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Category Archives: Communion

God’s Own

(a sermon for January 7, 2018, the 1st Sunday after Epiphany, based on Isaiah 43:1-7 and Mark 1:4-11)

Maybe it’s because we’re just starting a new year with all its mystery and possibility, or perhaps it has to do with the fact that I realize that I’m now beginning – slowly, mind you, ever so slowly – to creep into the latter phase of my middle-aged years (!); but I have to confess that lately I’ve been asking myself a question that I’m guessing most of us have asked at one time or another:

Just who am I in the scheme of things, anyway?

Seriously… wouldn’t you agree with me this morning that this might well be one of the single most crucial questions you and I face over the course of our lives and living?  Understanding, of course, that this is not merely a matter of name, rank and serial number; the knowledge of one’s credit rating or pin number; or even if one happens to be a dog person or cat person!  No, this is a question that has to do with the search for self; it’s nothing less than the very quest for one’s own place amidst the conflicting claims and utter confusion of human life! I guess that’s why a question like this is not reserved for the young, but also for those of us who… well, let’s just say those of us who have the benefit of additional life experience!   It’s a question of all of us, to be sure; in fact, it’s what the renowned author and journalist Gail Sheehy refers to as the “one continuing, never-ending, life-long crisis of identity; the ‘Who am I?’ [that’s] asked all the way from womb to tomb, through one passage to the next.”  Simply put, figuring out exactly who we are in the scheme of things can be a long process, and it is by no means easy!

And what makes it all the more difficult is that literally from the time we’re born and continuing up to today and beyond, there’s always some person, some group, some cause or another, some social or political manifesto out there that that proposes to answer that question for us; to give us an identity, as it were, forged in their image!  For instance, pick up any magazine at the checkout line at the supermarket, or for that matter, turn on the television any night of the week and the message is crystal clear:  that we are beautiful, physically perfect, sexual beings who live wholly unto the ideal of pleasure, popularity and affluence! Never mind that such an ideal is not only unattainable but also potentially dangerous (!), nonetheless that’s what all the advertisers of this world seize upon.  Madison Avenue would in fact convince us that we are all merely consumers, makers and spenders of money; and that our primary purpose in life is to accumulate all those things that make us like the people on the magazine covers!

And it goes on and on: we’re told by the business and academic world that who we are is defined by what we do; more to the point, by how successful we are at what we do, even if that success comes at the expense of family, friends or even God.  The political pundits, especially these days, quickly and way too easily seek to label us as “Red State” or “Blue State,” liberal or conservative, democrat or republican, progressive or “deplorable.”  And then, of course, there are those in just about every walk of life who proclaim the gospel of self-centered, self-made autonomy; in other words, “It’s all about me,” except when it involves you, and then… well, it’s still all about me!

My point in all this is to say that for most of us it’s hard to get a clear sense of who we are in the scheme of things when the rest of the world is offering up all these warped and confused ideas of what it means to be a person of some kind of depth and integrity! And this is particularly true, I think, for those of us who would carry the mantle of “Christian,” because the world most decidedly does not seek to instill that sense of identity within us; in fact, such is the radical nature of the Christian faith is that more often than not, the world would seek to pull us away from that identity!

So that’s why, friends, it is so very important – crucial, really, most especially in these times– that you and I remember our baptism.  It seems like such a simple thing, but when it comes to who we are, it’s truly everything!  For just as at the moment of our Lord Jesus’ baptism, “a voice came from heaven [saying]: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” so by the baptism of water and the Holy Spirit we are also affirmed and identified as God’s own beloved children.  It is by our baptism that we can truly know who we are!

You see, whether we’re talking about the baptism of young children or the confession of faith of an adult, we understand baptism as ultimately a rite and sacrament of identity.  William Willimon, in fact, gives one of the best definitions of this I’ve read in recent years; he writes that baptism is when “a Christian first and finally learns who he or she is.”  I like that; in other words, it’s not about what “we ought to be,” or “what we have to work toward,” or “what we will be someday if only we can quit messing up and get it right for a change,” and it’s most decidedly not what the world says we can be if we just get with the program!  Christian Baptism is about what we are – here, now, today – and what we are, is “God’s own, claimed and ordained for God’s serious and joyful business.”

I don’t know about you, but I want to know that I am “God’s own;” moreover, given the cacophony of mixed messages that I keep hearing from the world, let me tell you that I need to know that.  I think that’s why I have always gravitated toward our reading from Isaiah this morning, because this is one of the great and eloquent reminders from scripture of who and whose we are:  “…thus says the LORD… Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

You are mine:  what a powerful message that is… and it always has been.

We need to remember that this word was directed to the people of Israel living in exile: miles from home, their city destroyed, their faith fading into little more than a distant memory, their very existence as a people in danger.  Understand that these were people unsure of who they even were anymore, and that alone filled them with a sense of fear and dread that they would forever remain a people lost and abandoned.  But that we can understand, can’t we; isn’t that, after all, one of the most common fears that almost everyone shares; to be completely and utterly alone?  I’m remembering a classmate of mine from seminary days who apparently as a teenager spent a short time living on the streets.  I say “apparently” because the truth is, she didn’t talk all that much about it; in fact, all I ever remember her saying is that she learned a great deal from the experience, and that the worst part of it was that she felt like “nobody.”  Can there be anything worse than being… nobody, with no identity at all?

And so it was for Israel; but now, in the midst of their worst fear and greatest despair, comes the assurance of the Lord:  “Do not fear… [for] you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire, you will not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”   Or, consider The Message’s translation of this particular passage:  “When you’re in over your head, I’ll be there with you. When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down. When you’re between a rock and the hard place, it won’t be a dead end – because I am God, your personal God, the Holy of Israel, your Savior.  I paid a huge price for you:  all of Egypt, with rich Cush and Seba thrown in! That’s how much you  mean to me!  That’s how much I love you!  I’d sell off the whole world to get you back, trade the creation just for you.”

That’s just how much we’re loved – we’re not a nobody; and we’re more than just anybody or even somebody – we are “precious … and honored” in God’s sight; bought with a price, named and claimed as God’s very own so that he might love us today and tomorrow and for all of life, now and eternally.  And to “seal the deal,” as it were, he sent to us his own beloved Son, Jesus; so that by and through him we might always know just how deep God’s love truly is, and how, by that love, we can come to know ourselves as we truly are.  We are, you see, ever and always in all things and in all ways, God’s own.

Oh, yes, I know; the fact is that all of us here can claim a whole lot of identities over the course of our lives.  We’re sons and daughters, we’re husbands and wives, we’re parents and grandparents; we’re known by what we do for work, and the things we enjoy doing; we’re known by that which we believe in and the causes that we’re passionate about; we’re known by the words we speak and even more so by the actions we take; and sometimes we’re even identified by the kind of friends we have, but most especially by the kind of friends we are!

The truth is that every one of us here can answer that question – “who are you, anyway?” – and do so in a wide variety of ways. But the good news we’re given today, beloved, is that at the heart of who we are is this pervasive and enduring truth that we are first and foremost, each and every one of us a child of God!  That is the one identity that gives shape and color and form to all the other names and roles that we can ever carry; it is our baptism, this affirmation that we’ve received that we are God’s own that tells us, and the world around us, everything that’s needed about just who – and whose – we are in the scheme of things.

One of the nice things, you know, about coming to the Lord ’s Table as we do is that in coming into the presence of the Lord in the bread and the cup, we are reminded of our “true identity,” so to speak.  Maybe that’s something you need today; maybe these next few minutes can serve as a way of reconnecting with who you really are, as opposed to who everything and everyone else in the world has told you or maybe expects you to be… maybe this is the day you get back in touch with the one who has loved you enough to make you his own.  I can’t think of a better way to start off a new year than that!

Don’t be afraid, God says.  I’m with you, and I will be with you till the end of the age.  That’s how much I love you.

The table is set, beloved; so let us come and feast on the presence of our Lord; and to remember our baptism!

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Table Talk

“In Remembrance of Me,”by Walter Rane

 

(a meditation for Maundy Thursday, based on Matthew 26:17-29)

It’s actually a very quiet and disarmingly gentle way to begin what is almost certainly the most distressing story that’s ever been told:  “When it was evening,” Matthew writes, “[Jesus] took his place with the twelve; and while they were eating, he said, ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.’”

I’m discovering that one of the many benefits of having adult children is that mealtime is not always as chaotic as it once was!  Granted, it’s still very busy, especially on holidays and especially when you live in a small parsonage and all three of the kids and their significant others have come to celebrate; oftentimes it’s nothing short of a miracle (and a testament to my wife’s great culinary and preparatory skills) that we even manage to be able to sit down and eat at all!  But that said, compared to the days when we were regularly distracted  with high chairs, fussy toddlers and projectile peas (!), even the craziest of holiday feasts (and trust me, we’ve seen a few!) seem relatively calm in comparison! I know that someday grandchildren will enter into this mix, and things will again become wonderfully crazy (!), but for now I have to say that I’ve really enjoyed these quiet, leisurely meals with my family.

The best part, however – at least for me – has always been the conversation that happens around the table; honestly, when our kids are around it’s what I look forward to the most!  There’s lots of teasing and laughter – a multitude of very bad jokes, most courtesy of yours truly – and a whole lot of reminiscing about beloved people and of days gone by.  And sooner or later there’s also lots of discussion and sharing about matters of life and living, hopes and dreams… even a smattering of things relating to politics and religion!  And inevitably it goes on and on, long after dessert! The conversation can often be, as they say, “sparkling” and as light as air; other times things can get really deep and intense as we “hash it all out.” But the great thing is that there’s always a lot of love as we share together; along with, I might add, much hope and anticipation for everything that awaits each one of the people sitting around that table as the future unfolds.

I’ve been thinking about those mealtime conversations in relation to that passage from Matthew we just shared, the Passover meal shared by Jesus and his disciples on that fateful night of betrayal and desertion; a meal that as I alluded before sets the stage for the rest of the Passion story that’s to follow.  Truthfully, speaking biblically, historically and theologically, there’s a whole lot to consider about this particular text; but I have to be honest with you here.  For as long as I can remember, my thoughts about this account of Jesus’ “last supper” have always centered first on, well, atmosphere… what it must have been like for those disciples to be there with Jesus sharing that meal on that night; but most of all, what the mealtime conversation must have been like!

Now, remember this was the Passover meal, so you know that so much of the “feasting” was steeped in generations of cherished tradition; the kind of faith-fueled ritual that continues on even today amongst those of the Jewish faith.  So understand that in the midst of the meal, there are no words spoken, no songs sung, no prayers prayed that do not stand for something important.  But beyond this, there most certainly had to have been a great deal of casual conversation; and that’s where my fascination lies.

Simply put, I wonder what they all talked about!  Did they speak about the day just past? Were they laughing together about some funny thing they’d seen or about something cute said by one of the children that were lingering about?  Did they comment on the parables Jesus had shared with the gathered crowds along the streets of Jerusalem (backtrack in Matthew’s gospel and you’ll find that there’s some rich storytelling there!); did they ask Jesus for some clarification on some point or another?  Or were they whispering to one another about the look of consternation on the faces of the scribes and Pharisees that always seemed to be there on the periphery, ever and always hanging on to Jesus’ every word, seeking new ways to trip him up?  And were they quietly acknowledging some of the gossip they might have heard about a plot to arrest Jesus, and did that have anything to do with what Jesus had been saying about the Son of Man being delivered into the hands of sinners?

In many ways, it was probably more of the same kind of “table talk” they’d engaged in every evening for all these many months they’d been following Jesus… except tonight it was different.  Because tonight, right in the middle of dinner, here’s Jesus saying, “One of you will betray me.”  And even as the disciples, one by one, are all answering this by saying, “Surely not I, Lord?”  Jesus “doubles down,” so to speak, by adding “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me… [and] woe to that one by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would be better for that one not to have been born,” words that certainly catch the attention of Judas, who at that very moment was seeking the proper moment to make his move.

Not your typical mealtime conversation, to be sure; but one that, as it turned out, needed to happen, and one that would serve to lift up for them and for us the infinite importance of what happened next.

Because then Jesus, again “while they were eating,” took a loaf of bread, blessed and broke it, and then gave it to his disciples, saying, “this is my body.”  And afterward he took a cup, blessed the fruit of the vine within, and gave this to them, proclaiming that this represented his blood – his blood (!)“poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

And there was more: but as Jesus continued to speak, talking about how this was going to be the last time they’d share wine together until the coming of his Father’s kingdom,  I’m sure that the disciples had to have been feeling utter confusion:  Could Jesus actually be saying what it sounds like what he’s saying? What does he mean, someone’s going to betray him?  Is he accusing us?  Surely he knows us better than that!  We’d never betray him, even if something does happen!

Of course, something was going to happen, and very soon: something sad and horrible and repulsive and filled with anguish and despair.  There was about to be more darkness in the world than humanity had ever experienced and would ever experience again.  And as Jesus spoke these words around the table, perhaps now those confused disciples had begun to get some inkling of it; but they couldn’t possibly understand; not yet.

Which is what makes this strange promise Jesus made regarding the bread and wine so important.  Because in the memory of this strange meal they’d just shared, perhaps the disciples would begin to understand, if only in a glimmer, what Jesus was about to do for them and for all of humanity and for you and me.  Perhaps it was Jesus’ promise in the bread and cup that would give them some scant comfort in the next few desperate hours and the couple of dark days that were to follow; maybe it would be the single thing that reminded them of the eternal truth of Jesus’ words even in those moments that seemed the most hopeless.

Or maybe not… at least for them; truthfully, I suspect that by Friday afternoon the disciples were so scattered so despairing and so without hope, they simply went into hiding and didn’t think about anything at all except the thudding pain of their own grieving hearts.  Eventually, later on when everything had changed… well, then they’d remember; but not yet… not now.

For us, however, it’s different.  We are also the recipients of Jesus’ promise the people of Jesus’ long ago promise at the table of blessing, and maybe… just maybe, as together we remember that night of betrayal and desertion and as we walk the way of the cross tonight, remembering  in shame the many ways that we were there as they crucified our Lord, you and I will find our comfort and peace in the assurance that Jesus himself gave that he would be with us always and ever; bringing forgiveness, grace and saving love, even unto the end of the age.

It seems to me that this is the truly good news of what is a very difficult and painful night; and it ours in Jesus, our Savior.

So let us now come to the table of blessing, and let us feast together; engaging in the good conversation of God’s enduring spirit and infinite love, so that we might then go with him to Gethsemane and beyond.

Thanks be to God.

Amen and Amen.

c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on April 14, 2017 in Communion, Holy Week, Jesus, Lent, Sermon

 

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One Lord, One Faith, One Birth

img_9581One of the great things I get to do as pastor of East Church is to lead a monthly service of communion at Havenwood-Heritage Heights, a local (and United Church of Christ sponsored) retirement community.  It’s generally a small and informal gathering, mostly members and friends of our congregation who are part of that community (with a few retired clergy as part of the mix!), but it’s a time that is unfailingly sacred as we’ve shared and prayed together; in fact, I must confess that I’ve always come away from this experience feeling as though I’ve been ministered unto at least as much as whatever has been imparted by the pastoral care I’ve sought to offer!

It’s also been a wonderful reminder of who we are as the church and of our shared ministry; a point that was brought home to me recently in, of all places, the express check-out lane of one of our supermarkets.  I was actually there purchasing the “elements” for our service at Havenwood later that morning – a small loaf of bread for breaking and a small bottle of grape juice to be poured into a makeshift chalice – and the young man behind the counter immediately took notice, saying, “Now, if I were to guess I’d say you’re getting ready for communion!”

I know my eyes popped open wide as I told him he’d called it correctly, and went on to explain about our upcoming time of worship at Havenwood.  And the thing was, this young man was not only complimentary of what we were doing, but also genuinely interested; turns out he himself was a part-time youth pastor serving at a nearby church of the evangelical tradition who was currently seeking to help the children in his congregation understand what the Lord’s Supper is all about.  “It’s just so important,” he said, “and it’s not so easy to explain.  But I would never want our kids receiving the bread and cup without having at least some sense of the Lord’s presence in it.”

Truly, it was an unlikely discussion in a place where “10 Items or Less” is the rule; but we actually had a nice chat.  I shared with him my contention that children often have a deeper sense of the spiritual than we adults give them credit for; he commended me for doing “the good work” of ministry day in and day out, a word I very much appreciated.  And at the end, as the line of shoppers behind us began to grow (!), he asked for my card and if we might talk again, a request I was happy to accept.

Just a random encounter on another ordinary day; but one that served to remind me that though we in the wider church may well have our differences in tradition and customs, polity, process and, occasionally, the finer points of theology, the fact remains that we are all in this ministry together.  For instance, we might not approach matters of baptism in quite the same way – do we baptize children as infants, or wait until they are older and can make a believer’s confession of faith – and we may debate who can properly receive (or serve) the Eucharist, but there is no denying that the same Lord is present whether that baptism happens by sprinkling or immersion, or if the bread and wine is shared in the proper liturgical context of Sunday worship or rather passed hand to hand amongst youth gathered at outdoor ministries such as New Hampshire’s Horton Center or Pilgrim Lodge in Maine.  And certainly, while it’s true these days that so many of our churches have been forced to deal with all the swift changes in our culture and our changing (some would say shrinking) place in the world – and perhaps have chosen different approaches in doing so – we still have, as Paul said to the church in Ephesus, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”  (Ephesians 4:5-6) 

It seems to me that now, more than ever, our strength as the church – locally, denominationally, and ecumenically – is to be found in that unity and in our shared ministry of God’s extravagant and radical love shared with the world, personified in Jesus Christ.   We do indeed have “the good work” to do, each and every one of us in this particular time and place. This was the thought I shared with our own gathering of saints at the Havenwood Chapel as I told the story of my supermarket encounter earlier in the day; adding, incidentally, that given all the rancor and division of that week’s upcoming inaugural activities and protests, this exhortation to unity, service and, above all, love also might be a good lesson for our divided nation to learn as well.

And so might it be.

c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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