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Category Archives: Easter

Keeping the Faith

(a sermon for May 3, 2020, the 4th Sunday of Easter, based on John 14:23-29)

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you… Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” 

Not only are these some of the most memorable words that Jesus ever spoke, for me, at least, they are also most certainly among the most comforting.  These are words that matter, especially in times like these:Jesus’ assurance of a peace that the world cannot give has a way of putting everything we face in this life, however debilitating, in a proper perspective.  It is a reminder that even our deepest grief and sorrow pales in comparison to the all-enveloping peace of God, made real to us in the person of Jesus Christ.  To quote David Lose, it “testifies to a sense of wholeness, even rightness, of and in one’s very being… even amid hardship, struggle, conflict and disruption.”

Peace I leave with you… my peace I give to you.  Beautiful, heavenly words… which makes it all the more interesting, and pretty ironic, that when Jesus was speaking those words about peace, all hell was about to break loose! 

Indeed, as we pick up on our text for this morning, it is not yet Easter, but in fact the “night of betrayal and desertion:” Maundy Thursday, the evening during which Jesus would be handed over to those who hated him and led to his execution.  And in fact, the events of that fateful evening had already begun to unfold: by this time, Judas had already fled the scene in order to betray Jesus; and Peter’s impending denials had also been foretold.  Moreover, there’s this palpable tension in the air, and though they couldn’t yet begin to understand it, the disciples all felt it; and it’s made all the more disturbing by the fact that Jesus is also making it quite clear that he’d be leaving them soon, and in fact was about to die.

And so, when Jesus finally says to them, “my peace I give to you… do not let your heart be troubled,” you have to imagine that it’s spoken with a tone of profound… sadness.  After all, there is quite literally a world of trouble and hurt about to descend; and nothing and nobody – not even Jesus himself – can keep it from happening.  Before the next day is out, Jesus will have died on the cross, and these same disciples who have followed him and placed all their trust and hope in him for the past three years will be scattered, lost and alone; and yet, somehow, they will have to carry on.  They will need to “keep the faith” even when everything has seemed to have fallen apart.  So though John never tells us exactly how Jesus says it, you know that it’s fraught with the kind of emotion that comes when you’re desperately trying to bring some kind of comfort to those you love so deeply, even as you’re preparing them for the worst. 

That’s the thing, you see; that’s what Jesus knew about living in this world back then, and sadly, it still holds true today: for as wonderful and as incredibly beautiful as it so often can be, there’s no denying that this world also brings a fair measure of trouble and sorrow to life and living. Be it the result of rampant violence and injustice or, for that matter, the spread of a global pandemic, the truth is that you and I live in a world that is marked by a definite lack of peace, and in fact, as Scott Hoezee has written, “what little peace [this world] has to offer us is always provisional, always suspect, always precarious.”

So I think you’ll agree with me when I say that to “keep the faith” in times such as these requires an assurance of peace; but yes, it’s a peace that’s going to have to come from somewhere else.  And that’s why Jesus is very clear to the disciples and to us that he does not give “as the world gives.”  It’s my peace I give to you, says Jesus; and that is what will make all the difference.

Understand, of course, that when Jesus speaks of peace, he is not referring wholly or even primarily to peace in the sense of the absence of any and all conflict but rather the peace that envelops us in the midst of everything that this world has to dish out.  To quote David Lose once again, it’s “a peace that allows us to lift our gaze from the troubles that beset us” and to recognize that come what may we can place “ourselves, our loved ones, our fortunes, and our future in God’s hands.” 

In the end, you see, it’s not that all the bad things in this world are simply going to go away, for we know all too well that oftentimes the struggles we face are ongoing. But there is true peace to be known in the midst of such strife; and the kind of peace that Jesus has to offer is that which brings tranquility, strength, hope, courage and purpose in and through it all.  It’s no accident, you know, that Jesus immediately follows this promise of his peace with the admonition to “not let your hearts be troubled,” a phrase that can also be translated as “take heart,” or “have courage.” In other words, the peace that Jesus gives is that which gives us strength to face all the troubles that the world has brought hurtling down at us; so that, even as everything else around us seems to crumble, we are equipped to keep the faith come what may.

