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A Dwelling Place for God

(a sermon for May 17, 2020, the 6th Sunday of Easter, based on Ephesians 2:11-22)

Unless I miss my guess, I suspect that most of us can recall a time in our lives when, for whatever reason, we felt “left out.”

I remember one time in particular: I was about 13 or 14 at time, it’s summertime and I’m at the lake, and one day I’m just sitting down on our dock all alone and feeling incredibly lonely while all my friends were out there on “the pond” having fun together.  Now, as I think back on it now I don’t think I could tell you the reason why; all the kids on our side of the lake had always hung together as one group.  I don’t know: maybe it was that by this time of our lives some of the guys and girls were starting to find more than a passing interest in one another and I didn’t quite fit into that equation; could be that some of the locals, who knew each other from school, tended to stay separate from us “summer people;” or maybe it was just a typical case of teenagers being fickle and flighty over matters of popularity!  All I know is that sitting down on the dock that day, I felt… awful!

I remember literally feeling hurt to think that I was, in essence, now standing on the outside looking in and feeling somehow excluded from all the fun that all my friends were all having: diving off Barker Rocks, having cookouts down at Sand Cove, waterskiing behind somebody’s motorboat or for that matter, just cruising up and down the shoreline, laughing and hanging out!  I so wanted to be a part of that, I so wanted to be accepted and included and a part of things; but since I was far too shy and awkward at that point to do anything about that myself, basically I just sort of sat there on the dock all through that horrible afternoon feeling lonely and isolated, alienated and utterly excluded, all the while miserably watching from afar everybody else having a good time.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but at that very moment not only was I experiencing something of the ways of the world as it truly exists, I was also learning a very important lesson in Christian theology!

Now, I don’t think I have to convince any of us that you and I live in a world where people and groups are routinely and systematically “left out,” isolated and alienated from one another, and for any number of reasons:  racism, economics, age, classism, geography, issues of gender inequality and identity, red state/blue state; it goes on and on, each and all of it a catalyst for how any semblance of unity and community can be torn asunder, creating an “us versus them” mentality.  Sadly, note even the church is immune to such behavior: many is the time over the years when as a pastor I’ve seen firsthand how bad habits, misbegotten traditions and a wide array of deeply held prejudices serves only to create deep divisions within the church, leaving folks with the feeling that they’re unwelcome, unworthy and on the outside looking in.

And that, wherever or however it occurs, is not only a travesty, it’s also heresy.  Because ours is the God who in Jesus Christ “has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us,” so that, in the words of our text for this morning, those “who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ,”  with whatever dividing wall between us and God having been torn down, so that we are no longer “strangers and aliens, but… citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”   What that means, friends, is that not only are we brought close to God through Christ, but also that the barriers that divide us are torn down as well, and we are joined together and built spiritually into one household that is no less than “a dwelling place for God,” with “Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.”

Bottom line is that no one, for any reason, should ever feel left out of the fellowship that exists in this community of faith, this Body of Christ of which you and I are each a part; for the love that is sown here actively seeks to gather in all those who stand on life’s shoreline longing to be included.  It is, as our hymn for this morning has so aptly proclaimed, our church’s “charter of salvation,
one Lord, one faith, one birth,”
and each and every one of us, friends, are invited to be a part of that divine charter.  The good news, today and always, is that it is our Lord’s intent that no one should ever be left standing off to the sidelines, feeling lonely and isolated, alienated and utterly excluded from the sacred community of God’s people.

Of course, all that said, it should also be noted (and this will come as no surprise to you either!) that in these days of pandemic, the feeling of being “lonely and isolated, alienated and utterly excluded” has taken on a whole new meaning, even as it pertains to the church. 

What’s been interesting to me lately about all of this is that now, after two long months of having this unprecedented experience of having been unable to hold “in-person” services because of the threat of Covid-19, across the denominational spectrum we’re all trying to figure out what happens next.  Do we seek to cautiously reopen, do we take a “wait and see” attitude, or do we just decide right now, as some congregations have already done, that for the sake of health and safety we need to shut down for a year or more?  None of these are easy choices to make; and speaking as a pastor, believe me when I tell you that these are maybe the most difficult decisions for any of our churches will ever have to make.

