RSS

Category Archives: Epistles

Awakened by a Roar

(a sermon for May 27, 2018, the 1st Sunday after Pentecost, based on Romans 8:12-17 and John 3:1-17)

It has long fascinated me that sound – or more accurately, our experience of sound – is something very relative in nature.

For instance, as I was at home writing this sermon yesterday, the windows were open and I was hearing all the noise that’s fairly commonplace on Mountain Road, especially on a weekend: the steady stream of cars whizzing by (usually too fast!) or the roar of motorcycles headed up to the mountains;  lawn mowers, weed whackers and the buzz of an occasional chainsaw doing yardwork off in the distance; the snatches of music and conversation emanating from throughout the neighborhood; and this is to say nothing of the constant roar of traffic that floats up from nearby I-93!  It’s this ever-present droning of sound – like I say, not at all unusual, especially this time of year – but the thing is that most of the time I don’t even notice it!  Quite honestly, most times it takes a siren or a clap of thunder to get me to wake up to all the rest of the noise that’s going on around me!

Actually, the thought of this takes me back to my years growing up in Maine.  East Millinocket, the town where I grew up, was in those more prosperous days a huge paper mill town; and so the constant whirring and clanking of paper machines at the mill, along with the roar of all the other varied kinds of equipment used to move around pulp and paper, was a regular part of our lives 24/7… so much so that from day to day we hardly ever noticed the noise of it!  In fact, every morning around 7:45 there would be three blasts of the fire horn signaling the end of the night shift (and, as it turned out, to let us kids know that school was starting in a half-hour!); but let me tell you that when I was in high school, I could sleep through that fire horn blasting with no trouble whatsoever and be late for class as a result!

Contrast this, however, to what we experienced every summer when we went “uptacamp” at the lake; when without the noise of the mill filling our ears every night, the silence those first few nights could almost be deafening!  And when you woke up it wasn’t to the sound of paper machines, but rather to the sound of loons calling to one another from the far end of the pond; birds singing their songs high up in the trees behind the camp, and the first hints of a morning breeze rustling through the leaves.  Or maybe it’d be the putt-putt of a little outboard engine bringing one of the old men out to Barker Rocks in hopes that the fishing might be particularly good that morning.  Perhaps you’d even hear your parents out in the kitchen talking about putting on a pot of coffee, or hear a screen door slamming as one of them down to the spring for a jug of water.  These were no less than the quiet, gentle sounds of life “going on,” all of that which, unbeknownst to you, had pretty much been drowned out by the clamor of school, work and the routine of daily life!

And what I remember more than anything else is that whereas I could easily sleep through the blasts of the fire horn, all those sounds at the lake were almost like an alarm clock for me.  I’d hear all this from my bed and I’d want to get right up and see what was going on; to find out what the weather was going to be and get started on whatever adventure was waiting for me that day!  It was a new day, a brand new season full of possibility, and as such, I was new as well; part of a time and a place in which something wonderful was going to happen that I definitely didn’t want to miss!

Actually, if you think of that as a parable of sorts it’s not all that different than that which our epistle text for this morning sets forth: what it means for you and I to live in and be led by the Spirit of God!  You see, in his letter to the Roman church Paul speaks about this incredible power God has unleashed into the world in Christ’s resurrection; a Spirit of life that empowers all who call upon it in the same manner it empowered Jesus in the midst of his own suffering and death, to the extent that his glory becomes our glory as well!  Paul is very specific in saying that by that same Spirit “bearing witness with our spirit,” we are “children of God,” and as such “heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ,” and all the good things that come with that.

