RSS

Category Archives: Lent

A Clearer View

(a sermon for April 5, 2020, Palm Sunday, based on Matthew 21:1-11)

No doubt you’ve noticed that as part of our makeshift “sanctuary” this morning, we’ve hung up something which I consider to be a “church family heirloom,”  a quilt that was beautifully and lovingly crafted by one of our members, Donna Lee Rust; depicting the very event that we are seeking to remember and in some fashion will recreate this morning: that of our Lord’s “Last Supper.”  

Now, I love this quilt for a whole bunch of reasons, not the least of which is because it’s a recreation of one of the most recognized, iconic and recreated paintings of all time, Leonardo DaVinci’s classic painting of The Last Supper, the original of which still can be seen in the place where it was created:  on the wall of a dining hall in a monastery at the Santa Maria delle Grazie church in Milan, Italy.

Maybe you remember how a few years back, DaVinci’s painting – a mural, actually – was fully retouched, refurbished and renovated.  This was a process that took over 20 years and cost over eight million dollars as a small group of restoration experts painstakingly scraped some 500 years’ worth of grime off this priceless work of art.  And the dirt was just the beginning:  over the years, the painting had also fallen victim to at least nine previous attempts of retouching; near destruction by Napoleon’s troops, who had used the church grounds as a stable; an Allied bombing during the second world war; and this is to say nothing of a huge amount of greasy build-up that emanated from the nearby kitchen!  It took paint and dirt being flaked away a millimeter at a time to get at DaVinci’s original masterpiece, the hope being that The Last Supper would be sharper, more beautiful and intensely colorful than ever before.

And… it was!  At the same time, however, you might remember there were many historians and art critics who began to talk about how this massive restoration project had done more damage than good, and that a great many important details of the painting had been stripped away, leaving nothing more than fragments of DaVinci’s original work.  In fact, as much as 80% of the mural was actually lost in the restoration, with the intervening space being filled in with… watercolors!  So, in other words, what resulted was not so much DaVinci’s masterpiece The Last Supper, as much as it was a lovingly and carefully created, yet ultimately blurred depiction of what it once was! 

Very interesting, indeed; and actually, it seems to me that therein lies something of a parable for what we’re doing here this morning.

I mean, it’s Palm Sunday, right?  Without question one of the most powerful and celebrative days of the church year: a time for hosanna shouting and palm waving, triumphant worship music, and lots and lots of little kids of every shape and size dancing around the sanctuary with palm branches waving as the congregation sings forth its yearly rendition of “The Palms.” (“Join all and sing; His name declare! Let ev’ry voice resound, unite in acclamation!”)  Now, obviously this year our observance of the day is going to be different; but the story we’re telling today is just as powerful as ever, and it carries images indelibly etched into our memory: Jesus calmly riding into the city on the back of a donkey as the crowds cheer and children dance; the people spreading their cloaks on the road before him, all the while cheering: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”  And we cheer right along with them, joyful in knowing that our cries of Hosanna this morning  (even the ones cried “remotely!”) are simply a prelude to the louder shouts of Hallelujah next Sunday when we discover the empty tomb and hear the good news that Christ is risen, indeed!

We know the story well, and yet…

…and yet, I dare say like the refurbishing of Da Vinci’s masterwork, our retelling of this incredible story risks blurring a great many of the details.  Like for instance, the fact that Jerusalem, this “whole city in turmoil,” as Matthew describes it, might not have been crying so much for joy on that fateful Palm Sunday as for… rescue.  It’s important to note that “hosanna,” a word that we’ve long associated with joyous proclamation, in the original Hebrew actually means “save us now.”  So in one very important sense, what those people gathered along the streets of Jerusalem were doing that day was crying out for help!  Because they saw Jesus as the one bringing that help, coming “in the name of the Lord” to deliver them from Roman oppression, to resurrect the dominion of King David, and thus revive Israel’s hope and its power… all in all suggesting a different kind of atmosphere that that of unbridled singing and dancing! 

Of course, that’s where the crowd misunderstood: Jesus had not come to resuscitate the rule of David, but to manifest the reign of God, bringing forth a time when every relationship in every setting would embody divine love and justice, when poverty would be replaced with abundance, and where God’s peace would come to all and abide with all; but do you see you easily the details of that particular story become blurred? 

