Category Archives: Current Events

FAQ’s of Faith: What About Faith?

(a sermon for February 25, 2018, the 2nd Sunday in Lent; second in a series, based on Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 and Luke 17:5-10)

And the disciples said to Jesus, “Increase our faith!”  That’s all we need, Lord… just give us a little more faith, won’t you please?

As we heard our text for this morning being read, maybe your reaction was the same as mine:  here we go again!  Those shallow, self-serving, never ever satisfied disciples of Jesus, always seeking out more than what they’ve been given; always managing to respond to something as wonderful as faith by making an improbable and downright inappropriate request!  I mean, as though you could even quantify faith in such a way; building it up like you were storing up food in a pantry or hiding riches in a locked safe.  Never mind what Jesus said about having faith the size of a mustard seed being more than enough to hurl a mulberry tree into the ocean (!); once again, those disciples just don’t seem to get it!  Faith is either something you’ve got, or you don’t… right?

Of course… read around this particular portion of Luke’s gospel and you discover there may have been a little bit more to that request than what it seems.  After all, Jesus had just warned them against ever causing another person to “stumble;” that is, to create hardship or temptation in their lives.  He’d also given them the unenviable task of calling out the sins of another disciple, while at the same time making sure they always forgive when there’s repentance; even and especially if that sin happens to have been against them!  Oh, and here’s the kicker: “if that same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”

Good grief!  And understand, this was just the latest of a long series of difficult and pretty overwhelming teachings coming from Jesus!  It’s no wonder that they were asking for more faith; I have to imagine that every one of those disciples were not quietly wondering what it was they’d signed up for when they’d decided to follow Jesus!  How could anybody possibly live up to Jesus’ expectations, much less make a faithful difference in the world as his disciples without… more faith; or at least more faith than what they ever felt like they possessed!  And so, please… please Lord, “Increase our faith!”

And that we can understand, can’t we?

After all, it’s a hard world out there; most especially for any of us who would carry the banner of faith.  There are so many crucial needs in the world that are as yet unmet; so many challenges before us to do what’s right and so much conflict that gets in the way of what needs to be done.  I don’t think that any of us here would argue against the assertion that this is a world in crisis, and yet it’s also seemingly a world of decreased faith; where voices of the Spirit are being constantly drowned out by the din of hateful and divisive rhetoric coming from just about every corner of the public square.  Not to be overstate this or to sound wholly grim, friends; but these are days of confused and conflicted situations where people are both scared and scarred!  I ask you: how can there ever be enough faith to weather the storms of violence that have become all too commonplace in this society; how can we have the faith that’s necessary to truly live out Jesus’ rule of forgiveness, to say nothing of the commandment to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves? What are we supposed to do in a world like this… what about faith in times like these?

As the disciples said to Jesus, so say we: “Increase our faith!”  That’s all we need, Lord… just give us a little more faith, won’t you please?

Actually, maybe the truth is that we’re approaching this request, and indeed this “frequently asked question” in the wrong way.

I’ve always been very fond of our reading for this morning from the Epistle to the Hebrews, a small portion of a much longer exhortation – a sermon in the best sense – on the example of “real, intense, life-changing faith” shown forth by God’s people throughout history.  From Abel to Enoch to Noah to Abraham and every successive generation – men and women, shepherds and warriors, people of power and others who were utter outcasts – here were the people who had more than enough faith to face the challenges before them.  This 11th chapter of Hebrews is quite literally an eloquent and celebrative evocation of “so great a cloud of witnesses” (12:1) that surround us; and it all begins with the author (presumably Paul, though some scholars debate that) declaring that “now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

It’s a very familiar verse, to be sure; in fact, I would dare say that these are the words that a lot of us refer to when thinking about faith, or perhaps more accurately what we think about what happens in faith: that all our hopes will be fulfilled, that our prayers will be answered, and that even though things aren’t turning out the way we would wish for them to be right now, that by grace and somewhere just beyond our sight it’s all happening just the way it should.  What we’re talking about here is not simply what it is we believe about God or about life; it’s also about having “the eyes of faith” even if it doesn’t always jibe with outward appearances, or being willing to take that “leap of faith” even unto the abyss in the knowledge, however uncertain, that we’ll land safely on the other side!

