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From Perplexed to Amazed

(a sermon for April 21, 2019, Easter Sunday, based on Luke 24:1-12)

Whatever else one can say about Easter, it’s to say the least – the very least (!) – it’s perplexing.

Or maybe not; you see, you and I have the advantage of, as Philip Yancey has put it, “reading the Gospels from the other side of Easter;” that is, we’ve come here this morning well aware of how the story turns out.  The moment those women discover the empty tomb, we already know what’s happened; such is our familiarity with the story that we don’t think twice at the thought of angels “in dazzling clothes” suddenly standing there beside them, nor do we feel the women’s terror at their question, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”   We’re not even particularly concerned as to what Peter might find when finally he runs to the tomb and stoops down to look inside, because – spoiler alert (!) – Jesus isn’t there, but has risen!

We’ve heard the good news and it’s that God has raised Jesus from the dead; and that not only sets the stage for the whole rest of the Gospel story – the two men on the Road to Emmaus who encounter the Risen Lord, the utter stubbornness of one “Doubting Thomas” because he hasn’t, the disciples’ grilled fish breakfast with Jesus on the beach, Peter pleading with Jesus three times over(!),“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you!”  (John 21:16) – not only all that and more, but there’s also the aptly named “Great Commission,” Jesus’ command to his disciples, and us, to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” (Matthew 28:19).  We know what happened there at early dawn on the first day of the week: Jesus is alive, and that says everything about who we are as believers and it’s the central truth of faith that makes us who we are as the church.  Because of the resurrection this is us, beloved, and that’s what we’ve come here on this Easter Sunday to celebrate and for which we give our God thanks and praise!

But as I said before, we know and understand this because we know the story inside and out; but what about those who were there on the day itself?  David Lose points out that despite all the variables on how the story gets told in scripture, “one of the common elements of the resurrection stories across the gospels is that no one expects the resurrection… and no one, quite frankly, believes it at first.”  It’s true; no matter our familiarity with the story or how much of centuries’ worth of faith and tradition has been layered upon the gospel accounts, the fact remains that Easter begins not with loud praises and triumphant songs of “hallelujah,” but  rather with some women bringing spices to the tomb in order to anoint Jesus’ dead body; these caring, grieving friends of the deceased seeking to do what needed to be done and have it be finished, only to encounter something unexpected, something unsettling, something terrifying, amazing and even hopeful all at once; but ultimately something that’s altogether impossible and utterly… perplexing.

And why wouldn’t it be?  I mean, the very thought that someone who was dead – three days dead, mind you – could have possibly risen to life; well, that’s just not possible, that’s against the laws of nature, because death is irreversible!  Dead is dead; and in a wonderful quote I read this week from Anna Carter Florence, “if the dead don’t stay dead, what can you count on?” Indeed, the logical response to anyone suggesting otherwise is disbelief!  So it’s no wonder at all that the rest of the disciples quite literally dismissed this news brought forth by the women as “an idle tale,” which, by the way, in the original Greek is leros, which is where we get our word “delirious,” and was understood by the people of that time as something akin to crazy talk; in other words, what these women were saying was nothing more or less than utter nonsense!

And as Luke tells the story, at least, that’s pretty much the end of it!  We do read about how Peter was moved to run and go check out the empty tomb for himself, stooping in to look inside at the grave clothes that were there, but even then we’re told he left wondering what might have happened; as The Message translates it, “He walked away puzzled, shaking his head.”  That’s it; Peter just goes home and nothing else happens!  You know, I have to confess that as someone who likes his stories to come to a clear, definitive, and triumphant conclusion, that’s kind of disappointing! I mean, I really want to have that scene from John’s gospel with Mary weeping outside of the tomb and mistaking the Risen Christ for the gardener (!); or at the very least, I want to hear Matthew’s account of a great earthquake and how “the angel rolled the stone away!” (As the song goes, “Alleluia, what a happy day!”)  Even in Mark we get the image of the women having “fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them.” (16:8)  But in Luke, all we’re left with is a not-so idle tale and unbelieving disciples; all in all an Easter story without much of any real, first hand evidence of the resurrection whatsoever!