Think about that with me for a moment, because that’s big!  What that’s saying is that because of the Spirit and out of love, God has not simply made us his children, but views us as his children in the same way that he views Jesus himself!  Do you ever remember hearing someone refer to a child born to a family very late in life as an “afterthought;” meaning that this family thought they were long since past having any more children but then there was a baby on the way who was the “afterthought?”  Well, what we’re told here is that you and I are not to be thought of any sort of divine afterthought; but in fact, fully and wholly children of God and co-heirs with God’s Son Jesus.  And because of this, we’ve entered into this brand new style of life that comes to us by virtue of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This is why Paul is also very quick in our reading today to make a distinction between the old time and place when we were “debtors… to the flesh,” that is, living a life wholly caught up in the ways and means of the world, as opposed to now, as we’re living the new life of the Spirit in which we are regarded as Children of God!  Living in that Spirit, you see, brings us a whole new perception of life and living, in which we see and hear and experience things so much differently than we ever did before, thus changing how we live forever!  Once again, I found myself smiling at how The Message words this: “This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike ‘What’s next, Papa?’ God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are.”  In the more traditional translation, “…you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption.”  You’ve been given a spirit that is a living force dwelling within you, and it shapes who you are and what you do; and because of this, it’s a new day and a brand new life full of possibility, one that you don’t want to miss out on!  Yes, it might well lead to challenge and suffering, as it did for our brother Christ, but it’s also a life that inevitably gives way to wonder, and glory, and divine purpose.

As Paul proclaims it here, it’s an amazing gift; not to mention one of the central truths of our Christian faith.  But the question is… it always is… whether we’re ready and willing to embrace that gift as our own.

Our second reading for this morning is that passage that John that leads into what is arguably the most oft-quoted verses of the gospels: that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  But what we don’t always acknowledge is that this verse is actually the culmination of a longer (and, might I add, covert) conversation between Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus; a conversation which begins with Jesus speaking to this Pharisee about the need for being born again, not of the flesh but of the Spirit, or as our translation of scripture puts it, being “born from above.”  What’s interesting is that Nicodemus, despite being a Pharisee and, as such, a knowledgeable man on matters of faith and theology, responds with questions that sound almost like riddles: “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

There’s a spirited back and forth between Jesus and this Pharisee; to the point where in the end, it’s really not a lack of understanding that holds Nicodemus back (because as Jesus says it, he is a teacher of Israel; surely he understands that “what is born of the Spirit is spirit”), but rather, I suspect, the sheer reality of what it means this same Spirit – God’s Spirit – start one’s life all over again!  Nicodemus, being a Pharisee and being a tireless purveyor of the Law, would have to know that such an understanding would mean following God along a new pathway; and that the things of heaven – the things relating to God’s plan, God’s kingdom, God’s love – would have to take precedence over earthly things, even some things relating to the law!  It would have to mean that you might well find yourself living a new kind of life, a life in which would have to trust God’s Spirit to give you courage, and strength, and love in order to witness to that truth in the world.  And make no mistake, friends, that was a daunting prospect for Nicodemus; and it continues to be for us as well.

But the good news is that we are given the kind of Spirit that empowers us to be God’s children in the here and now, even as we lay the groundwork for the kingdom to come in its fullness. As Paul also said, this time to in his 2nd letter to Timothy, “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”  (1:7)  And here’s the challenge that goes with that good news:  by the power of this Spirit given us, we are to wake up to this brand new day and truly live!

Not long ago I read something very interesting about the psychology of lions; which is in truth, part folklore and part the result of years of studying prides of lions and their habits of life and survival. But what seems to be true amidst the folklore is that lion cubs, despite what we all know to be true from watching “The Lion King,” (!) basically come into the world pretty much stillborn; and that they are “awakened to life” by the roar of another lion.  The legend inherent in this is the reason why lions have a roar in the first place: it is to awaken young lions who are asleep, because otherwise they can never be born, and thus live and grow and take their proper place in the pride.  Lions are never able to truly fulfill their destiny unless they are awakened to the possibility of it by a roar!