And friends, I would not presume to tell you that this is a wrong assumption; truly, there have been too many times in my own life – and I’m betting in yours as well – where acting that boldly in faith has been the best (and maybe even the only!) response to whatever task or choice or challenge I’ve had to face!  So I’m not here to deny the value and importance of this aspect of our faith; but I also want to say that there’s more to faith than just that.

In that first verse we shared today, faith is referred to in two different ways and with two different words in the Greek language.  The first is upostasis, which we read as “assurance,” but is most accurately translated as “standing under.”  In other words, faith represents a “standing under,” or upon a foundation of belief; a sure and certain belief in God.  Or to put it still another way, it’s our confidence in God that leads us to stand firm in our faith.  To wit, this is how The Message translates this verse:  “The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that make life worth living.”  Faith, you see, has to do with trust that God is at the foundation of everything in our lives, the knowledge that God is at work in and through all the joys, the sorrows, the challenges and yes, even the times of crisis in our lives and in our world.

The second word that’s used here in regard to faith is elegchos, which we read as “the conviction of things unseen,” but actually is better translated as “reproof,” “rebuke,” or “evidence.”  In other words, don’t doubt or reject the foundation on which you stand because the evidence of what God is doing and has always done is both powerful and irrefutable!  And that’s where Paul starts his exhortation of the faithful throughout history.  These are the stories of people for whom faith was not merely an intellectual exercise but the direct result of a trusting relationship with the almighty in any and all circumstances, even in those moments when it might seem as though God is silent or invisible.  This is about what happens when everything in life and living becomes girded on God’s movement rather than our own… so don’t dismiss those “things unseen,” for this is where God may yet be at work!

That’s where the disciples made their mistake, you see; they asked Jesus to increase their faith, but what they really needed was a means to more faithfulness.  That’s why Jesus, using that image of the tiny mustard seed, could tell them even in their overwhelmed state that they already had enough faith; and that’s why Jesus goes on to tell them a story about slaves “doing what was commanded” for the sake of the master.  Because ultimately, what makes you a disciple, what makes you strong, what makes you loving, what makes you “faith-full” is to trust in that foundation of God’s presence, power and love, and to let everything else in your life flow from that!

Or, if might borrow a verse from another verse from the gospels, one that we repeat every week here in prayer:  “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” (Matt. 6:10)

Not that that’s wholly, if at all, understood!   I’ve known so many people over the years – and this includes a whole lot of church people – who were convinced that the only way they could ever earn God’s love and acceptance and salvation was to aspire to perfection; that living perfect and thinking perfect and being perfect was in fact the meaning of faith, that if you fall short of this goal of perfection, the only solution to this is more faith; and that if you can only garner enough faith then you’ll be a good Christian now and eternally.

But let me just say this, quoting here the words of Charles Reeb:  “Christians are not perfect,” he writes.  “Christians are not in control.  Christians don’t have all the answers.  Christians are not better than other people.  Christians are not folks that can give the perfect theological answer to every question.

“Christians,” Reeb goes on to say, are those who have learned, like Abraham, that God can be trusted… [that] God can be trusted to give peace in the midst of the storm.  God can be trusted to take what is eveil and transform it into something good.  God can be trusted to empower you in the midst of trouble.  God can be trusted to receive you when you die.  God can be trusted!”

Faith, more than simply believing a set of ideas and much more than following a series of rituals, practices, habits and even sacraments, is ultimately trusting in God; and beloved, as Christians you and I know we can trust in God not only, as the Letter to the Hebrews proclaims, because God has been shown throughout history to be trust-worthy, but most especially because God has sent his Son Jesus to us as the ultimate assurance of everything we hope for in our lives, as well as the sure and certain evidence of that which is yet to come.  And sometimes – most times, in fact – having more faith simply comes down to it is taking up a life that is steeped in faithful living; it is to let God’s presence and power move us through challenge, doubt and all those times of feeling overwhelmed, rather than trying to make it happen through our own efforts.

It is a hard world in which we live; and sadly, there’s hardly a day in which somewhere that sad truth isn’t reinforced for us.  But we have hope for a better world; because in faith, dear friends, we trust in God.  And it’s in that faith that you and I can continue, even now in the midst of it all, to be faithful and seek to live unto that hope that is assured to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and by the on-going movement of God’s Spirit.