Like I said, it’s perplexing, to say the least…but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.  Perhaps our being perplexed is in fact the first step toward… amazement… and even believing!

It should be said here that the lack of, shall we say, empirical proof as to Jesus having risen from the dead is nothing new. In fact, for over 2,000 years now, thinkers and teachers and scientists and theologians have discussed, debated and literally fought over seeking to provide some sort of historical “proof” of the resurrection; from the very beginning there has been skepticism as to the truth of what is the core belief of our Christian faith!  And yet, despite the lack of any kind of real physical evidence, we do believe in the Risen Christ!  We know in our heart of hearts that’s it true, to the point that our very lives both now and eternally are brokered upon it; indeed, the proclamation that we make as Christians that God is even now bringing forth his kingdom into the world is all because of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead!

We believe, you see… even though we weren’t there to see it happen, we still know it’s true; and we know it is because we’ve experienced it.

Ultimately Easter is more than a mere moment in history that took place just outside of Jerusalem two millennia ago on a morning not unlike this one; there is more to the resurrection than historical fact and empirical data and our understanding of what happened amounts to more than simply finding agreement in the differing accounts of the four gospel writers.  Easter, you see, is about what God has done in declaring once and for all that life is more powerful than death and love is more enduring than tragedy.  Easter is all about the overwhelming effect of God’s love to the world; a loved offered without partiality and in more abundance than the world had ever known can ever begin to comprehend.

Easter is the inevitable result of God reaching out to the whole world through Jesus, who died and rose again to demonstrate God’s love to those who don’t know about it and can’t begin to understand it because they’ve never really felt it as their own.   Easter is about love unwarranted and love undeserved but love that’s wholly offered; it’s about love extended, but not merely to the righteous uprights and those who already believe they’ve already proven themselves, but also and especially to those who believe themselves to be devoid of life and without any hope of redemption.  Easter says to each and every one of us that there is life for all from the Lord of all, demonstrated by the resurrection of Jesus Christ our Savior who has given us his victory over sin and death forever!

Actually, you know, at the end of the day this movement from being perplexed to feeling utter amazement comes down to a distance of precisely 18 inches!  That’s right, eighteen inches; that is, the distance from here, the head which insists on facts and evidence and provable data, to here, the heart, which knows the love of Christ and the truth of the resurrection.  Those eighteen inches are the difference between Easter being merely an interesting story and an intriguing possibility, and it being the key to our faith and hope in Jesus and his kingdom as well as our very lives as his disciples.

It was, after all, those eighteen inches that moved Mary and the other women from confusion to fear to utter amazement.  It was those 18 inches that compelled Peter to leave the other disciples behind, so to run to the tomb to look inside for himself, and led him to be “wondering to himself what had [actually] happened,” which turned out to be the first steps of a far greater journey of discipleship.  It was 18 inches that opened the eyes of two travelers on the road to Emmaus so that they could actually see the Risen Christ who’d been walking with them all along; and it was 18 inches that a week later led Thomas to no longer doubt but believe, confessing from his heart that right before his eyes stood his Lord and his God!

And it’s the same 18 inches that will move you and me today from perplexed to amazed.  The good news of this day  and every day is that resurrection was not just some one-time-only event breaking of the laws of nature as we know them.  The resurrection of Jesus Christ is an on-going gift of grace that is fresh and brand new with every heart that is transformed and every life that is made into something glorious by virtue of his victory over death.  That’s how, as Craig Barnes has written, that despite the world’s constant attempts to make it into something else, Easter can never really be about bunnies, springtime or girls in cute new dresses.  Easter, he says, is “about more hope than we can handle,” because first, last and always it’s about our encounter with the risen Christ here and now and how Jesus is ever and always in our midst and in our hearts; ever present in the words we speak, in the love we show, even in our questions and our doubts.  Christ is risen, and he is here now to share his power – his truth, his love, his strength, his faithfulness, his glory, his victory over death and the grave – with you and me and all those who would receive it.

