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In It to Win It

(a sermon for February 4, 2018, the 5th Sunday after Epiphany, based on 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 and Mark 1:40-45)

Here’s something that I’m sure will come as a huge shock to all of you:  I am not much of an athlete.

And by “not much of,” I mean “not at all.”

I don’t know; I just have never had the ability or coordination it takes to do sports, or for that matter, the real desire.  Even as a kid, gym class was for me basically something to be gotten through and if at all possible, avoided!  And besides, back in school I was always the one in band and chorus, doing drama club and working on the yearbook; that was my thing!  So back then being any kind of star athlete (or even a benchwarmer) was never going to happen; and obviously, in all the years that have followed, nothing about that has changed!

Which is not to say, however, I don’t appreciate athleticism in others; in fact, I have to say that the older I get, the more I admire those who have shown forth not only their God-given ability, but also the drive, discipline and perseverance it takes to succeed on the field of athletic competition.  Whether we’re talking about tonight’s Super Bowl, the upcoming Winter Olympic Games, or simply high school kids running up and down the basketball court at tournament time there is beauty and grace to be found in those who do these things very, very well; who have trained and practiced, struggled, endured and pushed themselves to the limit – sometimes over the course of an entire lifetime (!) – all for the sake of running that race, of winning that game… of being the absolute best that one can be.

And ideally, friends, I’m here to tell you that it can be a spiritual thing as well. I actually came across a quote this week from, of all people, Pope John Paul II, from back in 1987.  He said that “Sport… is an activity that involves more than the movement of the body; it demands the use of intelligence and the developing of the will.  It reveals… the wonderful structure of the human person created by God, as a spiritual being, a unity of body and spirit.  Athletic activity,” John Paul went on to say, “can help every man and woman to recall the moment when God the Creator gave origin to the human person, the masterpiece of his creative work.”

I like that.  Granted, in an age where sports is big business and things like politics, drug abuse and (as we have seen illustrated so horribly as of late) all manner of assault have too often plagued the whole endeavor, it’s increasingly difficult to see the ideal made real; but when it happens – be it a perfect touchdown pass or a ski jump that seems to defy gravity – when we can bear witness to the wonder of body, mind and spirit working together toward a singular goal, even to this most decidedly non-athletic person, it’s a beautiful thing.  At the heart of it all, you see, is this very clear desire, this relentless drive, this passion, if you will, to be “in it to win it.”

And isn’t it interesting how when Paul wants to speak in our text this morning about the spiritual life and what it means to be a child of God it’s precisely that same kind of passion to which he refers as making all the difference.  “Do you not know,” he writes to the Christians in Corinth, “that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize?  Run in such a way that you may win it.”

Now at first read, it might well seem a bit odd to hear that kind of a sports metaphor coming from the pen of an apostle; but in truth there are several instances throughout the epistles where Paul uses what might be called “the language of athletics” in order to make a point about the Christian life.  In fact, in our passage today, Paul makes reference to an actual athletic event:  the Isthmian Games, which were a series of Olympic-styled athletic contests that took place every two years just outside of Corinth, and which included boxing events, wrestling and all different kinds of footraces.  The competition was great and intense, and as a sign of their victory the winners of each event would be given a wreath to wear on their heads; fashioned, believe it or not, out of a garland of dry and withered celery!  Think of it: all that work, all that effort and all the winner has to show for it is the lousy leftover part of a summer salad!  Or, to put this much more biblically, “Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one.”  And that’s the point, isn’t it?  If these Isthmian athletes do what they do for the passing glory of such a small and fading reward, how much more might we do as followers of Jesus Christ for the “imperishable” wreath, that is, the gift of eternity with God?

By the way, these verses from 1 Corinthians get translated in a variety of ways: the NIV talks about how those athletes do what they do “to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever;”  and, of course, The Message brings it a little closer to home, especially about now, in referring to a “gold medal that tarnishes and fades” as opposed to the one “that’s gold eternally.”  But regardless of the translation the point is the same: to quote Kenneth Kovacs here, “the point is that the goal, the prize that we strive after and strain for as Christians is better than any athletic prize or any other prize given in this world subject to rust and decay and corruption.”

So given all this, the question for us, I suppose, is that where a life of faith and true discipleship is concerned… are we “in it to win it,” or not?

Of course we need to understand, and Paul also makes this clear, that winning the race isn’t about “run[ning] aimlessly,” any more than a boxing match is about flailing about and “beating the air.”  Moreover, this race of which Paul calls us to run is no hundred-yard dash where it’s a quick sprint run to get the prize; it’s more like an intense spiritual marathon that extends over the course of a lifetime and which requires every bit of our attention and energy.

That’s where so many people make a mistake about the nature of faith; they assume that to be a Christian is simply to be a nice person, to show some empathy, and maybe employ some common sense along the way.  But to actually follow Jesus and to become his disciple is something much more than that: it’s about truly loving our neighbor as ourselves; it’s about forgiving our enemies not just once or twice or even three times, but seventy times seven times; it’s about denying ourselves, and then there’s that matter of taking up our own crosses so that in our own lives we might follow Jesus where he goes… and that’s just the beginning.  It’s no accident that the Greek word Paul uses here for competing in a race is “agonizomai,” which is where we get our word “agony,” because in this particular race, it takes an agonizingly tremendous effort to win.  If you’re going to last for very long, it’s going to take discipline and self-control… and good training!

I love the story that William Willimon tells about his time as Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, and how a well-meaning student came to him and said, “You know, I just don’t get much out of the Bible.”  “Oh,” replied Willimon, with just a hint of sarcasm, “and when was it you last did time in a Bible study group?”   Well, the student said, “I just thought you could pick it up for yourself and sort of like, get the point.”  To which Willimon answered, “Try that with lacrosse stick and see how far you get.”

You see, for you and me to run our race of faithful living means we need to be trained and grounded in this Christian faith we espouse.  There needs to be a commitment to study God’s word; there needs to be a discipline of prayer; and there has to be, I believe, a real participation with kindred hearts in a community of faith.  In other words, it matters that we’re the church together and that we’re running this race together as God’s people; because without that kind of love and support, we’re bound to get winded and discouraged at the first sign of struggle. And make no mistake: at every turn along the way, we are going to need to call upon every resource that our God has to give, so that we might be the vessels by which the gospel is proclaimed and love is brought forth; because, friends, in this broken and hurting world that is the race we’re running.

Our gospel reading for this morning is Mark’s story of how a leper came to Jesus begging to be healed, and “moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him,” and how immediately, the leprosy left him.  One of the interesting parts of this passage for me is how the leper actually says to Jesus, “If you choose, you can make me clean,” and in the act of healing, Jesus responds by saying, “I do choose.”  So not only does this story talk about the grace of God’s healing love extended to those whom the world would consider to be hideous or dangerous or somehow morally deficient – because remember, leprosy was considered at the time to be a disease that was the result of the victim’s sinful actions – it’s also a story about how Jesus “chooses” in that moment to make him clean in a profound and divine sense of compassion to which you and I are also called as his disciples.

Yes… I’ll say it again: we are his disciples; we choose to be so! We are called to be beacons of light in a dark world; and we choose to be bringers of love and compassion, purveyors of healing and a higher good.  We are God’s people, and as such, we are a people with eyes upon the prize, always that of Christ and his kingdom.  And it is a sacred endeavor that’s every bit as strenuous as a Super Bowl or an Olympic event; even more so.  But it’s a race that needs to be run; and might I add here, it’s also a race that when it all comes together, is a beautiful thing to behold.

I had a friend back in high school who as a young man trained to run in the Boston Marathon.  All through school he’d been a star member of our cross-country team, and had won any number of races; but this was different, something much bigger, something that stretched every part of his ability, and he trained for months so he’d qualify; no easy feat as he sprinted through the snow covered streets of our town!  But he was determined, and when he finally got to Boston – looking back on it, he must have been just about as young as you can be to run the marathon – we were all rooting for him.  And God love him, he finished the race; well behind the pack, as I recall, but he finished, and that was something!

I remember afterward asking him about the race, and I remember this because my friend actually had very little good to say about the experience: he was tired, and sore, the course was impossible, his shoes weren’t right, and on and on and on. And so I asked him, given all that and so much more why he didn’t just stop, and for that matter, why he chose to run this race in the first place.  But then he smiled, and said simply, “because when you finish, there’s no feeling like it in the world.”

When you and I seek to live as our Lord Jesus would have us live it will most certainly not be easy, and there will be moments when we’ll wonder if the effort’s been worth it and if what we’ve done has mattered in the scheme of things; but if we are in it to truly win it, beloved, by God’s good grace it becomes an experience unlike anything else in life, and one that makes all the difference out these doors and into the world.

So let us run the race before us, and let us do in such a way that says we want to win it, for the sake of Jesus Christ. And as the race goes on, let us to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:14)

Thanks be to God who sets the course before us.

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on February 4, 2018 in Epiphany, Faith, Family Stories, Life, Paul, Sermon

 

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Get Out of the Boat!

(a sermon for October 15, 2017, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost; first in a series, based on Matthew 14:22-33)

And “immediately [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat” and said to them (in essence, at least), “You go on ahead… I’ll catch up later.”

If you read Matthew’s account leading up to our text for this morning, you can understand why:  Jesus, after all, had spent a very long day curing the sick; they’d all been involved in feeding a multitude of people with nothing more than loaves and fishes; and even now, there was the matter of getting this crowd over 5,000-plus to disperse.  And moreover, Jesus had been seeking to withdraw from there so that he could be alone to pray; so it just sort of followed that he would send his disciples on ahead to cross the Sea of Galilee.

For the disciples, however, it was a strange and uncertain experience!  They had not really spent all that much time apart from Jesus since they’d begun to follow him, and they were unsure as to exactly where they were supposed to go, or what they were to do when they got there; and, by the way, what if Jesus didn’t catch up with them; what if he “missed the boat,” so to speak… what then?  And if that weren’t enough, now it’s well into the night, the wind’s picking up and “the boat, battered by the waves, was far from land, for the wind was against them.”  And so now here we have all these disciples crowded together in a flimsy little boat; trembling and fearful for their lives and no doubt crying out, “OK, Jesus… you sent us out here… what do we do now?”

Every fall about this time, I’m filled with memories of days spent with my father walking through the northern Maine woods hunting for partridge; and later on as November came around, looking for signs of white-tailed deer.  When I was very young, of course, it was always about following close behind Dad as we worked our way through acres of hardwood ridges and black growth knolls; at that point, I wasn’t old enough to be out hunting on my own, and besides, I really didn’t know those woods all that well and most certainly would have gotten myself hopelessly lost!  But finally, the day came my father said, “Why don’t you go on ahead… I’ll catch up with you later.”  He made sure I had a compass, of course, and reminded me of some of the landmarks I ought to be looking out for; but finally Dad said, “You’ll be fine… just make sure you leave enough time to get back to camp before dark.”

And with that, my father headed off in one direction and I started out on the other.  And I’ve got to tell you that even now I still remember that sense of adventure in setting out into the wilderness, on my own, for the very first time; and that incredible feeling of great anticipation mingled with… abject fear!  Now, I’ve told you stories from this pulpit of those few times when I got myself turned around out in those woods, even long after dark; what I don’t think I’ve ever spoken about are all those many occasions when I almost got turned around, lost, or worse! These were times when I used my compass and still didn’t know where I was; when I didn’t recognize any landmark and every tree looked the same; when I kept an eye toward the western sky as the daylight grew dim and the air became damp and cold.  More than once, I remember saying to myself, “OK… now what I do?” and thinking how utterly mistaken my father was to believe I knew what I was doing!

But… and here’s the thing… I always (or almost always, anyway!) found my way back to camp; and along the way, I learned something… about how to calmly find my way through the wilderness; about that which my father and his friends always referred to as “woods savvy;” and also about how to be bold, because that’s where the adventure – and its opportunity – begins.

So here we have these disciples, in a boat far out from shore and in the midst of stormy weather.  You can imagine the scene: it’s the wee hours of the morning, and still very dark, but the wind’s howling; the rain’s coming down in sheets, and water’s swelling up the side of the boat and washing inside.  And even though most of them are fishermen (maybe because most of them are fishermen and know what kind of mortal danger the sea brings forth), they are… terrified, and moreover, wondering why Jesus would ever send them on a night like this!

But that’s when it happens: something unexpected; something miraculous. The disciples look out beyond their boat into the raging storm and they see him – they see Jesus – walking toward them on the sea; walking on water!  And of course, their first response is to cry out in fear, assuming that what they’re seeing is a ghost; some kind of grim reaper or representative from Leviathan himself, the sea monster of biblical legend come to pull them into the deep and their sure and certain death.  But no… it’s Jesus, who immediately speaks to them, saying “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

It’s unexpected because by now the disciples are sure their lives are done; and it’s a miracle because everyone knows you can’t walk on water!  But here’s Jesus, doing just that; walking on water beyond all human capability and overcoming the utter chaos of deep, turbulent waters, all to let these fearful and panic-stricken followers of his know that “it is well,” and that the seas, while stormy now, would soon be calm for the journey ahead.   That, in and of itself is a powerful word; and it’s no wonder that at the end of all the disciples, “exhausted by the storm and overwhelmed by what they have witnessed… make the first profession of faith in Matthew’s gospel: ‘You are the Son of God.’” (Rev. Canon Michael Rusk)  This is a story that serves to remind us that in all of life’s chaos and confusion we can take heart, because are never alone; but in the presence of one who can and does calm our fears and promises, as the song goes, that we’ll be “safe and secure from all alarms.”  And that’s important to know, because life is filled with storms; the kind of chaos that threatens to undo us: disasters, natural and otherwise, descend; jobs disappear; relationships disintegrate; we lose touch with people, values and practices; death rips us apart.  It’s times like these when you and need to know that we have the Lord at our side to help us weather the storm until, quoting Ronald J. Allen here, “the water of chaos” is transformed “into the water of life.”

And that’s what happens here in the gospel… but that’s not the end of the story.  What also happens is that Peter – bold, impetuous, Peter – sees Jesus walking on the water and calls out, “Lord, if it is you,” (notice there’s a big “if” there) “command me to come to you on the water.”  And what does Jesus do?  He calls back to Peter, perhaps with a bit of a smile on his face, “Comecome!” And Peter – God bless him (!) – with the storm still raging all around them, gets out of the boat!  He doesn’t get very far, mind you, before fear takes over and he loses heart, sinking like a stone, that is, until Jesus reaches out and grabs Peter by the tunic and brings him to safety.  A few words about Peter’s lack of faith notwithstanding, it’s another powerful example of how, even in the worst of the storm – whatever kind of storm we’re talking about – and regardless of the depth of our despair in the midst of it all, the presence of the divine will ever be our safety and our salvation.  That is one “sure and certain” promise of our God; that God will be with us and stay with us in our need; giving us strength and hope until the seas calm, the chaos subsides, and the way ahead – with all its opportunity and purpose – opens up before us.

Because, yes, that’s the other piece of this story, one that quite honestly, I hadn’t thought too much about until recently.  There was, after all, a reason that Jesus sent those disciples on ahead to the other side of the Sea of Galilee; it was so that they could reach Gennesaret, where, if you read on in Matthew, there were more people who needed the presence and the touch of Jesus.  Likewise there was a reason, as unlikely as it may have seemed to them or to us, that Jesus invited Peter to step out on the open sea so that he could walk on water… it was because it was an opportunity; a chance for Peter to leave his fear behind, get out of the boat and live a truly “whole-hearted” life of courage and hope, with eyes and heart wholly fixed on Jesus and his kingdom.

And so should it be for you and for me, friends.  No, I’m not suggesting you head up to Winnipesaukee to try your and at a little surface sprinting (not to shatter any hopes, but that would likely be a fruitless endeavor… and cold!); but I would suggest to you that some faith-fueled boldness might well be in order for us; both as persons and a people of faith, even as a church, because ours is a God who encourages us “to cross rough waters and even step out of the boat in faith.”  But the thing is that this always comes with a promise.  I love what David Lose says about this:  God calls us to “more adventuresome lives of faith… God wants more for us, frankly, than simply safety and stability, and therefore God calls us to stretch, grow, and live into the abundant life God has promised us, trusting [as we do so] that God is always with us,” that God will grab us by the hand when we lose our focus or when fear overtakes us.  The journey may not always be easy, but once you’ve moved forward and the way ahead is clear; once you’ve caught sight of your destination and know the reason that you were so bold, won’t you be glad that you decided not to stay in the boat?

Well… even now the journey looms before us, and in many, many ways.  Even now, Jesus is calling us “o’er the tumult of life’s wild, restless sea” to come; to be bold and come out of the safety of our boats so that we might participate more fully as Jesus’ disciples and on behalf of the Kingdom of God; so that we can know the possibilities and the adventure of following God’s Spirit where it leads.

And that’s especially true, I believe, when it comes to our life together here at East Church.

As you know, we’re just about to move into our annual Stewardship Campaign here at East Church, a time when together as a church, not only do we reflect on our support of this shared ministry in the coming year, but also a time when we should pause a moment to seek and affirm God’s vision for our future. It is, as this year’s stewardship theme suggests, a “Journey to Generosity” that has its pathway in the way of Jesus; truly, everything we do here as part of our stewardship is in response to the one who is always with us; who stands out there in the midst of our own storms; who seeks to calm our fears until the chaos subsides; who lifts us up when we feel ourselves sinking like a stone.

Beloved, I believe that right here and right now our Lord is there calling us to boldness; to come out of our complacency and be disciples in new and creative and adventuresome ways; to move into our 176th year with faithful optimism and hearts for Jesus Christ.  I have said this to you often in recent weeks, and very intentionally: there is no limit to what this “little church” can do with faith, and in the love and joy that we have here in such abundance; but for these things to happen, first we have to get out of the boat!

“Come.”  That’s how Jesus is calling you, and you, and me; that’s how Jesus calls us all.  So how will you respond?  I hope that we’ll all give that some thought and prayer in the days to come…

…and with our thanks unto God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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The Ways We Pray

In and through “the act and attitude of worship” on an average Sunday morning, one is apt to be led in prayer in any given number of ways.

For instance, depending on a congregation’s particular tradition of faith (or denominational affiliation), there will likely be some sort of bulletin containing a selection of unison and responsive prayers designed to lead worshipers through a celebration of Word and Sacrament that’s both spiritually meaningful and liturgically correct. Other churches tend to be a bit more “freestyle” about the matter, leaving pastors and other worship leaders to lead and direct the church in its prayerfulness; music very often plays an important part in this, and depending on the size and shape of a particular congregation (not to mention the length of the service!), prayer concerns are often shared from the pews before and during the act of prayer itself. But however it’s done, speaking and silence, confession and assurance, thanksgiving and dedication all end up as part and parcel of the church at prayer.  Oh… and yes, usually somewhere in the midst of things, the Lord’s Prayer is a part of it.

At East Church, as was true at other churches where I’ve been privileged to serve as a worship leader, our prayer life has been a healthy mix of the liturgical and casual; always seeking to allow what we do together as God’s people to embrace the inherent and Spirit-led movement of the worship service from praise and thanksgiving to nurture and dedication. It’s all about tradition, creativity and above all, reverence to God; and I try my best to guide the congregation accordingly.

I will freely confess here, however, that as a pastor I’ve always had a few preferred prayers to which I regularly return; for example, just prior to preaching (“O Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts…”), or occasionally something like an invocation or offertory prayer. But just as familiarity often breeds contempt, I’ve learned over the years that sometimes this kind of repetition can get you into trouble: once, years ago when one of my sons was still a teenager, during one such prayer I glanced up (yes, sometimes we do that, too!) to discover that he and his buddy were at the back of the sanctuary not only silently mouthing the words I was speaking but also imitating my particular vocal inflections with appropriate facial movements; giggling the whole time!

It was funny, I’ll admit – and trust me, I mixed things up the following Sunday (!) – but it was also an enduring reminder to me of how easily the flow of our words of worship and prayer can become little more than habit.  I think this about this a lot when it comes to the Lord’s Prayer, especially about now as we’re in the midst of a sermon series that seeks to unpack those all-important petitions that Jesus taught his disciples and us to pray. To wit, if our repeating of these words is merely by rote or because it’s what’s printed in the bulletin, are we truly “hallowing” the name of God?  Are we at all claiming the supremacy of God’s will or acknowledging God’s gift of daily bread, and are even really asking for forgiveness of sin?  If praying the prayer of our Savior is simply a matter of mechanics, can we honestly say that “thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever?”  I wonder…

Interestingly enough, over the years when I’ve been asked by parishioners about a way to begin or renew a discipline of prayer, I’ve recommended something that’s worked well for me: to go someplace quiet and say the Lord’s Prayer… again and again and again.  But in this instance, rather than engaging in an empty exercise in sheer repetition I’ve found that this offers us the much needed opportunity for us to pause after each and every phrase and prayerfully consider what’s actually being said; perchance to let God’s own Spirit not only deepen our understanding of the prayer itself, but also our relationship with the one who gave us the prayer to pray!

To be sure, for such a true spiritual awareness to grow within us takes time, effort and perhaps above all, patience; indeed, for every part of this prayer that comes easily to our lips, there are inevitably those bits and pieces that we stubbornly resist. But that’s the very nature of prayer, isn’t it: that even as we give thanks and praise to God for giving us all the myriad blessings of our lives, we are forced to confront the ways that we’ve fallen short of God’s intentions for our lives, our living and our world; truly, it seems to me that if we’re doing it right, the very act of prayer ought to be as humbling as it is uplifting!

And if all this feels a bit overwhelming… well, you’re right.  But the good news is that when we pray in this way, we are promised that God will be present with us in every moment and beyond with hope, with peace, with joy… and love that’s abundant and eternal.

And to this, what can we say exceptAmen, and thanks be to God!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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