But even more difficult is the reality that in these days of “staying at home” our congregations have become, well, scattered.  As I’ve said to you before, I’m very gratified at your understanding and support of these online services; but I’ll admit it, what we do here can never be quite as satisfying or as meaningful as our physically coming together at church on a Sunday morning.  And yes, I know, as the old saying goes, that “four walls and a steeple do not a church make,” but I do have to confess that there are times these days that I worry that in many ways without the building we end up feeling much like I did on that fateful day so long ago… as though we’re standing on the outside looking in, feeling as though we somehow don’t belong.

Well, if you’ve been worried about that, or if about now you’re kind of feeling on the outside looking in, then let me say to you that it seems to me that this good news that Paul brought to the Ephesians belongs to us as well.

To put this in its proper context, there was actually a fair amount of division amongst the early Christians in Ephesus. Obtensibly, it had to do with the Jewish ritual of circumcision and how the letter of the law was to be followed, but what it really was all about was “the insiders” versus “the outsiders;” about who amongst them were the truest, longest and most important members of the church, and who among them who… weren’t.  And as far as Paul was concerned, this was unacceptable; it was a sin of division that not only compromised the church’s witness and its very existence, but which also grieved the Lord. Paul makes clear here that the church, as God intends it to be and as Jesus himself has gathered it, is meant to be ONE: as Paul says elsewhere in this epistle, “there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.”

In other words, it’s not about the stone foundations and white clapboards of a church building, it’s not about the program, it’s not even about the joy of our singing and praying and sitting together on a set of admittedly uncomfortable pews for an hour or so on a Sunday morning… it’s about who we are and how we are as a people of faith; a people who “once were far off,” but who now are near to God and, in the process, drawn ever nearer to each other; a people who through Jesus Christ “share the same Spirit and have equal access to the Father.”  As The Message translates this part of Paul’s epistle, “It’s plain enough.  You’re no longer wandering exiles.  This kingdom of faith is now your home country.  You’re no longer strangers or outsiders.  You belong here, with as much to the name Christian as anyone.”  And here’s the capper:  “And he’s using us all – irrespective of how we got here – in what he is building… he’s using you, fitting you in brick by brick, stone by stone, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone that holds all the parts together… a temple in which God is quite at home.”

You see, that’s the thing that we really do need to keep reminding ourselves of right about now: that church is not something we go to; it’s something that we are, that strong and indefatigable identity that we bring to a hurting and divided world, an identity given to us in the person of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. Jesus is the one who invites us, Jesus is the one who makes us who we are, and it is Jesus who gives us what we need to survive and thrive. To quote Kevin Baker, “Jesus is the singular, God/human wrecking crew that demolishes division and gifts us with unity, peace and reconciliation.”  And here’s the thing… even now – especially now (!) – Jesus will not ever leave us on the sidelines, apart from that unity and feeling lonely and isolated, alienated and utterly excluded.  Never… because you and I, all of us together, beloved… have been made into his dwelling place, and that will never, ever change.

I should tell you that in my particular story about feeling left out, and the biggest reason I still remember it so clearly, it was actually an experience short lived.   Maybe it’d been an oversight; perhaps one of them had seen me sitting there alone and figured I ought to be included.  But before long, here were all of my friends, inviting me to come along with them; and ten minutes later, we’re swimming and cruising and water-skiing and it’s like nothing had ever happened.  Just as quickly as I hopped into that boat, all those feelings of hurt over being left out vanished, replaced with this incredibly joyful feeling of… belonging.  And it felt good: good to be invited, good to be welcomed in, good to be inside that circle of friendship rather than on the outside looking in.

And beloved, that’s what our God wants for each one of us, most especially in these days when it has become so easy to feel scattered and disconnected from one another. 

