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Are You Faithful (or Just Religious)?

(a sermon for September 2, 2018, the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23)

It’s a question that gets asked around a great many dinner tables, especially those with children:  “Did you wash your hands?”  And very often – most especially when children are involved – the question is answered a loud and heavy sigh, not to mention the occasional stamping of feet as one or more of said children slump out of their chairs to return to the bathroom sink.  Then, inevitably, Dad and Mom will themselves sigh, hoping that a bar of soap and some running water might actually be involved in the process this time around, while wistfully longing for that day when their children will at last know and understand that washing up is not only a matter of cleanliness, it’s also about good manners!

Well, the question might have been similar, but it was a different kind of scenario in our text for this morning; for when the Pharisees and some of the scribes gathered around Jesus to confront him with the question of why his disciples were eating “with defiled hands, that is, without washing them,” they were not concerned with the disciples’ lack of table manners, nor even, for that matter, their cleanliness per se.  In truth, theirs was more of a concern about matters of law and tradition.  What for you and I would have been a minor breach of etiquette and at worst, an unsanitary way of eating was in fact for many in Jesus’ time a pressing religious issue.  Hand washing, you see, struck right at the heart of what, at least for the Pharisees and the learned scribes, was the right way to do religion.

Let me give you a little background on this.  The Jews believed, of course, that the written law contained in the first five books of Hebrew Scripture – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, also known collectively as the Torah – was absolutely binding.  But in addition to the Torah was also an oral tradition of policies, statutes and codes that rose up over the generations for the sole purpose of ensuring the complete observance of the written law.  Now, over the course of many generations, some of this got written down in what is called the Mishnah and the Talmud, but by Jesus’ time, much of it had become so convoluted, confusing and contradictory that it never actually got written down, but had become kind of assumed in the tradition of Jewish life.  In other words, a great many things were done simply because that’s the way they always had been done;  and such traditions were known among learned Jews as the “tradition of the elders.”

Washing one’s hands before eating was one such tradition, as was the physical act of washing food and utensils.  What we need to understand, however, is that though cleanliness and health must certainly have entered into such a tradition, ultimately it wasn’t really about that at all.  This was about consecration: the ceremonial ritual of thanksgiving before and after a meal; a simple act of piety that over time and quite literally across generation had become pretty much a mindless ritual and yet a rigid regulation among the Jews.

So you see, by the time of Jesus’ ministry, this business of the “tradition of the elders” had become quite a controversy amongst the religious leadership of the day.  On the one hand, there were the Sadducees who rejected the notion that any oral code was binding to them; only law which is written in the Torah or the Talmud, they said, would be the law they would obey.  The Pharisees, on the other hand, placed oral code as of equal importance to written law; and since, as scripture so often reminds us, the Pharisees were strict legalists, they believed that only by following each and every law, code and tradition to the letter could one ever hope to gain the acceptance and salvation of God!

So as far as the Pharisees were concerned, for Jesus and his disciples not to wash their hands before eating was nothing less than a direct assault upon the law, tradition and God; and they certainly were not going to let that pass!  “Why do your disciples flout the rules,” (The Message) showing up for meals this way, they asked Jesus.  Who do you think you are, Jesus, that you would blatantly ignore the traditions of the elders?  Don’t you know that those traditions are there for a reason?  You’re undermining our authority, Jesus; how are we supposed to maintain order and discipline in the temple if you are out here eating like pigs and tossing our time honored traditions to the four winds!

Now, as Mark tells this story it doesn’t say, exactly, but at this moment you can almost see a wry smile cross Jesus’ lips, a recognition that the Pharisees had once again revealed their true colors for all to see.  “Isaiah was right about frauds like you,” he said.  Remember what Isaiah said; he said, “’This people honors me with their lips,but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’  You abandon the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!”

In other words, you… you Pharisees, there is a vast difference between following the precepts of God, and what you’re doing, which is being fashionably, politically, socially or even religiously correct!  And Jesus lays it all out before them: that eating dirty food with dirty hands is ultimately not what makes a person unclean, but that which is already inside the human heart and comes forth that defiles; what’s truly dirty is found in the acts and attitudes that degrade one’s self, others and God!  When it comes to true consecration, the heart of the matter is not whether you tend to the “details” of religious tradition, but rather in the ways that you tend to your life before God; it’s not focusing on the minutiae of “how things are supposed to be done,” but rather on working purposefully to make everything you do, every part of your life an act of faith!

The Pharisees were bent on religious perfection; on doing everything correctly and according to tradition, ever and always maintaining the status quo; but at the end of the day, that was wholly the sum and substance of it. Ultimately, the Pharisee’s legalism had very little to do with being faithful to God, and Jesus knew it: “You abandon the commandment of God,”“ditching God’s command,” is how The Message puts it – letting go of all these timeless and eternal precepts that speak of how God would have you live, all for the sake of clinging to human tradition and passing religious fashion!

Well… I suspect that very, very few of us considered the theological aspects of washing up before church this morning, but nonetheless as we read this passage of Mark’s gospel this morning there’s a relevant question being put to you and me: Are we faithful, or just religious?  Indeed, taking in mind that this whole conversation about hand washing is really about consecration and worshipfulness, then it can’t help but confront us about the way we prepare and practice our worship as well.

Think about this with me for a moment.  Every Sunday morning, or nearly every Sunday, we come to church: we sing the songs, we pray the prayers, we receive communion as per tradition on the first Sunday of every month; yes, we do all these things, but the question is how do we do them, and why?  We are very quick to condemn the Pharisees for their shallowness of true faith; but I would submit to you today that you and I run the same risk of becoming more caught up in the trappings and performance of “religion” than aspiring to a life of faith!

Or, to put it another way, (and here’s a quote that dates me!) in the words of George Burns in his role as the Almighty in the “Oh, God” movies back in the seventies (!):   Religion is easy; faith is hard.

The truth is, it’s easy, really, at least in practice to come here and worship each week.  And we of the congregational tradition tend to keep things pretty simple:  we know when to sit and when to stand, when to sing, when to stay quiet and when to pray; we know we’re supposed to bow our heads when the minister says “let us pray.”  Most of us know the Lord’s Prayer by heart and can rattle it off with nary a thought.  But what is not so easy is letting that ancient prayer become your words of prayer and praising unto the Lord; what is more difficult for us is to allow prayer and devotion to become a true discipline in our lives, to the point where it governs the patterns of our very lives.

To take this analogy a bit further, economics and logistics aside, let’s be honest and say that it’s a fairly easy to put something in the offering plate each week; we all know when we’re to do it, and most of us, I suspect, already know how much we’ll give before we even get here.  But it’s not so very easy to begin to view the entirety of our life and living – our skills, our ideas, even our daily calendars – as a matter of our own personal stewardship unto God.

And friends, it is relatively easy to nod our heads in quiet agreement when we speak in worship of things like loving one another, of being true disciples and “doers of the word.”  But it is not so very easy when love and committed discipleship carries real weight in the decisions we make and the priorities we set!

There is a difference, you see, (as is pointed out elsewhere in scripture) between doing the word and merely hearing it; well, what Jesus reminds us here is that there is also a difference between truly “doing” the word and doing it by rote.  True worship (and understand that I’m not just talking about this hour we spend together, but the whole of the Christian life), it comes from the heart.  True worship is an act borne of faith, a response to the infinite blessings of God and focused on the desire to be strengthened, empowered and sent forth to be the hands, heart and feet of our Lord Jesus.  When worship (of any kind) is done solely by the numbers, merely out of duty and “how it’s supposed to be,” well… that’s religion… not faith.

Don’t get me wrong here; there is a place for traditions, both oral and written.  Liturgy and even ritual is important for us in the church. There are good reasons why we do things the way we do in worship (actually, we’re going to be talking a lot about that in the weeks to come!): to begin with, it places us in a common community with believers in this place and across the world; it gives us a historical and cultural context in which we can be unified as Christians.  Tradition and liturgy serves to move us in the direction of heart-felt worship.  But in and of itself, tradition is not the most important thing:  if we do not keep our focus where it needs to be – that is, on God – there is a very real danger of our becoming a people with good habits, but without a good heart.

A Canadian pastor and counselor by the name of Alex Thomas says this very well; he says that the outward traditions and practices of a religious life are valuable to keep and can be quite helpful to us, but “when it comes right down to it, there are spiritual values that take precedence over those outward things if we are to be in any way Christ-like.  Our spirituality,” Thomas goes on to say, “does not consist solely on keeping outward traditions and practices. The spiritual values such as love, kindness, tolerance, forgiveness, and the like, come from within.  The heart of the matter is always a matter of the heart.”

So… do wash your hands!  Do come to church; and do find some comfort in the traditions of which we are part here at East Church as the Church of Jesus Christ.  Break the bread and share the cup this morning in just the same way we have done so many times before.   And then come back next Sunday to worship again as a community of faith.

But don’t stop there.   

Move from focusing on what we do to who we do it with.  Check your heart as we come to this table.  Move from the task and the ritual to its intent!  Move in our communion, one with another and with God, to a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ.

May our worship today be blessed, and may our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on September 2, 2018 in Church, Faith, Jesus, Sermon, Worship

 

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The Whole Armor of God

(a sermon for August 26, 2018, the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Ephesians 6:10-20)

Let me begin this morning by making something of a confession: that for a long time, the warrior-slash-gladiator imagery that’s put forth in the passage of scripture we just read (armor and breastplates, shields, helmets, arrows and such) used to make me a bit… uncomfortable.  Partly that’s because I was a child of the 60’s and 70’s where the ideals of peace and non-violence were not were not only espoused by a changing culture, but also an essential part of my own Christian nurture; moreover, as I came to learn about the growth of Christianity in seminary, I discovered that some of the darkest days of church history occurred when Christians marched out with banners unfurled to crusade and make “holy” war.  And let’s be brutally honest about it: even in these times – even right now (!) – there are those who will use Paul’s imagery to somehow justify an act or attitude of prejudice, aggression or even downright hatred; and that, to say the very least, is concerning.

So it’s been hard for me as a pastor and preacher to speak of our being “soldiers of the cross” on the one hand, and worship the “Prince of Peace” on the other; and that’s why for a whole lot of years I wouldn’t even consider singing “Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,” as a part of worship.  It just seemed so contradictory to what we are taught in faith.

That having been said, though, I also have to say that over the years my understanding of this passage, and several others like it, has broadened.  For instance, a few years back, the United Methodists were having a somewhat protracted struggle over whether or not to include “Onward, Christian Soldiers” in their new hymnal.  There was actually quite a division over the issue, so they did what all good church folk do: they took a survey (!) asking how people responded when they heard this particular hymn.  And what they found is that rather than soldiers marching to war in God’s mighty army, the majority of those responding talked about the need for today’s church to be in mission throughout a harsh and violent world!  Likewise, the number one response for the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (a hymn that has also long sparked debate over its rather harsh imagery and somewhat sketchy theology) was that it reminded people of the Civil Rights movement and in fact continues to serve as an anthem for racial and social justice!

In the end, things like this have led me to at least reconsider my own ideas, and I guess the moral here is that sometimes we have to be open enough look at these things in the proper context and not just from our own narrow point of view; but even more than that, we need to remember in this age of increasingly watered-down, politically-correct and often marginalized Christianity that there indeed have been times when the church believed that there was something worth fighting for; or at least, a worthy conviction upon which to stand firm.

If we’re to truly understand what Paul says to the Ephesians and to us, the message is clear:  in the midst of “this present darkness” in which we live, a world with all its powers and principalities working evil against us, there always has been something worth fighting for, and what’s more there still is: and it’s our faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and “the mystery of the gospel.”  So be strong, Paul says. “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power,” and “take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.”

What we need to understand, you see, is that what this passage is all about is less about humanity’s “warring madness” (to quote the hymn) than it is about God’s power, about the larger, spiritual struggles of life, and about how as people of faith those struggles cannot help but touch each one of our lives sooner or later.  In that context, this imagery of the “whole armor of God” is not only very rich, vivid and bold, but also quite appropriate for you and me even today.

I can say this because nature is the same now as it always has been, as is our human tendency to conform.  Paul was aware, as are we, that all too often our first response to any given situation is just to… go along to get along; to stick with the status-quo, to go with the flow, and of course, the old standby that “when in Rome, do as the Romans do!”  Whatever our go-to response, however, our faith in Jesus Christ and our allegiance to the mysteries of the gospel demands more of us than quiet, acquiescent conformity with the world; it requires a boldness that is fueled by the strength and power of God!

In other words, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are not called to merely “blend in” to the scenery of daily life as to be inconspicuous; and most certainly we are not meant to simply follow along with the conventional morality and wisdom of an ever shifting culture!   You and I have not be sent out into the world in order to be given over to whatever whim hits us at any moment, or to flit from fad to fashion in the fleeting hope of hitting something good along the way.  Rather, we are meant to stand firm on our moral and ethical and social and spiritual convictions in Christ, even when that stance is unpopular and it makes us unpopular; because trust me on this, folks: there are times when that’s exactly what’s going to happen!

And lest you ever think otherwise, dear friends, pastors are not exempt from that kind of persecution!  Not to complain or to sounding morose about it, but let me just share with you that at various times over the years as a minister I have been told that as regards faith I am unreasonable, unrealistic, illogical, judgmental, exclusive, out of touch and out of step; that I don’t live in the real world; that I’m a “purveyor of drivel” (my personal favorite!); and that I’m downright mistaken in just about every way… and this is from people from within the church!  And, yes, there have been those I’ve known outside the body of Christ who have dismissed me out of hand as some kind of overly zealous religious do-gooder!  But understand that any one of us who has chosen to remain faithful come what may could tell much the same story.

I recognize that what I’m saying here does not exactly serve as a great endorsement for church membership, never mind going into the ministry!  Nonetheless, there’s no denying, as it says in our own UCC Statement of Faith, that there is a cost as well as a joy in discipleship; and often that cost is manifest in the moments when in our Christian walk it feels like it’s “us alone against the world,” with the odds being very much stacked in favor of the world!  Make no mistake, no matter who we are, no matter how strong or faithful or optimistic we happen to be, for any of us that kind of rejection, that kind of warfare can take its toll.

That’s why Paul speaks of our need be strong in our Christian identity, to set our feet so that they are firmly rooted in our faith in God; nurtured in tradition and enveloped in faithful community so that we can grow deep in the rich soil of love and hope and joy.  Remember, friends, our coming to church every Sunday is not merely for the sake of gaining some kind of inspiration for the week ahead, and it’s not even entirely about community; ultimately, it’s about being a part of something larger than ourselves; to be not transient but transcendent; to be renewed for the journey ahead and strengthened for the struggles that will ensue; and to go forth in a way that maintains our dignity and our integrity as men and women of God.

Because as Paul notes, and we already know, the way won’t be easy, nor will be withstanding what’s going to come… we need to ready ourselves for the struggles we’ll face “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”  We need protection akin to the armor… we need the whole armor of God.

Now to put this all in context, it should be noted that in a time and place when the early church was feeling the persecution and oppression of the Roman authorities, Paul chose this very militaristic imagery of the Roman soldiers to make his point; so truth be told, as much as it might disturb our modern sensibilities it probably raised far more eyebrows amongst those new Christians even than it does with us now.  But then as now, message is clear:  that if the battle garb of the Roman guard is impossible to penetrate, than just consider how much stronger God’s armor will be.  So if you and I go through the struggles of this life feeling as though the powers and principalities of the world will inevitably beat us down, then we truly need to rise up and walk in true faith in Jesus Christ; and for that, we need God’s armor.

For just as the warrior protects himself with accoutrements of steel, as followers of Jesus Christ, we will discover our strength:

We will find that when we gird ourselves with truth, like a belt around our waist;

when we put righteousness before our heart, like a breastplate over the chest;

when we walk with the gospel of peace, like shoes with strong and rugged soles;

when we put faith between us and any problem coming at us, like a shield deflects arrows flying toward us;

when we embrace our salvation, like a helmet to protect our head;

when we allow God’s Word to clear our minds and our hearts, like a sword to vanquish the enemies from within and without;

this is how we shall persevere.

That’s what it takes to get us through.  That’s the armor that we need, as Paul exhorts us, to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.”

You know, one of the things I continue to learn as I move forward on this journey of life is that most of the time my faith in God is as warm and welcoming to me as a warm quilt on a cold winter’s day (or to use an analogy more apropos to this particular summer, as refreshing as a dip in the cool water on a hot humid afternoon!).  I am forever thankful for the miracle of grace and joy that is mine in Christ! But I also know that in following Jesus, there are bound to be struggles, and there have been; times in which it seems like an utter fight simply to live out of Christ’s call to compassion and inclusiveness; times in which it becomes difficult to hold on to my identity and integrity as a child of God.  I’m guessing that you all could say the same; for we know that question that looms in such times as these:  when the fight comes, and it will, will we have the strength and the power to persevere?

Well, beloved, to this I can only say that we are made strong in the midst of struggle in this life when our strategies, our practice, the moves we make and the truth we espouse represent the spiritual presence in our life; when it declares our faith boldly in word and in deed.  In the times and places we feel weak an beaten down, we are in fact strong; and what makes us strong is the armor that God provides us: from breastplate to helmet to shoes, the gear of a spiritual warrior that not only helps us to survive in the face of all manner of attack, but then leads us in the triumph song of life, so that in all times and places we may walk boldly, declaring a gospel of peace with every step!

May we be strong and courageous on the journey, and as we go, may our…

…thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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The Hope That Does Not Disappoint

(a sermon for July 22, 2018, the 9th Sunday after Pentecost,  based on Romans 5:1-5)

One year for his birthday – I think he must have been 12 or 13 at the time – our son Zachary got himself a model rocket with his birthday money. As I recall, model rocketry was all the rage that year – the kids had been building their own rockets at school and launching them out on the athletic field – but now, as was and is typical of our son, Zach wanted to take things to the next level.  And I’ll tell you what, this rocket was cool; bigger and better, with considerably more firepower than the dinky little models they shot off at school (!); and it even had a tiny camera in the nose cone so you could take pictures of from 500 feet up!  So this was a big deal; and after waiting days for the right weather and opportunity for “launch,” the moment finally came and on a crystal clear Saturday morning Zach went out to the field behind our house to set this thing off.

And off it went, indeed!  It went higher, faster and straighter than any rocket he’d ever launched before!  The only trouble was that as it flew the rocket started to veer ever-so-slightly toward the sky above the woods adjacent to our house; which meant that when it finally fell to earth, the rocket would almost certainly get caught in a mess of tree branches and be lost forever!

But that’s not what happened (!), because just as the rocket’s pre-installed parachute deployed there was a hint of a breeze beginning to blow off the Scarborough marsh; and, as if by grace, this little bit of wind literally changed the course of the rocket’s descent:  from the woods, back across our field and the parking lot of the church, and out toward the main road, where finally and gratefully it gently hit the ground!  It was, as they say, “another happy landing,” except that as Zach was running up the parking lot to retrieve the rocket, a car turned the corner and ran right smack over it, smashing the rocket into several different pieces!

Now actually, to his credit Zach was pretty philosophical about the whole thing; I remember that for days, he’d tell the story to anyone who would listen and it always ended with, “You should have seen it go!” In fact, unless I’m mistaken, the mangled remains of that ill-fated model rocket is still in a box somewhere!   In the end, I suppose it was something of a life lesson; a reminder not only that what goes up must come down, but also that oftentimes what comes down, comes down hard, and that happens, it can hurt!

To think about this in broader terms, one of the truths of life that we all have to come to grips with is that suffering comes to everyone sooner or later. We may well have moments that we “fly high” in this life, and those are truly the moments we live for; but it’s just as likely that we’ll find ourselves “falling to earth” from time to time. The only question that remains is when it the crash comes, will it destroy us or simply bolster us for the next launch?

And therein lies the parable!

It has been justly said, you know, that suffering is an equal-opportunity offender!  No matter who we are or where we are in life, hard times come to us all: accidents happen, illness comes, jobs are lost, age brings the deterioration of body and mind; people we love break our hearts as they make destructive choices; and we get hurt by cruel words and mean deeds.  Sometimes we end up suffering because of things that have absolutely nothing to do with us; we simply get caught up in the crossfire of somebody else’s situation!

It’s simply part of life, and if you’ve ever been there then you know just how overwhelming, exhausting and ultimately, destructive it all can be!  You get to the point, sometimes – especially when the troubles just seem to accumulate, layer by layer, upon your shoulders – where you simply don’t have the stamina to keep going; you’re feeling as though you will collapse if one more thing happens to you!  You’re literally “sick and tired” of it, so much so that you’re tempted at varying times and degrees to either give up, wallow in self-pity, indulge in bitterness and blame, or simply choose to withdraw from life altogether; or else you’re hurting so bad that some voice inside you is telling you that anything’s got to be better than what you’re feeling right now, and so you start seeking out anything at all that might make you feel better; even if that comes at the expense of your health, well-being, reputation, relationships, or your life!

This is suffering at its worst, friends; it is the embodiment of utter hopelessness.  But it’s precisely this kind of suffering to which Paul is referring in our text for this morning, when he says that we are to “boast in our sufferings.”  I don’t know about you, friends, but nothing I’ve been describing here sounds like anything we’d want boast about or to “glory in,” as it’s translated elsewhere (NIV)!  Yet, as inconceivable as it sounds, here is Paul proclaiming to the early church and to us, to glory in our suffering, “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.”

Looking at this passage from Romans, it’s important to understand that in no way is Paul suggesting that God is causing us to suffer so that we can learn endurance, become stronger people or better Christians; God never wishes suffering upon us to “teach us a lesson.”  But the fact remains that suffering is a reality, and what Paul is saying is that while most everything else in our lives can and does disappoint, there is hope that will not disappoint; the hope that comes from God:  “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.  And we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”  In other words, because of God the bad times that come to us do not have to make us bitter; they can make us better!

Central to our Christian faith is the knowledge that God loves us; and that this is a love revealed to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Through Christ, God names us and claims us as his own, and wants the very best for us; friends, the good news of our faith is always and ever that our lives and our living matters to God!  So, while human suffering might be inevitable, God will use that suffering to bring us closer to Him, helping us to stand strong and endure all the pain that comes our way.  We will find the hope we need to get through it all, and it is a hope that “does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

Friends, nobody wants to suffer; but the good news of this text is that there is spiritual depth to be found amidst all the sufferings we face in this life, and that God does find incredible ways even in our worst moments to hold us close, build us up, and  fashion us for the purpose he has for our lives… and, might I add, for the world!  That’s what Paul was talking about when he said, “We have peace with God… [and] we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.”  But the question is, do we believe it?  Do we trust God to lead us through the suffering, and to provide us with the hope that we need?  More to the point, do we really believe that God loves us, and that our living matters to God; and do we believe it to the extent that we’ll let God shape our lives and living?  Let me suggest to you this morning that the less we believe that God loves us, the more likely it is that we will respond to the bad times of our lives with bitterness and resentment and bad behaviors.  It’s hard enough trying to stand upright with everything “piling on;” without the strength and endurance that God offers, we risk collapsing under the strain!  To stand strong amidst all that life can and does dish out, we first need to have faith in the love of God.

Of course, truth be told, most of us have a hard time giving up our control of things; to “let go and let God.”   I have to confess, folks, that all too often in my own life I could be the  poster boy for this!   I cannot tell you the number of times when I’ve found myself so weighed down with life’s stresses and circumstances that I’m just about crushed; and yet, what am I doing?  I’m strategizing – I’m thinking to myself, OK.  If I just do this and that and then take care of the other thing, I’ll fix this.  If I just work a little harder, if I’m just a little better or smarter about it, then everything will be fine!  But what do I accomplish by that?  That’s right; NOTHING!  More often than not, I end up piling more guilt and responsibility upon my own shoulders than what ought to be there, and more often than not things get worse rather than better.

But let me tell you something, friends:  throughout my life, it has only been when I have had the faith to get out of my own way and let God lead that I’ve found relief from whatever is weighing me down; it has only been by the grace of the Lord, his Spirit working in and through my life as well as through the lives of others around me that I have known the real hope and the peace that I need to endure.  And I’ll tell you something else; on those occasions when I finally recognize what God has been doing in me and for me, I am bowled over by a truth I had previously failed to recognize:  that it was a gift; a gift of grace.  It was the gift of God’s Spirit pouring the abundance of his love into my heart.

And that same gift, friends, is being offered to you – right here and now – by the God of grace who loves you beyond measure; the God who wants you, in the midst of all your troubles, to have the hope that will not disappoint. And all you have to do is accept the gift.

James Bracher, a congregational pastor and leadership consultant, tells the story of a conference he once led in which among the speakers was former President Gerald Ford, as well as several of his associates.  Bracher wrote that he was so excited about the former president coming to speak that when the time came to meet one of those associates to prepare for the conference, Bracher started gushing like a fan talking about a rock star.  “Do you know President Ford?” he asked.  “Do you know the president?”  But he was both confused and humbled by the associate’s response:  “Jim,” he said, “the question is not “do I know President Ford?” but, rather, “Does President Ford know me?”

Bracher goes on to explain that while hundreds of millions of people know the president of the United States, how many people do you suppose President Ford would say he knew; I mean, really knew, because a real relationship with someone, be it the president or a neighbor down the street, requires not only that you know that person, but also that person knows you!

That’s how it is with God, beloved.  We know God; but the real blessing comes in the fact that God knows us; that he really knows us.  “God knows our soul,” Bracher concludes. “God knows our intentions, motivations, anxieties, deepest hurts and most noble ambitions… what makes our faith so wonderful is that we have access to the grace of God,” and because of this God meets us where we are and how we are and helps us to build a life of meaning and impact.

Only time will tell what this coming week will bring to our lives: maybe our rockets will be flying high, or perhaps they’ll come crashing down to earth; who knows?  But the good news is whatever happens, the God who knows us and loves us will be there; empowering us and bringing the kind of insight, understanding and peace that we might not otherwise have known.  My prayer for all of us today is that while we may not “boast of our sufferings,” we can certainly rejoice in hope that will not disappoint. For this hope, and for the love in which it is grounded…

…thanks be to God.

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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