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Attentive to the Word

(a sermon for February 3, 2019, the 4th Sunday after Epiphany, based on Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 and Luke 4:14-21)

I know it’s an increasingly rare thing these days, what with every phone having a digital camera and photos being stored in a nebulous “cloud” in cyberspace, but I would dare say that most of us here probably still have one or more of these:  some sort of bin filled with old photographs; with a great many of them still in the developer’s envelopes, waiting for someone to find the time to sort them out and maybe even put them into albums (remember photo albums?).

I’d also wager a guess that most of us have pretty much the same pictures: countless shots of birthday parties, Christmas mornings, camping trips and first days of school; not to mention two generations’ worth of pictures of the same people sitting around the same kitchen table at the in-law’s house!  And even if you get to the point with all these pictures where you know you’ve got to start reaming out the lot of it, you discover that every photograph sparks a special memory and so you hang on to them for a few more years!

“Photographs and Memories…” the pastor as a young child!

Actually, the blessing and the curse of old photographs is that they are stark reminders of what we used to be, and perhaps are no longer;  trust me, every photo album we have makes it increasingly clear that I used to be much younger, a whole lot thinner, beardless and less gray than I am today!  What’s more, old photographs have a way of making us confront the truth of where we’ve been on the journey of life, the choices we’ve made and opportunities either seized or lost.  Not that this is a bad thing, mind you – most times, in fact, it can be life affirming (!) – but sometimes these old pictures also manage to remind us of who we were as opposed to what we are, and maybe even what we’re supposed to be but somehow lost along the way!

Think about that in the context of our Old Testament reading for this morning, from the book of Nehemiah, which is the story of the people of Israel returning home to Jerusalem after having spent many years living in Babylonian exile. Actually, this was what was left of the people of Israel, because after years of slavery, there were far fewer of them than before; and those who remained were poor, demoralized and frightened, having literally suffered for generations only to come home to face a totally ruined land and a city that’s been destroyed.  All they could really do now was to buckle down and begin the process of rebuilding their city and their lives.

To that end, two men of God come forward: Nehemiah, who’d been appointed Governor of Israel and sent to help the people rebuild their land; and Ezra the priest, who comes to help rebuild something almost more difficult than the city wall: the integrity of their faith and worship.  You see, over the years of exile much of the tradition and practice of their faith had been lost, along with their understanding of the law, and perhaps most importantly, their memory of God’s presence, his power and his gifts to them across the years.  To quote Old Testament Walter Brueggemann here, it was the “memory of those gifts and that relationship [that] was the glue that bound the Israelites together.  It was what kept them close to God, reliant upon God and responsive to God.”  But now after so many years there were fewer and fewer who even could remember God’s Word, much less follow it; so in essence, these people of God had become but a shadow of their former selves. Quite literally, all that was left of their faith were the stories told by parents and grandparents, and even those were fading from memory.

So on this particular day, just after the walls of the city had been rebuilt all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate,” that they might hear the Torah being read.  Understand how significant a thing this was; it was the first time in many, many years that the Word of God had actually been spoken aloud!  And what makes this even more significant is that it wasn’t Ezra the priest who initiated the event; it was the people who told Ezra to “bring the book of the laws of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel,” so that everyone, “both men and the women and all those who could hear with understanding” would be able to hear the Word of God.  But here’s the key point of this story, friends; we’re then told that “the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.”

It’s a big moment, and it goes on for over six hours (!), but the enthusiasm of the people never wanes!  Rather, it grows with each word spoken; this word of the Lord that was at once brand new to them, and yet was as familiar and as close to them as their very breathing!  And while this is going on, some of the people are pacing up and down the square, shouting “’Amen, Amen,’ lifting up their hands,” as Ezra blessed the Lord.  Others are on their knees – faces to the ground in humility and awe – and all of them, every one of them, are weeping: weeping for themselves and weeping for their nation; mourning for what had been lost so many years before; rending their hearts in the realization of how far they’d strayed from their faithfulness to God’s law.

So there was mourning; but the point here is that at the end of this incredibly holy experience, there was joy!   It was as though in the reading of the scripture – this “album” of Israel’s memory of God – they had regained their identity as God’s people, and at that moment their lives began anew, because they knew that from that moment on, they would live as they were always supposed to live; they would be who they were always meant to be:  a people who lived knowing “the joy of the Lord [was] their strength!”

Flash-forward about 500 years; at a synagogue in the village of Nazareth, where a local boy – the son of the carpenter, no less (!) – is about to preach in his hometown pulpit.  Now, the locals had known Jesus and his family nearly all of his life; and what’s more, there’d been word from places as far away as Capernaum that Jesus was mightily impressive as a teacher.  So as they’re gathering at the temple they’re all thinking, this ought to be good.  But turns out that what they hear from Jesus is neither expected nor wanted.  Jesus simply reads from the prophet Isaiah,“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor,” proclaiming release to the captives, sight to the blind and freedom of the oppressed; and then he rolls up the scroll, hands it back to the usher and sits down, saying, “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

But unlike Ezra’s reading of the word, this short sermon is not met with tears or prayerful affirmation; just anger!  In fact, if you read on beyond today’s passage, you’ll find that almost immediately their amazement over “the gracious words that came from [Jesus’] mouth” turned to rage, and the hometown folk were ready to run Joseph’s boy out of town and hurl him off a cliff!   And why, we ask?  Well, perhaps it was true what Jesus said about how “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”  Or maybe there was something about his reading of that portion of God’s Word that hit too close to home for those folk in Nazareth; perhaps revealing somethng about who they were as opposed to what they were supposed to be as God’s people.

Who knows for sure; but that’s the thing, you see, about the word of God… because however you might hear it or even receive it, there’s something about it that always reveals the truth; and that truth will affect us!

I think that one of the big mistakes we make about scripture, and by extension our very faith, is that too often we think of God’s word as merely a blanket laid out for our lives and living; because then it has no more function than to make us feel all warm and fuzzy in the chill of life.  And yes, do not misunderstand what I am saying, it can be and often is that; but God’s Word is also meant to reach out and take ahold of us, so to enliven and redirect our lives.  It is meant to confirm and reconfirm our faith, setting us on a new and right and ultimately different path.

That’s what was so powerful about what the people of Israel heard that day at the Water Gate in Jerusalem, and that’s  certainly what the people of Nazareth could not handle about Jesus!  Simply by lifting up God’s Word, Jesus challenged them to a different way of thinking and doing and being: to be involved in a ministry directed not to the proper, the good and the pious, but rather to the improper, the sick and outcast; and then, by the way, proclaiming the vision to be fulfilled by his very presence!  It’s unsettling, to say the very least; but then, that’s what that’s what God’s word is supposed to do:  it unsettles us, it challenges all of our assumptions, it moves us forward and it gives us life; all the while moving us closer to where we’re meant to be, this new realm, a kingdom of God.

That’s the Word of God, beloved… so it just stands to reason that you and I ought to be attentive to it!

Ultimately, the reason we’re here every Sunday morning is so that we can be truly be attentive to the word of God; this word that calls us to be the church and challenges us to follow Jesus as true disciples’ bringing good news to the poor and healing to those afflicted by all manner of pain and suffering.  It’s that word of God that truly holds us together as the church; and yet how many times have we treated holy scripture as though it were little more than story or poetry or mere philosophy? How often have we left here inattentive to the word of God?

Once when my son Jake was in grade school, he had to read the book “Treasure Island,” for purposes of a book report; a task, which by his own admission (and mine, too, to be honest!) was pretty rough going.  Truth be told, as classic a tale as is that story, the words of Robert Louis Stevenson don’t always translate well to the vernacular of our time!  So finally, we decided that the best thing we could do was to read the story aloud, of course in the requisite pirate voice, complete with “arrghs” and “ahoy mates” for proper effect!  And it worked; because what happened is both of us began to hear not only what a great story “Treasure Island” is but also how beautiful and lyrical that language can be!  It was all about our having been attentive to what’s being said and to give voice to what it all means!

What would happen, friends, if as God’s people we were not simply reading the Bible or hearing scripture be read on a Sunday morning, but truly being attentive to God’s word as contained in that scripture?   What would we learn about God, about our faith?  What would we discover, you and me, about our own lives and living?  What would our lives then become?  And what would we end up doing here as the church of Jesus Christ?

I wonder… all I know is that if we were to truly be attentive to the Word, along with devoting ourselves, through prayer and study, to seek to understand it – and, might I add, to open ourselves to the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit as we do – there’s no telling where and how we might be moved as God would lead!

Scripture tells us that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” (John 1:1); and we know in faith, that God will have the last Word. What you and I need to remember is that what God has said and will say in this time between the now and not yet needs our full attention!

So let us truly listen, beloved, so that God’s word indeed takes root in you and me and this church, and lead us into all rejoicing.

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN.

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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God Believes in You

(a sermon for January 13, 2019, the 1st Sunday after Epiphany, based on Isaiah 43:1-7 and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22)

It is very striking to me that while the story of Jesus’ baptism that we just shared ends with the heavens opening up and the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus “like a dove,” it actually begins in an atmosphere of turmoil, with the threat of such a baptism being something akin to “chaff [burning] with unquenchable fire.”

It was one of the very first infant baptisms at which I had the honor and joy of officiating as a newly-minted pastor; and since at that little church where I was serving we didn’t often have the opportunity to celebrate that sacrament, let me tell you it was a big deal not just for me but for the whole congregation! Not only were we anticipating a much larger than usual congregation that morning, there was also going to be this huge reception afterward; plus – and I’ll take some credit for this (!) – since, again, this kind of thing didn’t happen all that much in the life of that congregation, we decided that this baptism would provide the perfect “teachable moment” for the children of our small Sunday School.  What would happen, you see, is that we’d spend some time before worship teaching the kids all about baptism – what it means, how it happens and why it’s such a special time of celebration – and then they’d come into what was referred to there as “big church,” sitting all together in the front pew to watch and see Rev. Lowry baptize this little baby!

Perfect, right?  What creative, progressive Sunday School is supposed to be all about (at least circa 1983!), right? Well, maybe; except that just before worship as I’m about to enter the sanctuary one of the Sunday School teachers rushes up to me and says, “You better come out back with me right now… because we’ve got a problem.”  And yes, we did; apparently, just about the time the teachers had begun to explain what their minister was about to do out there during the service, one of the little girls in our Sunday School – maybe five or six years old and whose family had actually just started coming to our church  – started crying.  I mean, really crying: weeping, wailing and utterly inconsolable!  And by the time I got there, it had only gotten worse: this little girl was now at the point where she could barely take a breath between wails; she just kept pointing her finger at me and crying for all she was worth, “No, no, no, no NOOO!”  Trust me, nothing was calming this little girl down, most especially not the efforts of the student minister who for all his bright ideas was absolutely clueless as to how to resolve the situation!

Eventually, thanks to her mother who, thankfully, was very quickly on the scene, we got to the heart of the matter: that somehow this little girl had gotten it into her head that in this baptism I was about to perform, that strange man in the robe might actually drown the baby, and that idea was terrifying to her and so of course she cried!  But here’s the thing: as silly and as bizarre as that sounds as I’m telling you about it now, her fear was actually based on some reality; for it turned out the only other church this little girl ever been to in her young life was of the variety where adult baptisms were the norm, and then only by immersion!  So basically, all that she remembered about baptism involved people being placed fully underwater at the hand of a minister (!); so thinking about that in relation to a tiny, helpless baby… well, no wonder the girl was crying her lungs out!  Suffice to say that once we understood what was happening, we were able to explain that our baptisms had to do with sprinkling rather than dunking (!) and that rather than being in any kind of danger the baby was perfectly safe, and loved, and yes, even blessed!  It did turn out to be a teachable moment in more ways than one (!) and, as I recall, all went well from that point on; nonetheless, even as the baptism was taking place I could still feel that one little girl’s steely gaze on me the whole time from her seat in the front pew… just in case I got any ideas!

Well, there was a different, but no less intense, sort of turmoil on the day of Jesus’ baptism, and what’s interesting about our text for this morning is what leads up to Luke’s account of this very dramatic and important event almost seems to have more to do with what James Howell refers to as the full “ferocious mood” of John the Baptist than it even does with Jesus! Even before we pick up the story today, Luke’s already treated us to some of the ravings of this so-called wild man of the wilderness:  “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come… even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (3:7, 9)  Not exactly a feel-good prelude to a baptismal celebration!

But we need to understand there was a method to this “madness,” as it were:  that John was in fact, explicitly proclaiming a baptism of repentance, calling the people of Jesus’ time to abandon their sin and turn their hearts wholly back to God, so that they might truly be ready for the Messiah who had in fact already come.  Moreover, we’re told, John had not at all been reticent about speaking truth to power and for all his troubles was  just about to be “shut up” in prison by none other than Herod Antipas himself!  All this to say that Jesus’ baptism, this incredible scene of divine affirmation and blessing, all happens within a backdrop not only of sin and degradation, but also “in the thick of intense political and religious opposition, downright belliger[ence]” on John’s part and even “not shying away from the use of brute force!” (James Howell, again)

Which makes it all the more amazing that this is the scene in which Jesus – this man without sin, this Messiah, this one destined to baptize his followers by the Holy Spirit, and whose sandals John did not even consider himself worthy to untie (!) – walks right up to his cousin (‘cause remember, Jesus and John do happen to be related!) and asks to receive this baptism of repentance.

And now, here’s Jesus, going under the water (no sprinkling here; it’s full immersion in the waters of River Jordan) and then coming up out of the water.  Here’s Jesus, praying his own post-baptismal prayer, when suddenly the sky “opened up and the Holy Spirit, like a dove descending, came down on him.”  And then here’s a voice, speaking directly to Jesus himself, but in a way that all who were gathered could hear:  “You are my Son, the Beloved,” or, as The Message translates it, “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.”  Again I say it:  amazing… amazing that in a world filled with such turmoil and marked by such sin and conflict amongst the people that a baptism of repentance would be necessary for the sake of their souls, the power and glory of God to destroy evil in the person of his Son Jesus, the one chosen and marked by his love. The infamous theologian Karl Barth put it this way: that this baptism was more than mere theatrics; for “when Jesus was baptized, he needed to be be washed of sin – not his sin, but our sin.”  For you see, right from the very start, you see, it was about our forgiveness and our redemption; by offering to wash our sins away in his baptism, Jesus provides you and me a new baptism… a baptism of promise.

Actually, it all comes down to a very basic and dare I say, singular Christian truth:  that God believes in you.  God believes in you, friends, and he believes in me; enough that he would claim us and reclaim us as his own again and again, even as we stand in strong need of repentance because of sin and our utter unworthiness before God. And lest you think this preacher’s becoming overly judgmental, let’s be clear: with the exception of Jesus, we are all sinners, all unworthy and all without hope save in God’s sovereign mercy.  But the good news is… because of Jesus, who was baptized and now offers us the baptism of promise, God believes in us; we also are “precious in his sight, and honored and beloved” by God; and because of this we are saved indeed.

Over the years in various congregations where I’ve served as pastor, I’ve have the privilege of leading confirmation classes for the churches’ youth and young adults.  Confirmation, of course, is the rite of the church where those who were baptized as infants are given the opportunity as young adults, after prayer and study, to “confirm” the Christian faith as their own, which has proven to be an interesting and often enlightening experience for confirmand and pastor alike.

Which is not to say it was always easy:  like the year there was this rather headstrong and opinionated ninth grader in the class who right from the “get-go” seemed determined to challenge every bit of spiritual wisdom I ever sought to impart!  And it began the very first day:  I’d just finished explaining all the requirements that our church and its pastor had for them to be confirmed later that spring, and immediately this kid (whose name was Jason) raises his hand to ask, “Rev. Lowry, does being an atheist make a difference on whether I can be confirmed?” Well, yes, Jason, it kind of does, I answered, and then adding in a very pastor-like fashion, but the question is, if you don’t believe in God, what do you believe in?  “Do you have to believe in something?” Jason persisted.  Well … nooo, I said, you don’t have to, I suppose, but it’s kind of hard not to believe in at least one thing in your life.  “Like what?” Jason would reply, and we were off on to a dialogue that continued pretty much uninterrupted for the next eight months and which led, years later and long after he wasn’t confirmed, to a mature Christian faith nurtured and confessed in the mission field.

Actually, as I think back on it such has been the questions and dialogue I’ve shared with a lot of folks over the years:  “Does it make a difference if I believe in God, because I’m not sure I believe?”  Sometimes that question is borne out of an honest, sincere and relentless search for the truth; often it’s the result of a crisis in somebody’s life that has led to a crisis in faith; and maybe it’s the eventual and inevitable result of just so much piling on that there’s simply no more strength or will left to believe in… anything!  And quite frankly, there are those in this life who are determined to direct their lives in any direction except toward the divine, and who have a tendency to not so much ask questions about God as to fire them at you!

But I’ll let you in on a little secret: the truth is while there’s a whole lot I can and do say to that, there’s also very little that I can say; because even as a pastor, I can’t force anybody to believe in God.  All the sermons, proclamations and apologetic in the world mean nothing without an open heart to receive that message! But I can say this, something I believe in my heart of hearts: that while you may not believe in God – today, or tomorrow, or ever – I am sure that God believes in you.  I know this as surely as the sun will rise in the sky tomorrow morning and that the new life of spring will surely, if eventually, follow the dead of winter; I see it in the wonder and beauty of nature, in the strength and resilience of the human Spirit, and in hope, joy and peace that can only be the handiwork of an infinitely loving God… and I know it because Jesus has already made it real in his sure and certain promise of life abundant and eternal.

Perhaps you’ve come here today not at all sure that you believe… or at least that maybe you have a few doubts; and if that’s the case, I’m glad you’re here.  Because this, beloved, is the place where we rejoice in the God who does believe in us so much that he reminds us again and again, “Do not fear,  for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine…” and why?  “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

You are precious in my sight! You are honored to me!  I love you… I love you!

God believes… thanks be to God, he believes!  I hope and I pray this day, beloved, that this will help you to believe as well!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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Made to Worship: After the Benediction

(a sermon for October 28, 2018, the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost; last in a series, based on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10)

I hope that if there’s one thing that has become readily apparent about your pastor as we’ve gone through this sermon series is that he really loves our time of worship together!

Honestly, friends; I can tell you that of all the many facets of my work here at East Church as your pastor, it is by far this time we spend together in worship that I enjoy the most and which holds the deepest spiritual meaning for me.  I love the flow and the feel of our worship in this place; the fact that whether the accompaniment happens to be organ or guitar nonetheless every Sunday as we sing our praises unto the Lord we do so with conviction and joy. I never cease to be spiritually moved not only by the moments we spend together in prayer, but also by what you bring to that experience in the joys and concerns that are shared as we ready ourselves for that time.  Needless to say, I never stop being surprised by whatever it is that one of our kids might say during our children’s ministry (!); and I never cease to be amazed by how something I say from this pulpit might just resonate with you in ways that I could not have predicted (understand, friends, there are days when what you get out of a sermon is not necessarily what I intended to impart!  But that’s the Holy Spirit for you, and I stand here humbled and grateful for that).

I’ll admit it; as a person and “parson” who’s a little too much of a perfectionist at times, I greatly value the times when everything in our worship beautifully comes together as one seamless whole (almost as if we actually intended it to be that way!); but I also have to confess that over the years I’ve learned there is much glory in not knowing exactly what’s going to happen between the Call to Worship and the Benediction (I’m remembering a wonderful quote attributed to an elderly Baptist preacher at a church down in Atlanta, who every Sunday used to start his worship services with the following prayer: “Dear God,” he prayed, “may something happen in our service this morning that’s not printed in our church bulletins!”).  But whether it’s all properly planned out or if it ends up happening by the Spirit’s intervention, there’s palpable joy that comes in knowing that somehow, some way, the right thing happens to touch a heart at the perfect moment.  And to that, let me just say that as your pastor, I am fortified by your love expressed in smiles, handshakes and hugs; truly, there is rarely a Sunday noontime when I don’t go home newly reminded of Christ’s presence in my life; and I can’t thank you or God enough for that.

So having said all that, friends, please understand me when I tell you now that as far as this pastor is concerned the very best part of our worship together is… when it’s over!  And no, that’s not because I’m in any real hurry to have our time together end, get home, change my clothes and take the rest of the day off (although I’ll admit that this week a nap may be in order, but I digress!).  No, it’s because everything I’ve been saying here today – indeed, everything we’ve been reflecting on all through this sermon series – comes down to that incredible movement of worshiping God: from our praise and thanksgiving in song and prayer, to hearing and reflecting upon the Word of God by the reading for scripture and its proclamation, to finally responding to that Word with lives dedicated to faithful service as disciples of Jesus Christ!   And while in many ways that happens in the context of our worship, our true response to God really begins the moment you and I walk out the doors of this sanctuary!

You see, friends, ultimately the best part of our worship comes after the Benediction: when what we’ve received and shared in here is brought to a hurting world out there, the divine love by which we’ve been blessed being shared with others in need of a blessing; in the process deepening our own relationship with God, a relationship that cannot help but gird and inform every part of our lives.  When our time of worship comes to a close and the benediction is done, you see, that’s when the Christian life truly begins!

Not that this is the easiest thing for any of us to remember, much less live unto, especially in these times.  I’ll be the first to admit that oftentimes it’s very hard to maintain the “attitude of worship” with the act of worship is done!

I remember at different times over the years how the congregations I served would send our youth to church camp for a week during the summer (in the Maine Conference of the UCC, it was always Pilgrim Lodge, but here in New Hampshire it’s the Horton Center), and for some of these kids it was to say the least a spiritual awakening!  The songs, the prayers and the outdoor worship; for some of them it was quite literally a life changing experience as they truly came to a faith in Jesus Christ for the first time!  And when the week was done, they’d come home feeling filled to overflowing with the love of the Lord in their young lives; but sooner or later, as life returned to normal, something would happen. Maybe there was a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend; an argument ensuing with a brother or sister; or maybe Mom or Dad simply asked them to pick up their socks at exactly the wrong time!  Whatever the reason, suddenly and inevitably that bubble of hope/peace/joy/love would inevitably burst; and while the warmth of their new-found faith was not exactly lost forever, it certainly got misplaced for a bit!

And the thing is, whenever a parent would tell me a story like that, I got it; because the truth is that it happens to all of us from time to time!  It’s most decidedly not easy to live out of our faith in a way that is clear and unalloyed, when all the while the waters of life-as-we-know-it has become muddled by pervasive challenges and lingering uncertainties!  How wonderful it would be to not have to reconcile the joy of our faith to the harsh realities of violence and hatred and all the issues that seem determined to divide us; how great it would be today to simply go home with our hearts renewed and fortified for every good thing that awaits us outside these doors!  Unfortunately, there’s a world outside these doors that would seem to do all it can to work against that, in the process seeing to burst our own bubble of hope/peace/joy/love!

So the question is, what do we do about that?  How do move from the joy of worship to love and faith “after the benediction?”

I think our reading from 1 Thessalonians can help us with that.  A little background:  we’re told that this particular epistle represents one of the earlier letters that Paul wrote, and was essentially a letter of encouragement.  Paul had been instrumental in bringing the Thessalonians to Christ, and in many ways they were the very model of just about everything this new community of believers was meant to be.  In fact, these people had this incredible reputation for a strong and steadfast faith; biblical commentator Sarah Dylan Breuer writes that the Thessalonians’ faith “was known such that there was no need to speak about it, because the lived it out with consistency and integrity.  In other words,” Breuer goes on to say, “they didn’t shout about having turned from idols; they LIVED in a way that proclaimed God’s lordship… in their lives.”

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

Now, I’ll grant you that it’s hard for us to identify with the idea of persecution, at least in the manner that faced the early church; but we do know what it’s like to have the burdens of our lives be so great that the joy of our faith takes a backseat to everything else; the transformative experience of worship little more than a distant memory amidst the struggles and challenges of daily life.

We know all too well how that can happen, and Paul knew that as well; and so in beginning this letter of encouragement to the Thessalonians, he offers up a reminder both to them and to us, that whatever the situations of our lives and living God has reached out to each one of us that he has chosen; and that “our message of the gospel came to [us] not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.”  In other words, “after the benediction” God wants that experience of his presence and power to continue unabated.  As we step out into the world our joy is to be full, our thirst is to be quenched at the well of living water, and our hunger is to be satisfied with living bread; we are ever and always meant to be connected with the divine in every aspect of our daily lives.

And make no mistake; there’s not only strength that comes from that, there’s also great power.  Actually, what Paul says here is that as a result of that Godly presence in your life, “you became imitators of us and of the Lord.”  Now, I know that sometimes as we read through Paul’s words, he sometimes comes off sounding as if he’s simply saying, “Okay, you just do what I do and do what Jesus says,” and you’ll be free of any and all persecution and relating difficulties.  But that’s not exactly what Paul means here; the original Greek of this epistle in fact suggests that to be an imitator of Paul or Christ means that you’re going to keep the faith in spite of persecution!  It means that rather than rolling up into a ball and hiding from the difficulties and challenges of life, you continue to receive with joy what God in the Holy Spirit has given you for the way.  What matters is not that bad things happen, or that the stresses of life just keep piling on, but that in the midst of it all “after the benediction” you keep an attitude of joy and faith; and that you seek to be and continue to be in these difficult times an imitator of Jesus Christ.

Beloved, we are indeed “made to worship;” but even more so we are made to respond to our worship with lives of faithful service. It’s about being witnesses to the love we’ve known as our own; about being able to say to others just as it’s been said to us, that we are the beloved and chosen ones of God and God; about letting the presence and power of God in our own lives affect a change in the hearts of others while changing the world – or at least a small piece of it – at the same time!

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

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

“Oh, don’t worry,” Poole goes on to say. “They know God does not look [exactly] like you.  They are not going to worship you or confuse you [in any way] with God… it’s just that sometimes, you just seem so much like God!”

That’s the stuff that happens after the benediction; that’s how you and I end up being “imitators of… the Lord.”   That’s how we thrive as Christians and as the church of Jesus Christ; and who knows what great things can happen if we embrace the wonder of our faith as we head out these doors today.  Truly, may it be said that even as our worship ended today, our faith and action as God’s people had just begun!

And always, may our thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c, 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
 

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