I know that in the face of a still uncertain future it’s hard for us to think of ourselves as existing apart from our building, our traditions, our routine and our usual sense of purpose… but we need to understand that when our Lord talks of our being gathered together as the church, he’s talking about a house not made by human hands, but only by his loving hands; a house made up of people whose hearts and lives have been changed forever by the strong and saving v. Mgrace of Jesus Christ; and a house where community and fellowship and mission are not mere buzzwords, but the very way we live.  

We are the church… you and me together, from wherever we happen to be… we are the “holy temple the Lord… built together into a dwelling place for God.”

May it be said of us, beloved, that God was and is alive and well at this church… and in us.

And may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

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

 

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New Heavens, New Earth, New Future

(a sermon for April 12, 2020, Easter Sunday, based on John 20:1-18 and Isaiah 65:17)

Well, let’s just start by stating the obvious:  this year Easter feels different… very different.

I realized at some point this week that as I’ve been talking with family and friends about my plans for our worship today I’ve almost always begun with the words, “Well, under ordinary circumstances…” as in, “Well, under ordinary circumstances we’d have a sanctuary filled with beautiful flowers (not to mention a sanctuary filled with beautiful people!)… under ordinary circumstances we’d be all here together singing out the triumphant hymns of our resurrection faith, and we’d be shouting our alleluias and our “Christ is risen, indeed’s” so loud and so often that our voices might go hoarse in the process… under ordinary circumstances, our Easter Sunday worship would be such a wonderful time of freshness and renewal and true celebration that we’d all leave church today with the feeling that everything around us had suddenly and gloriously become brand new… and us along with it!

But of course, these aren’t “ordinary circumstances,” by any means; in an unprecedented set of new circumstances brought about by the Covid-19 Pandemic we’ve had rethink and reconfigure how to “do” Easter… or at least how to do it from a distance!  So yes, this year Easter does feel very different; and I’ll confess that like most of you I’m really missing all the traditions, both in and out of the church, that have made our Easter celebrations so great every year!  But that said, I also have to confess that lately I’ve been thinking that maybe this idea of our “feeling brand new” on this particular day should maybe have less to do with how we “do” Easter than what’s been done for us on Easter.

Believe it or not, it’s reminded me of how once many years ago, on a whim I decided to shave off my beard.  Now I’ve had this protuberance of whiskers on my chin for over 30 years now (I actually grew it so I could look older (!); I know… so much for that concept!), and I’d never totally shaved it off before nor have I since.  But for some reason on this one day I got it into my head I needed something fresh and new in my life – I needed to be fresh and new – so literally just like that, off came the beard.  

Now at this point, (our youngest son) Zach hadn’t been born yet, and it was just Jake and Sarah; and Jake, who I don’t think was even in school yet, took one look at the “new” me and cried his eyes out!  On the other hand, my lovely wife Lisa – my lovely, supportive wife, Lisa – started laughing hysterically; as I recall, her first three intelligible words were, “Grow… it… back!”  But my daughter Sarah, who was barely a toddler at the time, eyed me warily at first and then as I drew closer to her, she took her two little hands, tapped me on the cheeks and said, rather nonchalantly, “Daddy.”  From that moment, you see, it didn’t matter to her that I looked so different; I felt the same and inside I was the same, so she could tell that I was still her Daddy!  I was grateful for that, but I also immediately realized that shaving off the beard wasn’t going to give me that “newness” of life, so to speak, that I was seeking!

My point here is though appearances may change and circumstances around us can and do drastically shift, who we are deep down inside remains the same; try as we may, we can’t make ourselves to be “brand new” simply by our own effort.  We can’t do it by wealth, it can’t happen through the exercise of power, and it doesn’t occur out of the sheer force of will and determination.  In the end, you see, no matter what kind of “extreme makeover” we attempt for ourselves, there’s nothing we can do that makes us brand new.

But here’s the good news of Easter, beloved, and the real reason for celebrating today: it’s that God can make us brand new, and does.  The same God who promised to “create new heavens and a new earth,” makes us brand new as well and has done it through Jesus, who is the Christ: Jesus, who in rising again has conquered the one absolute certainly of our human existence – our death – and has opened for us the gates of life abundant and everlasting.  By the resurrection, we become a new creation; a people of a new heaven, a new earth and a new future.  And the experience of that is what moves this day of celebration far beyond the realm of candy and flowers and new spring clothes; it’s what makes our worship this morning infinitely more than simply an exercise in hymn singing and alleluia shouting; and it’s how it can utterly transcend our being unable to gather together as the church “in person!”  It’s the resurrection that makes our lives – yours and mine – something fuller and greater than we had ever thought possible.  For you see, when God enters into our lives in such a way that we are enabled to see this world not as a place of death, decay and defeat, but as the place awaiting God’s final victory of life, we are, in fact and forevermore, made brand new!   

Christ is risen; and because of that, friends, this world and our lives in this world can never be the same as it was before; and thanks be to God for it!   In fact, in the words of the late British theologian Lesslie Newbigin, in this world the resurrection can only be viewed as “a total starting point… the ultimate protest against things as they are, in the name of what ought to be,” the proclamation that “the world as it is is not God’s last word.”   It is no wonder that throughout the history of the church, Easter has often been referred to as “Day of Days,” or, more pointedly, “The First Day.” Because from this first day on, everything is brand new.

Of the four accounts of the resurrection that are contained in the gospels, I think I’ve always been drawn the most to John’s version of the Easter story. I love, for instance, how John tells us that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb that morning early “while it was still dark,” suggesting that the day hadn’t even begun yet, but rather that time between darkness and the dawn when things still seem so gray and uncertain.  I am always struck by how Peter and the other disciple race to get to the tomb first, but then, so amazed by what they discover there, end up wandering back home and leaving Mary alone, weeping outside the entrance of the tomb.  And I am always moved by how she cries; that so great is her anguish and  grief, first over the death of her Lord but now also over the apparent theft of his body that she doesn’t even recognize the voice of Jesus when he speaks to her… how she assumes Jesus to be the gardener, of all people!

Isn’t it interesting that it’s only when Jesus calls her by name, “Mary,” only then does she recognize him; only then that she can begin to understand this incredible thing that had happened; only in that moment did her world and her life become brand new, and the overwhelming tears of grief and anguish are replaced by tears of joy and even laughter.  Suddenly, despair turns to hope, defeat becomes victory, and what was impossible now becomes not only possible but real!   Where before there was nothing but death staring Mary in the face, now there’s life with this brand-new future laid open before her!

That’s an incredible moment; for what we sometimes forget in remembering the great theological and cosmic implications of the resurrection is that while God so loved the world, God also so loved the one.  In this exchange between Mary and the risen Christ we discover that God does indeed seek to bring each one home to him in a love that is as real and close as our very hearts. 

But then, this shouldn’t surprise us.  One thing Jesus was always teaching us is that God is not about to let us go, that he calls us by our names, and that he will transform heaven and earth if it’ll bring us home.  And now, through Christ, crucified and risen, God makes the world brand new, and makes us brand new along with it.

And that’s why, even in these most stressful and uncertain of days: even in these times when the struggles of the world have become our struggles; even as in life we suffer the slings and arrows of an outrageous, cruel and sinful humanity; even now, we can still dare to love; even now we dare to wonder and to trust that even in the bleakest of times that God is good. 

We dare to hope in God’s shalom to bring forth a new day of resurrection and hope to every dark place in the world, and we dare to work boldly as persons and as a people for the sake of God’s kingdom; all because we know that Christ has overcome the world, and that there is a new heaven, a new earth and a new future for you and for me.   And, friends, that is what makes all the difference for us not only today, but also tomorrow and every day to come.

Someone once asked the poet G.K. Chesterton what personifies a Christian, and he replied that “a Christian will do two things:  dance out of the sheer sense of joy, and fight out of the sheer sense of victory.”   Well, beloved, today on this day of resurrection, we dance!   Wherever and however we happen to be today, we sing and celebrate that Christ is risen, and we praise the God of resurrection and new life… today is for dancing!  

