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Category Archives: Joy

Angels Round About the Manger

(A Meditation for Christmas Eve 2017, based on Luke 2:1-20)

The late Ann Weems, that wonderful Presbyterian poet and worship leader once wrote this little piece that has kept coming to my mind in this Advent and Christmas season:

“Wouldn’t it be grand to be an angel,” she wrote, “and have as your address ‘The Realms of the Glory of God’?  And swing on rainbows, and gather stars in your pockets, winging in and out of earth in a flurry of moondust with the messages of God?  Comforting the distressed, warning the righteous, delivering the just, [and] guarding little children?”

Now there you go!  Now isn’t that the perfect image of a Christmas angel?  Granted, it is a bit childlike in its description; but I don’t know about you, but I’m realizing that so much of how I think about the story of the first Christmas and those who were a part of it comes down to how I envisioned it when I was child!  For instance, I remember when I was very little having a picture book (it might well have been the “Little Golden Book” edition of The Littlest Angel, I’m not sure, because one of the angels in the story had a slingshot sticking out of his robe, which even then I thought was very impressive!); and I remember this one drawing in the book of all the angels in heaven gathering together to sing their alleluias to the newborn king.  And here they were, all the cherubim and seraphim singing and dancing, and holding; jumping and leaping from cloud to cloud and over one another leap frog style!  Basically what it was was the multitude of the heavenly host transformed into an elementary school playground!  Just a childhood fantasy, I know, but the thing is that image has always stuck with me even as an adult.  And by the way, why wouldn’t that wonderful moment of annunciation be filled with such ethereal joy and singing, and might I add, such a whole lot of fun as well?

That’s how I wanted to see it, anyway!

However… when you read the story from scripture,  what’s the first thing the angels say?  It’s “Do not be afraid!”   And understand, they say this not just on the hillside with the shepherds, but also in the moment when the angel comes to tell Mary that God had chosen her to bear the Christ child, and also when the angel appears to Joseph in a dream to tell him that this child of Mary’s was of the Holy Spirit; it’s always the same thing:  “Do not be afraid,” as though the angels’ presence had not inspired joy and celebration as much as fear and dread!

And that’s an interesting thing to think about!  For instance, it’s hard to imagine how these shepherds, who by virtue of their profession and their very nature had to have been quite tough and rough around the edges, could have been afraid of anything; and yet we’re told specifically that they were “terrified,” or in the language of the old King James translation, “sore afraid.” Perhaps the angels’ presence was so mysterious and overpowering that they might well have fled or panicked; maybe the bright radiance that suddenly cut through the night was such that for a time they were both blinded and bewildered by what was happening; or perhaps they sensed that this was a sign of some judgment, and like criminals who fear getting caught in the act, they suddenly felt the need to hide from sight!  Whatever the reason, there was fear in their hearts; for what was immediately clear, to the shepherds, as it had been to Mary and Joseph before them, was that this was no less than an appearance from a messenger of God!

So the first words of the angel needed to be one of assurance, to keep them from running away, something to help them to open their ears and their hearts to what God wanted to tell them; this amazing good news of a great joy which was for all the people, “born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord;” a baby, of all things, wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in the manger!   And then, as if to emphasize the the greatness of this news, there was a multitude of angels singing their praises to God, saying “Glory to God in the highest!” And as that was happening, something even more incredible than the angels’ singing began to take place: the shepherds’ fear was gone, and in its place there was wonder, and joy, and the power of God’s intervening love for his people!

And when it was all over and the angels had returned to heaven, remember that the shepherds did not take the time to think about how scared they had been, nor to reflect on what had happened to them.  No… the shepherds went, and with haste, “to see this thing which [had] happened,” that the Lord had made known to them.  Fear was gone, replaced by need to see the child and tell the good news to everyone, everywhere!

The truth is, of course, that like the shepherds, you and I are scared too.   If we’re honest, then we know that fear is all-too-much a part of our daily lives; fear over a great many things in life and death: the kind of fear that holds us back, the fear that keeps us from giving of ourselves, the fear that keeps us from loving others and offering forgiveness.  Indeed, fear paralyzes us, imprisons us and often haunts us.  But here’s the good news; just as the angels appeared to shepherds on that holy night, we too are given that truly blessed assurance that we do not have to fear.  For you see, that loving, forgiving and redeeming presence of God is always with us in the person of Jesus Christ born in the manger of Bethlehem!  He’s there with us and for us, waiting to erase our guilt, to replace our shame with joy, and to warm our hearts so that we might truly love our neighbors as ourselves and to do our own part bring peace on earth.  The glory of God that is Christmas is  always that God comes, and intervenes, and in the face of fear truly gives us tidings of comfort and joy!

