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Category Archives: Family Stories

Attentive to the Word

(a sermon for February 3, 2019, the 4th Sunday after Epiphany, based on Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 and Luke 4:14-21)

I know it’s an increasingly rare thing these days, what with every phone having a digital camera and photos being stored in a nebulous “cloud” in cyberspace, but I would dare say that most of us here probably still have one or more of these:  some sort of bin filled with old photographs; with a great many of them still in the developer’s envelopes, waiting for someone to find the time to sort them out and maybe even put them into albums (remember photo albums?).

I’d also wager a guess that most of us have pretty much the same pictures: countless shots of birthday parties, Christmas mornings, camping trips and first days of school; not to mention two generations’ worth of pictures of the same people sitting around the same kitchen table at the in-law’s house!  And even if you get to the point with all these pictures where you know you’ve got to start reaming out the lot of it, you discover that every photograph sparks a special memory and so you hang on to them for a few more years!

“Photographs and Memories…” the pastor as a young child!

Actually, the blessing and the curse of old photographs is that they are stark reminders of what we used to be, and perhaps are no longer;  trust me, every photo album we have makes it increasingly clear that I used to be much younger, a whole lot thinner, beardless and less gray than I am today!  What’s more, old photographs have a way of making us confront the truth of where we’ve been on the journey of life, the choices we’ve made and opportunities either seized or lost.  Not that this is a bad thing, mind you – most times, in fact, it can be life affirming (!) – but sometimes these old pictures also manage to remind us of who we were as opposed to what we are, and maybe even what we’re supposed to be but somehow lost along the way!

Think about that in the context of our Old Testament reading for this morning, from the book of Nehemiah, which is the story of the people of Israel returning home to Jerusalem after having spent many years living in Babylonian exile. Actually, this was what was left of the people of Israel, because after years of slavery, there were far fewer of them than before; and those who remained were poor, demoralized and frightened, having literally suffered for generations only to come home to face a totally ruined land and a city that’s been destroyed.  All they could really do now was to buckle down and begin the process of rebuilding their city and their lives.

To that end, two men of God come forward: Nehemiah, who’d been appointed Governor of Israel and sent to help the people rebuild their land; and Ezra the priest, who comes to help rebuild something almost more difficult than the city wall: the integrity of their faith and worship.  You see, over the years of exile much of the tradition and practice of their faith had been lost, along with their understanding of the law, and perhaps most importantly, their memory of God’s presence, his power and his gifts to them across the years.  To quote Old Testament Walter Brueggemann here, it was the “memory of those gifts and that relationship [that] was the glue that bound the Israelites together.  It was what kept them close to God, reliant upon God and responsive to God.”  But now after so many years there were fewer and fewer who even could remember God’s Word, much less follow it; so in essence, these people of God had become but a shadow of their former selves. Quite literally, all that was left of their faith were the stories told by parents and grandparents, and even those were fading from memory.

So on this particular day, just after the walls of the city had been rebuilt all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate,” that they might hear the Torah being read.  Understand how significant a thing this was; it was the first time in many, many years that the Word of God had actually been spoken aloud!  And what makes this even more significant is that it wasn’t Ezra the priest who initiated the event; it was the people who told Ezra to “bring the book of the laws of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel,” so that everyone, “both men and the women and all those who could hear with understanding” would be able to hear the Word of God.  But here’s the key point of this story, friends; we’re then told that “the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.”

It’s a big moment, and it goes on for over six hours (!), but the enthusiasm of the people never wanes!  Rather, it grows with each word spoken; this word of the Lord that was at once brand new to them, and yet was as familiar and as close to them as their very breathing!  And while this is going on, some of the people are pacing up and down the square, shouting “’Amen, Amen,’ lifting up their hands,” as Ezra blessed the Lord.  Others are on their knees – faces to the ground in humility and awe – and all of them, every one of them, are weeping: weeping for themselves and weeping for their nation; mourning for what had been lost so many years before; rending their hearts in the realization of how far they’d strayed from their faithfulness to God’s law.

So there was mourning; but the point here is that at the end of this incredibly holy experience, there was joy!   It was as though in the reading of the scripture – this “album” of Israel’s memory of God – they had regained their identity as God’s people, and at that moment their lives began anew, because they knew that from that moment on, they would live as they were always supposed to live; they would be who they were always meant to be:  a people who lived knowing “the joy of the Lord [was] their strength!”

Flash-forward about 500 years; at a synagogue in the village of Nazareth, where a local boy – the son of the carpenter, no less (!) – is about to preach in his hometown pulpit.  Now, the locals had known Jesus and his family nearly all of his life; and what’s more, there’d been word from places as far away as Capernaum that Jesus was mightily impressive as a teacher.  So as they’re gathering at the temple they’re all thinking, this ought to be good.  But turns out that what they hear from Jesus is neither expected nor wanted.  Jesus simply reads from the prophet Isaiah,“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor,” proclaiming release to the captives, sight to the blind and freedom of the oppressed; and then he rolls up the scroll, hands it back to the usher and sits down, saying, “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

But unlike Ezra’s reading of the word, this short sermon is not met with tears or prayerful affirmation; just anger!  In fact, if you read on beyond today’s passage, you’ll find that almost immediately their amazement over “the gracious words that came from [Jesus’] mouth” turned to rage, and the hometown folk were ready to run Joseph’s boy out of town and hurl him off a cliff!   And why, we ask?  Well, perhaps it was true what Jesus said about how “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”  Or maybe there was something about his reading of that portion of God’s Word that hit too close to home for those folk in Nazareth; perhaps revealing somethng about who they were as opposed to what they were supposed to be as God’s people.

Who knows for sure; but that’s the thing, you see, about the word of God… because however you might hear it or even receive it, there’s something about it that always reveals the truth; and that truth will affect us!

I think that one of the big mistakes we make about scripture, and by extension our very faith, is that too often we think of God’s word as merely a blanket laid out for our lives and living; because then it has no more function than to make us feel all warm and fuzzy in the chill of life.  And yes, do not misunderstand what I am saying, it can be and often is that; but God’s Word is also meant to reach out and take ahold of us, so to enliven and redirect our lives.  It is meant to confirm and reconfirm our faith, setting us on a new and right and ultimately different path.

That’s what was so powerful about what the people of Israel heard that day at the Water Gate in Jerusalem, and that’s  certainly what the people of Nazareth could not handle about Jesus!  Simply by lifting up God’s Word, Jesus challenged them to a different way of thinking and doing and being: to be involved in a ministry directed not to the proper, the good and the pious, but rather to the improper, the sick and outcast; and then, by the way, proclaiming the vision to be fulfilled by his very presence!  It’s unsettling, to say the very least; but then, that’s what that’s what God’s word is supposed to do:  it unsettles us, it challenges all of our assumptions, it moves us forward and it gives us life; all the while moving us closer to where we’re meant to be, this new realm, a kingdom of God.

That’s the Word of God, beloved… so it just stands to reason that you and I ought to be attentive to it!

Ultimately, the reason we’re here every Sunday morning is so that we can be truly be attentive to the word of God; this word that calls us to be the church and challenges us to follow Jesus as true disciples’ bringing good news to the poor and healing to those afflicted by all manner of pain and suffering.  It’s that word of God that truly holds us together as the church; and yet how many times have we treated holy scripture as though it were little more than story or poetry or mere philosophy? How often have we left here inattentive to the word of God?

Once when my son Jake was in grade school, he had to read the book “Treasure Island,” for purposes of a book report; a task, which by his own admission (and mine, too, to be honest!) was pretty rough going.  Truth be told, as classic a tale as is that story, the words of Robert Louis Stevenson don’t always translate well to the vernacular of our time!  So finally, we decided that the best thing we could do was to read the story aloud, of course in the requisite pirate voice, complete with “arrghs” and “ahoy mates” for proper effect!  And it worked; because what happened is both of us began to hear not only what a great story “Treasure Island” is but also how beautiful and lyrical that language can be!  It was all about our having been attentive to what’s being said and to give voice to what it all means!

What would happen, friends, if as God’s people we were not simply reading the Bible or hearing scripture be read on a Sunday morning, but truly being attentive to God’s word as contained in that scripture?   What would we learn about God, about our faith?  What would we discover, you and me, about our own lives and living?  What would our lives then become?  And what would we end up doing here as the church of Jesus Christ?

I wonder… all I know is that if we were to truly be attentive to the Word, along with devoting ourselves, through prayer and study, to seek to understand it – and, might I add, to open ourselves to the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit as we do – there’s no telling where and how we might be moved as God would lead!

Scripture tells us that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” (John 1:1); and we know in faith, that God will have the last Word. What you and I need to remember is that what God has said and will say in this time between the now and not yet needs our full attention!

So let us truly listen, beloved, so that God’s word indeed takes root in you and me and this church, and lead us into all rejoicing.

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN.

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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The Angels’ Song: Peace That Passes Understanding

(a sermon for December 23, 2018, the 4th Sunday of Advent; third in a series, based on Luke 2:8-15)

“Gloria in Excelsis Deo!”  from the Latin, which means “Glory to God in the Highest… and on earth, peace!”

A wonderful, beautiful and utterly joyous proclamation of the heavenly host:  but there’s a question that springs to mind every year as I hear those words and revisit this wonderful story of Christ’s nativity: what does “a multitude of the heavenly host” even sound like?

I mean, the songs and carols of this season do offer up plenty of descriptions: “Hark! the herald angels sing,” “Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation,” or, as we’ll sing in just a little bit, “Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o’er the plains,” all of which suggests joyous singing in perfect four-part (or maybe even eight-part!) harmony!  But would these heavenly songs have sounded like something akin to Handel’s Messiah, or else a Gregorian chant or more likely, given the time and its people, the reprise of an ancient song of God’s people Israel?  And was there an instrumental accompaniment courtesy of “angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold,” or were there an infinite line of trumpets, “the timbrel and pipe… [and] the clash of cymbals,” (Psalm 150:4-5) piercing the silence of that holy night so to boldly proclaim the holy birth? Or maybe it’s like movie music, starting small and then growing in a crescendo to a triumphant finish!  But then again, as some biblical scholars have suggested, this particular song might have been less sung than spoken, however giving glory to God in a tone that was most assuredly “joyful and triumphant;” though I must confess this description doesn’t do much for my imagination!

Or maybe this angels’ song was something more than mere earthly music; something ethereal and unlike anything ever heard before since before the time of creation.

I remember once many, many years ago as a young man spending a cold and silent morning late in November deep in the northern Maine woods, miles away from anywhere, sitting along on a log and furtively waiting and watching for a white-tailed deer to happen by (which of course, rarely if ever did happen, but which ended up providing me an extended time for prayer and reflection, the perfect training for a beginning pastor!).  As often is the case in that part of the world, there was already a fair amount of snow on the ground and as I recall, more was beginning to fall; moreover, a breeze had started to blow – gently, at first, but then more intently – and already there was ice and snow coming loose from tree branches above and all around me; and that was just the beginning!

Even now what I remember is how quickly and fully everything all around me changed:  one moment it’s dead quiet in the woods, the next I’m surrounded by a literal symphony of nature’s sound.  Suddenly I’m hearing the wind roar from off the ridge to the south; from every direction twigs are snapping as piles of snow come crashing to the ground; off in the distance I hear squirrels, field mice and the occasional crow making noise like crazy and even within myself, there’s the sound of a beating heart that’s been totally startled out of complacency!  What a moment; my senses were wholly awakened to everything that was happening around me, and though thinking back on it, it probably only lasted for a moment or two before that gust of wind had died down, to me it felt like this time of utter revelation would go on forever.  I can tell you without fear of exaggeration that it was for me a spiritual experience; and in fact, even now the best way I can describe it to you is in the words of another hymn:  “This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears, all natures sings and round me rings the music of the spheres.”

The music of the spheres!  If you ask me, friends, however else we might imagine it, that’s what the song of the Angels must have sounded like to those shepherds “keeping watch over their flock” on that first Christmas night.

One thing we need to remember about this “first song of Christmas” is that it began neither softly nor gently but in fact burst forth into that silent night as brightly as the star that shone overhead. This song that the shepherds heard that night was no mere background music, friends, no “soundtrack” of Christmas; this was a song as bold and as disruptive as God’s love crashing into the reality of our world with all of its hopes and fears. It is a song of unending HOPE, made real in the birth of a child of PEACE who is the very embodiment of divine LOVE so that all creation might sing with JOY; and so it’s no wonder that it took a heavenly host to do it justice!  Actually, you know, the Greek that’s used here for “host” is stratia, a word that can actually be translated as “an army or company of soldiers,” so what we have here is a literal army of angels breaking forth into song and making an unprecedented announcement about the fulfillment of prophecy and of God’s presence with us in the guise of a child “wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger;” a child who by his very birth brings forth peace on earth and goodwill amongst all those whom God favors!  And let me tell you, friends; however that song was sung, whatever the melody and harmony, no matter the rhythm, rhyme or instrumentation, it was… magnificent!

And the best part of all?  The best part is that ones who got to hear it, the ones who had the experience of this “symphony of the spheres,” were the ones who needed to hear it the most.

For remember now, the angels’ song – at least as initially sung – was not sung for the church; that is, for those who were the “righteous uprights” in the temple waiting for a Messiah to come with military might.  Nor was it shared with the rich and the privileged, neither with emperors or governments or those otherwise ensconced in places of power, political and otherwise.  When the heavenly host burst forth with their chorus of “Glory to God in the highest,” their audience was simply that small and rather motley assortment of shepherds living in the fields, a group who, in the words of John Philip Newell, could be best described as “unlettered, unwashed herders of livestock existing at the margins, far from the power-centers of respectability and prestige.”

These days we tend to romanticize the shepherds and their part in the Christmas story, but the truth is that in Jesus’ time, shepherding was a profession at the very bottom of any kind of social ladder.  Basically, if you were a shepherd it was generally assumed you couldn’t find any other kind of decent work, you were almost always branded as some kind of liar, thief or worse, and as far as religion goes you were considered to be ritually unclean so you were pretty much always thought of as a sinner by virtue of your profession.  So understand that there were no shepherds of that time who would have considered themselves to be in way significant, much less worthy of a heavenly proclamation; and yet, it’s the shepherds who in the midst of their deep darkness who hear the angels’ mighty song of glory.

But then, God’s “message of hope [always] emerges among the least significant,” even shepherds… oh, and by the way, also even you and me!

Craig Satterlee, of Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, has written that there is more to God sending angels to shepherds than reaching out to outsiders.  “Spend enough time in the field,” he writes, “shunned by decent and religious folk, disappointed by God, or overwhelmed by grief, and we stop caring that we are outsiders.  We give up trying to get inside religion, or even on God, to get on with life.  But,” Satterlee goes on to say, “God does not give up on us.  God sends angels to people who have given up on God.”  And while we might react the way those shepherds did at first – that is, with abject fear, and likely startled with an inch of our very lives (!) – it soon becomes very clear that “God comes in a way that is far from frightening.  Jesus comes [to us] vulnerably, helplessly,” as a baby born in a manger; bringing peace that passes understanding as he dwells among the lowly, the poor, and those who have felt on the outside so long that they’ve given up on God… even you and me.

Right now there are those who are living out in the fields of their own lives, lost and wholly abandoned by the world that surrounds them: people who feeling overwhelmed by grief and sadness; people caught up in spirals of life’s struggle and hardship; people weighed down by illness or poverty or brokenness or the sting of someone else’s hatred; people who can’t begin to celebrate this season because they can’t begin to feel any sense of God’s presence and love; people who in the midst of deep darkness and utter silence have given up on God.  But the good news is that God has not given up on them, nor on any one of us: for even now God is sending angels out into the fields with good news of great joy to all the people, singing a glorious song of that peace that passes our human understanding and transcends the powers and principalities of the world as we know it!  Jesus Christ, the Messiah, is being born, and that changes everything!  And just as it was for those shepherds who first heard that heavenly song, it’s cause for our great rejoicing as well; ample reason to “run with haste” and see this incredible thing that the Lord has done, to know once and for all that God will not rest until each and all of us have been embraced and caught up in his tremendous and infinite love!  God will not give up; God is with us, now and forever, in Jesus our Emmanuel!

This past week I took a quick overnight trip up north to deliver gifts and visit with my mother; and of course, as always happens this time of year, we spent a fair amount of time reminiscing about Christmases past.  She actually reminded me of how on one snowy Christmas Eve, together with some of our family members on the Lowry side who were celebrating with us that night, we’d walked from our house down the street and around the corner to attend a Christmas Eve service at our church, where my father was already inside playing the organ prelude, including carols from the bell chimes that could be heard coming from the steeple.  It was a picture perfect, Norman Rockwell styled scene, but the best part was that the closer we drew to the church, the more clearly we could hear the plaintive notes of “Silent Night” and so many other sacred songs of the holiest of nights.  It was an incredible blessing, and all it took to receive it was simply to listen.

Well, it’s the day before “the night before” Christmas, and our advent time of waiting and watching is nearly complete.  Tomorrow night we’ll gather in this beautiful sanctuary to sing songs of joy and praise, to light the Christ Candle and to share that light with one another.  But maybe you’re not feeling it quite yet; perhaps the remaining “busy-ness” of the season has you distracted, or maybe it’s seemed like there has been just too much darkness in and around your life that it’s overwhelmed the light.  Maybe you’ve come here today, hoping to feel a bit of peace and love as Christmas draws near… or  perhaps to hear something like a song… an angels’ song.

If that’s the case for you this morning, beloved, then my hope and prayer for you today, tomorrow and truly, in all the days that are yet to come at Christmas and beyond, that you might stop in the midst of all the chaos, the confusion and even the pain… and listen.  Listen for the angels’ song; listen to the music of the spheres that even at this very moment is by God’s grace resonating all around you and deep within your heart!  Listen for God’s enduring gift of love and life in the person of the Jesus, our Emmanuel; and listen for the greatest music that has ever burst forth through creation, proclaimed by that army choir of angels singing:

“Gloria in excelsis Deo!”

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace!”

And thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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