Let us not be overwhelmed, beloved; but let us be moved by God to do what need to be done for the sake of the kingdom: to care for those in need; to protect the vulnerable; to reach out to the lost and the lonely; to offer up friendship to those who dwell on the fringes of life and living; and to contribute, each in our own way, to what’s good and right and loving; so that we might grow as disciples and let our very lives serve as a witness to God’s presence and power all around us.

That’s what faith is about.  And for this, and so much more, may our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry


Tags: , ,


(a sermon for October 8, 2017, the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Matthew 21:33-46)

Let me just say this up front: this is one of the parables that I would have just as soon Jesus hadn’t told!

I mean, as Matthew shares it in our text this morning, what we’ve got here is a story about tenants turned tyrants.  It’s about the continued and increasingly violent refusal on the part of some vineyard workers to hand over the year’s harvest to the landowner; culminating not only in the beatings and deaths of several of the landowner’s servants, but also in the brutal killing of the landowner’s son!  And it’s all done for the sake of obtaining, or more accurately, stealing the son’s inheritance – that is, the land on which this vineyard was planted!

It’s a story that’s very dark and much more violent than we’d ever expect from the mouth of Jesus; and to say the least, it’s unsettling.  I don’t know; maybe it’s because we’ve already witnessed so much horrific and inexplicable violence this week in what happened in Las Vegas that it’s hard for us to deal with it today in the context of scripture.  Or maybe it’s simply when it comes to talking about the Kingdom of God, we’d much rather hear it being compared to a forgiving father, or a good Samaritan, or that impractical but incredibly loving shepherd who’d willingly leave the 99 sheep behind to seek out the one lost lamb!

But no… not in this parable; here we have Jesus telling about this beautiful and apparently fruitful vineyard – an image, by the way, very often serves in scripture to represent life, hope and stability – that’s now desecrated with blood and caught up in a cycle of hopelessness.  And the worst part of all, especially for those of us who love our happy endings?  When Jesus asks those hearing this story – his disciples, of course, along with members of the crowd and, no doubt, a few eavesdropping Pharisees – what they think will happen to those violent tenants when the owner of the vineyard comes, their answer is swift and decisive:  “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants” who’ll do what they’re supposed to do!

An example of some biblically based “frontier justice,” so to speak?  Or does this provide a frightening case of our first and all-too human instinct to respond to violence with yet more violence… either way, as I said before, it’s all pretty unsettling; especially when Jesus concludes this parable by telling all those present that “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruit of the kingdom.”

I’m guessing that’s not exactly the message we all came to hear this morning!  But there it is, right from the mouth of Jesus.

Now, to put all this into some kind of context, we have to understand that this parable has been traditionally understood to be Jesus’ condemnation of the religious establishment of his time – that is, the chief priests of the Temple and the Pharisees – as those who, by their opposing and rejecting him, are missing God’s plan for salvation and are going to lose the kingdom.  That’s why in the midst of telling this story Jesus also pulls out a verse from the Psalms (Psalm 118 (v. 22), to be exact!) about how “the stone that the builders rejected” was to become “the cornerstone” of a whole new world.  It’s no accident that this parable gets told very soon after Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and that it serves as one more catalyst leading to his betrayal, arrest and crucifixion a few days later; Matthew tells us that even the religious powers that be recognized that in these parables Jesus “was talking about them,” and they wanted Jesus to be “dealt with” sooner rather than later.

So there’s a political component in this parable that can’t be denied; and let’s be clear, Jesus doesn’t mince words here:  as The Message translates it, he says to them, “This is the way it is with you… whoever stumbles on this [cornerstone] gets shattered; [and] whoever the [cornerstone] falls on gets smashed.”  And moreover, it’s a statement about, in the words of Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, “what leadership looks like in the Kingdom of Heaven,” as well as a potent reminder to all of us in the here and now of what our purpose is as latter-day tenants in God’s vineyard.

That’s right, friends… beyond all the heavy drama of this unsettling parable of Jesus lies a deeper and more immediate question for you and for me, one that’s no less unsettling:  how are we doing taking care of that vineyard?

You see, the beauty part of so many of Jesus’ parables, including this one, is that it becomes very easy for us to hear the story and point fingers of blame on people like the scribes and Pharisees. It’s truly the “low hanging fruit” of this story (pun intended!); but in fact in these parables Jesus always manages to find a way for us to take a long hard look at ourselves, if only we will have eyes to see.  And in this parable, what we need to see is who we are in the midst of the story and who we are as God’s people, and that’s workers in God’s vineyard.  Our charge, our task, our job is to care for that vineyard; and what that means is that you and I are the ones called to do the kingdom’s work: to care for God’s people, to embody God’s righteousness in how we live and in the ways we relate to others, to do justice and love kindness in all things, to be good stewards of creation and everything else we’ve been given… all of this, and more, is what grows in kingdom soil.  And friends, we’re the ones who are charged with doing the gardening!

And, the thing is, it’s not an unfamiliar task for us in the church, nor an unpleasant one; as we’ve been saying quite often in recent weeks, everything we do as around here, from Sunday worship services to Saturday night bean suppahs, ultimately has to do with caring for God’s vineyard!  Everything we’re about as a church has to do with who we’re working for:  it’s where our fellowship is nurtured; it’s the place that mission and outreach begins; and it’s the way things get done here.

But here’s the rub, courtesy of this still very unsettling parable… what happens when the owner of the vineyard returns for “the produce at harvest time?”  At the end of the growing season, so to speak, and the harvest is done, will it be said of us that we were “a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom?”   Ancient Palestinian politics aside, this is the question that Jesus asks of each one of us here, and it’s an crucial one; for I don’t need to remind you again of what the consequences are for those whose “fruitfulness” is not what it should be!

During the summers while I was in college, I worked as a “Cabin Boy” at a very rustic resort on the coast of Maine; basically carrying luggage and catering to the needs of our guests who desired to have an “authentic Maine experience,” but on an American plan and with gourmet meals!  And it was a great summer job; I met a lot of very interesting people, I got to hang out near the ocean, and I learned over the course of four summers what it means to work for tips!  But I must confess that part didn’t always come easily to me; I always did fairly well with tips, but in retrospect it always made me a little uncomfortable, and so I kind of held back on doing that which might have garnered me a bit more “remuneration,” shall we say!  In fact, one year my boss actually critiqued me on this and suggested that I did not put myself out there enough for the guests; and he said to me (and I remember this, because it stung at the time), “Just imagine the tips you’d get if you just made a little more effort!”

Now, let me be clear:  I am not suggesting in any way that you and I, individually or collectively as Christians or as the church, are not doing enough; in fact, from this pastor’s perspective, it’s just the opposite… and thank you, and thank God for that! But what I would suggest to you today is that we should always be mindful that what we do do always shows forth the fruitfulness of our faith and of our love.  We must always remember that this is God’s vineyard, not yours or mine; and that ultimately, we’re the tenants in that vineyard, caring for God’s kingdom in everything we do.  And hopefully, we’ll be known as very good tenants; the kind who put forth the effort to do, in love, for all those who God loves.  Friends, most especially in these times when one tragedy just seems to lead to the next, you and I who would call ourselves followers of Jesus must put forth all the effort that we can to bear good fruit for Jesus’ sake and for the sake of his kingdom.  To quote Karoline Lewis once again, we need to be “the kind of tenants that tenaciously tend the call to being the salt of the earth and the light of the world,” to be an example “to the world of leadership that seeks to care for the meek, that works for righteousness, that advocates for peace,” and to be the kind of people who “exercise justice [and] to work for a world where the Beatitudes are not aspirational but actually possible and palpable.”

Because let me tell you something else: the tragedy and violence and darkness that so often seems to prevail in this world is, in the end, “no match for love and life and forgiveness and peace.” (David Lose) That is the fruit that matters, beloved; and it is the fruit that you and you and you and me are nurturing by our very lives, even here on Mountain Road, steeped in the soil of the kingdom.  We can never be deterred from our work of faithful action, of unending compassion, inclusive care, and the resolve to do what God would have us do, no matter what.

And so, in the words of an “alternative verse” of one of my favorite songs:

“Brothers, sisters all around,
This is where our garden’s found
In the church our hope abounds
Where God’s own people grow.
So water them with love and prayer
Trust the promise that we share
Do our part and then prepare
For God’s first fruits to show!
(from “The Garden Song,” by David Mallett; author of additional lyrics unknown)

Indeed… by God’s grace and through his strength… “inch by inch, row by row,” let us make this garden grow!

And as we do that work, may our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry


Tags: , , ,

Out Beyond the Big Rock

“The Big Rock,” just off to the right…

Beneath the waters just offshore of our summer home in Maine lies a rather sizeable boulder, placed there (or so I presume) by glacial movement eons ago and which remains as a prominent feature of an already rocky lakebed.  But given its large flat surface and the fact that it is also perched just so at the “dropoff” to deeper water, for at least a couple of generations of children in our family it’s always been “The Big Rock,” a great place to play and a natural boundary between swimming in relative safety and “going out over your head.”

I remember well as kids how we’d always use the Big Rock as our own underwater diving platform; as this was the one place where, if we dared, we could push out to swim out beyond where our toes could touch the bottom.  Of course, when we were very young and still depending on something akin to a “doggie paddle,” it was more than enough to keep our feet firmly planted on that stone precipice.  After all, venturing out that far from shore was hard, not to mention potentially dangerous; much better, we reasoned, to experience the beauty and wonder of the lake from a safe distance! On the other hand, however (and we all figured this out pretty quick), there were a whole lot of fun, exciting and even important things awaiting us if only we’d take the risk and simply learn to swim!

Fast forward a “goodly” number of years but still headed “uptacamp” every summer, this year I found myself looking out at the Big Rock with gratitude for the countless dreams and adventures that it had inspired in me over the years; glad that whatever fears or doubt I might have had at the time, eventually I’d made the decision to be bold enough to dive into those deeper waters…

…which, come to think of it, isn’t all that bad of a parable about what it means to live a life of faith.

All through what’s been, to say the very least, a very tumultuous summer we’ve nonetheless been given some wonderful glimpses of what can happen when people of faith dare to go out beyond their own safe places into the deeper water. I stand in admiration, for instance, of my clergy colleagues and the committed laity who bravely linked arms to stare down white supremacists in Charlottesville to show that love and equality are more than simply words.  Or consider the willingness of church people across the nation and beyond to gather up resources and immediately go and join the ranks of “first responders” in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria, or to leave home and family so to travel to Mexico to assist in recovery efforts following the tragic earthquakes there. This kind of faith-inspired outreach requires courage and more than a little boldness, and yet it’s clear that such an effort yields a harvest of love and mercy that our world sorely needs about now.

Even back in our own little corner of Christianity here on Mountain Road, again and again I’ve witnessed the same kind of boldness in the ways our people are living out their calling as disciples and as the Church.  It’s so interesting – and very gratifying to me as pastor – that whether the concern is one of stewardship, mission and outreach or simply doing what it takes to be a truly welcoming and inclusive congregation, hardly a week goes by around here without someone coming up with some new and creative way for us to be about the work of Jesus Christ in our life together. As a result, wonderful things happen; in the process challenging us to boldly move beyond the false assumptions that we’re too small, too old, too budget-crunched, or too set in our ways (!) to ever accomplish great things – or at least to accomplish small things in a great way – for the sake of God’s kingdom. And it’s all because someone, in faith, decided that it’s better to go deeper than to cling to the safety of shallow waters.

I’m actually reminded here of the words to a Vacation Bible School song from some years ago (for those who remember those VBS days, this one was from the year of “S.C.U.B.A.” which, by the way, stands for “Super Cool Underwater Bible Adventure!”): “I wanna go deep; I wanna obey;I wanna love God more every day.  (“I Wanna Go Deep” by Carol Smith)  Back then, it served as a tuneful reminder to our kids that when we trust God and love God, life becomes an adventure filled with many opportunities for bringing joy to others.  But the kicker, so to speak, and the part I always remember, came in the middle verse: “Faith’s not supposed to be ankle deep! Ready to swim? It’s time to leap! I’m not wadin’ in… instead, I want to be in over my head!”

It seems to me that this is one message that’s as applicable to us grown-ups as it is our children!  Now more than ever, in fact; as I have been fond of saying to the congregation as of late, in times like these – where tragedy, violence and division have become sadly commonplace – the first and best thing the church can do is to truly be the church.  But for that to become our reality requires from each of us the readiness to leap out from all of “the Big Rocks” of our lives, so to swim out over our heads into the deeper waters.

For the sake of the world in which we live, as well for the realm to come, may God grant each one of us the courage to take the risk.

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

%d bloggers like this: