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A New Reality

(An Online Message for July 26, 2020, based John 16:12-15)

Sand Cove – it’s this beautiful little spot on the far end of our lake where there are no camps, and little or no access except by boat; as the name implies, it’s very sandy (there’s lots of mica in the sand, “fool’s gold,” as it’s sometimes called, so the place literally sparkles gold in the sun!); and it’s a great place for kids to swim, with big rocks on the shore to climb and a clearing for a picnic. This was where I’d taken my son Zach and his friend Sean one warm summer afternoon a few years ago.

The thing about Sand Cove is that it’s shared by all of us who live on the lake; since there’s not a whole lot of room there, we have to take turns using the space.  Basically, if you’ve been there for a while and another boat approaches, it’s just considered “good form” to move on and let others take their turn.  And that’s what happened; we’d been at the cove for a couple of hours, when along comes a motorboat, filled with people and pulling a water-skier behind them!  It seemed very clear that these folks were coming in for a picnic, and since it was pretty much time for us to go anyway, we started packing up to leave – just about the time that the motorboat swung sharply around the cove to “drop off” the water skier.

And friends, this man was good: he was skiing slalom, and when he let go of the tow rope, he skimmed effortlessly across the water and almost got the whole way into shore before he sank down.  Now, I’m always impressed with people who can do that, especially people who are about my age, which this man was – so I called out, “Nice skiing!”  And the man looks at me, keeps on walking to shore, and says absolutely nothing back. 

OK… I didn’t think too much about that; after all, we didn’t know each other; so I tried again: “Hey, you looked really good out there – great day on the lake, isn’t it?”   Nothing.  Guy doesn’t say a word to me!  

So now, I’m trying to figure it out – and I’m thinking, maybe this man couldn’t speak English (we do get some French Canadians up there); perhaps he’s uncomfortable with the situation; or maybe he’s just one of those people who won’t put themselves out to talk to anybody!  Whatever it was, I have to tell you, this is not how we do things on “the Pond,” and I was starting to get a little put out – a feeling that only intensified as their boat came ashore. I waved again, flashing a winning smile to the rest of the family …and not a single one of ‘em waved back!  They totally ignored me – and now I’ve decided that these people are just jerks; even worse, I’ll bet they’re from “out of state!

Well, obviously it’s time for us to go, so looking toward the father, I say, this time with much less of a cordial tone, “We’ll be out of your way in just a minute so you can pull your boat up.”  It’s at this point, the mother, who’d been busy piloting the boat ashore, turns to me and says, very sweetly, “Oh, thank you so much, sir – I’m sorry, my husband doesn’t mean to be rude, but you see, he’s almost completely deaf; and without his hearing aids in, he can’t hear a word anybody says.”

Oh. Well. 

I’d never even considered that possibility!  And, trust me, immediately I began to feel more than just a little bit embarrassed!  Here I was thinking the absolute worst about these people when the reality was completely different!  They were actually very nice, and as they helped us with our boat and thanked us all over the place for letting them use the cove, I found myself thinking how quickly my opinion of these people had changed – a change based almost entirely on the shift of my flawed perception of them! 

It’s amazing, isn’t it – how easily our perception of things and people and situations affects our view of reality.

This is particularly true, I think, as to how we view our Christian faith; in many ways, it’s perception that makes all the difference. As Christians, our reality is informed by the fact that we perceive God in Jesus Christ as our crucified and risen Lord, the way, the truth and the life, and the harbinger ad fulfillment of the Kingdom of God,  which is a perception unique and radically different from that of the rest of the world. 

In fact, I would go so far as to say that the very essence of Christianity is that in following Jesus, each person is given a brand new perception of God, of life and of eternity, and thus given a new reality.  We see this time and time again in the gospels:  a tax collector who becomes a disciple; the woman at the well who finds a new joy in life; a thief on a cross who is welcomed into paradise – each one a person who found a new reality in their encounter with Jesus.  It’s a redemptive change of perception that continues to be offered to you and me through Jesus Christ.  And if you want a Bible verse for that, here it is, from 2nd Corinthians:  “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!” (5:17)

Friends, as Christians, we are that new creation; the people of a new reality that comes in Jesus Christ.  And I tell you this because so often it is the false perceptions about life and faith that will pull us away from what we know to be real and true in Christ.  It’s the false perceptions about God that will lead us to cling to the kind of old prejudices, shopworn ideas and bad excuses that keep us from truly embracing the new reality that Christ brings! The very nature of our Christian faith is that our perceptions need to shift away from that which keeps us from God; that you and I should be viewing things in a different light – specifically, the light of this new reality we’ve been given by the grace of God in Christ!

Laurie Beth Jones, in her book Jesus, Life Coach, tells of taking an art class in which the very first thing she had to learn, even before she could to begin to draw a particular object, was to see that object “as it really is, not how we think it looks.”  She had to learn to look at the object in question and identify its source of light.  “For instance,” she wrote, “this vase on the table in front of me …where [was] the light coming from?”  If the light was coming from the window on the left side of the room, that affected every aspect of drawing that vase – the shading, depth and volume.  So it is with life itself, and also faith – something a great many people never learn.  “Religious robes and words, fancy offices and big bank accounts do not automatically offer light,” Jones writes. “Jesus was adamant that only God can be our Light.”

Admittedly, in a world that offers all manner of “flash,” it is hard sometimes for us to know where we should look to find God’s light – even Jesus knew this to be true.  I think that’s one reason we are promised a “Spirit of Truth” that guides us “into all the truth.”  We need to know the difference between false perceptions and the new reality – and that’s why Jesus said that this Spirit would glorify him, because, he said, “he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”  

Friends, when we realize that when God’s Spirit moves in such a way that we might better see and understand what’s true about God, then we start looking at everything with a fresh eye – because God has become our source of light and life!  And it’s amazing, given that kind of new perspective, how differently we begin to perceive the challenges we have to face in our lives; how our attitudes start to shift regarding the more difficult people in our lives; or how, suddenly, the gut-wrenching choices we have to make become clear and, actually, rather obvious!  This is all because, with the Spirit’s help, we’ve found our source of light – and that discovery cannot help but shift the reality of our lives.

You know, we’ve been doing these online services for just over four months now, believe it or not… and one of the things I’ve noticed in leading worship this way is that I’m very much aware of the differences in the details!  After all, it’s very dffernt leading prayer in front of an Ipad as opposed to being present together our sanctuary with all of you!  But I have to say this experience has made me all the more aware of all of you as I’m doing this… of where you might be this morning, what you’re doing, what you’re going through about now, and especially wondering how God is working in and through your lives.  And in the ened, I’m realizing it has, at least in some sense, made our times of prayer together a richer and deeper experience for me.

Well, with that in heart then, as we pray this morning I’d like to challenge you to take the opportunity to do one thing a little differently: this time, and I say this respectfully, lovingly and with all faith, let’s pay attention

In other words, today, let’s not get bogged down in the mechanics of it, or even necessarily what I’m saying… rather, let’s allow our senses to dwell on what God is doing in the midst of our prayer, perhaps to let God’s Spirit of Truth help us find the Source of Light that will reveal the meaning of our worship, and which will not only cast a light on us a children of God and a family of faith, but also, and most especially, makes us wholly aware of the one who gathers us from wherever we are; and who, by his presence with us gives to us a reality of life and living… for this Sunday morning, for every day that comes in this life, and eternally.

Thanks be to the God who is that true source of light!

AMEN and AMEN.

 
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Posted by on August 13, 2020 in Family Stories, Holy Spirit, Jesus, Maine, Sermon

 

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A Fresh Capacity to Listen

   

(a sermon for May 31, 2020,  Pentecost Sunday, based on Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-21; a podcast version of this message can be heard HERE)

To quote a line from an old movie – Cool Hand Luke, I believe – “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate!”

Would you not agree that at the heart of many of our problems lay issues regarding communication, or perhaps more to the point, the lack thereof?  I know that as a pastor I’ve seen this countless times: when the core issue of some disagreement or conflict between couples, within families or even among church members (!) comes down to basic miscommunication and misunderstanding; you know, the old story of “I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize what you heard is not what I meant.” 

In truth, there is much that confounds our hearing and speaking and thus our understanding of one another: the tone of voice we use, our body language, the underlying emotion that shows forth the words we choose, not to mention our own preconceived notions of what’s being said to us!  All of this, and much more, contributes to an occasional failure to communicate; and when you combine this with the fact that we’re all different kinds of people who approach things in different kinds of ways, it’s no wonder that oftentimes it seems as though we’re speaking totally different languages!

 I remember years ago going with our youngest son Zachary and his 2nd grade class on a field trip to a nearby farm where maple syrup was being made.  Now this farm was owned and operated by this delightful older couple who’d been tapping trees on that land for years.  And when we get there the first thing that happens is that the wife leads us all down this wooded pathway to one of the big maples standing there and she shows the children how the sap is collected; she tells them about how native American children used to drink the sap like it was Kool-Aid; and then she pours some of the sap coming from that particular tree into paper cups so they could all taste it for themselves!  And I remember that the kids were enthralled by what she was teaching them. 

Well, from there we walk up to the sugar shack where her husband is waiting to tell us all about how the sap becomes maple syrup; and he proceeds to tell these 2nd grade children about the relative yield of syrup in relation to the sap collected, about the boiling point of sap and the type of firewood necessary to provide optimum and consistent heat, the different grades of syrup that gets produced, and even about the gauge of the stainless steel used in building the sap storage tanks!  The man went on and on with this litany of technical data relating to maple syrup production, even as the children’s eyes were glazing over!  In fact, I’ll never forget it; when it was finally done, and the man asked if there were any questions, one little boy just raised his hand and said, “You know, that’s a really big fire in there.”

Now I know he meant well, but that man might as well have been speaking Greek to those kids: they just didn’t understand!  It goes to show how easily it can happen that we fail to understand what’s being said to us and moreover, how it is that so often, we fail to be understood; and it’s how a lack of proper communication can so often make or break any semblance of community we might possibly have together!

But it’s especially true, I think, as regards the church.  Trust me here; after a lifetime spent in the church and nearly 40 years in pastoral ministry I can readily affirm that given all the diversity of thought and emotion and experience that exists amongst God’s people, it’s a wonder we even understand each other, much less have the kind of unity we seek!  The question is, how can we truly be a community of faith if we don’t communicate with each other, and how are we to communicate with each other if we can’t hear and understand each other?

That’s why it’s good news indeed that God has given us that which we need to understand; what Walter Bruggemann refers to as “a fresh capacity to listen,” that is, a new ability to truly hear and to respond.  It comes in God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, the miracle of Pentecost, that day which Bruggemann describes as “a veritable festival of listening,” involving people from the four corners of the world and every walk of life, each of whom hear in a clear and unalloyed fashion the good news of God’s love.

What’s interesting about our two texts for this morning is that they pretty much serve as mirror images of each other; the same story but with opposite conclusions.  First, there’s the story of the Tower of Babel from Genesis, in which human arrogance and sin leads to a judgment of separation and confusion.  Simply put, “in the beginning” God had given his people a common sense of understanding and the ability to speak the same language; it was ever and always God’s intent, you see, that we truly understand one another and that our lives be built from that understanding.  But when those same people became wholly attuned to the sound of their own voices rather than to listening to each other and most especially to God (as evidenced by the building of “a tower with its top in the heavens,” which was built solely as a monument to themselves), God rightly determined that this “speaking the same language” thing could never end well.  And so God “confuse[d] their language… so that they [would] not understand one another’s speech,” and then divided and scattered the people “over the face of the earth,” making it all the more difficult to understand and be understood! So what we have here is the judgment of God upon our own human tendency toward self-centeredness, isolation and alienation!

But then, in the Book of Acts we have God’s reversal of that judgment, when the Holy Spirit comes down from heaven with “a sound like the rush of a mighty wind,” through the streets of Jerusalem that were filled with “devout Jews from every nation under heaven,”  all speaking all their varied languages unknown to each other.  Except that now, by this miracle of the Holy Spirit, they heard… and they understood.  All of them – no matter their background or experience or prejudice – had that “fresh capacity to listen” to the good news told by the disciples, to hear “in [their] own native language… about God’s deeds of power;” about God’s intention that his Spirit be poured upon all flesh.  It was truly a miraculous day and a vibrant new beginning for God’s people!

One of the central gifts of the Holy Spirit is that because it is the real and living presence of God – one part of that “blessed Trinity” of Father, Son and Holy Spirit – it enables us to truly hear and understand God’s Word with a spiritual clarity unlike ever before; I dare say that in many ways, it is that “fresh capacity to listen” that makes us the church, in that we are called together to attune our ears and our hearts to that Word.  But what I want to tell you this morning is that there’s another part of that gift, one that we don’t always recognize: that in hearing and understanding God, by extension the Spirit also enables us to hear each other more clearly. 

Maybe you’ve heard of the concept of “active listening.” It’s an essential component of all manner of caregiving, and what it means is that if we are truly listening to someone, then we need more than just our ears; it takes careful and special effort to be attentive and sensitive to the person speaking.  In other words, active listening requires a “third ear;” one that listens with love in order to sense what’s really going on with that person; to go beyond the words spoken to get to the heart of what’s being said!  To put this another way, and I suspect that most of us can vouch for this, when somebody truly listens to us, not just with the ears but with the heart, we are given a message that we matter; that we’re not alone in whatever it is we’re facing; and that we’re loved.

That’s what the Holy Spirit gives us; that third ear, that fresh capacity and great ability to listen to those around us with love. For you see, as our hearts are opened to hear God’s voice through his Spirit, we begin to listen to each other with a spiritual sensitivity; we begin to understand the language of the heart; a language much deeper than words as it proclaims the truth of the gospel even as we show forth our love for one another.

Friends, how many times in our relationships with each other have we come away from some kind of conversation or conflict thinking that we’ve totally understood each other, when in fact we’ve actually only heard a small part of what’s been said; for that matter, how often does it happen that we’ve heard only what we want to hear and little more? How often have we been guilty of “turning a deaf ear” to those who stand in the need of love and healing, even and especially those who are the closest to us? And why is it that all too often we’re far more set on what we think we have to say than what we need to listen to? It’s a “failure to communicate” that leads to that which is much worse; and let me just say here that if this is damaging for us as family members, friends or loved ones, how much more devasting is it when such behavior becomes a catalyst for hatred and violence in this world, as we are witnessing right now!

This is not what God intends, beloved, for our language or for our lives; but the good news in our texts for this morning is that God has never been content to allow us to “babble” on without any understanding.  God sends us his own Holy Spirit so that we might truly listen with understanding, and respond in love.

On the day of Pentecost, the people of God were made to truly hear and understand as “the Spirit gave them ability,” and in doing so became the church of Jesus Christ.  And today, in this time and place, you and I continue to be the Church as we seek to be attentive to that same Spirit in our lives: actively listening for the many and creative ways we can reach out in love and ease one another’s burdens, striving to dwell in unity and with true justice as we go about the work of God’s kingdom; on earth as it is in heaven!

But friends, our actually being the Church and living as true Christian disciples… all this starts with listening for, and then listening to the voice of the Spirit.  And the beauty part is that despite all the other noise in this world that threatens to block it out God has given us all that we need – our ears and our hearts – for us to truly hear and understand what matters. 

But, beloved, first we need to be attentive.  For who knows what the voice of the Spirit will be saying next; or for that matter, what might the Spirit is saying to us right now?

Let us be listening for, and then listening to that Spirit, beloved… and as we do, may our thanks be to God!

    AMEN and AMEN!

© 2020  Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.

 

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The People of What(ever) Happens Next

(a sermon for May 24, 2020, the 7th Sunday of Easter, based on Acts 1:1-14)

To begin with, this story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven represents the last gathering of Jesus with his disciples and marks the end of a long and remarkable journey: from the shores of Galilee where this disparate group of fishermen, tax collectors and societal outcasts first heard Jesus’ call, through the agonies of the cross, to the empty tomb and beyond; indeed, we’re told that in the forty days just past Jesus had “presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them… and speaking about the kingdom of God.”  But that was all coming to an end, and now as “they were together for the last time,” (The Message) Jesus is giving these disciples some last minute instructions for the way ahead:  “on no account” should you leave Jerusalem, but instead you “‘must wait for what the Father promised: the promise you heard from me.’” Soon, and very soon, you see, “you will be baptized by the Holy Spirit!”

Actually, truth be told, it all kind of has the look and feel of these makeshift graduation ceremonies we’ve been seeing online during this time of quarantine:  bringing some sense of closure to the situation with some last-minute words of advice but very little pomp and circumstance!  What’s interesting here, however, is that’s there’s also this baffling and rather disconcerting reference to a mysterious future that is just about to unfold!  But then again, I suppose that’s also part and parcel of a typical graduation ceremony: I remember at my seminary graduation, our seminary president, the Rev. Dr. Wayne Glick, stood at the podium and informed us in his rich, Appalachian drawl, “You people think you have learned all you need to know here at the seminary… well, I am here to tell you that the learning has just begun!”  What?  You mean to say that our full three years of engaging in intense biblical study, all that wrestling with theological conundrums both old and new, to say nothing of all of the “on the job training” that we faced as student pastors wasn’t going to be enough?  To employ the language of the Old Testament, “Oy Vey!”

But that’s the nature of these kinds of moments, isn’t it? You’ve reached this very important place in life’s journey when everything has rightly seemed to come into focus, and yet there’s often an uncertainty about it all that is both unsettling and even at times terrifying!

And so it is for the disciples; especially after they ask Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” and Jesus answers, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”

Can you even imagine what those disciples were thinking at this point?  Jesus, we’ve come all this way and have experienced so much; to the point where the kingdom is in our very grasp and now you won’t even tell us when it’s going to happen?  Nope… as The Message translates it, “You don’t get to know the time.  Timing is the Father’s business.” 

Oy Vey, indeed!  This was obviously not the answer they were looking for; they’d figured that now that the resurrection had happened everything else – for the world and for them – would most certainly fall into place.  But now they’re finding out that the way ahead is just about as uncertain as it was before, and the Kingdom… well, the Kingdom will come when the Kingdom will come, and that’s all you really get to know right now!    

But, Jesus goes on to say, even though you don’t get to know what happens next, “what you’ll get is the Holy Spirit.”  “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Power:  in the Greek, dunamis, meaning dynamic, dynamo or even dynamite; Witnesses: from the Greek word marturos, from where we get our word martyr!  So, in other words, what Jesus says to them – the very last thing that Jesus says to them, by the way (!) – is that the way ahead for you is still uncertain, but the Holy Spirit, which God has promised to give you, will provide you with the power, the dynamic, if you will, to keep on being my witnesses even when the way ahead proves to be very difficult; and moreover to do so with a clear sense of purpose and with joy!  You are being called to go “all in;” to live wholly and completely unto your faith, bearing witness to God’s enduring presence wherever you are and in whatever comes. What happens next?  In many ways, says Jesus, you are the people of what happens next!

And with that said, Jesus ascended into heaven. 

“As they were watching,” Luke writes, “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”  Just like that.  It’s no wonder that apparently, the disciples spent a long time “staring up into the empty sky;” also no wonder that it took two men “in white robes” to stir them out of their reverie, saying, “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” This Jesus, “who was just taken from among you to heaven will come as certainly – and mysteriously – as he left.”   The message was clear:  the time for standing around was over. There would be a moment when Jesus would return, but for now the next part of their journey – this immense, mysterious and seemingly improbable journey – was just beginning.

I love what Barbara Brown Taylor has written about this; in her book Gospel Medicine she says that “no one standing around watching them that day could have guessed what an astounding thing happened when they all stopped looking into the sky and looked at each other instead.   But in the days and years to come it would become very apparent… with nothing but a promise and a prayer, those eleven people consented to become the church and nothing was ever the same again, beginning with them.  The followers became leaders, the listeners became preachers, the converts became missionaries, the healed became healers.  The disciples became apostles, witnesses of the risen Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit… [and] surprising things began to happen.” 

They became the church… they were formed into a gathered community of people bound by a common mission and a shared calling, to witness unto the resurrection of Jesus Christ; beginning in those times and situations where perhaps only two or more were gathered, but then maybe as it could be shared throughout Jerusalem, and then to Judea and Samaria, and then… who knows, maybe even “to the ends of the earth.”  It was a mission that started small, but grew; and it is a mission that has endured throughout the centuries…

… and it is the very same calling that is extended and continues in you and in me today… most especially today.

That’s right… lest we forget in these strange and uncertain days we’re currently living through; this story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven? This tale of an ongoing mission, and of a time that exists between “the now” of the world as we currently know it and the “not yet” of the world as it is promised will someday be?  Friends, it’s our story just as much as it was theirs; as Jesus’ disciples and the church of this generation, we are “the people of what happens next… whatever happens next.”

In every generation, you see, the question has always been the same:  when is the church truly being the church of Jesus Christ?  Now, how that question is answered – and the way that faith gets expressed and acted upon – that has most certainly grown and adapted over the course of all those generations and in keeping with ever-changing times and new challenges, including the one we’re facing right now in this age of pandemic.  There’s hardly been a day that has gone by as of late – especially this past week (!) – when we haven’t wondered aloud how we’re supposed to actually be the church when we can’t even come together for worship together in our sanctuary?  Under all these limitations we’re under, how can we ever be considered in any way, shape or form “essential?” Well, here’s the thing: ultimately, whatever our current situation or ongoing challenge, the answer to that question never changes:we are ever and always the church when we are living wholly and completely as witnesses of the Risen Christ!

In other words, beloved, sanctuaries or no, we are essential.

We are essential when we speak boldly of the truth of Jesus’ teachings (by our words, if necessary, but much more importantly by our example) unto people and unto a world that is hurting profusely and is desperate for hope, for love, and for a peace that the world cannot provide.  We are essential when we make the commitment to not be passive about an uncertain future or by allowing ourselves become somehow diminished by not being able to do so many of the things we’re used to doing as a church.  We are essential when we let the power of God’s own Holy Spirit become our very dynamic as persons and as a people, so that we might truly be part and parcel of “whatever happens next” for the sake of God’s Kingdom within us and all around us, starting right here from Concord, New Hampshire and beyond “to the ends of the earth,” even if it happens by way of Facebook Live.   At the end of the day, you see, the measure of being an effective “witness” can never be measured by the size or the scope of the effort; but rather by its sincerity and the depth of its love.

But it all starts, you see, right here… right now… in the very places where we are quarantined.

Beloved, each and every one of us are called to be witnesses to the Risen Christ and serve as living testimony to the Kingdom of God taking root and flourishing in our midst. Maybe it comes forth in many and creative ways we’re caring for one another as family and friends; maybe it’s found in an encouraging word shared in a phone call, a card or a letter, a facetime chat or ZOOM session; could be it’s shown in the small but powerful ways we seek to reach out to others with “goodie bags” and other not so random acts of kindness; or maybe it’s simply in living as an example of how patience, quiet strength, good humor and “grace under pandemic” shows forth a deep and abiding faith in God’s providence.  But whatever it is and however its manifest, ultimately it serves to proclaim both our allegiance to Christ and what it is, for the sake of our faith, we intend for one another, for our families and friends, for our community and for our world.

And so, by the grace of God in Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit working within us, let us be bold in our witness, most especially in these continued days of challenge; and let the good news of the Kingdom be heard and seen… in us.   

May God in Christ bless our witness, and may our thanks for all things be unto God. 

AMEN and AMEN!

© 2020  Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.

 

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