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Category Archives: Easter

Witnesses of These Things

(a sermon for April 15, 2018, the 3rd Sunday of Easter, based on Luke 24:36-49)

It’s fascinating – and more than a little bit telling, I think – that as Luke continues his version of the Easter story, the eleven disciples only really begin to connect the dots where the resurrection is concerned when Jesus asks them, “Have you anything here to eat?”

To sit down and have something to eat, after all, is probably the most basic and human thing that you and I ever do in our lives. But more than merely being necessary for our physical survival, food also has a way of bringing us comfort; and sharing a meal with others creates an opportunity for hospitality for nurturing relationships. There’s a reason that when someone is sick, or if their loved one has passed away, our first response in dealing with grief and loss – especially here in New England – is to bake a casserole; just as I can also tell you that apart from the fundraising aspect of it, the main reason that churches like ours hold Saturday night“bean suppahs” is because food and fellowship go together like… well, beans and ham!

But “having something to eat” can also open our eyes and hearts to something we hadn’t known or experienced before.  How many first dates “going out to eat” grew into something more because sitting across the table from someone while eating chicken parmesan not only lessened the awkwardness of the situation but also became the starting place of a whole new relationship!  And how often does food serve as an affirmation of who and whose you are?  Growing up, there was hardly a gathering of the Lowry side of the family that didn’t include oyster stew as part of the meal; and likewise, we’ve discovered as our own children have grown older that each one of them have favorite dishes that bring back good memories of childhood and which they still ask for when they come home!  Food, you see, is real; and it has a real way of help us discern what else is real as well.

Think about how the resurrection story unfolds in Luke’s gospel:  first, you have the women discovering the empty tomb and being greeted by the “two men in dazzling clothes” (24:4) who told them that Jesus had, in fact, risen; but not only does the idea of this terrify them, but when they return to the eleven to share this news, the apostles dismiss it as “an idle tale,” (24:11) which, by the way, in the original Greek is leros, which is where we get our word “delirious.”  So basically, the whole idea of Jesus being raised from the dead was being dismissed by the eleven as wild, unbelievable crazy talk!

And then you have, later on that day, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, who are actually walking with the Risen Christ, but who fail to recognize who he is until… notice this (!)… Jesus “took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them” (24:39) and their eyes were opened, recognizing him for who he was.  But still, it wasn’t enough to convince the eleven and their companions back in Jerusalem that what happened had actually happened!  Even when in that moment when “Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you;’” even that was not enough to lead them from fear to belief; nor was the offer from Jesus that they could touch his hands and feet if they needed to, or even the assurance that “a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have”  (which, it should be noted, brought joy to the eleven, but not yet belief, as, according to Luke, they were “still wondering.”  In other words, this is great and all, but how are we supposed to believe this? “It was too much; it all seemed too good to be true!” [The Message])

No; it’s only when Jesus asks if there’s something to eat, and then proceeds to eat that piece of broiled fish in their presence that the disciples finally start to get it:  Jesus was alive!  He had risen from the dead; and now, here he was with them, just like before!  And suddenly, right there in the middle of a fish dinner, all the doubt, all the hopelessness, all the barriers that had previously stood between them – barriers of sin and grief and death – were gone forever.  And now Jesus could truly open their minds “to understand the scriptures,” and for the apostles to discover, once and for all, that everything had Jesus had told them over the past three years about the Messiah having to suffer and then “to rise from the dead on the third day,” about “repentance and forgiveness of sins” and about the need to proclaim all of it to Jerusalem and the world; to know it was all real and true would change everything about their lives and living from that moment forward!

Which is what makes what Jesus says next all the more powerful:  “You are witnesses of these things… and see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised.”

Now, I’ve always imagined that at this point, the disciples’ reaction was yet another of disbelief; or, if not disbelief exactly, then certainly utter surprise! Excuse me, Lord?  We’re just now beginning to wrap our minds around the fact that you’re back from the dead and now you want us to be your witnesses?  Give us a moment to absorb this, Jesus… maybe later, but not now… not yet! But you’ll notice in our text this morning, Jesus is very clear regarding the tense of this assertion: it’s not “you were,” or “you will be,” but it’s that you are witnesses, right here and right now; witnesses of the resurrection and everything that represents!  And no doubt, in that moment, such a prospect was for the disciples, to say the very least, daunting!