But tomorrow, when life continues in this strange “new normal,” we fight.  We fight out of a sheer sense of victory; we fight because by the power of the risen Christ we are not the same as before, but different; we fight because of a new sense of who we are and what our lives are about; we fight because we are made brand new and our lives are starting all over again! 

Can you imagine what that means?  What do you think could happen to us and to this world if we could just be bold enough to live that way?

My prayer for all of us amidst the “extra-ordinary circumstances” of this Easter Day is that the Risen Christ, the one who is alive in the world and alive in our hearts, will give us courage and grace to dare to live that kind of life: not only on this day of days, this first of days, gut also on every day that’s to come.  And may we always be joyful and bold in proclaiming…

…Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed!)

Alleluia, and AMEN!

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

 
 

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We Are the Church!

(a sermon for March 20, 2020, the 4th Sunday in Lent, based on Philippians 4:4-9 and Matthew 18:20)

Some years ago when I was still a young pastor I was asked by the local funeral home if I might lead a graveside memorial service for an elderly widow from a nearby rural village.  Apparently, though she’d been born and brought up in that community, she hadn’t lived there for years; but after her husband passed away, she’d recently returned home to “the county” and had been living alone in the family homestead… which meant that most if not all of her family was gone now and she really didn’t know all that many people in town. 

However, the funeral director let me know, this was apt to be a well-attended gathering; because, as it turned out, this woman and her husband were throughout their lives strong and tireless benefactors of a small private school where they’d lived and worked together.  So, I was told, the headmaster of the school was coming up; there were going to be members of the board of directors, and even a few student alumni who had offered to speak; and so it was looking like this service was going to be a true celebration of a life well-lived and of a woman greatly loved and admired.

But then came the hurricane.

Not a full-fledged hurricane, mind you; but as is typical in this part of the world, it was forecasted that we were to feel the effects of such a storm veering out into the Gulf of Maine.  Suffice to say that on the morning of the service, the funeral director called to let me know that none of the people who were scheduled to be a part of this memorial service were going to be able to attend… but also that we were going to go ahead with the service as planned.  And so, that afternoon, the funeral director and I met at the cemetery… with only one other person who’d come to pay her respects:  another elderly widow, who as it happened, lived across the road from the deceased; someone who’d known he woman from way “back in the day,” and who’d renewed their friendship since she’d come back to town.  But she was the only one who’d come.

Kind of sad, to be sure; but okay… and at the appointed hour, I opened my book of worship and began the service, speaking those all-important words of promise, assurance and comfort that are given us in scripture…

… and it started to rain.

And not just a few sprinkles, mind you, but a full-fledged shower growing stronger all the time!  Now, in retrospect, given the forecast for that day I can’t fathom why none of us had brought an umbrella, but there the three of us were, standing outside in the rain and getting more and more soaked by the minute. And I’ll be honest, at this point not only am I mentally figuring all of what I could leave out of this service so move it along, I’m also starting to read the scripture faster and faster as I’m going… because folks, we’re getting wet!  But just as I’m about to “throw in the towel,” so to speak, the neighbor woman leans in close, looks me square in the eye, and with raindrops dripping off her brow, says to me in a way that only ladies from Aroostook County can, “Don’t you dare to leave anything out of your service, pastor… she deserves every word… so keep going.

And that’s exactly what we did… and it was a truly a sacred time.  I thinkmaybe that was the very first time I truly understood Jesus’ words that, “for where[ever] two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about that service this week.  Friends, if I’m being honest here, I have to confess that for me, this is kind of a strange way of doing worship.  Not that I have any problem with being online like this – it’s a great technological resource, albeit one I’m still learning to navigate, and I’m very glad for it – and it’s certainly not that I haven’t had any prior experience with leading worship before small or even occasionally non-existent (!) congregations!  It’s just that by its very nature, Christian worship is about people being together in God’s holy temple singing and praying unto the Lord; face to face and eye to eye as one people, one faith, one church.  For a lot of us, myself included, physically coming together to worship on a Sunday morning is as natural and as essential as our very breathing!