This is the gospel that we proclaim and  that we believe.  We may not fully grasp the depth of his Passion, or fathom the meaning of the empty tomb; but we stand amazed at it, shouting in wonder and amazement at his glory and embracing his love; rejoicing in the truth that whether we live or we die, we belong to Christ!

So let us rejoice, beloved, in the power of the risen Christ and in the power of transforming hope; let us proclaim the truth of how death has indeed been swallowed up in victory, to the praise of our brother, our teacher, our friend, and our Savior, Jesus Christ, crucified and risen!

Christ is risen, beloved…. He is Risen Indeed!

Alleluia!  And AMEN!

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on April 21, 2019 in Easter, Jesus, Joy, Life, Sermon

 

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Welcomed Home

(a sermon for March 31, 2019, the 4th Sunday in Lent, based on Luke 15:1-32)

Tell me the truth now; when you heard this morning’s scripture reading, didn’t you think to yourselves, Oh, I know this story; I know where this is headed!

Actually, I’d be really surprised if you didn’t have that thought; after all, not only is it safe to say that this story of “The Prodigal Son” is among the most beloved of Jesus’ parables, quite honestly it’s probably logged more pulpit time than nearly anything else in the gospels!

I know I’ve preached on this passage several times over the years and no doubt you’ve heard it more times than that; and from every possible perspective, from that of the rebellious younger son who runs off and squanders his father’s money only to end up feeding pigs in a far off land, to the elder “good” son who stayed home to run the family farm; and of course, from the point of view of the waiting father who welcomes his once-presumed-dead prodigal son home with great rejoicing!

It is a wonderful parable about sin and redemption, grace and joy and our very human tendency to stubbornly refuse those things!  Which is wonderful; the trouble is, however, this is one of those biblical stories so familiar to our ears that it’s pretty much become like one of Aesop’s Fables, in which we can skip right ahead to the moral; which in the case of this story would be, “No matter how badly you have messed up in your life, pick yourself up, wipe the pig slop off your clothes (!) and go home; because there’s love and forgiveness waiting for you there, and once you’ve been welcomed home you can start over where you left off…

…oh, and if you happen to be the older son in this parable… stop your pouting, and go to the party already!”

That would be the moral of the story as we’ve always known it.  Not that this is wrong, mind you; it’s just not wholly what Jesus was getting at when he told the story!  You see, one of the problems with the over-familiarity we have with stories like this one is that they’ve lost, shall we say, their “shock and awe” value! When Jesus told this parable, he intended it to be surprising, shocking, even in a way offensive to the ears hearing it; not as the warm and fuzzy bit of self-help advice that we so often glean from it.  And the key to understanding that comes in knowing that Jesus offered up these parables not so much for the benefit of the inner circle of his followers and well-wishers, nor were they even directed primarily to the crowds of the curious that surrounded them, but rather they were for “powers that be;” that is, the Pharisees and scribes who were, as Luke succinctly puts it, “grumbling,” and complaining that Jesus was spending altogether too much time in the company of sinners and lowlifes.

Actually, in this instance, Jesus tells three parables which when told together culminate in that story of the prodigal son.  The first is about a lost sheep, or more accurately, about the shepherd so passionate about finding that missing member of the flock that he’ll leave the other 99 behind while he beats the bushes in the search.  And, wouldn’t you do that?  Oh, and while I’m on the subject, Jesus goes on to say, who among you, if you lost a coin – even if was only one coin out of ten – isn’t it true that you’d fairly well tear the house apart trying to find that one single coin?  And once you’ve found it – the sheep or the coin, don’t you just want just call all your neighbors and friends to celebrate that that which was lost is now found!

So… given all that, how about that rebellious younger son?  I mean, yes, he essentially tells his father to drop dead – whatever I’m getting in the inheritance, give it to me now because, Pop, I am out of here (!) – but tell the truth, which one of you wouldn’t do that for your son, to give everything you ever had and worked for to this obnoxious, ungrateful rebel kid of yours?  And then, once he’s left and he’s wasted all your money on parties and gambling and women, and then comes home looking like “the wreck of the Hesperus” and smelling of a pigsty, who among you wouldn’t welcome him back home with a hug and a kiss, not to mention the biggest homecoming celebration anybody’s ever seen?  Who among you wouldn’t do that?