And as I think about that, friends, I realize that if that was the case for the eleven in the immediate aftermath of the events surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection – events that they had indeed seen, and heard, and participated in – how much more daunting is it for you and me; the people who, some 2,000 years later are still named and claimed as witnesses of the Risen Savior?  If even those who were there still wondered and doubted as to the truth of it all, what kind of witnesses are we ever to be?  I mean, it’s one thing for us to sing out those wonderful old words of how “he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own,” it’s quite another for us – any of us, really – to think of Jesus as “a very real person and, through the Spirit, as a very real personal presence in our lives.” (Scott Hoezee)  Indeed, from the time most of us went to Sunday School, we’ve been taught about Jesus living “in our hearts” and sharing that good news with others; but what about the real, live, physical fish-eating presence of our Risen Savior?  How are we ever supposed to witness to that?

Because that’s an important question, beloved; one, that as Karoline Lewis suggests, Jesus takes very seriously.  What Jesus said to the disciples, he says to each one of us: “You are witnesses, here and now, in this moment.  In this life. In your daily life.  For the sake of life.”  Jesus, Lewis goes on to say, is quick to remind us “of who we really are – resurrection people, resurrection witnesses.”  But just when we think that this is something impossible for us, Jesus tells us what makes it possible to be witnesses: “the promise of the Spirit.”  That’s why Jesus instructs the disciples to “stay… in the city until [they] have been clothed with power from on high,” and it’s why you and I as Jesus’ followers are gifted with the same.

What does all this mean?  It means that though we didn’t have the same kind first-hand experience of the disciples to share, we do have their witness to pass on; and, as it turns out, the kind of witness that comes in living out of what we’ve heard, and believed and lived out of throughout our lives.

We are witnesses of these things when we worship together; when we raise up our voices in prayer and praising, and when we sit amongst a community of believers.  We are witnesses of these things when we are moved to love others after the same manner that we have felt the experience of divine love and acceptance.  We are witnesses of these things when we recognize that life as we live it and the world as we know it does not have to be as muddled and complicated and divisive and hate-filled as it so often appears to be; and we decide for ourselves that we will be the example in making peace, justice, kindness, compassion and true grace and love the new reality of life and living.  We are witnesses of these things when we feed others in just the same way we have been fed; because, friends, it’s that wonderfully hearty spiritual food that not only makes us who we are as disciples of Jesus Christ, it’s what proclaims him alive forever more!

We – you, and you, and you and me – we are witnesses of these things, and Jesus is sending us forth to proclaim our good news to the world.

One summer day many years ago I went on a road trip with my father to visit a series of flea markets that were happening throughout northern Maine (as was typical of my Dad, he was ever and always seeking out specific things at these sales; I think at the time it was antique oil lamps).  We’d made our way way up to Madawaska on the Canadian border; where, as it happened, he’d spent a summer as a young man working playing trumpet in a big band, and where he’d boarded with a French Canadian family there in the town.  Well it had been well over 30 years, but my father got it into his head that he wanted to stop at this house and see if that family he’d stayed with all those years ago was still living there; they were very nice people, he explained to me, and I’d really like to say hello.

Well, I’m 22 or 23 at the time, and I’m skeptical to say the least!  And I’m thinking that this encounter would be awkward at best, and at worst they wouldn’t remember my father and that would be embarrassing!  But my Dad was determined, and while I waited in the truck and watched (!) he went right up to the house and knocked on the door!  There was this older woman who answered the door; and from the street I could see them talking quietly for a moment; and then… this woman quite literally shrieks with joy, her arms open wide to hug my father, and next thing I know we’re all sitting in this woman’s kitchen with her husband laughing, reminiscing, telling stories, drinking coffee, and lest I forget, eating the most incredible freshly made donuts and deflecting their insistence that we stay long enough to have a nice lunch… yup, it’s always about the food, isn’t it!

Well, obviously they did remember my Dad, and fondly!  But as wonderful as that was, I went away from that experience realizing that though they’d never met me before, it was as though they’d always known me, and in the process made me feel incredibly welcome.  There amidst the coffee and donuts, you see, was a witness to good memories, friendship and the many ways that our lives and our hearts are joined together even in the most unexpected kind of ways.

It seems to me, friends, that as believers in the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ we are similarly joined in heart, soul, mind and strength; and that each and every time you or I make the effort to reach out to others with the same kind of love and care that Jesus has shown us, we are witnesses of a living Savior who continues to change the world – and every heart within it – for the better and forever.

Don’t forget this as you set out into the business of life and living this week, beloved:  You are witnesses of these things.

And for this, and so much more, thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Because of the Resurrection…

(a sermon for April 8, 2018, the 2nd Sunday of Easter, based on Romans 8:28-39 and John 20:19-31)

I have always found it interesting and a bit ironic that most years Easter Sunday tends to fall around the same time as income taxes come due.

Granted, this year was a bit of an exception, what with still another week to go before Tax Day (!),  but generally speaking, it seems as though every year just about the time we in the church are gathering to shout our alleluias and sing songs of triumph, outside these doors there’s that other, not-so-triumphant day on the horizon!

Frankly, for me that’s always been a bitter pill to swallow!  After all, Easter is the day of excitement, celebration and victory in the church of Jesus Christ!  For me, it doesn’t get any better than Easter Sunday worship; and wasn’t it great around here last Sunday?  I mean, all of it – the hymns, the flowers, all the children running around and most especially the glorious message of hope that’s contained in the gospel story – it’s the culmination of this fateful and faithful journey we’ve taken from palms to the cross to the empty tomb; and for us to discover, yet again, that Christ has risen indeed and to realize what that means for each of us… well, I don’t know about you, but for me that just stirs the soul in a way unlike during any other service of the year!  So it’s a great and wonderful day; it always is!

But then after this shining Sunday always, always comes… Monday… and Tuesday… and inevitably and inescapably Tax Day!  And with it, at least for some stragglers among us, comes that nagging stack of forms, receipts and worksheets that serves to remind us that we can no longer afford the luxury of procrastination, for despite whatever excuses we might have to offer there is no real glory in being a “last-minute filer!”  So, yes, there may still well be Easter “alleluias” ringing in our ears after Sunday has come and gone, and the good news of new life is still very fresh in our hearts, but as Monday morning dawns, it soon becomes clear that life as we’ve known it still goes on, and there’s no avoiding the fact that tax returns need to be finished before the filing deadline on April 17th!

Of course, for you, it might have been something different that made for a burdensome and stressful “Easter Monday” morning last week.  Maybe, like for us, it was going to the mechanic and finding out that the problems with your car were more serious than you thought!  Or perhaps it had to do with contending with an ongoing illness or that of a loved one; or dealing with chronic and debilitating pain.  Or maybe it was having to cope with huge changes looming in your life: the loss of a job, the disintegration of a marriage, the struggle amid rapidly changing circumstances beyond your control to care for yourself and your family with integrity, vision and compassion.  Or maybe you woke up still stinging from that same hurt that’s always been there; the lingering grief, the unresolved anger, the old regrets, the deeply held bitterness and fear; all those unresolved feelings of weakness, guilt, despondency and utter defeat.

Whatever it was, or is, it’s a stark reminder of how quickly things do return to whatever the “normal” happens to be in our lives, even amidst the continuing good news of the resurrection.  In fact, if we’re being honest, sometimes after the Sunday celebration is over and our Monday morning woes return, we might at times wonder what, if any, difference the resurrection makes in our lives; or for that matter, if any of what we proclaimed so fervently and joyously as true was even real!  Like “Doubting Thomas” of our Gospel reading this morning we do at times find ourselves wanting empirical proof that all the alleluia shouting of last Sunday morning was not some sort of cruel, cosmic joke.  But even then, in the words of Charles Henderson, a Presbyterian pastor and author, “even if [we] could, like Thomas, reach in and touch the wounds in his body… even if [we] had solid, certifiable evidence that the resurrection was real, there would still be the bills to pay, the meals to plan, the problems of life to solve.”

Henderson is right about that; we do proclaim, rightfully, that Christ is risen indeed, but the fact remains that while death has been defeated forever, life does go on; and moreover, so many of the struggles and sufferings of life in this world go on.  And so the question becomes, what happens now because of the resurrection?  What does the truth of Jesus’ rising mean for all those who have been caught up in the destructive whirlwind of all of the worst that life and an unjust world dishes out? What does the risen Jesus’ blessing of peace mean for those who feel battered, beaten, overwhelmed and worn out from the struggle?  How is it that any of us can claim, as Paul does so eloquently in our reading this morning, that “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us?”

It’s really the eternal question, isn’t it?  Life’s sufferings would seem to overtake us, but our answer comes in knowing that even though there is so much against us in this world and in this life, the abiding, redeeming and liberating truth remains that in the Risen Christ we are assured that God is for us today, tomorrow, and forever.  And “if God is for us,” says Paul, “who is against us?”

There is so much to love about this passage from Romans that we’ve shared this morning; but what I think I love the most is how Paul literally unpacks our Christian hope piece by piece by piece.  In fact, I’ve heard it said that in these few verses we’ve read this morning, Paul “is trying to drain every ounce of fear from our lives.”  Listen to how he lays it out: What do we have to be afraid of, he asks, “hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”  (By the way… just for good measure, The Message adds to that list other things; like trouble, hard times, hatred, homelessness, even “bullying threats [and] backstabbing!”) So will any of this “drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us?”  No, Paul goes on to say, for “in all these things we are conquerors through him who loved us.”  Here’s a little bit of Biblical trivia for you this morning: the Greek word that’s translated as “conquerors” here is hupernikos, which literally means “super conquerors” and in fact is where we get the brand name for, of all things, Nike running shoes!  So what Paul is saying is that through the God who loves us we are more than conquerors in life, we are… super conquerors, able to stand up to all the struggles of life with unending strength!

But here’s the thing; Paul makes clear that such strength doesn’t come out of nowhere but comes from the same God who gave up his own Son for us all; and (and this is important!),  if God would do that, “will he not with him also give us everything else?”  Given the sacrifice already made on our behalf, why would our God ever withhold any good thing from us; most especially his strength and his presence now and eternally?

In the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are shown once and for all that God loves us and that God wishes never, ever to be apart from us.  Because of the resurrection, we can be assured – “convinced,” it says in the NIV – that “neither death, nor life, neither angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  What that means, friends is that because of the resurrection, in whatever comes we hang on… we go on and we prevail, because in the resurrection we are more than conquerors in this life that so often tries to conquer us!  As Benjamin Reaves has put it, “in the face of every possible development, situation, circumstance, diagnosis, or disaster… [we are not merely] being delivered from all these things, but [we are] being triumphant in all these things… it is the action of a divine defender, a divine attorney, a divine love that will not let [us] go… for as we in faith cling to God, we find he has a stronger hold on us.”

Monday mornings might still hold for us all the difficult struggles of life: there still is the doctor’s appointment that awaits us; still the chemo treatment to contend with; still the broken relationships to suffer through; still the utter uncertainty of what the day’s events will bring.  But now, because of the resurrection, we proceed with hope; light shines into our darkness, and we begin, perhaps for the first time to truly see for ourselves “that in all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”  Maybe at last, because of the resurrection, we are strengthened with the hope that we can move beyond living solely as victims but as people of faith for whom suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character, and character hope.  Maybe now, because of the resurrection, because Jesus lives and we live, we will know the love that is poured out in our hearts by God’s Spirit; enabled and empowered to rejoice in hope even amidst suffering.

In the 1870’s a man by the name of Horatio Spafford was a successful Chicago lawyer, and a close friend of the renowned evangelist of that era Dwight L. Moody.  Spafford was also a huge investor in real estate, but the story goes that the great Chicago fire of 1871 wiped out his holdings; a disaster that was compounded by the fact that Spafford’s son had just died as well.  In the aftermath of all of this, Spafford decided that he and his family desperately needed to get away; and so in 1873 he planned a trip to Europe with his wife Anna and four daughters.

As it happened, however, last minute business caused Spafford to delay his departure, and he sent his wife and daughters on ahead to Great Britain, aboard the S.S. Ville Du Havre, promising to follow in a few days.  But tragedy struck yet again, for on November 22, their vessel was struck by the English ship Lochearn, and quite literally, within twelve minutes sank in the cold waters of the north Atlantic.  Two hundred and twenty-six lives were lost; Spafford’s wife Anna miraculously survived the accident, but their four little daughters drowned in the tragedy.  On reaching Great Britain, she sent a telegram to her husband with the sad news, writing simply, “Saved alone.”

It’s said that a few days later when Horatio Spafford himself made the ocean crossing to meet his grieving wife, his ship reached the spot where the tragedy had taken place. And as they were directly over the sunken ship where his daughters had perished, there, surrounded by the vast expanse and depth of the ocean and the even greater depth of his sorrow, he began to write some words that have since brought solace to so many in grief:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let his blessed assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
It is well, it is well,
With my soul, with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

Despite his anguish, Horatio Spafford could say that because of the resurrection, “it is well with my soul.”  And we can say the same, beloved; because Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, we are given a lasting hope that is ours for life; life as it is, life as it will be, life as it continues to amaze us, confuse us, challenge us, embolden us, and sometimes discourage us.  But whatever life brings, because of the resurrection, we hang on, we go on… and we prevail.

May each one of us live as “more than conquerors” through him who loves us.

Thanks be to God in Jesus Christ!

Amen and AMEN!

c, 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on April 8, 2018 in Easter, Epistles, Jesus, Life, Paul, Sermon

 

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Who Will Roll Away the Stone For Us?

(A Meditation for Easter Sunrise 2018, based on Mark 16:1-8)

It is indeed interesting to note that Easter – our bright and glorious day of resurrection, the central event from which everything else in our Christian faith proceeds, and the time when by the grace of God, light and life reigns supreme – actually begins in the darkness just before dawn, and in a place of death.  Easter, you see – this day that’s marked by festive celebration and nearly inexpressible joy – begins, in of all places, a cemetery.

When someone dies there is so much that you have to do, and yet ultimately nothing that you can do.  Anyone who’s had a death in the family understands this; that those first few days are filled with countless details:  there’s funeral arrangements to be taken care of, legal matters that need attention, people to call and preparations to be made.  And while there’s so much that you expect to have to do at a time like that, there’s also that which you quickly discover you’re not prepared for at all!  It’s no wonder that those who have been there will tell you they ended running on “auto-pilot;” methodically doing what needs to be done simply to get through the funeral and the burial, all the while feeling paralyzed from the weight of the grief.  And there’s help to be had – from family, from friends, from the funeral home, from the church – but in the end, they’ll tell how they wondered who could possibly help them to take away all that pain they were feeling!

So it was for Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome, who very early on the first Easter morning were making their way to tomb to finish what needed to be done on this third day following the death of their master and friend, Jesus, on a cross.  They were bringing spices to anoint Jesus’ body for burial, which hadn’t been done before this because of strict traditions surrounding the Sabbath; that is, there hadn’t been enough time on Friday before nightfall and the beginning of Sabbath to take care of such matters, and so they had to wait until the Sabbath was over (they probably hadn’t even purchased the spices they needed until after dusk on Saturday).

But now it was Sunday, and this was a task that needed to be done; but not simply out of tradition, mind you, but also as way of dealing with their grief.  After all, in Jesus, they had not only lost someone dear to them, but all their hope for their lives and their world had died along with him.  This was a loss that hurt so very deeply, and they felt so helpless that the only thing they could think of do is just “take care of things,” and have it be done with so they could move on with their lives.  But even now as they drew close to the tomb, there was still one more detail they hadn’t counted on; quite literally a major obstacle in their way to getting it done. And they talked about it as they drew closer:  “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?”

The women knew they could not possibly budge the stone by themselves; and it was unlikely at that hour of the morning there’d be anyone else around who could do the job.  So here they were with this difficult, heart-wrenching job to do, unable to take care of it on their own, but without anyone that could possibly help them to do it!  What a metaphor for grief itself – indeed, for all the pain of life that comes to us – facing this huge burden that we can’t get rid of by ourselves, but fearing in our heart of hearts that in the end, there will be nobody else to do it for us either!

Which is what makes it such incredible, joyous and infinitely good news that when the women reached the tomb, they discovered “that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.”  Mark, as is typical of his short and to the point gospel, does not give us details as to how this happened; truly, what happened is of much greater importance, and what happened is that Jesus had risen!  Everything they needed to know came from the young man in heavenly garb who tells them that the one they’re looking for, Jesus of Nazareth, was not there, but “ha[d] been raised,” and that Jesus had gone ahead of them to Galilee, and that they would see him there!  It’s no wonder, as Mark reports it, that “they went out and fled from the tomb, for fear and amazement had seized them,” for in that instant, the impossible had been made not merely possible but real!  The women had come to the tomb that morning expecting to see a lifeless body and to deal with the very death of their hope, but had instead become witnesses to the resurrection!   They’d come wondering who could possibly help them in their grief, and now they had their answer for this and for every question they ever had:  It was God who helped them; it was God (!), the one who had rolled away the stone!

It was the most amazing surprise in all of human history; but then again, isn’t that how God always works?  After all, we can’t do all the things we need to do on our own: we can’t budge the weight of sin off of our own shoulders, we can’t take our all-too-human impulses toward anger and hatred away from our hearts, we can’t free ourselves from the agony and torture of old and long past regrets and lingering hurts. The hard truth of it, friends, is that try as we may, we cannot ever bring life into that which would seek to deaden our very lives, but the good news is that God can, and does!

In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, dear friends, we discover that God can roll away any stone.  God can take whatever keeps our hearts captive and make it go away.  God can wash away our sin and make us people of love and joy and caring and unending hope.  God can bring us to life as surely as our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was brought back from the dead!  So do not be afraid; that’s the message of the gospel this Easter morning and always: do not be afraid for Jesus Christ is risen!  Because the stone was rolled away, we can go forth from this beautiful place and into this beautiful day knowing that our lives are abundant, eternal,  and ever and always brand new; that wherever it is that you and I go from this moment forward, Jesus will meet us there; and that it will be from that place we will go confidently into a bright, wide-open future… and that we will do it together.

For it is for us as the apostle Paul proclaimed it, that  “neither death, nor life, nor angels, rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!” (Romans 8:38-39)

Beloved, Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed!

Alleluia, and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on April 2, 2018 in Easter, Jesus, Sermon

 

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