It’s also no accident that Jesus assures us of another helper that will be there for us along the difficult way of this world: “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name.”  This word advocate is also translated as “Counselor” in other versions of scripture, or in the original Greek, “paraclete,” which means someone who is “called alongside” of another.  So what Jesus is giving us is a truly “holy” Spirit that will stand alongside us in our journey through this world, reminding us of Jesus’ words and teachings as we go; and whispering into our hearts all God’s sure and certain promises, lest we might otherwise forget in the strife and sorrow of it all.

These are the promises that matter, friends: the promise that love is stronger than hate; the promise that hope is more absolutely more resilient than fear and despair; the promise that light can and will break through the darkness of this world.  These are the promises that assure us that we need not be afraid, but take heart and have courage not only for the living of these days, but quite often in the facing of this very hour!  It is the reminder we need that in amidst all of the challenges of this world we have this divine peace that the world can neither give nor take away.

I’m reminded of a time back in high school when our Senior Class was putting on a production of “The Miracle Worker,” the play about Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan.  Now, on-stage at least, I really didn’t have all that much to do but I was assigned as understudy for one of the minor roles; which, to be honest with you, was a task I didn’t really take all that seriously until… opening night, when it became increasingly apparent that the young man who was playing the Keller family doctor was out of town competing in a cross-country meet and wasn’t likely to make it back in time for the play! 

And of course, immediately I started to panic because I hadn’t learned those lines; I didn’t think I had to!  But now, only a few minutes before show time, I’m all dressed up as a doctor and expected to go on stage!  So I’m desperately trying to memorize this handful of lines that I should have already known; and it’s only a small part, just a handful of lines, but in the stress of that moment and the abject fear of having to face a full auditorium of people, I can’t even remember my name, much less what I’m supposed to say once the curtain rises!

In my panic, I finally went to our director, one of my English teachers and confessed to her that I hadn’t memorized this part; that I wasn’t in any way ready to do this; and could I please just go home?  (Well, okay, maybe not that last part; but remember, by this time I was pretty scared!) And though I’m sure she was none too pleased, my teacher simply sighed and said, “Just do the best you can… and remember, there’s going to be a prompter just offstage who will help you with the lines if you don’t remember.”

Now, the happy ending of this story is that quite literally two minutes before curtain, the kid who was playing the part showed up and I happily let him take his place onstage!  But I never forgot that utter terror I felt in suddenly being in this place where I could feel so helpless and so seemingly alone; and yet in the midst of that terror there was also relief in knowing that I wasn’t alone after all, for in fact there would be someone there alongside of me, reminding me of all that I needed to know.

In truth, there have been any number of times in my life – even a few over the past several weeks (!) – when I have found myself overwhelmed and panicked by a sudden onslaught of worldly trials, tribulations and uncertainties… and unless I miss my guess, so have you… maybe that’s what you’re feeling this morning.  In times such as these, friends, it happens… so how wonderful is it that in moments such as these we’ve been this Advocate, this Counselor, this… Prompter; someone who teaches us again and again of God’s grace, love and peace;  someone who reminds us that we take heart, keep the faith and never be afraid!  For in Jesus Christ, in tandem with God the Father, you and I have a peace… true peace… that the world cannot ever give, and can never take away. That’s what we need to remember as these difficult days of quarantine continue. 

But… just case you need a reminder this morning – a prompter, so to speak – may I suggest that we have one today, courtesy of Jesus himself, present to us in the broken bread and the cup of blessing.  Beloved, wherever and however you happen to be today, you are welcomed to partake in this feast of grace and love that it might serve as a clear reminder of his presence, and most especially of his peace.

Thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

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

 

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Unabashedly Joyful

(a sermon for April 26, 2020, the 3rd Sunday of Easter, based on Philippians 4:4-7)

In pondering our text for this morning, and in my continuing quest these days to unearth some inspirational music from what might be referred to as “the grooveyard of forgotten favorites,” here’s one song that’s been running through my head all week:

“Here’s a little song I wrote,
You might want to sing it note for note
>Don’t worry – be happy!
For when you worry your face will frown,
And that will bring everybody down,
So don’t worry – be happy!
(Don’t worry, be happy now)”

— “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” by Bobby McFerrin

Now, speaking pastorally, if there’s going to be one song on our lips after this morning’s service it probably ought to be “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee,” but I do have to confess that “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” might just fill the bill at a time like this!  Because I dare say what we all need a whole lot of right now is joy; and given that for most of us joy is intermingled with feelings of happiness, one of the best ways to bring that forth is to sing it out!  Because to quote another forgotten favorite, “if you’re happy and you know it… then your face (and your voice!) will surely show it,” and so not only does that serve to inspire joy in those around you, it also becomes an affirmation of our faith and an act of praise.  And isn’t that, after all, what Paul is getting at in our text for this morning: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.  Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  The Lord is near.” 

Of course, in all fairness, I suspect that when Paul speaks of rejoicing, he’s talking about something much deeper than to simply not worry and be happy!  What Paul is talking about here in his epistle to the Philippians is about real and unrestrained rejoicing: the kind of joy that lifts us up from the place where we are; the kind of joy that sets the standard for everything else in life, the kind of joy that comes in having ones heart and mind wholly guarded in Christ Jesus.  What we’re talking about here is the kind of joy that exists at the very core of our Christian faith and what ought to serve as the hallmark of our lives as followers and disciples of our Risen Savior.   It is joy unabashed and it is joy unrelenting; and therein lies not only its power and its great importance for our lives… but also its challenge.

And I suspect you know why!  I mean, especially right now: how do you speak of unrestrained joy in an age of pandemic?  How do you tell someone to rejoice who has had to suffer through the effects of the Covid-19 Virus, or worse, who has lost someone to that disease?  What are we supposed to say to all those people whose lives and livelihoods have been totally upended over these past few weeks, with no real resolution in sight? How do you think they’re going to respond to Paul’s exhortation to rejoice in the Lord always?  Quite frankly, I suspect they’d be apt to think it shallow at best and condescending at worst: your life is falling apart?  “Again, I say rejoice!”

 In that context, an unrestrained and unrelenting joy doesn’t seem all that realistic or reassuring, does it?  And yet, in this age as in every age that has come before, that’s exactly what you and I are being called to bring forth in faith! 

So… what are we to do about this? How do we reconcile this call to be “unabashedly joyful” with all the real-world difficulties and struggles that we face?  Can we really “rejoice always,” or not?  Was Paul simply naïve and blind to what was really going on, or when he tells the Philippians and us to “rejoice,” does he have something else on his mind?

Perhaps part of the answer lies with Paul himself.  After all, here was a man whose entire ministry in Christ was marked by worldly persecution and ridicule; who was himself driven out of several towns and cities (often under the cover of darkness), and through the course of his life was also shipwrecked, imprisoned, beaten, and exposed to death, danger, hunger, thirst, fatigue and cold, all for the sake of the Gospel!  At the time of this letter to the church at Philippi, it’s late in his life; Paul’s in prison again, this time under guard of the Imperial capital of Rome, and expecting at any moment that judgment will be rendered and he’ll be executed.  And as if that weren’t bad enough, it turns out that the Philippian church is full of problems: they are few in number; they’re filled with fear and doubt about the future, persecuted by everyone in the city; and what’s more, there’s in-fighting going on at just about every level of the church.

