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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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The Promise to Abide

a sermon for April 29, 2018, the 5th Sunday of Easter, based on John 15:1-8 and 1 John 4:7-21)

Well, to begin with… let me just say that no matter how many times I return to this particular passage from John’s gospel, I’m never really expecting what I find there!

I don’t know; maybe it’s because last Sunday we heard from Jesus all about his being the “good shepherd” who “lays down his life for the sheep,” (John 10:11) – and yes, we are those sheep (!) – or maybe it’s simply because it’s finally springtime around these parts, and the idea that very soon now there will be leafy, fruitful vines bursting forth all around is just exactly how I want to think of Jesus when he tells his disciples and us, “I am the vine, [and] you are the branches.”  I mean, it does fit; it’s an image that green and life-filled, it’s pastoral in every good sense of the word and it speaks so beautifully of resurrection as we move through this Eastertide.

So why is it that I never seem to remember that it’s only two verses into this 15th chapter of John when Jesus states, quite ominously that God who is the vinegrower, “removes every branch in me that bears no fruit” and even prunes the branches that do (!); and if that’s not threatening enough, Jesus then goes on to say, “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch that withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”  Now this all sounds more than a little bit judgmental, don’t you think; as I said before, not at all what I was expecting from this passage of scripture!   I was expecting, wanting, dare I say needing to hear about the blessings that come in abiding in Jesus, this one who is “the true vine,” but what I’m getting here is an image of myself akin to all the dead leaves and fallen branches that these days are being hauled out to the curb to be taken away truly only God knows where!  Actually, go back to the reading from that perspective and “I am the vine and you are the branches,” ends up kind of feeling like less of a blessing… and more of, well, a threat!

And in all honesty, that’s how sometimes these verses have been read throughout the centuries; in which Jesus basically announces to one and all that they are to “abide in me,” staying loyal and faithful in all things (that is, “bearing fruit”) or else face the fire, and die; which, if that’s the case, ends up a rather bleak prospect for any of us!  But I ask you, how that kind of interpretation reconcile with everything else that Jesus says here: his acknowledgement that we are, in fact, connected to him in the same manner as branches are attached to the vine; the fact that even those branches that bear fruit and even more fruit (as is stated over and over again in this 15th chapter of John) are subject to pruning; and what about the fact that Jesus says to his disciples that they’d already been cleansed by the word that he’d spoken to them?  No, for all the claims of judgment we hear in Jesus’ words, there’s something else at work here… not judgment, but instead a promise.

And we know this, friends, because of what Jesus says to them in the middle of all this talk of vines and branches.  You see, it’s not simply that he says to them, “Abide in me;” it’s that he says to them, “Abide in me, as I abide in you.”  And that changes everything.

It’s important for us to remember, you see, that in this Eastertide season we are well aware of the truth and significance of Jesus’ resurrection; and thus everything you and I look at in scripture, in particular the words and acts of Jesus himself, we view through a different set of lenses.  In other words, we know how the story of Jesus is going to come out, but as Jesus was speaking these words about to those closest to him on that Maundy Thursday night, they did not!  Moreover, Jesus knew what was about to happen, both to himself and to the rest of them.  As David Lose puts it, “They [the disciples] are about be cut down by his crucifixion and death,” and so now with this imagery of vines and branches and the need to bear fruit, “he is assuring them that it will not be mere, senseless cutting but that they will survive, even flourish.”  It may well seem as though you’re about be thrown in the fire – because after all, branches don’t do well when they’re not connected to the vine; without connection to a life source, life is not possible – but, says Jesus, “Abide in me, as I abide in you,” and you will have the connectedness with me not only to endure and to persevere, but to have life, and to have it abundantly, even in the face of everything that’s about to come.  And what’s more, Jesus adds (and as is translated by The Message), “But if you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon.”

It’s worth pointing out that by the time John recorded all of this for his account of the gospel, the members of the early church – the first generation of  those who would have known how the story came out – would nonetheless have heard Jesus’ words in the context of their own struggles: remember that by that time, many of these early Christians were scattered or in hiding for fear of persecution at the hands of Roman soldiers, most thrown out of their synagogues for the sake of confessing faith in the risen Christ, and almost all of them feeling fairly well abandoned and cut off from what had inspired them to “abide” in the first place!  So even all those years later, Jesus’ words about the connectedness of vine and branches might well have sounded as confusing to them in the distress and uncertainty of their own lives as it did for those first disciples some years before!

Of course, we know all about that, don’t we?  Truly, there are so many of us, maybe even some of us here, who do understand in their lives what it is to feel cut down, cut off and abandoned.  The people who work day in and day out in dead end jobs – if they have a job at all – all the while simply struggling to make ends meet for the sake of themselves but especially their families; the children and youth who are the victims of an ever increasing spiral of bullying and abuse, to the point where they’ve begun to believe what they’ve been told about themselves; the ones who suddenly find themselves having to cope with “the new normal” of their own debilitating illness, or else of finding themselves in the role of caregiver to a family member who can’t do it for themselves; or countless others who “feel cut down – maybe mowed down – by life and its circumstances:”  if you’ve been there, or if you are there, then you know very well what it is to face the fire.

And that’s where Jesus’ words have such power.  Quoting David Lose one more time, when Jesus says, “Abide in me, as I abide in you… This is more than good advice.  More than an invitation.  This is a promise, that no matter what happens, Jesus will be there with us.  That not matter what happens, Jesus will hold onto us.  And no matter what happens, God in Jesus will bring all things to a good end.”  And it doesn’t mean, Lose goes on to say, “that everything happens for a reason,” and that into every life some rain must fall.  “Rather, it is to say that that no matter what happens, we have God’s promise in Jesus to work for good.”  And it means that whatever is going on in our lives right now, as much as what feels like a death cut “is mere pruning” and the assurance that growth is coming, new life will come and soon enough there will fruit in abundance; just wait and see. Because this is Jesus’ own promise to abide, and it is grounded in the infinite love and care of God, who is ever and always the Vinegrower..  As the writer of our Epistle reading for this morning proclaimed it, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

This is who God is, beloved… and, might I add, because of this promise to abide, it’s who we are as well.

The author and Episcopal priest Suzanne Guthrie is, as it happens, also a passionate flower gardener; and I came across a piece by her this week that seems to be pretty appropriate for this time of year, in which she writes that “you have to be ruthless to garden successfully. Out go the weaker plants and weeds, divide the thriving ones before they crowd everything else out… hunt for and destroy slugs in the buggy evening… and prune prune prune down to the nub.”  Guthrie actually goes on to compare this process to the season of Lent, and says that this why so many people love Lent, because “you are busy ‘rooting out the vices and planting virtues’ as the old monastics say.”

But there’s another lesson to be learned about gardening, it’s “about the life source in the soil, in the air, in rain and moisture in the ground, in the mysterious process that transforms an ugly brown tuber into a glowing scarlet dahlia.”  And spiritually speaking, she concludes, it’s a reminder that even though in life we also are so often “pruned, pruned, pruned down to the nub,” and are part of a community that helps make it happen !), we are also “inseparably grafted to the Vine – the source of [our] deep and enduring happiness and love.”

I read this, friends, and it actually got me to thinking about these couple of months we’ve shared here at East Church.  On the one hand, together we went through the season of Lent; making our yearly journey to the foot of the cross and looking very intently within ourselves to perhaps recognize why we were there when they crucified our Lord. Lent, by its very nature and intent, is a season of penitence and fasting and prayerful reflection, and if we’re honest and deliberate about it, it does represent something of a spiritual “pruning;” if not down to the nub then certainly to the heart.

But I think you’ll agree with me when I also say to you that this year Lent was a bit different, wasn’t it?  This year, Lent included a pancake breakfast open to anybody who happened to be passing by; we had a Murder Mystery Dinner on St. Patrick’s Day that featured corned beef and cabbage, a few bad accents and lots of laughter; and then there’s the ongoing and, I might add, fairly significant (and reasonably healthy!) competition between the “Apple Crushers” and “Sunday Shooshers,” with all the pennies, coins and game-changing dollar bills that will benefit the ongoing ministries of our congregation; and this is to say nothing of all the rest of the mission outreach that were at least, in small part, inspired by the desire for a few extra points for your team!

All this to say that this was not, at least not in my pastoral recollection and experience, a typical Lenten season!  In fact, rather than being a somber 40 days leading up to Easter, it was actually rather… festive!  But not festive in a frivolous, disrespectful, sacrilegious kind of way, but rather as Guthrie describes it: just as any good gardening requires a connection to the life source in the soil, in the air, and in the rain and the moisture, what we were doing here at East Church – what we’re continuing to do in this place in this Eastertide – is about connecting to our life source; to the act of embracing anew the promise that Jesus has made to each one of us to abide, and as branches determinedly cling to the vine, we also decide again and again to abide in his presence, his power and, above all, his love, so that we may have life and have it abundantly.

The world, yes, and the life we live within it can be an overwhelming and fearful thing.  But as we abide in God’s love, personified and amplified in Jesus Christ, we discover as once again the Epistle proclaims it, that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear… [and that] we love because he first loved us.”

So let us abide; and as we do, let us bear the fruit that God desires from us.  Let us love as we have been loved…

… and let our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
 

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