Cut to the faces of the scribes and Pharisees, and of course, their scowls say it all:  No… nobody would do that…ever!

I mean, lost sheep and missing coins, that’s one thing; but feasts and fatted calves for lazy, irresponsible prodigals, that’s just crazy talk!  Actions have consequences, Jesus, and bad behavior results in punishment, that’s just the way it is; it’s what our sacred law says and that’s how we’ve always matters such as this, so why would you even suggest such a thing, Jesus!

And that’s when Jesus lets the shock give way to awe:  oh… excuse me, did you think I was talking about your behavior?  These aren’t stories about what you do; these are stories about what God does, about how God behaves.  Don’t you get it?  God is the seeking shepherd who will sacrifice nearly everything in order to bring the lost one home; God is that woman who is relentless in her search for one little lost coin amongst many.

And yes, God is that waiting father, who when he sees his son “while he was still far off,” doesn’t even consider what’s gone on in the past; just that his beloved son who he believed to be dead and gone from his life forever was home! And so he ran – of course, he ran (!) – he literally sprinted across that field to embrace him and welcome him and celebrate his return.  Because “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine persons who need no repentance.”

Or to put it another way, forgiveness is ours to receive and that forgiveness comes from God.

Last week, you’ll remember that we talked a lot about the importance of and need for repentance: that crucial opportunity that you and I have to change and turn around and do what needs to be done to bear fruit before God; and the need for and the receiving of forgiveness is all wrapped up in that.  But that gives rise to a question, one that is very much a part of this parable and, for that matter, one that’s been debated across the ages: what comes first, the repentance or the forgiveness?  Asked another way, in order to be forgiven do we first need to come clean for all your sins and start a new life, or is the new life the result of being forgiven?  Truth is, we can make a case for both points of view in this story.  Quite honestly, our human attitude – not to mention the way we do confession in the church – it tends to side with the idea that repentance is required for forgiveness.  But that’s what makes the story that Jesus is telling about this sinful, “prodigal” son so radical.

I love what the late author and Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon wrote about this: he maintained that even when the younger son “[comes] to himself” there in the pigsty, there is no real repentance.  “This is just one more dumb plan for his life,” he said.  Yes, he does confess the sin. “That’s true.  He got that one right.  ‘And I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.’ Score two.  He gets that one right” too.  But then he gets it dead wrong:  he starts to negotiate; he tries to rationalize out what his best bargaining points are. Maybe I can work as a hired hand, or whatever; honestly, this is not unlike a kid coming to confess his or her transgression and then adding, well, at least I’m being honest about this so that maybe it’ll reduce my time of being grounded?

Ultimately, wrote Capon, “this is not a real repentance; it’s just a plan for a life.  [But] what it is, is enough to get him started going home, and consequently, when he goes home, what happens next is an absolutely fascinating kind of thing.”

It’s God.  God is what happens!  Did you notice in this story that the father never actually says anything to the son?  There’s no effort to extract a confession from him, no “what have you got to say for yourself, young man?”  There’s just this loving embrace and the kiss, this incredibly emotional welcome home.  It’s only after all this that the son manages to get the confession out of his mouth; and even then the father’s already busy calling the servants to get this party started!

It’s amazing, isn’t it?  The scribes and the Pharisees, and yes, even you and I, we tend to think that in order to receive the forgiveness and restoration we’ve been seeking we’ve got to do everything properly and in good order; but here’s God who just up and forgives, not because all the dots have been connected but simply out of love!  And it’s all because of this relentless desire of God that his children should be welcomed home; that’s the source of this amazing and unending joy “in the presence of angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

And don’t misunderstand here, the prodigal does repent; it’s just that as Jesus tells the story, the real confession and the true repentance comes about in celebration of the forgiveness that he got for nothing!  None of us, you see, can earn forgiveness;  there was nothing that the prodigal son received in his homecoming that he actually deserved.  For all practical purposes, he was indeed dead; he had ceased to be his father’s son.  And yet in his father’s arms he rises from the dead and he’s able to take his place again at his father’s side.

And yes, I totally get the anger and frustration of the older son – don’t you?  I mean, doggone it, he was the “good” son!  He’s done everything right, and we can understand how he isn’t about to sit down at the same table with what Barbara Brown Taylor has beautifully described as this “self-centered, pig-loving, sin-sick brother who has cost his family so much grief.”  sThe older son represents every one of us who have strived to do the right thing and follow all the rules and yet feel like we’ve never gotten the credit we deserve for doing so. It’s a telling tale that even when the father makes his case for forgiveness, we’re never told whether or not the “good son” ever buys his father’s argument.  And we do understand that kind of reluctance; for just like the older son, we do like to know who’s right and who’s wrong, and it does feel kind of good if you’re the one vindicated in the process!

But at the end of the day, you see, it’s not about what we do.  Yes, it is good that we’re living the life of faith as we should, great that we’re “walking the walk” more than merely “talking the talk.” But ultimately, it’s what God does that matters. And here’s the thing: this old, familiar story serves as a fresh reminder to all of us that what God is doing in Jesus Christ, what’s soon to happen on the cross – indeed, what’s already happened on the cross – is all about God’s utterly indefatigable determination to welcome each and every one of us home from wherever we have been, no matter how far off.

There is deep within each and every one of us a want, a need, a deep yearning for home.  It might be found in a physical structure, it could be with a family or a circle of friends, and it so often finds its expression in our gathering together as the people of God in this sacred place… a place, a people, a life where we feel truly welcomed home.  Well, the very good news is that God wants to welcome us home… the question is, what will we do about it?

To quote Barbara Brown Taylor again, while all this is going on with the father and the older son, “there is a banquet going on.  You can hear the music and the dancing even out in the yard, and there is plenty left to eat.  Your father won’t make you go in the house.  He’ll just stand in the yard with you to protect you, the same way he protected your brother.”

But, here’s the thing you need to remember: he does want you to come to the party and to come as you are! This is a true celebration; it is a gift to be forgiven and to be welcomed home.  All you need to do is say yes… accept the gift that’s offered you and come inside!  And when you do, if you do, then nothing’s ever going to be the same; life… new life is yours.

So come on in, because the celebration is on…

… and thanks be to God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
 

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The Song That Never Ends

(A Meditation for Christmas Eve 2018, based on Luke 2:8-20)

It is most decidedly not a Christmas song; and in fact, I’d suspect that the only way you might even know it is if you had little children in your life round about the early 1990’s.  As performed by puppeteer Shari Lewis and “Lamb Chop,” it went a little something like this:

“This is the song that never ends,
Yes, it goes on and on my friend.
Some people started singing it,
Not knowing what it was,
And they’ll continue singing it forever just because…
This is the song that never ends….”

You get the idea; this truly is a song that once begun, goes on and on and on… suffice to say it’s a melody tailor-made for long car rides and antsy kids (if not for the parents or grandparents on board who are at the end of their last frayed nerve!).  Indeed, it’s one of those songs that’s silly and fun and all manner of irritating, all at the same time!  And the truth of it is, and here’s the reason I risked putting that tune into your heads tonight, this is pretty much how some people feel about Christmas music!  Even I must confess that as much as I absolutely love the music of this season, nonetheless there are some songs in the holiday canon that just seem to be played on an endless loop! I mean, especially given all the discussion this year, how many versions of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” or “Santa Baby” can there actually be?  It’s no wonder that there are those out there who are very ready to be done with these songs for another year (not me, not yet…. I’m just sayin’!).

As much as I hate to admit it, I’m aware that even some of the sacred carols of Christmas – the beautiful songs that we’re singing here tonight – sometimes risk having that same effect on people; but I dare say for a different reason than sheer repetition.  After all, Christmas carols by their very nature are non-traditional and even a bit irregular, both musically and lyrically.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that (!); as the late Halford Luccock once put it, some of the best hymns are the ones that are labeled “irregular,” especially at Christmas.  “Irregular?” he wrote.  “I should say so! The whole thing was highly irregular!  A baby in a barn.  What could be more irregular than that?  Shockingly irregular!”  But then again, that’s the way of God, isn’t it; if there’s no room in inn, “God will find a barn or other place in which God’s new word can be born.”

The truth is, friends, is that ours is an irregular God who is utterly determined to come to us and abide with us, even in the guise of a tiny, helpless infant born in a stable surrounded by farm animals; and that is the reason that we sing… again and again, and on and on!

In our worship yesterday we talked a little bit about the angels’ glorious song of peace and joy on that first Christmas night, and also about the shepherds “living out in the fields” who were the ones blessed to hear it.  It was, in the words of the old hymn, “music of the spheres,” a heavenly song sung by a heavenly host, a song as bright and as bold as the star that shone overhead.  It was truly “good news of great joy for all the people… a Savior, who is the Messiah the Lord,” and it was, to say the very least, a singular, revelatory moment for the shepherds just as it was for all of creation; it was in every describable way, a song for the ages.

That said, however, I wonder how it was for those shepherds “after the angels had left them and gone into heaven,” and after the song was done and all that was left was the enveloping quiet of that holy night, a calm only broken by the occasional bleat of the sheep who’d been sleeping nearby.  We know, of course, that their first instinct was to go immediately to Bethlehem to “see this thing that has taken place,” but what I want to know is if as the shepherds went “with haste,” as Luke puts it, were they singing?   That incredible song just sung by a literal choir of angels; was that still going round and round in their heads?  Was the song on their lips, were they trying to emulate the melodies and harmonies as they rushed into town, or could they have been simply whistling as they went?

Well, Luke doesn’t say exactly; we’re only told that just as they’d been told they could, the shepherds did find the manger and Mary, Joseph and the child within, and that when they did see this new, holy family, the shepherds were compelled to tell Mary and Joseph about everything that they’d seen and heard earlier that night.  And don’t know about you, beloved, but I have to believe that as they did, those shepherds sang!  And you know they sang with joy, they sang with enthusiasm, they sang loudly and maybe even a bit off key (!); the kind singing you do when you’re so filled up that you don’t even care how it sounds to those around you!

And the thing was, those shepherds were just getting started!  Even as they left the manger, even as they knew they needed to get back to the fields and the business of tending the sheep, all the while they were “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.”  And why not? The child was born, the Messiah had come and now the world and their very lives had changed forever!  This song, the song the angels sang, the song that was forever on their lips and in their hearts, this song of God’s redeeming love in Jesus who is called Emmanuel… this was, and is, the song that never ends!

And even now, over 2,000 years later, we still sing – again and again, and on and on – in joyful praising of the God who loves us so much that he will not rest until each and all of us have been embraced and so caught up in his tremendous and infinite love that we have no other choice than to sing!

Beloved, if I have but one prayer for you on this holy night, it would be that you’re singing; really singing, not just tonight in the beauty of candlelight and in the fellowship of kindred hearts together on Christmas Eve, but always… after Christmas Day, into the new year and beyond… that you will be so moved by the gift of this holy child and in him the presence of the living God that you will be singing with joy and faith and purpose that divine song of peace and love that never, ever ends.

The late Ann Weems once asked if “there are still those who long to hear an angel’s song and touch a star?  To kneel beside some other shepherd in the hope of catching a glimpse of eternity in a baby’s smile?  Are there still those who sing ‘Peace on earth, goodwill to all’? If there are,” Weems prayed, “then O Lord, keep ablaze their flickering candle in the darkness of this world!”

Well, here on Mountain Road in Concord, the candles are flickering and the light of the Christ Candle is about to be shared among us in this beautiful and sacred space, cutting through the darkness of this night and of the world that surrounds us.  May this light truly fill us with all HOPE in believing; may it awaken us to the PEACE that only Christ can bring; may it fill us with JOY and make us aware of divine and infinite LOVE…

…and may it inspire us, today and always, to SING!

Merry Christmas, my dear friends, thanks be God, and

AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on December 24, 2018 in Christmas, Jesus, Joy, Music, Sermon, Sermon Series

 

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