But these are challenging and uncertain times in which we live, and so it’s not only prudent and responsible but also faithful that we heed the call not to gather together in the midst of this current Coronavirus crisis… so here we are, gathering in a “virtual” way and, at least for the time being, living separately from one another; living alone together, as it were.  And yes, that is strange, even for those of us who are accustomed to solitude; because, to quote pastor and author Craig Goeschel, who posted an article this week about his own rather difficult experience of self-quarantining after being exposed to Covid-19, “We are not created to be alone… being isolated for days on end is difficult and not what God intended for people.” All this to simply say that these days it’s understandably hard for us to think of ourselves as a church, at least not in the traditional sense.

And yet we are.  Even now, even here on Facebook Live we are the church… because “where[ever] two or more are gathered…” or, because I can’t let a Sunday go by without at least one translation from The Message (!), “When two of you get together on anything at all on earth and make a prayer of it, my Father in heaven goes into action. And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I’ll be there.”  Granted, we’re all a bit spread out this morning, and our “remote” settings for worship might be well be at a computer desk or with an iPad on the living room couch, but make no mistake; two or more are most gathered because of the Lord, and the Lord is most certainly with us as we do.

I have to say, friends, that over the past few days I’ve been very heartened by your response to all of this.  Not only have you been more than understanding of the decisions we’ve been forced to make regarding activities at the church, but you’ve been stepping up to find ways of connecting with and helping one another in the midst of this crisis: making phone calls to check in with those who might be feeling more than a little isolated right now; putting together “goodie bags” to drop off to those who are shut in (at the appropriate social distance, of course); offering to pick up and deliver groceries to those who shouldn’t or just can’t get out.  I know that Lisa and I have been greatly appreciative of the calls, the texts and emails you’ve been sending us this week; and of all the offers, large and small, to help get our congregation through this time.

It’s all been a glorious reminder to me that we are the church: a community – a family – who, in the words 2nd Timothy, are called to live our lives knowing that “God did not give us a Spirit of cowardice, buy rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” (1:7) Whatever else life and the world hands out, you see, it’s important for us to remember that we are not a people of fear, or discouragement, or anxiety but of a peace “which surpasses all understanding,” of gentleness that shows forth to all, and of thanksgiving for everything we’ve been given because “the Lord is near,” our very hearts and minds guarded throughout this and every crisis “in Christ Jesus.”

Right now, beloved, that’s everything.

In our text for this morning, Paul tells the Philippian Christians in a time of persecution to “rejoice in the Lord always…” In fact, he actually doubles down on this exhortation: “…again I will say, Rejoice.”  It was an important word for them both to keep the faith, and to keep focused on that which in faith they knew to be true, no matter what else was going on around them: “Whatever is true,” Paul says, “whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if this is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

That’s a very good word for you and me as well.  It seems to me that by the grace of God in Jesus Christ we have more than enough that is pure, lovely, and excellent that will see us through the difficult days ahead. The trick will be for us to focus on those things rather than fear and uncertainty; to try each day to think about what we do have rather than what we don’t have.

I’m here to say this morning that prayer will help us with that; purposely and purposefully taking regular time in these days of “staying in” for personal and shared meditation.  Our keeping connected with one another will also go a long way in keeping us focused on that which matters, as will seeking to be creative about how we can be most helpful to those who are the most vulnerable in this crisis. And most of all, we’ll get through by remembering – always – that “the Lord is near.”

Because remember, my dear friends, we don’t just go to church; ultimately, who we are is not about the building or the fact we get together every Sunday morning at 10:00.  We ARE the church, gathered in and spiritually sent forth by and in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.  If we just remember that, we will get through this thing as a church, and maybe even be a little better off for the experience.

And never forget: through it all, the God of peace will be with us.

That’s why we say, today and always, thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

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

 
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Posted by on March 22, 2020 in Church, Current Events, Jesus, Lent, Sermon, Worship

 

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