It’s really not too much of a stretch think of ourselves in the same way.  After all, there are so many people who come into this world, who live their lives and do their jobs and go through their days as though stillborn, without really having life as it is meant to be.  Maybe there’s somebody here today who does everything they’re supposed to do in this life, and yet deep down feels as if they’re merely going through the motions; like there’s supposed to be something more to who they are and what they’re supposed to be:  a deep passion, a holy rage, a joyous aggression that fulfills everything that life and living is meant to hold.  But something holds that back.

Well, beloved, the good news is that once in the town of Galilee there was a lion who roared: a lion who roared to life those who were yet stillborn; children who by the sound of this mighty roar of life became sons and daughters of God, heirs of God and brothers and sisters of Christ.

That lion’s name is Jesus, and if we will only attune our ears to sound of his voice, which truly roars above the din of human anxieties and fears, he will awaken us to things we never heard, or seen, or done, or have been before.  He will give to us a Spirit that dwells within us and allows us to truly live with wonder, and purpose, and incredible joy manifest in divine love.

May this be the day we’re awakened to that Spirit… and as that happens, may our thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

Advertisements
 
2 Comments

Posted by on May 27, 2018 in Epistles, Holy Spirit, Jesus, Life, Maine, Paul, Sermon

 

Tags: , , ,

“From Away”

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  –Galatians 3:28 (NRSV)

It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I speak “Down East” as a second language; and that despite my feeble efforts to suppress the impulse, it tends to slip out from time to time, even from the pulpit!

I’m referring, of course, to the dialect that is native to New England in general and Maine in particular; an accent that has long been part of the folklore in these parts, thanks in large part to the classic “Bert and I” stories recorded by Robert Bryan and the late Marshall Dodge. To be honest, what I speak is less that than it is a hybrid of the voices of people I grew up with, as well as those of some of “the locals” with whom I worked during summers years ago as a cabin boy at a rustic resort on the Maine coast; my friend Darrell and I were constantly attempting good-natured impressions, and I’m afraid that for me it stuck!  As a result of all this, however, over the years I’ve developed a fondness for the subtleties of dialect (yes, there is an Aroostook County accent, just so you know!) as well as a great love for good storytelling and especially an appreciation for Maine humor.

For the uninitiated, Maine humor is predicated on understatement (Visitor: “Have you lived here all your life?”  Mainer: “Not yet.”) as well as the gentle tweaking of strangers, fools, tourists and out-of-staters in general, all of whom are referred to as being “from away,” that is, not from the State of Maine. In other words, if you aren’t a native, then you simply don’t “get it!” The notion that one needs to have been born somewhere on the north side the Kittery bridge is the stuff of many a downeast story, not to mention the starting place for a great many folks’ grumbling each year between Memorial and Labor Day.

All these stories are unique to the culture and heritage of the Pine Tree State, and that’s why I love them; and yet what’s always been interesting to me is how well these stories hold up wherever they happen to be told.  For instance, after nearly six years now living and pastoring here in New Hampshire, I can tell you that the same kind of wariness that exudes from your average “Native Mainuh” is also found in great abundance here in the “Live Free or Die” State.  Even in places as far away from the Maine coast as the cornfields of Ohio (where I also pastored a church for several years), I soon discovered that my twice-told stories of farmers and fishermen getting the best of the “flatlanders” rang true. And as a clergy-type, I can well attest to the fact that one even tends to see a few of these stories play out in the life of your average church; from that greenhorn minister who unwisely runs afoul of some long-cherished congregational tradition to the Sunday morning visitor who discovers very quickly that he’d inadvertently sat down in “Mrs. Johnson’s Pew!”  I guess no matter where you are, there are always going to be people “from away” who threaten to interfere with life as it’s always been; just as, conversely, there will always be those quick to point out the interference!

What I’m talking about is all in good fun, of course… except when it’s not.

