; in other words, Jesus knows that there will always be that “dark side” of humanity who will hate them simply because of who – and whose – they are!

So Jesus doesn’t pray that all will go along without incident, devoid of any difficulty or conflict in their lives ahead;  but rather that they, and we, might always be protected by the power of God’s name, “so they can be of one heart and mind” just as Jesus and his heavenly father were of one heart and mind.  And his prayers of intercession build from there: praying that more than simply having protection from their troubles, “they may have [his] joy made complete in themselves,” as they go forth with God’s word on their tongues and in their lives; praying that because of this they not be lost as Judas had been “so that scripture would be fulfilled;”   and praying finally, and above all, that they may be sanctified – that is, consecrated, made holy“in the truth;” which is God’s word.

And that’s important, too.

For what Jesus understood would be true for his first disciples would also be true for any of us who are followers of Christ: that the very nature of being his disciples, of adhering to the Word they’d received from him, would mean living their lives as outsiders, living “in the world but not of the world,” and yet because of this, having a clear purpose and mission for life itself; to be made holy for what we do, or as the word from the original Greek, hagios, suggests, to be “set apart for sacred use.”  Jesus – the Jesus who prays for me and for you – prays that in and through all our journeys and all our trials and all of our crises of life and even faith we might be set apart by God himself for sacred use!

It’s a big prayer; really, there’s no other way to describe it.  But in the end, you see, what it all comes down to is while that life is difficult, full of the unexpected, the unimaginable and very often the unmanageable, our Lord, in infinite love and care, has prayed – and is still praying – for us: that we might find the strength we need to get through; that we might glean joy in the midst of sorrow; and that we will be made aware in ways both large and small that we are not, and have never been alone in the struggle.  Jesus prays for us with the same constancy of care and compassion as that of the one who knows us the best; he shows us the deep and abiding love of God who brings to us life both abundant and eternal; and he assures us that even right here and right now, in the midst of it all, we’ve been set aside for a sacred purpose.

What a feeling it is to realize that you have been prayed for. 

I wonder what Jesus is praying for in us today.  Maybe that we find the strength, the encouragement or the patience to get through the stress and uncertainty of whatever it is we’re having to face at this moment; a medical issue, perhaps; or a “rough patch” in a relationship with a loved one, a friend or co-worker?  It could be that Jesus is praying that we find the courage we need to stand up in the face of injustice (both personal and societal), or that we might we finally get some sense of healing of mind, body, spirit… or all three at once.  Maybe he’s praying that we have the grace to receive and accept the forgiveness we’ve needed for so long; or else that we figure out that what we really need to do is to be more forgiving of others!  Maybe Jesus is simply praying that we’ll stop for a moment, and pay attention… pay attention to God’s presence and power, and remember how much we’re loved.

Whatever the need happens to be today, friends; know that Jesus already knows, and that he’s praying for you and for me; and that we are the recipients and the stewards of that truly amazing grace.

There is power in his prayer; there is power to comfort us, to strengthen us, and to move us through the joys and struggles of this life… and I pray that each one of us here today might be strengthened and renewed by the power of that prayer.

Thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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