Especially when we consider the details of what happened next.

Painful details… how in just five short days Jesus – the Son of David and God’s own Son, the one who was proclaimed as coming in the name of the Lord – would be literally abandoned by those closest to him; how he was shoved from one “judgment” to the next from the “powers that be” that wanted no part of him and how he was then sentenced to die: but not before being stripped, mocked, ridiculed and beaten without mercy; not before the very instrument of his execution was placed upon his shoulders so he could be forced to carry it through the streets to the outskirts of the city, all accompanied by the sound of hundreds of angry voices jeering him as he staggered by, this the very same crowd who’d only a few short days before had been shouting those joyous hosannas in his direction.  And what about the ringing of the hammer as it strikes upon the nails driven into his wrists and ankles; what about the realization that this one who was born a Savior – the very one who was promised to us as a “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6) – was now being hung upon a wooden cross, left out in the hot desert sun to die a long, slow and excruciatingly painful death between two common criminals.

That’s the thing about Palm Sunday, you see… once you get a clearer view, the truth of the whole story begins to fall into place… and as they say, it’s not pretty… but it’s necessary.

I think that’s one reason I so love this picture of the “Last Supper,” because it truly does depict that moment just before the events of our Lord’s Passion begin to unfold.  It also serves as a reminder that as tempting as it is for us as Christians to move straight from Palm Sunday Hosannas to Easter Alleluias, there is no avoiding the painful details of the cross.  It’s understandable that we’d want to; even as people of faith we have a hard time understanding why celebration must lead to crucifixion and triumph give way to tragedy.  Why must the suffering and pain of Jesus be real?  Why does there have to be this most horrible, excruciating death?  Truly, it’s the singular question for which all of humanity has for centuries cried out for an answer:  Why must there be the cross?

But you see, as hard as the question is, the answer is simple, really, and clear; it’s for LOVE.

It is love – God’s love – seen and personified in the person of Jesus Christ crucified.  It is a love so great that it brings God’s reign into every heart that ever has torn itself away from God; it is a love that is so deep and so full and so all-encompassing that it lifts you and me up out of our shame and disgrace and saves us with the vindication we need before God, moving us out of the judgment of our mortality and into an eternity with him.  It is a love that Jesus gives freely, willingly and obediently; and it is a love that demands our attention and calls for our devotion!

And ultimately, friends, that’s the reason we’re here today: it’s what has drawn us out of our isolation and fear in these strange and uncertain times; and it’s what brings us, even in a virtual setting, the kind of fellowship and support and hope  that we are so desperately in need of right now. We’re here today for the LOVE of it all… the clarity of life and light that our Lord has given us by his sacrifice on the cross; we’re here to walk with Jesus from the streets of Jerusalem to the hill of Golgotha, taking our place at the foot of his cross so that we might bear witness to the greatest love that the world has ever known and that we can ever receive.  It’s a gift, beloved… a gift by grace and infinite love, and it’s offered to us here and now by a Savior who is truly “dying to love us.”

It is love, friends, that will give us life in these times; life true, abundant and eternal.  In the words of the old hymn, for “dearly, dearly has he loved, and we must love him too. And trust in his redeeming blood, and try his works to do.”

Thanks be to God.  

AMEN and AMEN.

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

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on April 5, 2020 in Current Events, Holy Week, Jesus, Lent, Sermon

 

Tags: , , ,

The Light That Prevails

(a sermon for March 29, 2020, the 5th Sunday in Lent, based on John 12:20-36)

As one who has spent some time camping out in the woods of Maine and New Hampshire, I can personally vouch for the importance of being properly prepared; and being properly prepared means having one of these – a Coleman Lantern – on the trip with you; as far as I’m concerned it’s the one thing that really cuts through a dark, enveloping night in the middle of nowhere!   Now, the purists among us will argue that it’s the light of a campfire that truly does the job, but firelight is fleeting and can’t be moved; likewise, the beam of a flashlight is narrow and limited, not to mention the fact that it exists at the mercy of a battery!  But a lantern; well, it can illuminate the entire campsite and draw hordes of blackflies all at the same time!

That said, even the mighty Coleman Lantern can run out of fuel; and if you’ve been out in the woods at night when that’s happened, it’s actually pretty interesting.  At first, the change is almost imperceptible: the light of the lantern starts to fade, but it doesn’t seem all that different; a little less brilliant, perhaps, and a tad more subdued.  But after a few moments the light does start to dim considerably, and things you could once see clearly start to lose their detail and focus; whereas before you might have been able to read a book or write a letter or play cards (!), you can’t see to do that anymore.  Even the campsite begins to feel like it’s closing in around you, because the light that was once flooding all around now just exists in a tiny glow surrounded by this vast darkness. And you sit there and you watch the light of the lantern’s mantle until it finally just… goes out… and now it’s very, very dark indeed.

One of the prevailing images of the Christian faith, one that’s found throughout scripture, is that of light.  And in the church it’s an image we carry with us as we make our way through the seasons of our faith and the gospel story: for instance, during Advent, we tell of the prophets’ promise of a light that is to come; at Christmas, we celebrate that light’s coming in Jesus, who is the light of the world; and during Epiphany, we rejoice in discovering the meaning and great expanse of that light.

But now we’re deep into the season of Lent, in which scripturally and spiritually we’re drawing ever closer to the cross… and it’s different.  As the days pass and Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem, we begin to see that the light is slowly growing dim; and that the walls of darkness are starting to close in around Jesus and his disciples.  Jesus himself confirms this in our text for this morning as he tells the crowd at Jerusalem that “just as a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies” (12:24) for it to bear fruit, so also is he moving inexorably toward his death.  There’s no avoiding the darkness that’s to come; indeed, very soon now in the Gospel story this brilliant light will be extinguished through acts of betrayal, desertion, humiliation and finally, an excruciating death on a wooden cross.

Speaking both pastorally and personally, this growing and inevitable darkness is one of the most difficult aspects of our shared journey through Lent and into Holy Week, most especially this year; and yet, it’s precisely in the midst of this encroaching darkness that we discover what God’s plan has been all along.  As Jesus proclaims it, “the hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified;” (v. 23) understanding that this is a glory of another kind: not glory in the sense of worldly patterns of power or popularity, but divine glory that is revealed in suffering and death.  Truly, in what the world regarded as unabashed tragedy and the triumph of evil – the very Son of God crucified at the hands of a sinful humanity – our God was in fact proven victorious over sin and death forever, and in the process true and lasting light was revealed to the whole world, never to be extinguished again! 

And if all of this sounds like contradiction on a cosmic scale, you’re right:  it’s in fact the one glorious paradox that lies at the heart of our Christian faith: that our life, our true life, comes about through death.  Now, by our human way of thinking, that makes very little sense: we recognize that a seed that falls to the ground will likely die forever; yet by God’s intent, it’s the seed dying that’s required for it to bear fruit.  Likewise, the execution of one man on a cross would almost certainly signal for us not only the end of a life, but also the end of a movement and the end of hope; because our logic says that whatever it was the man stood for would be dead and gone along with the man. 

But you see, that’s not how God views it; in fact, it’s ever and always been God’s plan that the death of this man, his very incarnation on earth, would serve as the ultimate act of grace and love.  This was God’s means to conquer death forever, and the way God would assure his closeness to you and to me both in this life and in the life to come.

What we’re talking about here is the difference between what the Greeks described as chronos becoming kairos, which simply put, is what happens when our time (chronos) becomes God’s time (kairos).  It’s what happens when God comes to work a blessing even into our worst moments of suffering; it’s what happens when God enters into our places of pain and fear and anger and regret and sin, so to bring us closer to him and make us a place in his kingdom; it’s what happens when God comes even into our deep and encroaching darkness to bring light. 

For you see, the good news is that however intently that darkness seeks to overtake us… this light will prevail.

This is an important truth for us to remember, not only in these Lenten days of reflection, but also in all of our days as we make our way through life’s myriad and difficult challenges, most especially the ones we’re facing right about now. 

You know, one of the things over the past couple of weeks that has felt strange, and a bit ironic, is that even though that with the coming of spring our days are finally (!) getting longer, what with all the bad news surrounding the Coronavirus, in some ways it actually feels darker somehow!  In fact, I dare say that for many of us right now our anxieties and fears are such that we really do feel as though the light that has illumined our way seems as diminished as a failing lantern.  

That’s why it’s good news indeed that even in the moments when it feels like this darkness is going to overwhelm us we discover that there’s a greater light shining, a light that will prevail; if only we’ll let it in. Ours, you see, is the God of light who is relentless in coming to us even amidst the deepest of this world’s darkness and, it should be noted, is determined to shine forth that light amidst our own capacity for darkness as well.  Ours is a divine and graceful love that is determined to transform these days of difficulty and uncertainty into moments of victory and wonder and insight, bringing us unending light that will prevail for the way now and forever, and in the process, making each one of us “children of light” (v. 36)

At the very center of our Christian faith is this truth that in Jesus Christ, God was willing to enter into our suffering; and now as in our Lenten journey we draw ever closer now with Jesus to that “hill far away,” bearing the crosses of our own lives and living as we do, it’s important for us to remember that his light does prevail… as will ours.  As difficult and as overwhelming as these days have been for all of us, we can find our comfort and our hope in the fact that our time is God’s time, and even now God is seeking to work a blessing in and through our lives… as persons and as a people; as families and friends; as communities, as nations and as a world; and yes, as the church of Jesus Christ.  His is the light that prevails, beloved; so let each one of us let that light shine in!

And as we do, may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

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

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on March 29, 2020 in Current Events, Jesus, Lent, Sermon

 

Tags: , ,

We Are the Church!

(a sermon for March 20, 2020, the 4th Sunday in Lent, based on Philippians 4:4-9 and Matthew 18:20)

Some years ago when I was still a young pastor I was asked by the local funeral home if I might lead a graveside memorial service for an elderly widow from a nearby rural village.  Apparently, though she’d been born and brought up in that community, she hadn’t lived there for years; but after her husband passed away, she’d recently returned home to “the county” and had been living alone in the family homestead… which meant that most if not all of her family was gone now and she really didn’t know all that many people in town. 

However, the funeral director let me know, this was apt to be a well-attended gathering; because, as it turned out, this woman and her husband were throughout their lives strong and tireless benefactors of a small private school where they’d lived and worked together.  So, I was told, the headmaster of the school was coming up; there were going to be members of the board of directors, and even a few student alumni who had offered to speak; and so it was looking like this service was going to be a true celebration of a life well-lived and of a woman greatly loved and admired.

But then came the hurricane.

Not a full-fledged hurricane, mind you; but as is typical in this part of the world, it was forecasted that we were to feel the effects of such a storm veering out into the Gulf of Maine.  Suffice to say that on the morning of the service, the funeral director called to let me know that none of the people who were scheduled to be a part of this memorial service were going to be able to attend… but also that we were going to go ahead with the service as planned.  And so, that afternoon, the funeral director and I met at the cemetery… with only one other person who’d come to pay her respects:  another elderly widow, who as it happened, lived across the road from the deceased; someone who’d known he woman from way “back in the day,” and who’d renewed their friendship since she’d come back to town.  But she was the only one who’d come.

Kind of sad, to be sure; but okay… and at the appointed hour, I opened my book of worship and began the service, speaking those all-important words of promise, assurance and comfort that are given us in scripture…

… and it started to rain.

And not just a few sprinkles, mind you, but a full-fledged shower growing stronger all the time!  Now, in retrospect, given the forecast for that day I can’t fathom why none of us had brought an umbrella, but there the three of us were, standing outside in the rain and getting more and more soaked by the minute. And I’ll be honest, at this point not only am I mentally figuring all of what I could leave out of this service so move it along, I’m also starting to read the scripture faster and faster as I’m going… because folks, we’re getting wet!  But just as I’m about to “throw in the towel,” so to speak, the neighbor woman leans in close, looks me square in the eye, and with raindrops dripping off her brow, says to me in a way that only ladies from Aroostook County can, “Don’t you dare to leave anything out of your service, pastor… she deserves every word… so keep going.

And that’s exactly what we did… and it was a truly a sacred time.  I thinkmaybe that was the very first time I truly understood Jesus’ words that, “for where[ever] two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about that service this week.  Friends, if I’m being honest here, I have to confess that for me, this is kind of a strange way of doing worship.  Not that I have any problem with being online like this – it’s a great technological resource, albeit one I’m still learning to navigate, and I’m very glad for it – and it’s certainly not that I haven’t had any prior experience with leading worship before small or even occasionally non-existent (!) congregations!  It’s just that by its very nature, Christian worship is about people being together in God’s holy temple singing and praying unto the Lord; face to face and eye to eye as one people, one faith, one church.  For a lot of us, myself included, physically coming together to worship on a Sunday morning is as natural and as essential as our very breathing!