It was enough to make any of us throw our hands in the air and give up trying.  And yet, here’s Paul – who remember, is getting old and feeble and at a point where a bit of discouragement would be understandable – nonetheless saying, boldly and without hesitation, “Rejoice in the Lord always.  Again, I will say it:  Rejoice!”  In fact, Paul says this over and over again – sixteen times in only four chapters of this epistle (!) – and he can do it because this isn’t rejoicing merely for the sake of feeling happy, but because of the one in whom he rejoices.  Rejoice in the Lord, Paul says.  Rejoice in the Lord always!

It turns out that there are two basic types of joy: external joy, the kind that comes and goes with whatever is happening in our lives, and which is wonderful, but is finite and can be easily be displaced or destroyed at a moment of conflict or struggle; and internal joy, the kind of joy that comes from within.  When Paul talks about joy, he means the internal joy that the Lord himself places within us. The great theologian Karl Barth said it well when he wrote that the joy of which Paul speaks is “a defiant ‘nonetheless,’” which draws strength from the gospel story and “from laying one’s deepest concerns before God with thanksgiving.”  This is a deep joy that takes root even in darkness; joy that has its source in God’s great presence and God’s hope for whatever the future may hold.

To put it even more simply, it’s not so much rejoicing because of all the things that have happened to us in life; in fact, very often we rejoice in spite of all that has happened to us, and that’s because we look first to Jesus Christ and what he has done for us, and in us, and to us.  Our joy is to be “in the Lord,” and because of this, you and I can rejoice in all circumstances, even those that are difficult and painful and involve suffering; not because of what it is we’re going through, mind you, but because of the grace of the Lord; the hope, strength, love and understanding we’re given to see it through, no matter what!

A few years ago, Lisa and I were invited with some others to the home of a Jewish rabbi, to share in a Shabbat meal, that is, a Sabbath meal; that night we did everything kosher, the food and the liturgy, and it was wonderful.  Having studied some Hebrew in seminary, it was nice to hear the biblical prayers spoken in their original language; all the traditions that go along with eating in a Jewish household are rich and meaningful, and the music – yes, we all had to sing in Hebrew, folks (!) – was fun and very, very joyful!  And how do I know this?  Because most of the songs we learned to sing that night had a chorus that the Rabbi promised that even we Gentiles could sing: “Di, di, duh, duh, di, di!”   I could do that!

Actually, one of the songs we sang that night I’ve never forgotten; it’s called “Dayenu,” and it’s a song for Passover.  I would not presume to sing that one here today, but suffice to say that the lyrics are a long enumeration of all of God’s blessings to his chosen people, but with a twist: with every verse, we sang about what would have been had God not given one of those blessings!  “Had he brought us out of Egypt, and not fed us in the desert, but brought us out of Egypt, well, then, Dayenu,” which in Hebrew means, “for that alone we would have been grateful.”  It’s a fun song to sing, and what it reminds us is that no matter the challenges we face in the present moment, we still have this relationship with a God who is present and powerful and moving in and through our lives in ways that we can’t even begin to measure or fully understand. 

When we have that, friends; even when we can only perceive it as though it were the size of a mustard seed; well, that’s when we learn to “not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let [our] requests be known to God,” truly knowing that peace which passes our human understanding… and rejoice.

I know… six weeks and counting in this time of quarantine and it’s all too tempting to let ourselves become sad and angry and embittered over what life and this world has “done” to us.  But it is faith in the wisdom, care and perfect mercy of God that strengthens us to transcend these difficulties of life so that we might know life’s real joy, which comes to us in Christ.  I’ve quoted a lot of songs today, but maybe the one we really ought to take to heart is the one about that “joy, joy, joy, joy, down in our hearts to stay.”  Because when others see such unabashed joy in us, they – and our world – cannot help but be the better for it.

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

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

 
 

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Believing God

(a sermon for April 19, 2020, the 2nd Sunday of Easter, based on John 20:19-31)

So… how about this morning we just say a few good words on behalf of Thomas?

That’s right… Thomas, as in 

Doubting Thomas,” that nickname that has forevermore been bestowed to anyone who has ever been even remotely skeptical about anything!  I mean, never mind that history has recorded Thomas as having been a fiercely loyal disciple of Jesus: it’s believed that after the resurrection Thomas brought the good news of the gospel to the ancient region of Khorasan, located in what is now Iran and Afghanistan, and finally to India, where to this day there exists an Order of St. Thomas which claims Thomas as its founder; in fact, legend also has it that it was in India that Thomas was martyred for his faith, pierced by four spears.  It can safely be said that Thomas lived a life fully devoted to Christ, and yet, what is it that everybody always remembers about Thomas?  It’s that he was the one disciple who would not, could not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead… unless and until he had proof.

And really, friends, who could blame him?

You know, it’s been said that each of the disciples in some way or another serve to represent an aspect of ourselves and our own personalities: Peter, for instance, represents our tendency to be bold and impulsive about things; Matthew, the tax collector, tells us of the importance of leaving our old ways behind to follow Jesus; and James and his brother John, the fishermen who left their nets behind, tell us a lot about the courage it takes to answer a call.  But of all the disciples, Thomas was the diehard realist of the group, and as such, represents the more skeptical part of our nature!

Thomas, you see, knew what was what; he knew how life works, where the limits are placed and what it is you have to look out for.  And if there was one thing Thomas knew for certain, it was that when someone dies, that person is dead and gone and cannot, under any circumstances, return!  And so, when he heard the other disciples talk about having seen Jesus on that Easter evening, and how they’d seen the wounds in his hands and side, Thomas was not about to take what they said at face value, for what they were saying broke all the rules.  Yes, he could hear the joy in their voices as they described to him how Jesus had appeared to them in the darkness of that Easter night; and he did remember how that very morning, Mary had run to them, breathless with the news that she’d seen the Lord!  

But you see, to Thomas’ mind this was all too incredible to even consider. Because Thomas knew exactly what he’d seen; and what he’d seen was Jesus die; in fact, Thomas could still feel the dull ache of emptiness inside of him because Jesus had died.  It was painful enough to have to accept the fact that Jesus was gone, but this?  Jesus… alive?  No… no matter what anybody else was saying, he hadn’t been there to see it, and Thomas, ever the realist, was not about to place any kind of hope in that which he hadn’t personally experienced himself!

Of course, this is not to say he didn’t want that experience.

We know this because, as John tells the story, when Thomas heard what the other disciples were claiming, he responded the only way he could: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  Bottom line, Thomas needed some hard evidence of this so-called resurrection if he was to believe, and therein lies the part of this story that makes us uncomfortable; mostly because, truth be told, we’d like to see that evidence ourselves!  Theologian John Westerhoff explains it this way:  “Poor Thomas,” he writes, “desired only sacrament, only an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual truth of the resurrection.  He didn’t doubt the stories told, but he did want some sign.  [And] that’s the story of our lives,” Westerhoff goes on to say. “It isn’t enough for most of us to be told that someone else loves us; we want that person to do something that expresses love for us.  So it is with Easter faith – it’s difficult to believe the words, but an action along with the words surely helps.”

I suspect we can all understand that!  I remember once way back when I was in the seventh grade, and one of the girls in my class came to me with the news that there was another girl in the class who really “liked me.” (And not just “liked me,” mind you, but liked me liked me, which, when you’re 13 is something altogether different!)  Now, I was way too shy ever to do anything about that revelation, and even at that ageI remained fairly skeptical as to how legitimate this confession of “like” actually was! But, oh, I wanted it to be true, and I remember waiting for some sort of outward and visible sign to come forth from my admirer: you know, the tell-tale look, the note inside the home room desk (the one that read, “Do you like me?  Check Yes or No”).  My doubt, you see, wasn’t so much as denial, as it was the desire for it to be true!

For so many of us, you see, doubt is not so much a nagging source of denial as it is the persistent push that keeps us searching.  It’s the way we seek to know and to name what it is that we believe, and then to live up to that belief.  Thomas’ doubt was not borne of any kind of weakness nor was it an exercise in mental or spiritual acrobatics.  Thomas doubted in order to become sure; he was not content with second-hand believing.  He asked questions, he pushed the envelope, he wrestled with truth as surely as Jacob wrestled with the angel; and in the end, what Thomas believed, he owned…

…and it seems to me that’s a pretty good definition for faith.

It strikes me, you know, that right about now we’re all living in the midst of a modern-day age of doubt; a time when our natural -born skepticism has become mingled with fear.  I don’t know about you, but everyday I go to the news hoping for some good news regarding this current pandemic crisis; but what I get is not at all reassuring with mixed signals at best.  So not only do I end up not knowing what to believe, I begin to wonder if there’s any end in sight to this crisis and if life will ever get back to normal.  I think you’ll agree with me when I say that these are the days when doubt flourishes! 

Like Thomas, I suppose, we need proof; we want some empirical evidence that things are going to change for the better… but the kind of evidence that goes beyond daily briefings and data reports.  I dare say that right now you and I need the kind of assurance that will drive out our fears, calm our anxieties and ease our ever-increasing weariness we’re feeling over having to stay away and apart.  We need peace… the kind of peace that will strengthen us for the full way ahead and that will bolster us to face whatever obstacles and storms are still before us.

We need the peace that comes from the Lord.

What’s interesting about this story of “Doubting” Thomas, of course, is that when the risen Christ appears to the disciples a week later, this time Thomas is with them and he gets the “proof” that he’d insisted upon.  Jesus even offers him the opportunity to actually reach out his hand and touch his side so that he would “not doubt but believe.”  But in the end, Thomas never actually does touch Jesus.  Maybe all it took was to actually see Jesus standing there to shift his point of view; maybe it was the fact that Jesus had specifically reached out to Thomas in his doubt; or perhaps it came from a sudden profound awareness of God’s shalom, God’s whole peace, that had come in the greeting and the very presence of the risen Christ.  But whatever it was that moved Thomas, his response ends up being the single most profound and complete recognition of who Jesus is; and though it doesn’t say, I have to think that the words were spoken in barely a whisper, for such was his sudden wonder and amazement: “My Lord and my God!”  To which Jesus answers, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen yet have come to believe.”

And blessed are you and me when we believe, most especially in such difficult and uncertain times as these…. understanding, of course, that what we’re given in believing is not a clear slate of answers as to how and when things in this world and our lives are going to resolve themselves.  What we’re given in believing, beloved, is God… and all of God’s sure and certain promises that come to us in the Risen Christ.

It’s sort of like what Frederick Beuchner has said is the difference between “believing in God” and “believing God.”  Believing in God, he writes, “is an intellectual position.  It need have no more effect on your life than believing in Freud’s method of interpreting dreams or the theory that Sir Francis Bacon wrote Romeo and Juliet.

“[But] believing God is something else again,” he continues.  “It is less a position than a journey, less a realization than a relationship.  It doesn’t leave you cold like believing the world is round.  It stirs your blood like believing the world is a miracle.  It affects who you are and what you do with your life like believing your house is on fire or somebody loves you.  We believe God when somehow we run into God in a way that by and large leaves us no choice but to do otherwise.”

Beloved, in these times when doubt cannot help but daily run rampant through our minds and our hearts, we would do well to believe God… to believe his presence with us… to believe his power over the world… to believe his hope in which we abide… to believe his peace that passes our human understanding… and to believe his perfect love that casts out all fear. 

Our good news, today and every day and amidst every struggle we face, is that God is with us and loves us… and we know it, we have our proof, because Christ, our Lord and our God, has risen indeed.

I pray that even as these difficult days stretch onward, we’ll each and all open our eyes to the signs of his presence that are all around, finding in his wonders the joy of his countenance and the truth of his love.

And as we do, may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

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

 
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Posted by on April 19, 2020 in Current Events, Easter, Jesus, Sermon

 

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