Yes, beloved, the angels who were round about the manger on that holy night long ago are still with us today, telling us the good news of God’s love and urging us on this night to faith; faith in a God who loves us and walks with us in whatever we face in life, giving us the assurance of his peace that the world can neither give nor take away.

So watch the skies tonight, dear friends; keep your eyes cast toward the stars, and listen for the songs of heaven playing even now in your heart.  Have no fear; do not be afraid, for on this holy night divine, Christ is born in Bethlehem and good news is ours!

Thanks be to God for that perfect love that casts out fear . . .

And may God bless you on this Christmas night.

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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The Faithfulness of Exuberant Giving

One springtime some years ago I was asked to lead a graveside committal service for an 89 year old man from Florida who had passed away earlier that winter, and whose dying wish had been to be buried in the cemetery of our little town in Maine where he was born and raised, with the service led by the pastor of the church where he’d grown up; this despite the fact that he hadn’t even visited our town, or the church, in at least 70 years.  However, this was the one place he’d always thought of as home and it was very important to him that at the last, he would return there. When I spoke with the man’s widow about the service itself she suggested that perhaps I could look through church records to find some “historical reference” to her late husband’s activity in our congregation those many years ago; a task that in all honesty I was already thinking was going be like finding the proverbial needle in the haystack!

And I’ll admit, it was difficult; in fact, all I could manage to find was a reference to this man’s third-grade Sunday School class being presented with Bibles on a church “Children’s Sunday” way back in 1908! It wasn’t much at all, but it was enough; in one of those wonderful moments of grace that can only be attributed to the Holy Spirit, it turned out that the man’s family had brought with them that very same bible so they could show me!

The service ended up both a fitting memorial and a true celebration of life; and when it was all over, the man’s widow came up to offer her sincere thanks and presented me with an envelope which contained a very nice financial gift which was meant as her family’s contribution to the church’s work.  I thanked her very much for her generosity, passed on the money to our church treasurer and figured that was that.

Except it wasn’t: a few weeks later, I get this registered letter from some legal firm in Florida which contained another check from this woman in the amount of… well, let’s just say, a rather sizeable amount of money; designated specifically for the church’s restoration project. Moreover, the enclosed letter explained that there were to be more checks coming to the church in the future, the only request being that the money be put to good use and that the giver remain anonymous.  And if that weren’t more than enough, for a number of Christmases that followed Lisa and I would find this huge box of Florida grapefruit delivered to our doorstep, accompanied by a handwritten card from this same woman wishing our family well!

It was, to say the least, a wonderful series of gestures on her part; in fact, one day a couple of years in (!), one of her lawyers called me to confirm the church’s address; and in the course of our conversation, I made the comment of just how incredibly generous she had been to us.  The lawyer simply laughed and said, “Oh, Pastor, you don’t know the half of it!”  He went on to explain that some years before this woman had determined that her children and grandchildren were all financially comfortable on their own and thus in no need of her or her husband’s money.  So since as the saying goes, “you can’t take it with you,” she was determined to use up all that money before she died; making donations to countless charities, schools and churches, all with the stipulation that no “big deal” be made out of it.  The lawyer went on to describe how this old woman (who was in her 90’s at the time, mind you!) would walk into his office once a month with a brand new list of places for him to send more of her money, adding with a chuckle, “I’ve never seen anyone so happy about giving everything she has away!”

Even all these years later, I still smile when I think about it; and I have to confess that the memory of her extravagant giving always puts me in mind of the gospel story of the “Widow’s Mite” (Mark 12:40-44).  Granted, there are fundamental differences in these two widows: unlike the poor woman that Jesus honored for her supremely sacrificial gift at the temple treasury (“two small copper coins,” says Mark, “which are worth a penny.”), our benefactor from the Sunshine State was most definitely not poverty stricken and certainly had an abundance of resources at her disposal; so perhaps her giving was not wholly sacrificial. Nonetheless, there was in her own motivation a joyful exuberance for giving that both praised and served God; an utter gladness about what she was doing which was surely grounded in a true and active faith.  One thing was for certain: all we who were the recipients of that gladness were most certainly blessed because of it!

In a smaller church like the one I am now privileged to serve, where budgets are always tight and stewardship is an on-going concern, so much of the important work of ministry we do together is both equipped and empowered by this same kind of exuberant giving. Of course, these things don’t always happen on the grand scale of what I described above; most often around here it’s done quietly and without much fanfare, usually as a response to a specific need in the church or the result of someone taking notice that something wonderful could happen in our midst “if only” there were the proper resources available; sometimes it’s simply been an instance of good people showing up to help out at exactly the right time!

But no matter the variety of the gift, I’ve found that there’s always this joyful extravagance in the way that it is given; and as a pastor, I stand in wonder at just how representative it is of the kind of exuberant, faithful giving that not only builds up the church, but also ends up a true expression of the Kingdom of God in our midst.

Certainly by any measure, that makes us supremely blessed indeed!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on May 18, 2017 in Church, Joy, Ministry, Reflections, Stewardship

 

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Recognizing the Resurrection

(a sermon for April 16, 2017, Easter Sunday, based on John 20:1-18)

Well…finally!  At long last, after an arduous winter that has seemed for some of us like it went on forever, here it is Easter Sunday, the day which is the harbinger of new life both within us and around us!  So may I just say here that thanks be to God, life prevails!

Now, having said that, don’t misunderstand me: in faith we profess that Easter’s true meaning is not wrapped up in the arrival of springtime, but wholly in the resurrection of Jesus Christ… however, on a day such as this, when it’s going to be such an incredible day outside and we’ve got all these beautiful flowers inside, I think we’d all have to confess that our senses might tell us something different.  After all, those themes of new life and rebirth are certainly apropos to our Christian faith, so we do indeed rejoice today that “morning has broken” in more ways than one, and that you and I can bear witness to God’s active and ongoing “recreation of the new day!”

And besides, you and I know that it doesn’t always work out this way! In part because of the changing place of Easter on the calendar, but also partly because here in New Hampshire springtime arrives on its own terms, thank you very much (!), there are many years that we gather for Easter worship still bundled up in our winter clothes!  I remember one particular Sunrise Service years ago when there’d been this rather significant snowfall the night before; but come East morning we trudged gamely up this long hill in six inches of wet, slushy snow so to greet the dawning of what was a gray, dreary and very wintry morning!  We huddled together in the cold, we sang the songs, we said the prayers, we shouted the alleluias – we were not about to let the joy of our faith be contained, no matter how bad the weather was – but admittedly, it was kind of hard for us to recognize signs of new life on that particular day!

The fact is, there are spring days, especially in these parts, that look all the world like it’s still winter… but that’s where looks can be deceiving.  A day can dawn cold and harsh, yet by mid-morning the sun will be high and warm all around.  An overnight snowfall that seems a setback to the coming of spring will melt quickly, nourishing the soil and hastening new growth; and before you know it crocuses and daffodils are defiantly poking through the mud and reaching for the sun.  Oh yes, sometimes the signs of life we’re seeking are hard to recognize; but rest assured the signs are there.  No matter what the weather or the darkness or the stress… ultimately life will prevail!

…which, come to think of it, seems pretty close to how one might describe the resurrection!

Looking for signs of life was the last thing on the mind, or the heart, of Mary Magdalene as she approached the tomb early that morning “while it was still dark.”  Because you see, in a very real sense her own life, or at least life as she had known it, had come to an abrupt end at the exact moment on Friday afternoon when her master and friend Jesus had uttered, “It is finished,” and died hanging there on the cross.  Mary’s grief was deep and profound, and she’d come there not only to perform the ritual act of anointing Jesus’ body for burial, but also, I suspect, to bring some closure to it all; just to take care of this one last thing so it could all be done and overwith. So know that in the midst of this Mary was neither looking for nor expecting anything like… resurrection!

Even when she could see that the stone had been rolled away, even when she ran back to tell Peter and John of what she’d seen there were no thoughts of Jesus having risen from the dead (!); in fact, in her despair Mary’s main concern is that someone had to have taken the body of Jesus out of the tomb, and so how were they to know where they laid him?  The whole scene, at least as John tells it, seems bathed in confusion and disbelief; even Peter and John’s discovery of the empty tomb comes off as uncertain at best: both of the men see the linen wrappings lying there, but neither emerge with any real proclamation that that Jesus had risen, simply that John “saw and believed,” but also that “as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”

In truth, there are signs of life abounding; but at this point, none of them – the very first ones on the scene of this first Easter morning – none of them recognized the resurrection!   Maybe something was amiss; maybe something had happened, but all they really knew for sure is that Jesus was dead.  And they knew this because they’d seen him die; and not merely passing from life, mind you, but they’d seen him crucified, and not before having been betrayed and mocked and beaten and finally nailed to a cross.  Jesus was dead, and the hopes of those closest to him had died along with him.  So even if in the back of their minds was this faint memory of Jesus’ words about being raised from the dead, how would they possibly recognize it happening now?

So now Peter and John go back to their homes… and Mary’s left there in the garden, alone with her thoughts and awash in her tears.  It’s so typical of grief, isn’t it?  In that moment every emotion that built up in her over the past few days just comes gushing out and she begins to weep uncontrollably.  But here’s what’s interesting: as she’s crying, Mary decides to look and see for herself what’s inside of the tomb ; and now there are two angels, dressed in white, sitting where Jesus’ body had been. But here’s the thing: even now Mary doesn’t recognize what’s happened, because she’s still talking about Jesus’ body having been taken away.  Even when she hears this voice behind her asking her why she is weeping, she turns around and does not recognize that it’s Jesus!  Mary thinks it’s the gardener!

But who could blame Mary for this; because remember, Jesus was dead!  Mary was looking for a corpse, not anticipating the arrival of a risen Lord!  It takes Jesus speaking her name – “Mary!” – spoken in the most tender and loving tone possible to awaken her from grief and the loss of hope.  It took Jesus calling her by name to make her see that the impossible had become real and that life, life abundant and eternal – had prevailed.

“Rabboni,” she said.  Teacher!  In that moment, in every sense of the word, the resurrection “dawned upon her.”   In an instant Mary moved from grief to hope, from death to life, from being utterly alone to dwelling in the presence of Christ; the horror of Good Friday had become the glory of Easter Sunday in one incredible movement of divine grace.  Mary recognized Jesus there before her and she understood; suddenly, everything was different; everything was new, because He had risen!  In the midst of Mary’s every fear and her hopelessness, Christ had risen indeed!

Life prevailed!  And for this, beloved, you and I can only say, “Thank God!”

Thank God!

Because the truth of it is, like Mary before us, you and I live in a world that’s still filled with so many Good Fridays.  Simply put, it’s hard for us to recognize the resurrection in a world that’s so often steeped in that which is related to suffering and death.  I mean, how can we possibly see the signs of life prevailing when every day we’re living with wars and rumors of war; bombarded with countless details regarding the all the latest and disturbing random episodes of hatred, violence and terror; and this is to say nothing of the wrestling that so often torments our own hearts!  Not to be a “downer” on this beautiful day, but this is the sad “Good Friday” reality of our world and our lives. But here’s the good news: that thanks be to God in Jesus Christ, we are Easter people in a Good Friday world!   Christ is risen, beloved – he is alive (!) – and because of the resurrection Christ is present and at work in the world and in our very lives.

There is, in fact, no corner of our lives and living where Jesus Christ is not alive for us; no situation we face where Christ is not walking with us in the encounter.  In times of crisis or confusion, despair or destruction Jesus is there to guide us and lead us; he is there to comfort and challenge us; to bind up our wounds and bear our burdens; to empower and encourage our ministries of life as his disciples; and finally, to bring us beyond life and death to the life that endures forever.  This is what comes in the resurrection, God’s final destruction of all the death and darkness of our lives; and as such, it is  the ultimate declaration to you and me and all creation that life… true life… will prevail!

So how are we to recognize the resurrection in our midst?   Well, it can be seen whenever we gather to worship and sing and pray before the Lord; and it’s revealed every time we come to the table of blessing to embrace the promise of the broken bread and the shared cup; truly, the resurrection is proclaimed whenever you and I take hold of our true identity as a community of faith, the body of Christ.

But there are other places that the resurrection is clearly seen; like  in those horrible moments of life when, even though we’re sure we can’t anymore, somehow we hang on.  When we bear the burdens we believed to be unbearable; or when there’s grace to be found in the face of illness, or courage that’s found walking through the valley of the shadow of death.  It’s revealed when we care for one another, sharing tears and laughter and hugs; when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked and welcome the stranger; when we pursue peace and work for true justice in all circumstances;  and when we love even as we are being loved.  Here is where we stand at the empty tomb and discover that right before us is the Risen Christ; and by his calling us by name we are assured that he is risen, indeed; and that life… our life… will prevail!

The story goes that a certain artist once wrote some rather indignant remarks to his fellow painters, asking, “Why do you keep filling gallery after gallery with endless pictures of… Christ in weakness, of Christ upon the cross, Christ dying, Christ hanging dead?  Why do you stop there as if the curtain closed upon that horror?”

“Keep the curtain open,” he continued, “and with the cross in the foreground, let us see beyond it to the Easter dawn with its beams streaming upon the risen Christ, Christ alive, Christ ruling, Christ triumphant.  For we should be ringing out over the world that Christ has won, that evil is toppling, that the end is sure, and that death is followed by victory.  That is the tonic we need to keep us healthy, the trumpet blast to fire our blood and send us crowding in behind our master, happily on our way, laughing and singing and recklessly unafraid, because the feel of victory is in the air, and our hearts thrill to it.”

Well, the art critic who spoke these words was Michelangelo, and he wrote those words hundreds of years ago, but they still speak profoundly to you and me today on Easter Sunday 2017.  Death may indeed surround us, but Christ is alive, Christ rules and is triumphant, transforming everything in our lives; even every uncertainty, every tragedy, every senseless act of hatred and violence that would threaten to undo us.  For in the risen Christ we know, at long last, love is stronger than hate; that good triumphs over evil; and that God has spoken the last word over sin and death!

Because of the resurrection, beloved, life prevails!

Christ is Risen.  He is risen indeed!

Alleluia!  Thanks be to God, and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on April 16, 2017 in Easter, Jesus, Joy, Life, Sermon

 

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