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Category Archives: Epiphany

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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Down from the Mountain

(a sermon for February 23, 2020, the Last Sunday after Epiphany andTransfiguration Sunday, based on Matthew 17:1-9)

One summer several years ago when our children were young, our family did some camping at Mount Blue State Park, located in the beautiful western mountains of Maine; and as part of that experience, the kids and I decided one morning that we would actually climb Mount Blue itself.  On paper, that didn’t seem like a hard thing; the park brochure said that the trail we were going to take was a relatively easy one, and what’s more, you could drive right up to the base of the mountain, park your car and then you only had to walk a mile and a half-long trail to reach the summit; I mean, what could be simpler?  Of course, what they don’t tell you is that’s a mile and a half straight up! 

So I’ll admit, it was an arduous climb for the children and especially for the father(!), and honestly, we spent as much time sitting down to rest as we did actually walking (it’s no coincidence that the gift shops in those parts sell t-shirts, key chains and such that proclaim, “I survived Mount Blue!”)!  Despite the huffing and puffing, however, we did make it to the top, and it was well worth the climb.  The view was amazing, a literal panorama of God’s glory revealed in the beauty of creation, and we pretty much spent the rest of the day just drinking it all in. 

And I have to say, I’m feeling pretty good about what we’d accomplished, even getting a little cocky about it; I remember actually saying to my kids, “You know, this wasn’t easy, but in the eternal struggle of man versus wilderness, we triumphed!” But then I made my real mistake, by adding these words: “…and getting back down is going to be a piece of cake!”

Definitely a mistake!  The fact is, heading back I made the interesting discovery that I was tired, my legs were stiff and hurting, my arthritic knees were starting to kill, and every single step I made walking down the mountain trail felt like it might well be my last!  And adding insult to injury was the fact that Jake (who was, as I recall, 14 at the time) and Zach (who was seven!) fairly well ran down the trail, leaving Sarah and I to slowly, painfully hobble our way down (and truth be told, I think Sarah – my sweet little girl (!) – held back because she felt sorry for me!).  At one point we’re about three quarters of the way down, and we run into some hikers on their way up the trail, and one of them says to me, “There’s two kids down there – a big one and a little one – draped over the hood of a car.  Do they belong to you?”  And I said, “Yesss… Are they alright?”  “Oh, yeah,” he said back, “They’re just wondering if you’re going to make it back anytime soon!”

So much for the triumph of the mountaineer!  Needless to say, we did make it down… eventually; tired and sore, but otherwise none the worse for wear.  It’d been a good time and a great memory for the kids and me, but I did learn an important lesson:  that oftentimes, the hardest part of climbing a mountain is coming back down; and eventually, you always have to come down from the mountain!

It’s a lesson I’ve thought about a great deal as I’ve returned this week to this morning’s reading from Matthew, the story of how Jesus led three of the disciples “up a high mountain, by themselves,” where Jesus was “transfigured before them,” his face shining “like the sun, and his clothes [becoming] dazzling white.”  Actually, it makes sense that the setting for this particular story is a mountaintop, because throughout scripture mountains always hold a place of great significance; basically, if anyone from the Bible goes up a mountain, you know something important is going to happen.  It was on a mountain, for example, where Moses was confronted by the burning bush, and later where he received the Ten Commandments.  The temple was built in Jerusalem on Mount Zion; one of Jesus’ most powerful teachings is now commonly referred to as the “sermon on the mount;” and even his crucifixion took place on that “hill, far away,” Golgotha, “the place of the skull,” otherwise known as Mount Calvary.  In the Bible, you see, mountains are always considered to be places of revelation and clarity and wonder; and more often than not, serve to illumine what happens beyond it!  