But these are challenging and uncertain times in which we live, and so it’s not only prudent and responsible but also faithful that we heed the call not to gather together in the midst of this current Coronavirus crisis… so here we are, gathering in a “virtual” way and, at least for the time being, living separately from one another; living alone together, as it were.  And yes, that is strange, even for those of us who are accustomed to solitude; because, to quote pastor and author Craig Goeschel, who posted an article this week about his own rather difficult experience of self-quarantining after being exposed to Covid-19, “We are not created to be alone… being isolated for days on end is difficult and not what God intended for people.” All this to simply say that these days it’s understandably hard for us to think of ourselves as a church, at least not in the traditional sense.

And yet we are.  Even now, even here on Facebook Live we are the church… because “where[ever] two or more are gathered…” or, because I can’t let a Sunday go by without at least one translation from The Message (!), “When two of you get together on anything at all on earth and make a prayer of it, my Father in heaven goes into action. And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I’ll be there.”  Granted, we’re all a bit spread out this morning, and our “remote” settings for worship might be well be at a computer desk or with an iPad on the living room couch, but make no mistake; two or more are most gathered because of the Lord, and the Lord is most certainly with us as we do.

I have to say, friends, that over the past few days I’ve been very heartened by your response to all of this.  Not only have you been more than understanding of the decisions we’ve been forced to make regarding activities at the church, but you’ve been stepping up to find ways of connecting with and helping one another in the midst of this crisis: making phone calls to check in with those who might be feeling more than a little isolated right now; putting together “goodie bags” to drop off to those who are shut in (at the appropriate social distance, of course); offering to pick up and deliver groceries to those who shouldn’t or just can’t get out.  I know that Lisa and I have been greatly appreciative of the calls, the texts and emails you’ve been sending us this week; and of all the offers, large and small, to help get our congregation through this time.

It’s all been a glorious reminder to me that we are the church: a community – a family – who, in the words 2nd Timothy, are called to live our lives knowing that “God did not give us a Spirit of cowardice, buy rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” (1:7) Whatever else life and the world hands out, you see, it’s important for us to remember that we are not a people of fear, or discouragement, or anxiety but of a peace “which surpasses all understanding,” of gentleness that shows forth to all, and of thanksgiving for everything we’ve been given because “the Lord is near,” our very hearts and minds guarded throughout this and every crisis “in Christ Jesus.”

Right now, beloved, that’s everything.

In our text for this morning, Paul tells the Philippian Christians in a time of persecution to “rejoice in the Lord always…” In fact, he actually doubles down on this exhortation: “…again I will say, Rejoice.”  It was an important word for them both to keep the faith, and to keep focused on that which in faith they knew to be true, no matter what else was going on around them: “Whatever is true,” Paul says, “whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if this is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

That’s a very good word for you and me as well.  It seems to me that by the grace of God in Jesus Christ we have more than enough that is pure, lovely, and excellent that will see us through the difficult days ahead. The trick will be for us to focus on those things rather than fear and uncertainty; to try each day to think about what we do have rather than what we don’t have.

I’m here to say this morning that prayer will help us with that; purposely and purposefully taking regular time in these days of “staying in” for personal and shared meditation.  Our keeping connected with one another will also go a long way in keeping us focused on that which matters, as will seeking to be creative about how we can be most helpful to those who are the most vulnerable in this crisis. And most of all, we’ll get through by remembering – always – that “the Lord is near.”

Because remember, my dear friends, we don’t just go to church; ultimately, who we are is not about the building or the fact we get together every Sunday morning at 10:00.  We ARE the church, gathered in and spiritually sent forth by and in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.  If we just remember that, we will get through this thing as a church, and maybe even be a little better off for the experience.

And never forget: through it all, the God of peace will be with us.

That’s why we say, today and always, thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

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

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on March 22, 2020 in Church, Current Events, Jesus, Lent, Sermon, Worship

 

Tags: , , ,

 
%d bloggers like this: