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Practiced in Joy

(a sermon for January 10, 2021, the 1st Sunday after Epiphany, based on Text: Isaiah 60:1-6)

I remember the moment as though it were yesterday.

It was the fall of 1982, I was living in Houlton, up in Aroostook County, Maine and serving as student pastor of the church up there while commuting back and forth to seminary classes in Bangor. I actually hadn’t been in town too long; in fact, I was still in the process of trying to get “settled in” at the church and in the community. And one day, I’d gone to the local drug store to buy something or other, and as I put my items on the counter, the cashier looked at me for a moment and said, “Aren’t you that new minister at the Congregational Church?” Surprised by the question and nervously looking around to make sure she wasn’t talking to somebody else, I stammered back, “Yesss… that’s me… I guess.” 

And immediately, as I was soon to discover was and is a fairly common thing up in “the county,” this woman started talking to me like she’d known me all her life!  She wasn’t a member of my church, she said, but she knew folks who were, and “those ‘congregationals’ are good people… especially dear old Mrs. Smith… she used to be my kindergarten teacher, you know!” And isn’t Houlton a wonderful little town… you’re really going to like it here!  And that’s how the conversation went: we talked back and forth like that for a good ten minutes and finally, as I started to leave, this woman, still smiling from ear to ear, said to me, “Well, it was really nice to meet you; you have a nice day, and God bless you, pastor!

I’d barely made it back out to the street when it hit me like a thunderbolt: she’d called me pastor!  For the very first time in my life, somebody had recognized me as “the minister!”  Even all these years later, friends, I cannot adequately express to you how that felt. Understand, it wasn’t that there was this perfect stranger who had recognized who I was; nor did it have anything to do with being able to puff out my chest and say, “Look at me, everyone, I’m the new minister in town!” Rather, it was the sudden realization that for the better part of a decade (since I’d been 15 years old, in fact!) everything in my life – spiritually, academically, even socially – had been focused on a singular calling, a calling that I sensed to be of God, a calling that I should become a church pastor. And now, here I was, standing on a sidewalk in the middle of downtown Houlton, having been recognized as just that! It’s no exaggeration to say that I was now standing on the threshold of the rest of my life, and the realization of this filled me with an incredible joy unlike anything I’d ever experienced before.

Now, after close to 40 (!) years in my vocation as a church pastor, I can tell you that I’ve felt that same kind of joy on many other occasions, most certainly on the day of my ordination, but also in the midst of other, seemingly random times and circumstances over the years: worship services, weddings, even memorial services; times when it’s been clear that God is present and at work, and I’m suddenly aware that I’m just where I’m supposed to be at that moment. And it’s not necessarily “happiness” I’m talking about here, per se, nor is it some fleeting joy that passes with the moment, but rather a joy that’s pervasive and lasting because it’s been a long time in coming. It’s a joy that’s greatly anticipated because it’s a joy that’s been well-practiced.

But, then, you know what I mean, don’t you?  It’s like when a child is born: it’s not just the joy of the birth you feel – although that’s very real – but it’s also the culmination of nine months of this child’s of growing in the womb; it’s the joyous relief that comes in finally knowing that all is well and the baby is healthy. Same thing applies for those who are seeking to adopt: the joy that’s felt in that moment when everything comes together for a family is a joy that had its birthing, so to speak, long before the birth itself. 

Recent events notwithstanding, much the same can be said about the permutations of an ever-changing world: I’m put in mind, for instance, of a newspaper photo I saw recently, one that dates back to 1994, of Nelson Mandela voting for the very first time in a South African election after years of apartheid rule in that country.  It’s basically your standard-issue news photo; except that in it Mandela has this look on his face of a kid on Christmas morning as he performed the very simple act of placing a voting card through a slot into a wooden box. There was a profound joy in the act of voting, yes, but even more so because this represented the fulfillment of generations’ worth of hope and struggles for freedom. So when the joy finally came to pass, Mandela and so many others in South Africa knew it for what it was; nobody had to tell them what to feel or how to react, for this was a moment they had anticipated for years, even amidst the times and situation when there seemed to be no hope that such a moment would ever come to pass. When the moment finally came to pass, you see, they were well-practiced in their joy!

Well, that’s what this morning’s scripture reading is all about: joy well-practiced and joy fulfilled: “Arise, shine;” the prophet Isaiah proclaims, “for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you… Lift up your eyes and look around… then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.”  I love this passage; everything about it carries an air of proclamation and triumph. And although these words were written many generations before the birth of Christ, it does seem to bring something of a fitting closure to our re-telling of the Christmas story over these past few weeks. Did you notice that there’s even talk of kings “coming into the brightness of… dawn” and of camels – “a multitude of camels,” we’re told – bringing gold and frankincense? Sounds familiar, and one reason that this passage is traditionally read, along with the story of the Magi, on the Day of Epiphany. But even though this passage is full of celebration and triumph, we need to understand that for those for whom these words were originally intended, life was anything but triumphant.

This is another portion of Old Testament scripture that can and should be viewed in a couple of different contexts: historically, it was addressed to Israel in the years just after their exile to Babylon, returning home to Jerusalem only to find that city in ruins and their life as hard, if not even harder, than before. And spiritually, of course, we view it prophetically, anticipating the coming of a Messiah; of light entering into a darkened world in the person of Jesus Christ. It’s the promise that God’s glory will be seen in the midst of his people, that the life of those people will be restored and that they will be honored among all the nations. And so, when the prophet says unto Israel, “Arise, shine, for your light has come,” it’s a promise that is, in fact, “not yet,” but which is so very real, so very close, so immediate to them in that moment that their joy is already full and triumphant in its expression.

And so, when Jerusalem is restored and when the Messiah does come, it will be the fulfillment of something they already know, not unlike how we know before it happens that the sun will rise in the darkness of the eastern sky to bring forth the dawning of a new day.  When God’s presence brings joy and hope into the darkness of their despair, their oppression and grief, they will know that presence for exactly what it is; no one will need to tell them what to do or how to act – they will rejoice! – for they will already be well-practiced in joy!

Actually, you know, it occurs to me as we come to the end of yet another Christmastide, that perhaps this is part of our problem regarding Christmas, and for that matter regarding our faith in these days of confused situations: the fact is, friends, we are not practiced in joy! Oh, we’ve heard the familiar words of Christ’s birth and of light coming into our darkness, but are those words real to us and do they stay close to our hearts? We’ve celebrated the promise of joy to the world, alright, at least as much as time and pandemic would allow us this year (!); but is the truth of it that this joy has gotten put away as quickly and easily as do our decorations come the first of January?  

How does this happen to us, friends?  How does the Advent of God into our world become something we could put in a box and place up into the attic?  Isn’t that word of promise and hope as much for us now as it was for Israel so long ago!?  “Arise, shine!  For your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you!”  Have we forgotten that the glory of the Lord comes to us even now in the birth, the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ? That Christmas is merely an expression of what we know to be true as God’s people 365 days a year and in every year of life now and eternally? And that “peace on earth, goodwill amongst all people,” is more than merely some verse on a greeting card but the very principles by which you and I are called to live and, might I add, to govern ourselves? 

Now, perhaps more than ever before in our history, we need to proclaim that joy is ours in the coming of the Lord and that it is made manifest in the Lord’s love and his sacrifice and his mercy and his goodness and his salvation; but also that it must be practiced in the way that Christ lives within us and among us… in the way that his work is our work… as persons, as a people and most especially as the church.

We know all-too-well that we live in a world severely lacking in hope and woefully unpracticed in joy. And as though we needed another reminder of this, the horrific events at the Capital Building in Washington this past week served to show us, amongst other things, that in such a sinful and divided world as this, peace on earth does not always prevail. Truly, amongst the great ironies (to say nothing of the great sacrileges) of the violence that took place on Wednesday is that it happened on January 6, the Day of Epiphany, our Christian celebration of God’s light being revealed to the world in Jesus Christ. And as sad as it is for me to say, especially as someone who truly loves and believes in this country, it ended up as a stark reminder that our first allegiance and our hope as believers can never be unto the government – no matter who we voted for – or even unto the nation itself, but our allegiance can ever and only be unto God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

That said, however, there is something important for us to remember as the world seems to be spinning out of control; in truth of fact, the same message that we’ve heard again and again in recent weeks: that GOD IS WITH US as we go into the world. To quote Halford Luccock, the great 20th century Methodist commentator, the first words of the Christmas message from the sky were, “Fear Not!” and those still are good words for these days of “jittery,” fearful apprehension. And they are words we need to take to heart right about now.

Fear not, friends, for God is with us in the uncertainty of life in these times.  Fear not, for whatever struggles come our way as persons, as a people and as a nation in this year to come, we are not alone, but in the presence of a Savior who will carry our burdens on his shoulders. Fear not, for even in those moments when the darkness the world surrounds us, we have been given a light that will burn brightly and can never be overcome.  Fear not, for we will be given the vision and strength not to truly love one another as the Lord has loved us, but also to love those who the world has chosen not to love.

Fear not; in fact, rejoice!  For despite all worldly appearances to the contrary, your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you!  Christ is working in us, through us and around us even now; and that is reason enough to be practicing the joy of it in all that we do. Beloved, let us be well-practiced in joy, so that when the Advent of God comes in its fullness we will know it for what it is, and no one will need to tell us what to do or how to act.

We will simply rejoice!

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

© 2021  Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.

 

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Christmas, Even Now

Well, once again at long last, it’s Christmas Eve! 

I have to say, friends, that of all the times we come together as God’s people throughout the year; this is probably the night I look forward to most. In fact, I figured it out and this makes 37 years – 9 of them right here at East Church – that I’ve had the great joy and privilege of leading Christmas Eve worship as a pastor; and I’ve got to tell you, all of those years and all of those times shared in worship are filled with memories and meaning that fill up my heart more than I can possibly express.

I’ve actually been remembering something tonight that was said to me at another church many Christmas Eves ago by someone who came through the vestibule to greet me after worship.  She shook my hand quite vigorously, she gave me this great big hug (as we are fond of saying up in Maine, she “muckled right on to me!”) and then, with tears in her eyes, she said, “Oh, thank you, thank you so much for this service!  I just love coming to your church on Christmas Eve, because it’s the same old thing every year!”  

Ummm… you’re welcome?

Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about that as of late, because I realize that if there’s one thing we can say about anything having to do with Christmas Eve 2020, it’s most assuredly that this year it’s not the “same old thing!”  In fact, I think we can safely say that this year’s celebration of Christmas is to say the very least, unprecedented and nothing we could have possibly imagined a year ago.  And I’ll confess, it still seems inconceivable that we aren’t able to be together as a church family in this sanctuary on this holy night… and yet, out of an abundance of concern for the safety and well-being of everyone around us (to say nothing of our love for one another), it is both appropriate and good, friends, that this year we aren’t gathering for in-person worship.

So yes, this year is different… and yet, I dare say that there’s so much that’s still the same.  After all, we’re still worshiping together as God’s people… we’re just doing so from different places and in a multitude of different ways.  We’re all still singing all those songs and carols … or at least, I trust that we’re all singing from wherever we are!  We’ve still been reading that old and wonderfully familiar story of our Savior’s birth… perhaps this year we’ve even heard it in a way that’s fresh and new!   And in a few minutes, we’ll be lighting candles that will remind us that the light of Christ has come into our darkened world, singing “Silent Night” as we do.

So considering all that, in many ways I still have to agree with that woman who spoke to me with such joy and thanksgiving all those years ago: yes, in every way that matters, it is the “same old thing” again this Christmas, even now… and thank the Lord for it!

Actually, you know what; I also have to tell you that one of my favorite moments every Christmas Eve is one that few people in the church ever get to see: it’s after the last carol has been sung, after the organ has been switched off, the candles extinguished, and all of you have gone home, perchance to get a few hours of slumber before the kids are up and the Christmas celebration starts in earnest.  The heat gets turned back here at the church, the lights are switched off; and finally, after I do a last-minute check of things, I lock up for the night and head outside to go home.

And every year, that’s when it happens: I’ll look up at the night sky, feel the cut of the night air, hear the utter quiet that has descended upon the busy streets; and suddenly it’ll hit me:  Dear Lord, at last it’s Christmas!  And all over this community and nation and world this night, people are celebrating and singing and worshipping – almost certainly in a different way, but still celebrating nonetheless – all because God so loved this world that he gave us his son. 

In these moments I’m inevitably reminded of the words of a poem that I have known and loved for many years now; written by the Rev. Phillips Brooks, who was also the composer of “O Little Town of Bethlehem:”

 
 

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Christmas, Now More Than Ever: A Soul Magnified and a Spirit Rejoicing

(a sermon for December 13, 2020, the 3rd Sunday of Advent; third in a series, based on Luke 1:39-56)

Every year as we come to this part of the Christmas story, it strikes me that although Mary is almost certainly the most celebrated and venerated woman in all of human history, the truth is that biblically, historically and otherwise, we really don’t know all that much about her.  

