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Category Archives: Joy

Mary’s Song: Present Perfect

(a sermon for December 2, 2018, the First Sunday of Advent; first in a series, based on Luke 1:39-56)

Of this time of the year, at least one thing can be said for certain: ‘tis the season for singing!

I don’t think I have to tell you that one of the things I like best about the Christmas season is the music.  All of it, both the sacred and secular; from Handel’s Messiah to Gene Autry singing “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and just about everything in-between from every musical genre you can name, this quite literally is the soundtrack of my life from about the first of November (that’s right, I admit it!) to New Year’s Eve.  Part of it is nostalgia, I suppose; so much of the music of this season has a way of bringing forth fond memories of Christmases past and of the loved ones who shared those times with us.  Moreover, not only can these songs lift our spirits in the midst of difficult times, they can also be very cathartic at times in bringing forth some much needed tears!  And let me just add here that as far as this pastor is concerned some of the most beautiful, familiar and faith-stirring hymns we have in the Christian tradition are the ones we’re going to be singing over the next few weeks in celebration of Christ’s birth; so get ready, friends, for lots of carol singing!

I know; there are some songs of the season that can become kind of grating upon hearing them over and over and over again all through the month of December (my nomination for that, by the way, would be the ubiquitous “Last Christmas, I gave you my heart, and the very next day you gave it away,” which as I point out to my family on a regular basis actually has nothing to do with Christmas at all, but I digress!); and yes, maybe a few of these songs with all their sentimentality end up reflecting more of how we imagine Christmas should be, as opposed to how it really is in this chaotic and conflicted world in which we live.  But I still love the music; for me every “jingle bell,” “fa la la la la” and “peace on earth, goodwill toward men” we sing not only speaks to the best part of our selves as God’s people, but also points directly to how the world ought to be and will be all because of God’s wondrous gift to us of a Savior in Jesus Christ our Lord.

And that alone is ample reason for us to be out there singing Christmas music, and also cause for rejoicing at this most wonderful time of the year!

Actually, when you think about it, so much of this particular season of the church year – that is, the season of Advent, because it’s not Christmas yet – is built upon this very dichotomy of what is and what will be.  On the one hand, these Advent weeks of waiting, watching and preparing all lead up to our joyous celebration of an event that has in fact already taken place: the birth of Jesus in the manger of Bethlehem some 2,000 years ago.  And yet, as Christians, just as we believe that he died and rose again, we also know that Jesus will come again, bringing with him the fullness of the kingdom of God.  And so, for us in the church Advent is also about preparing ourselves for his promised return, by prayer, penitence and self-examination. That’s why over the centuries the church has often referred to the season of Advent as “a little lent,” and why purple, which is the color of penitence, adorns our altar and the neck of your preacher; because preparing our hearts for the fulfillment of our Lord’s promises both present and future does call for some humility on our parts and at least a modicum of spiritual reproach.  But that said, Advent is also about acknowledging that while our world – and us in it – does not yet match up to that promised vision of God’s kingdom here on earth, by God’s grace and infinite love made manifest in Jesus our Emmanuel, it will be… soon and very soon, it will be; and that, dear friends, is cause for true rejoicing!

… which brings us to the first of our “First Songs of Christmas” from Luke’s gospel, which is Mary’s Song of Praise; also known as the Magnificat.

As we pick up the story in our text for this morning, we’re actually in that time in between the angel Gabriel’s having given Mary the news of her bearing this child “who will be called the Son of the Most High,” (Luke 1:32) and that silent, holy night months later in Bethlehem when the baby would finally be born; and as anyone who has in any fashion awaited the time for a child to be born will attest, this most certainly was a time of great expectation and all manner of preparation; not to mention time for “pondering” what the reality of having a baby who was the Son of God was going to mean for her and for the world around her.  Luke tells us that soon after Gabriel’s announcement, “Mary set out and went with haste” to a town in the hill country of Judea to visit with family in those first months of pregnancy; and there, in the words of Shawnthea Monroe, was “an intimate encounter between two extraordinary women.”  I love how Monroe describes that encounter; she says, “There is the elderly, once-barren Elizabeth and her newly expectant young cousin Mary.  As Luke tells it,” Monroe continues, “God is at work through the lives of both women and their words express nothing but joy.”

It really is quite the reunion, with Elizabeth “[singing] out exuberantly, ‘You’re so blessed among women, and the babe in your womb, also blessed!” [The Message] and the child in Elizabeth’s womb quite literally leaping for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice (More about that next week)!  It was, in fact, a sign for both women that everything that was happening was in fulfillment of the Lord’s plan.  And to this, Mary responds with a song; those familiar words of praise and nearly inexpressible joy that have been set to countless pieces of music over the centuries: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.  Surely, from now on all generations shall call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”

Beautiful, powerful, and utterly surprising words; yet not as surprising as you might think.  It’s interesting to note here that in Mary’s song we hear echoes of other faithful women through the ages, most especially in the “Song of Hannah” from 1 Samuel, which was sung nearly 1,000 years beforehand and which in fact began in a very similar fashion as Mary’s song:  “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.” (2:1) What this tells us is that at least in some fashion Mary understood that there was more to this than simply the fact of a baby being born, however unprecedented and miraculous this was to be; no, Mary was finding herself in the midst of long tradition of God’s work of restoration and redemption that was now was coming to full fruition in this child in her womb who would be named Jesus, and so, of course, her spirit would rejoice!

And this is what makes what Mary sings next even more amazing and joyous.  She goes on to tell of all the great and glorious things that God has done:  “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”  Incredible; this is no less than a proclamation of the whole world and its idea of power being turned upside and inside out!  But did you notice something there?  Mary’s actually singing in the present tense!  She’s not praising God for what God will do, but proclaiming what God has done; which is kind of odd, given that this child who is supposed to bring about all of this change hasn’t even been born yet!

Moreover, even a casual survey of Israel’s current situation (not to mention Mary’s!) would reveal that this vision of a just and peaceful world had no basis in reality.  I mean, here’s this young, impoverished, insignificant girl – probably 13 or 14 years old at best – hailing from some backwater village in the hills of Galilee, and unmarried and with child; moreover, her people are oppressed and living under the thumb of the Roman Empire.  One thing is for certain: at that moment in time the proud were not scattered, the hungry were not fed, and the powerful were very comfortably ensconced on their thrones!  Mary’s words didn’t even sound like a word of prophecy in the sense of what God was about to do in the world; and yet, given all that she’s still singing as though it’s already happened!

I looked it up, friends; and in English grammar there’s a word for that:  it’s called present perfect.  Technically speaking, present perfect is used to describe an action that has already begun, may not be finished yet but will continue; and so it is as if it’s already done.  In other words, for Mary to sing this song in present perfect is the ultimate expression of HOPE; more than simply proclaiming the Lord’s promises of a just and peaceful world she’s claiming those promises as a present reality.  To quote David Lose here, “When Mary sang, she didn’t just name those promises but she entered into them.”  Mary knew that because of this tiny child just beginning to grow inside of her, she’d already been drawn into this sacred rel ationship with the God of Israel, the same God “who had been siding with the oppressed since the days of Egypt and keeping promises since the time of Abraham.”  It’s not, you see, that everything that Mary sings about has been accomplished but that that those promises are so sure and so certain that it is as if it were already a reality in the world.  For Mary – and for us, beloved – “the world has begun to turn and [we] feel ourselves invited into the turning.”

And that is, as I said before, most certainly cause for rejoicing!

You know, as I said before, I love all the songs of this season; but I think the songs I love the most (truly, in these days the songs I need the most) are the carols and hymns that boldly proclaim those sure and certain promises of God coming to pass in the birth of the Christ Child.  And the reason I love them so much is because I know that they’re true.  Not that it’s a present reality in the world as we know it; but by God’s grace and infinite love it will be and for now, as we watch and wait for signs of Christ’s coming, that is enough.  Alan Brehm writes that “In Advent we sing because we look forward to something better than the violence and suffering and injustice all around us.  We look forward to the kindness and generosity and compassion of our God being fulfilled for all the peoples of the world.  We sing because we look forward to ‘peace on earth, and mercy mild.’  This is the heart and soul of our faith, friends; the HOPE that is ours in Jesus the Christ who comes into this world and into our hearts definitively to set everything right and to make all things new.”

The good news, beloved, is that despite all the uncertainties that continually seem to surround us, God is at work in the world, and his advent is nigh. So as our advent waiting begins for another year for the coming of the Christ Child and his return in glory, let us truly watch for signs of his coming; and even here and now let our spirits rejoice in God our Savior.

Thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on December 2, 2018 in Advent, Joy, Music, Sermon, Sermon Series

 

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“Dance, Then…”

The pastor on the dance floor at his daughter’s wedding!

(a sermon for November 11, 2018, the 25th Sunday after Pentecost, based on 1 Peter 2:1-10)

It’s actually one of the great assurances we’re given in Holy Scripture, and also affirms very succinctly who we are as the church: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.”

Of course, how we got from what we were to who we are now; that’s another story… in fact, it’s the biblical story, and what a story it is!

I love how in his wonderful little book “History, Herstory, Ourstory,” the late Rev. David Steele managed to encapsulate the whole biblical narrative by describing it as a ballet. He wrote that the story of the bible is “about how… God calls people into the Dance. About how [God] works with individuals here, small or large groups there, getting their ears tuned to the music, teaching them the rudimentary steps, putting them in touch with the unique rhythms and movements [God] has implanted in their souls. [And, yes] it’s about how people resist [that call]; how they get tired of practicing; or how they feel burdened with two left feet and just want to watch.”

But, Steele goes on to say, this particular ballet is also about “the patience and persistence of [God], who keeps at the job of getting people ready for that final number, with a cast of billions, where every person holds her head up high, [where] no one is a wall flower, [where] each one dances his unique steps, and the total choreography is so stunning, so intricate, yet so profoundly simple that as we dance it our breath is taken away… the story of the Bible is about the Dance of Life,” concludes Steele, and its music is called the kingdom of God.

Well, speaking as one of those who has perennially felt burdened in his life with two left feet, I appreciate that parable; for it reminds me that at least regarding our faith, we’re all dancers in God’s sight and that we are all meant to be a part of this wonderful ballet that God has lovingly created especially for us!

I know I’ve shared with some of you already that of all the preparations leading up to the two weddings of our daughter and son this past summer and fall, the thing that worried me the most was… the father/daughter dance!  Not that I didn’t want to do it; on the contrary, I’d been dreaming of that moment from the time Sarah was born, just as I’ve always known that someday I’d be dancing at my sons’ weddings.  It’s just that… I’m not a good dancer; I mean: I’m. Really. Not. A. Good. Dancer!  Now, I’ve always tended to blame this on the fact that as a teenager I was pretty shy and very awkward, and so I didn’t go to a whole lot of dances in high school; and even when I did, and for years afterward I was usually in the band, so I wasn’t dancing then either!  But any and all excuses aside, the fact remains that I just was never very good out on the dancefloor, and the last thing I wanted to do was to embarrass both myself and my daughter on her wedding day!

The good news here was that my daughter Sarah – the dancer, the dance teacher, the dance choreographer (!) – offered to give me a few lessons so that at the very least I would have a few “dance moves” ready for the reception; and so for several nights the week before the wedding, together with Sarah’s Matron of Honor and my wife Lisa, we practiced hard in our living room – Oillie barking at us the whole time (!) – just to get those moves down!  And you know what; come the reception, it actually all was pretty good!  The father/daughter dance went very well; Lisa and I enjoyed being on the dance floor together; and though I’ll never be confused with anyone who’s ever been on “So You Think You Can Dance,” it was a whole lot of fun… and it was fun again – and, might I add, a whole lot easier (thank you, Sarah!) – at our son’s wedding reception last month!

But having said all that, here’s the thing that I’d like to say about dancing: the ultimately, you get nowhere doing it! Understand, I’m not speaking here of the choreographed dances that Sarah teaches at the studio, or the routines you might see on “World of Dance.” No, what I’m talking about here is what happens when the music starts up, and you step out on to a dance floor and you start moving to the music: no matter how long the music plays or how long you keep dancing, at the end of it all you end up pretty much at the same place as where you were when it began! But there’s nothing wrong with that; because dancing, you see, is not about reaching a point of destination; it’s about the dance itself!  It’s all about the promise of the moment; the rush of your heartbeat; the joy of casting aside inhibitions for just a little while!  Dance is about celebration, about laughter shared with a caring partner; about the freedom to be who you really are! And the best part is that when it’s all done, even when you’ve ended up where you started, all you can think about is that you want to go again!

And so it is with the “Dance of Life” that David Steele was talking about there. It seems to me, friends, that so much of the comfort and joy that comes with faith is in what happens along the way.

There are a whole lot of people, you know, who approach their spirituality as though it were for them an intended destination; that is, they approach faith with the attitude that once certain objectives have been met, special goals have been achieved, and specific disciplines are maintained, the will have finally reached that one specific place they wish to be with God, whatever they conceive God to be. Indeed, this is not a terribly alien concept; it’s the focus of many Eastern religions including Buddhism and Taoism, and truth be told, it was a central concern of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time: the idea that the full purpose of life is in discipline directed toward the end of reaching a state of some sort of personal and spiritual perfection.

This is what I mean when I speak of faith as a destination, and a goodly number of Christians knowingly (or unknowingly!) live unto that rule; but understand me when I say to you that it is not a faith stance in which many people find satisfaction and fulfillment.  In fact, it’s been my observation as a pastor that for people like this, the ultimate destination always seems to be just a few steps beyond where they are; that perfection, whatever that means always seems to waiting beyond the next horizon. God’s righteousness, his acceptance and his love; for them it’s always somehow dependent on that “that one more thing” they need to do, that final change in behavior or lifestyle or identity that’ll make everything alright.

I had a parishioner many years back who I would consider and did consider to be a very faithful man. But he also never seemed to be all that comfortable or even happy in his faith; because where faith was concerned, by his own admission he’d never felt as though “he gotten there.” It’s not that he was brand new to things related to faith: he’d in fact grown up with a strict religious upbringing that belied an unsettled home life; and once he was old enough to be out on his own, he’d abandoned the church completely for years. Only when he was on his second marriage and his youngest daughter was born did he make a cautious reentry into a relationship with God.

The interesting thing is after so many years away from the church, he jumped right in. He became very active in the congregation I was serving; he was one of my chief cheerleaders for a lot of projects, led Bible Study, and eventually even took a two year course in lay ministry. He was a pilgrim in the best and truest sense of the word: but he was never happy.  In one way or another, he was always struggling with faith; not so much about having faith, but rather about what it meant to have faith, and being faithful. Maybe it was his upbringing that held him back; perhaps it was his own lack of self-esteem or a lingering fear that God was judging him for who he was or for what he’d been in the past; I was never sure, and neither was he. But I will say he always used to say to me, usually with a touch of sadness in his voice, “I’m a long way from where I was, but I have a long way to go.”

At one point he went out and bought himself a very nice, leather-bound Bible; one that he went on to read cover to cover, a chapter at a time, a couple of times over; and one that he asked me to inscribe for him. And though even to this day I’m not always sure what to write on the inside of a Bible (I always get this looming sense of impending posterity when I think too long about things like that!), I knew just what to write for him: I included a couple of verses that I knew held some meaning for him, but then below those verses, I wrote the words, “Remember that faith is a journey, and not a destination.”

Faith is a journey.  Faith is the dance borne out of love received and acceptance given.  It’s about being claimed by the God who loves you for who you are right here and right now.  It’s about freedom from the worldly powers and values that shackle us and hold us back; it’s being freed to truly be the people that we’ve always been intended to be.  Faith is about being led in God’s Dance; where you live in the world, but you’re not of the world and because of this the music of Life pulsates through every fiber of your being; it’s what sets your feet to motion and makes your spirit soar; it’s the music of that proclaims that the kingdom of God is dwelling within you!

Or, as Peter wrote to those early Christians who themselves wondered where their faith was taking them: “…you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

The good news, beloved, is that God loves us! God really does love us as we are, and where we are!  And that’s even considering that God has already seen our awkwardness as we’ve tried out our various “life dance” moves with some modicum of grace and dignity.  Oh, yes, God sees our failures and our rebellion, to say nothing of our self-imposed moral lapses,; and yet God is not embarrassed to call us daughters and sons. Even as we’re struggling with how we can dance without looking like a fool, here’s God coming take our hand and so that he might lead us in in the dance; helping us not to stumble, but picking us up when we do; lovingly reassuring us so that we might understand that sometimes even a little foolishness is the way we learn!

But here’s the best part: God loves us so much that he wants us to know that we’re not going to be dancers someday – that is, if we ever learn the right steps, or if we ever get the rhythm right in our heads – no, God loves us so much that he assures us that we’re dancers now!  We’re dancers of light, beloved; we’re God’s own chosen people, sent forth in love with the promise that whenever in faithfulness we dance the Dance of Life to the music of the Kingdom of God, it will be a beautiful thing indeed!

“Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.”  That’s who we are, beloved, and as God’s people we are also dancers, each and all; and it’s good that we take a moment to remember that. Truly, we are as The Message has translated this passage, “God’s instruments to do his work and speak out for him.”

So… in the words of the hymn we’re about to sing:

So, dance then, wherever you may be.
I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.
I’ll lead you all wherever you may be.
I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.
                                   “Lord of the Dance,” words by Sydney Carter

Praise be to the Lord of the dance, and may our thanks ever and always be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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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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