And so it follows that it’s on the mountaintop where Peter, James and John see Jesus, bathed in brilliant, dazzling light, and with incredible clarity come to recognize just who Jesus is, standing there and in “deep conversation” with Moses the lawgiver and Elijah the prophet. This was form them an experience filled to overflowing with God’s mystery and power, and it’s awesome and terrifying all at the same time.  And it’s not at all surprising that Peter’s first thought is to preserve the moment forever: “It is good for us to be here,” he says, “if you wish, I will make three dwelling here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  

What’s interesting is that in Mark’s version of this story, we’re told that Peter was so stunned by what was happening that “he didn’t know what to say,” (9:6) and he just sort of blurted this out without thinking; but I’ve always kind of felt like it was a awe-inspired gesture on Peter’s part, an effort to try to hang on to the feeling of this “mountaintop experience” as long as possible!  But of course, the thing about mountaintop experiences is that try as we might for it to be otherwise, they aren’t made to last; and the gospels all make it clear that as suddenly as this one began, it was over; and “when they opened their eyes and looked around all they saw was Jesus, only Jesus.” (The Message) It’d been this incredible, fleeting moment of wonder and terror and divine revelation, but now it was gone.

But here’s the thing: though the disciples’ transfiguration “experience” had passed, their journey – in just about every sense of the word – was just beginning. And we know this because of the very next verse in Matthew’s account of all this: that just as soon as it was done, “they were coming down the mountain.”  You see, this is the other thing about mountaintop experiences: eventually you always have to come down from the mountain; and while that’s often the harder part of the experience, it’s also the place where true faith begins.

It’s worth pointing out here is that biblically speaking, the transfiguration story comes essentially at the mid-point of the gospel.  Up to this point in the story, we’ve learned about Jesus’ teaching and healing acts, and his growing ministry, and even after the experience of transfiguration, all that continues for Jesus and his disciples; except now it’s different.  Now it’s off to Jerusalem, with all that that journey implies.  In other words, we’ve had a moment of glory up on the mountain, but now it’s time to come back down to the valley.  It’s time for us to go to the cross. 

Likewise, it’s no coincidence that this is the story that bridges the boundary between the season of Epiphany, in which we revel in the light of Christ coming into the world, and the season of Lent, when we remember how darkness sought to overcome that light.  Moreover, it serves as a reminder to us that in the Christian life, we always stand on the boundary between mountain and valley, light and darkness, radiance and pain.  In faith, as in life, we cannot avoid the darkness and pain; the reality of things is that we can’t stay on the mountain forever but always to come down into the valleys of life to face all the dangers that dwell there. 

There are those, of course, who would succumb to this notion that the Christian life is simply one mountaintop experience after another; and that a belief in Jesus somehow removes you from things like human hurt, personal tragedy and the many injustices of life.  But the truth is that for believer and unbeliever alike, there is trouble in life, and it does rain on the just and unjust.  And anyone who approaches faith with the expectation that all of life will be all sunshine and roses will either drop out at the first sign of trouble, or else find glean on to some bad theology that convinces them that they are somehow personally at fault for every bad thing that happens; and that’s a burden that some people will carry for a lifetime.

It’s one of the great misunderstandings of the Christian faith, in my opinion, that its power is to be measured based purely on “good things” that happen.  The difference between this kind of thinking and true Christian faith is that we already know there are dark valleys, and that the shadow of death lingers over so much of human experience but nonetheless as we come down from the mountain we walk confidently, because we also know we are not going into this valley alone but in the embrace of God, who brings us safely to green pastures and still waters. 

This is true faith, friends; and what we discover in this transfiguration story we’ve shared today is that this faith finds its assurance in Jesus.

It’s there in the final moment of that wondrous experience, when the cloud overshadows the disciples there on the mountain, and as they hear a voice from heaven say, “This is my Son, the Beloved; and with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”  You see, whether they realized or understood it at all, these three slack-jawed, awestruck and fear-ridden disciples had just been given the key to dealing with everything that was to come:  

Listen. Learn. Trust

Listen to what Jesus is saying to you; learn from his teachings; and trust that even now as you’re coming down from the mountain you will be led safely through the dark valleys ahead.

I’m reminded here of something Frederick Buechner wrote some years ago about a time in his life when he’d been filled with despair over his daughter’s ongoing struggle with the eating disorder anorexia.  As you can imagine, this constitutes a nearly impossible situation for any parent, and so it was for Buechner.  In fact, in his book Telling Secrets he tells the story of how one day, driving back to his home in Vermont and sick with worry over his child, was forced to pull over to a highway rest stop so that he might at least compose himself for the remainder of his journey.  And there in the parking lot, Buechner spied a car with a vanity license plate; although, he noted later, this time it really wasn’t a vanity plate.  The plate read simply, in capital letters, “TRUST.”

Buechner saw it as a revelation, and in that precise moment, he said, a great sense of calm swept over his life and he knew he could go on.  Never mind that the vehicle in question was a company car owned by a New England bank trust department officer; it was the word “TRUST” that made the difference:  a simple insight, a little snippet of divine teaching, a vision of what was his all along:  love, strength… and hope.

Every once in a while, you know, we do get a real glimpse of who Jesus is, and what he has to give us:  sometimes it comes in the midst of worship and prayer; other times in the kind of love and encouragement that’s shared between friends; perhaps in the fleeting memory of a particular time or place that stirs our heart just for the thought of it; a singular moment, that mountaintop experience in which we knew we were standing face to face with the Lord. 

This morning’s gospel reminds us to hold on to such things even as we come down from the mountain; for these are the moments that will sustain us as we walk more deeply into life, and as our faith transforms us from those who merely plod along the way into those who walk boldly and in tandem with Jesus Christ; those who understand that even walking through the darkest of valleys, there’s going to be a light leading them forward. 

Beloved, I hope and pray that whether your journey this week finds you climbing up the mountain, or making your way back down, you’ll be carrying that light as your own. 

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

© 2020  Rev. MIchael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on February 23, 2020 in Epiphany, Faith, Family Stories, Jesus, Lent, Life, Maine, Sermon

 

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What’s Your Foundation?

(a sermon for February 16, 2020, the 6th Sunday after Epiphany, based on 1 Corinthians 3:10-23)

Along Route One just north of the town of Monticello, Maine there still stands an old farmhouse that is in fact, the Lowry family homestead.  Surrounded by acres of woods and potato fields, my grandparents lived in that house for pretty much their whole lives; it was where my father and his brother and three sisters were all born and raised, and it was the place we gathered for countless family reunions, Christmas Eve celebrations and Oyster Stew suppers, which was in those days the Lowry family meal! 

It was also a place of endless fascination for me as a young child, in particular in the way the house itself was laid out.  Actually, it was and is a quintessential New England farmhouse, in that it exists in pieces that were built over time and are connected one to another.  First there was built the main structure – or the “big house,” as it’s sometimes called in these parts – with the kitchen and living space downstairs, bedrooms and, eventually, a bathroom (!) upstairs.  Then, some years later, a couple of additions were built on:  on one end, an extra kitchen and living room where my grandparents stayed in their later years while my uncle and his family were living in the main house; and on the other side of the building, an addition made into a laundry room.  And then, attached to that laundry room was a shed, or “back house,” that was built primarily for storage and to stack firewood.  And of course, this is to say nothing of the porch that at one time or another was attached to the front! 

Like I said, as a kid I loved that house! I remember it as being filled will all sorts of nooks and crannies, with doors in every room leading to these “mysterious” closets and crawl-spaces. And the thing was that though it really wasn’t all that big of a house, it still just seemed to me to stretch on forever!  These days I like to think of it as in the words of that Schooner Fare song, the “big house, middle house, back house, barn,” built piece by piece and all connected as one; but not only by virtue of wood-framed walls and a shingled roof but in a much larger sense by the several generations of family who have lived there, as well as in and through all the changes in their lives over the years. 

It’s an amazing thing when you think about it: all that history; all that experience; all the stories that grew out of a house that continue to be told to this very day.  But here’s the thing: it all started by the house having first been built on a strong foundation… because whatever else you choose to build on it, a good foundation is what really matters.

Actually, it strikes me that much the same thing can be said about this church building in which we are worshipping this morning. After all, not only is this building one of the oldest – if not the oldest (!) – original church edifices still standing here in Concord, but it’s also quite literally connected to our fellowship hall, which began its life as a residence across the street here on Mountain Road and was physically moved here to become part of the church!  That’s interesting in and of itself, but it seems to me it’s a great analogy – a parable, if you will – for who we are and have always been as a congregation  Truly, we at East Church have always sought to be a congregation that reaches out in faith and love to one another and outward to the people of this community.  And we do that, come what may, because first we were built on a strong foundation… and like I said before, a good foundation is what really matters…

…understanding that while all those rocks and blocks of granite that underpin this building are of great importance, there’s more to it than simply that.  In the words of Brian Peterson, of Lutheran Southern Seminary, just as any building “must fit its foundation, [be] supported by it and shaped to match it,” so it is with the church.  Because the church, you see, already has its one foundation, and as we sang at the beginning of the service this morning, “it is Jesus Christ our Lord.”  And as Paul makes clear in our text for this morning, “each builder must choose with care how to build on” that foundation, because the materials we use in the building will not only be revealed, in the end our construction going to have to pass inspection…

…which, it seems to me, is not only applicable even now to the manner in which we govern and direct the building up of our churches (including this one!) but also to the way you and I seek to build our lives as well!

This morning we return to Paul’s first letter to the Christians in the Greek city of Corinth; a group of new believers who were remarkable both for the passion expressed in their new-found faith but even more so for the divisions that almost immediately rose amongst them!  In fact, at the time when Paul had sent this epistle, there was this growing divide amongst the Corinthian Christians over what leader they should follow: Paul, who had spent 18 months amongst them as a “founding pastor,” so to speak; Apollos, this new, well-spoken and apparently very charismatic missionary leader in their midst; or the well-remembered sentimental favorite Cephas, that is, Peter… yes, that Peter! This question of leadership had become, to say the very least, a heated discussion, and it had now gotten to the point where whenever Christians were gathered there were bound to be lots of signs waving and fiery debate (kind of sounds like primary season in New Hampshire, doesn’t it?).

So of course, here comes Paul right in the midst of the fray!  But his response to this conflict is quite interesting:  rather than claiming a pre-ordained victory or spiritual high ground over his central political rival – excuse me, his spiritual partner Apollos – Paul acknowledges that yes, “according to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation” with you in Corinth, “no one can lay any foundation than the one that has been laid; that foundation [that] is Jesus Christ.”  Actually, a couple of things should be mentioned here: first, that this is indeed metaphor, because in these early days of the church there were no temples under construction; Paul is talking here about the building up of the body of Christ (in fact, the Greek word that’s used here for “church” is ekklesia, which is where we get the term “ecclesiastical,” and refers to a gathering of people). And while we’re on the subject of language, the Greek words that get translated in English as “skilled master builder,” actually are better translated as a “wise architect.”  So it’s not so much that Paul’s bragging about all he’s done in building up the church; but rather that “using the gift God gave [him] as a good architect” [The Message] he was able to build on the only foundation that matters: the good foundation, the strong foundation, the foundation that is firm in Jesus Christ. 

So essentially, what Paul is saying here is that while yes, I do have some part in the building up of the church (as does, for that matter, Apollos, or Cephas or any other human leader), ultimately this is not about me; and by the way? It’s not about you, either!  This is about you and I at work together building up the Body on the good foundation that is Jesus Christ; using the kind of spiritual tools and materials that will stand the test of time and show forth the sincerity and passion of your faith.  “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”  Paul asks. Don’t you realize that “God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple?”  Like we said before, it all comes back to the foundation on which you build; this foundation on which you are built… it’s the foundation that really matters!

So, then… given all that, the question is… what’s your foundation?

I remember once, years ago as a much younger pastor in a prior parish, I met with some visitors in our church to discuss the possibility of their joining with our congregation as new members.  Now, I should tell you that though I had only recently had the opportunity to meet this couple in person, their reputations certainly preceded them: I was already aware that these were people greatly respected in our community as tireless volunteers, and moreover they were very well thought of by their friends and neighbors.  They’d been coming to worship for a few weeks, they seemed to be hitting it off with everyone, the pastor included, and soon I was having folks in the congregation coming up all excited and telling me we’d be really lucky to have these two be part of the church!

So now we have this meeting and, well, it was interesting to say the least!  First of all, this woman had a literal checklist of questions she wanted to ask, ranging from the program goals and frequency of youth ministries in the church and whether or not we participate in a sports league, to whether or not I would ever preach on things like the virgin birth or the story of Adam and Eve (no joke!); and she took extensive notes on every one of my answers. And some of the questions were rather telling:  If you become a member, are you required to serve on a committee, and for how long?  What about stewardship; how is it decided what we’re to give?  Are you supposed to come every Sunday to worship, or can you just come sometimes?  Kind of odd questions to ask the pastor, I’ll admit, but okay… I’m not exaggerating when I say that this conversation covered just about every aspect of church life, and also that it felt pretty much like a job interview!

But it was all very enjoyable, and when the meeting was done I felt pretty good about our conversation and the prospect of their joining the church; but alas, it was not to be.  After a couple weeks, they were gone and rumor had it they’d started attending another church.  And of course, what I’m thinking – because this pastor is only human, after all – is what did I do?  I mean, I tried to be gracious and welcoming, but also honest and above all, pastoral… so what did I say to these people that was so wrong?  How had I driven these people away from our church?  Well, later on I learned from a fellow pastor that this particular couple who were so well-respected in the community were also well-known by local pastors as chronic “church hoppers” who had gone through the same interview process in virtually every church across the denominational spectrum for miles around and had never settled on any church… anywhere for more than a few weeks at a time. And as I shared my disappointment to this colleague, he said it all: “Don’t worry about it, Michael.  Some people are just far more concerned about all the benefits they get from faith than ever looking at its responsibilities.”

I’ve never forgotten that; and it’s always served as a reminder to me, not only as an occasionally overeager pastor but also as a Christian who is ever and always challenged to grow in wisdom and to always build on a good foundation of faith, that as many and as wonderful are the blessings that come in this life of faith I lead, it is not wholly or even primarily what I get out of the experience that is the most important, but rather the glory of what I am strengthened and enabled to build along the way all with the spiritual gifts I’ve been given, most especially in the love of Jesus Christ, who is and shall always be the foundation of all that I am and everything I seek to do.  The Rev. Elizabeth Lovell Milford, a Presbyterian pastor from Georgia, says it well: “Good foundations matter… [and] as people of faith, our foundations should [always] be in the promises from God; those outlined by Christ himself and those proclaimed throughout the entirety of scripture. [These] are the bedrocks of our faith that allow us to build our lives in a way that is shaped by our relationship with the Divine.” And what we build on that foundation, both in our work individually as people of faith and together as the church, will grow and expand even as it’s ever and always being tested and refined by God.

In other words, it matters, beloved; what we believe should always translate to how we live: in how we talk to each other, how we reach out to others in need, how we seek to “be” the church in this time and place.  Part of our responsibility, yours and mine – as Christians and as the church – is to make sure that whatever we are doing, we are doing on the foundation of Jesus Christ as Lord.  

What’s your foundation?  Because it matters, beloved… it matters.

Thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

© 2020  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on February 16, 2020 in Church, Discipleship, Epiphany, Faith, Ministry, Paul, Sermon

 

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