To begin with, we know next to nothing of Mary’s genealogy: even though we’re told that Jesus comes from the house and family of King David, it’s Joseph’s family line that’s recorded in Matthew’s gospel, not Mary’s; and in fact, Mary is only mentioned there as the wife of  Joseph and the one of whom Jesus was born,” (Matthew 1:16).  There is a reference in John to Mary having a sister (19:25), and then in our reading today we learn of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah and the mother of John the Baptist; but that’s about it.  Basically, most of what we know about Mary’s background comes from ancient sources and our understanding of the culture of the time. 

We are pretty sure, for instance, that at the time of Jesus’ birth, Mary was probably no older than fourteen or fifteen years old: no longer a child, but barely a woman and certainly not a woman of any kind of social standing or power.  And we know that she lived in Nazareth, a small and secluded village in southern Galilee of no more than 2,000 people; which made it not only an insignificant town in the eyes of the Roman government, but also a place off the beaten track even from the point of view of the Jews.   Nazareth was just another country town full of people struggling to find some meaning in the midst of it all; and in the midst of it all, Mary was simply another daughter of the town, albeit one engaged to be married to Joseph, a local carpenter. And by the way, at that time, engagement was actually fairly common for a girl Mary’s age; and so, up until this point in her life, Mary’s thoughts would well have been filled with hopes and dreams for her future; she would no doubt have been feeling this intermingling of joy, excitement and fear, all of it in anticipation of what her life was going to be with this man who would soon be her new husband.

But now, of course, everything was different; everything had changed the moment the angel Gabriel had come to Mary with the most incredible announcement: that not only had she found favor with God, but that she – Mary, of all people (!) – would bear in her womb a child, a child conceived of the Holy Spirit, a child who would be no less than the Messiah, the Christ, the son of God, come to establish God’s kingdom on earth.  And though in that singular moment her mind was most certainly racing and her heart reeling at this “annunciation,” Mary had said yes: if this was according to God’s word, she’d said to the angel, then she’d willingly be a handmaiden unto the Lord.

Still, as the days passed and the new reality of her life to come began to settle in for her, Mary surely must have pondered plenty of reasons to be filled with fear at the prospect of this child growing within her.  We don’t need to know the history of those days for us to safely assume that were going to be questions coming from family and friends; that there would certainly be scandalous gossip spread amongst neighbors and townsfolk about “that girl;” and then there was the matter of her fiancée: Mary had no idea at all of how this “holy birth” might affect her relationship with Joseph. Needless to say, this was not how Mary had imagined her life unfolding; this was nothing like how it was supposed to be.  Angels and babies and the Holy Spirit – to say nothing of the favor of God (!) – all of this notwithstanding, it was… a disruption of Mary’s life and living.  Everything was changing forever; and though scripture does not allude to this at all, one has to imagine that down deep in Mary’s heart, there had to be this tiny aching that in a very real way, life had she’d always known it had come to an end.

I suspect that most of us, at one time or another and in one way or another, know something of what it is to have our lives totally and utterly disrupted.  Perhaps it was an unexpected illness or the loss of a loved one; maybe you lost your job and you’re faced with a financial burden that’s untenable; or it could well be like right now when you’re fearful of what might happen with Covid-19 as 2020 becomes 2021 and you’re uncertain as to what to do about… anything at all.  It doesn’t even have to be bad news, per se; it’s simply the experience of having everything you want and need and expect to be normal in your life and living to suddenly be upended for what seems like… forever… and you just don’t know what you’re supposed to do about it.

Actually, it makes a lot of sense to me that soon after Mary had learned the news of her pregnancy, she “set out and went with haste” to the hill country nearby Nazareth, to stay with her cousin Elizabeth, who, at nearly forty years her senior, was herself miraculously expecting her own child. Because when disruption has come and chaos abounds, you’ve got to do something, right; if for no other reason than to sort things out and talk to somebody who might understand.  As Renita Weems has written, “How do you defend a blessing you cannot explain? [and] who would believe her?”  Only, perhaps, one who knew such a blessing in her own life.

And as it turns out, Elizabeth not only knew the blessing of her own impending birth but also that of Mary’s: the joy of this child of God’s coming into the world is so great that even the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaped for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice.  “Blessed are you amongst women, and blessed is the child you will bear,” Elizabeth cries out to Mary.  “…and blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”  [NIV]

And as Luke’s gospel tells the story, it’s at that precise moment that everything comes into focus for Mary; for it’s now that she bursts into song, praising God and singing, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”   And with a voice that is borne of an unfettered heart, Mary sings of all the incredible, unthinkable possibilities: that God’s mercy would extend not solely to those in positions of worldly power, as the Romans would them believe, but “to all who fear him from generation to generation;”  that God with mighty strength would bring down the powerful from their thrones, scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; and that with equal strength he would lift up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich and the powerful away empty.

Mary’s song, that which has been known throughout history as the Magnificat, makes it clear: that everything that was ever known to be true about this world and about life as it was ever known was now about to be turned upside down and inside out; and it was all happening by God’s grace and purpose, and all because of this tiny little baby (!)growing in Mary’s womb!  So what might have been seen as a mere disruption was in fact a blessing of divine proportion, the beginning of a new world created and nurtured at the hand of a loving and redeeming God who will do great things according to the promise he made to all of God’s people at the time of Abraham.

And Mary… Mary, of all people… her soul magnified and her spirit rejoicing “in God her Savior,” was now not only assured of the importance of her role in this holy story, but also ready to walk boldly and faithfully into that new world confident in that blessing and the promise that God’s “mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.”

And I guess the question for you and me, who are dwelling amidst our own worldly disruptions – especially this Christmas – are we ready to do the same?  As this Advent time of waiting, watching and preparing continues, are we ready to see the ongoing disruptions as part of a perhaps yet-to-be unrevealed blessing that God in Emmanuel is ready to bestow?  Will we be bold enough in our life and living – and faithful in the act – to find the true joy of what even now our Lord is doing in the world and in our lives?

As you’re well aware, over the years my guitar and I have had the great pleasure of leading some Christmas sing-a-longs with a great many groups of little children: not only have there been lots of Sunday School kids to sing with, but I’ve also been lucky enough to volunteer at pre-schools and in elementary school classrooms.  And along the way I’ve made an interesting, if unsurprising, discovery: when you tell these kids to sing loud, especially when it involves Christmas songs like “Rudolph” or “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” by and large they tend to do it! 

What’s even more interesting to me, though, is just who amongst these children ends up singing the loudest; and it’s not always the one you’d expect. Sometimes the most outgoing of children will immediately get bashful and “clam up” when it comes to singing aloud; they might have the most beautiful, angelic voices going, but you’d never know it, because for whatever reason, they can’t bring themselves to share it with anyone!  By the same token, however, there’s always a couple of kids who sing with every bit of energy and volume they can muster.  And it doesn’t matter if they’re just a tad off key, nor if their volume has long since moved beyond “singing” and approaching the level of “screaming;” nor is it all that important that they’ve gone a note or two ahead of everybody else in the room!  They’re singing, and the amazing thing about that is, nobody expects it!

Some years ago I was singing at the nursery school at the church I was serving, and there was this little girl who was singing with everything she had; and I noticed that all the while she was singing, her teachers were looking at one another in astonished amazement!  So I asked the teacher about it afterward, and she shared with me that this was the little girl who ordinarilywas painfully shy with all the other children and always extremely quiet! (I guess I fixed that, because trust me, she weren’t quiet no more!  In fact, the teachers had kind of a hard time settling her down!) But how wonderful was that; this little girl was so caught up in the utter joy of singing those great Christmas songs, she’d lost herself in the wonder and found her voice of joy!

Well, this very different Christmas is coming soon, and despite all the disruptions you and I are facing this year, the fact remains that we need it now, more than ever.  And there are many, many songs that we are given to sing as Christmas comes – songs of faith, songs of hope, songs of joy – but the question is, how loudly are you going to sing them?  Are you able to look into – and beyond (!) – all the disruptions of this life that you might discover the blessing and thus find your voice of joy?  There is a wonderful opportunity on this of all years to proclaim the coming of Christmas by singing your own songs of surprising, wonderful joy; this joy that is rooted in the love of Jesus, our Emmanuel; can this be the year when that joy will burst forth defiantly from you in every part of your life?  Perhaps, with your soul magnified and your spirit rejoicing, your very life might sing and dance the song of your Savior God!

I hope and pray that today and in every day that’s coming that yours will be the loudest voice of all, a voice proclaiming with all joy our Lord’s great and redeeming love.

Thanks be to God!  

AMEN and AMEN!

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

 

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