I must confess that as a pastor, I sometimes do stand amazed at the strange contradiction that often exists within the life of the church: how on the one hand, we’re called to be offering up what our denomination refers to as an “extravagant welcome,” biblically encouraged to seek out those whom the world routinely leaves on the outside looking in and to invite them to be part of our Christ-inspired circle of faith and love; and yet, on the other hand, how quickly and easily we tend at times to dismiss from our fellowship and affection those who are a bit “different” from our regular congregants. After 30-plus years and several pastoral charges, I’ve actually seen this unfold in quite a number of ways; ranging from the kind of innocuous concerns that routinely arise from personality conflicts that, let’s be honest, can exist in any congregation, all the way down to the mostly subtle but nonetheless cruel examples of exclusion that come about as a result of bad habits, misbegotten traditions or a wide array of deeply held prejudices. Yes, to be sure, issues of racism, gender inequality and homophobia can enter into it; then again, so do things like age, economics, classism and even geography.  And lest anyone think this happens only to those who sit in the pews, please know that more than once as a pastor I’ve been informed by well-meaning parishioners that unless I’d been born in that town or grew up in that congregation, I would have no hope of ever understanding what’s best for the church (oh, well… such is the curse of being “from away!”).

But wherever one happens to be on the receiving end of such an attitude, I have to say it’s a shame. As I said before, it is not only the mission of the church to welcome all those who want and need the love of God in Christ in their lives and to bring them into the fellowship of a true community of faith and love; it’s also our grand opportunity to benefit from all the diversity, vitality and fresh perspective these people bring to our shared ministry in Christ’s name. Truly, it is our “Great Commission” from Jesus himself to welcome those who are “from away;” and great things do happen for the sake of Christ and his Church when we stay focused on that mission.

That’s one of many reasons I continue to feel very blessed to be pastoring this particular little corner of Christianity, for the people of East Church really do seem to live out of that calling.  Ours is a church family diverse in background and experience but grounded in the knowledge that we are indeed “all one in Christ Jesus,” bound together by our unity in the Spirit and through our love for one another, a love that extends outward (and then draws inward) in countless ways both large and small. At the risk of sounding a little boastful here, one of the great joys of what I do is that I get to see this every day: whether it’s in the faith and joy expressed in our times of worship, in the food, fellowship and laughter that’s shared around the table, or in all the important work of care and outreach that happens “from season to changing season,” there is a vibrant ministry of love and acceptance that runs through everything we do as a church; and it is enhanced by every new person who comes in the door to share in the good life we have together.

Because ayuh, we’re all God’s children… no matter where we’re from!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

Tags:

The Promise to Abide

a sermon for April 29, 2018, the 5th Sunday of Easter, based on John 15:1-8 and 1 John 4:7-21)

Well, to begin with… let me just say that no matter how many times I return to this particular passage from John’s gospel, I’m never really expecting what I find there!

I don’t know; maybe it’s because last Sunday we heard from Jesus all about his being the “good shepherd” who “lays down his life for the sheep,” (John 10:11) – and yes, we are those sheep (!) – or maybe it’s simply because it’s finally springtime around these parts, and the idea that very soon now there will be leafy, fruitful vines bursting forth all around is just exactly how I want to think of Jesus when he tells his disciples and us, “I am the vine, [and] you are the branches.”  I mean, it does fit; it’s an image that green and life-filled, it’s pastoral in every good sense of the word and it speaks so beautifully of resurrection as we move through this Eastertide.

So why is it that I never seem to remember that it’s only two verses into this 15th chapter of John when Jesus states, quite ominously that God who is the vinegrower, “removes every branch in me that bears no fruit” and even prunes the branches that do (!); and if that’s not threatening enough, Jesus then goes on to say, “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch that withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”  Now this all sounds more than a little bit judgmental, don’t you think; as I said before, not at all what I was expecting from this passage of scripture!   I was expecting, wanting, dare I say needing to hear about the blessings that come in abiding in Jesus, this one who is “the true vine,” but what I’m getting here is an image of myself akin to all the dead leaves and fallen branches that these days are being hauled out to the curb to be taken away truly only God knows where!  Actually, go back to the reading from that perspective and “I am the vine and you are the branches,” ends up kind of feeling like less of a blessing… and more of, well, a threat!

And in all honesty, that’s how sometimes these verses have been read throughout the centuries; in which Jesus basically announces to one and all that they are to “abide in me,” staying loyal and faithful in all things (that is, “bearing fruit”) or else face the fire, and die; which, if that’s the case, ends up a rather bleak prospect for any of us!  But I ask you, how that kind of interpretation reconcile with everything else that Jesus says here: his acknowledgement that we are, in fact, connected to him in the same manner as branches are attached to the vine; the fact that even those branches that bear fruit and even more fruit (as is stated over and over again in this 15th chapter of John) are subject to pruning; and what about the fact that Jesus says to his disciples that they’d already been cleansed by the word that he’d spoken to them?  No, for all the claims of judgment we hear in Jesus’ words, there’s something else at work here… not judgment, but instead a promise.

And we know this, friends, because of what Jesus says to them in the middle of all this talk of vines and branches.  You see, it’s not simply that he says to them, “Abide in me;” it’s that he says to them, “Abide in me, as I abide in you.”  And that changes everything.

It’s important for us to remember, you see, that in this Eastertide season we are well aware of the truth and significance of Jesus’ resurrection; and thus everything you and I look at in scripture, in particular the words and acts of Jesus himself, we view through a different set of lenses.  In other words, we know how the story of Jesus is going to come out, but as Jesus was speaking these words about to those closest to him on that Maundy Thursday night, they did not!  Moreover, Jesus knew what was about to happen, both to himself and to the rest of them.  As David Lose puts it, “They [the disciples] are about be cut down by his crucifixion and death,” and so now with this imagery of vines and branches and the need to bear fruit, “he is assuring them that it will not be mere, senseless cutting but that they will survive, even flourish.”  It may well seem as though you’re about be thrown in the fire – because after all, branches don’t do well when they’re not connected to the vine; without connection to a life source, life is not possible – but, says Jesus, “Abide in me, as I abide in you,” and you will have the connectedness with me not only to endure and to persevere, but to have life, and to have it abundantly, even in the face of everything that’s about to come.  And what’s more, Jesus adds (and as is translated by The Message), “But if you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon.”

It’s worth pointing out that by the time John recorded all of this for his account of the gospel, the members of the early church – the first generation of  those who would have known how the story came out – would nonetheless have heard Jesus’ words in the context of their own struggles: remember that by that time, many of these early Christians were scattered or in hiding for fear of persecution at the hands of Roman soldiers, most thrown out of their synagogues for the sake of confessing faith in the risen Christ, and almost all of them feeling fairly well abandoned and cut off from what had inspired them to “abide” in the first place!  So even all those years later, Jesus’ words about the connectedness of vine and branches might well have sounded as confusing to them in the distress and uncertainty of their own lives as it did for those first disciples some years before!

Of course, we know all about that, don’t we?  Truly, there are so many of us, maybe even some of us here, who do understand in their lives what it is to feel cut down, cut off and abandoned.  The people who work day in and day out in dead end jobs – if they have a job at all – all the while simply struggling to make ends meet for the sake of themselves but especially their families; the children and youth who are the victims of an ever increasing spiral of bullying and abuse, to the point where they’ve begun to believe what they’ve been told about themselves; the ones who suddenly find themselves having to cope with “the new normal” of their own debilitating illness, or else of finding themselves in the role of caregiver to a family member who can’t do it for themselves; or countless others who “feel cut down – maybe mowed down – by life and its circumstances:”  if you’ve been there, or if you are there, then you know very well what it is to face the fire.

And that’s where Jesus’ words have such power.  Quoting David Lose one more time, when Jesus says, “Abide in me, as I abide in you… This is more than good advice.  More than an invitation.  This is a promise, that no matter what happens, Jesus will be there with us.  That not matter what happens, Jesus will hold onto us.  And no matter what happens, God in Jesus will bring all things to a good end.”  And it doesn’t mean, Lose goes on to say, “that everything happens for a reason,” and that into every life some rain must fall.  “Rather, it is to say that that no matter what happens, we have God’s promise in Jesus to work for good.”  And it means that whatever is going on in our lives right now, as much as what feels like a death cut “is mere pruning” and the assurance that growth is coming, new life will come and soon enough there will fruit in abundance; just wait and see. Because this is Jesus’ own promise to abide, and it is grounded in the infinite love and care of God, who is ever and always the Vinegrower..  As the writer of our Epistle reading for this morning proclaimed it, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

This is who God is, beloved… and, might I add, because of this promise to abide, it’s who we are as well.

The author and Episcopal priest Suzanne Guthrie is, as it happens, also a passionate flower gardener; and I came across a piece by her this week that seems to be pretty appropriate for this time of year, in which she writes that “you have to be ruthless to garden successfully. Out go the weaker plants and weeds, divide the thriving ones before they crowd everything else out… hunt for and destroy slugs in the buggy evening… and prune prune prune down to the nub.”  Guthrie actually goes on to compare this process to the season of Lent, and says that this why so many people love Lent, because “you are busy ‘rooting out the vices and planting virtues’ as the old monastics say.”

But there’s another lesson to be learned about gardening, it’s “about the life source in the soil, in the air, in rain and moisture in the ground, in the mysterious process that transforms an ugly brown tuber into a glowing scarlet dahlia.”  And spiritually speaking, she concludes, it’s a reminder that even though in life we also are so often “pruned, pruned, pruned down to the nub,” and are part of a community that helps make it happen !), we are also “inseparably grafted to the Vine – the source of [our] deep and enduring happiness and love.”

I read this, friends, and it actually got me to thinking about these couple of months we’ve shared here at East Church.  On the one hand, together we went through the season of Lent; making our yearly journey to the foot of the cross and looking very intently within ourselves to perhaps recognize why we were there when they crucified our Lord. Lent, by its very nature and intent, is a season of penitence and fasting and prayerful reflection, and if we’re honest and deliberate about it, it does represent something of a spiritual “pruning;” if not down to the nub then certainly to the heart.

But I think you’ll agree with me when I also say to you that this year Lent was a bit different, wasn’t it?  This year, Lent included a pancake breakfast open to anybody who happened to be passing by; we had a Murder Mystery Dinner on St. Patrick’s Day that featured corned beef and cabbage, a few bad accents and lots of laughter; and then there’s the ongoing and, I might add, fairly significant (and reasonably healthy!) competition between the “Apple Crushers” and “Sunday Shooshers,” with all the pennies, coins and game-changing dollar bills that will benefit the ongoing ministries of our congregation; and this is to say nothing of all the rest of the mission outreach that were at least, in small part, inspired by the desire for a few extra points for your team!

All this to say that this was not, at least not in my pastoral recollection and experience, a typical Lenten season!  In fact, rather than being a somber 40 days leading up to Easter, it was actually rather… festive!  But not festive in a frivolous, disrespectful, sacrilegious kind of way, but rather as Guthrie describes it: just as any good gardening requires a connection to the life source in the soil, in the air, and in the rain and the moisture, what we were doing here at East Church – what we’re continuing to do in this place in this Eastertide – is about connecting to our life source; to the act of embracing anew the promise that Jesus has made to each one of us to abide, and as branches determinedly cling to the vine, we also decide again and again to abide in his presence, his power and, above all, his love, so that we may have life and have it abundantly.

The world, yes, and the life we live within it can be an overwhelming and fearful thing.  But as we abide in God’s love, personified and amplified in Jesus Christ, we discover as once again the Epistle proclaims it, that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear… [and that] we love because he first loved us.”

So let us abide; and as we do, let us bear the fruit that God desires from us.  Let us love as we have been loved…

… and let our thanks be to God!

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

 
 

Tags: , , , ,

 
%d bloggers like this: