Category Archives: Lent

FAQ’s of Faith: What Is Grace?

(a sermon for March 18, 2018, the Fifth Sunday in Lent; fifth in a series, based on Luke 15:11-32 and Ephesians 2:1-10)

So… GRACE.  What is it, and what does it really have to do with faith?

Not only a “frequently asked question” as regards faith, it’s a pretty good one as well; after all, so often when we use that word “grace,” we’re speaking apart from any kind of biblical or religious context. Outside of these church doors, for instance, grace becomes a way of describing the dancer’s leap or the poet’s word; it’s the manner by which we communicate our awe and admiration for those with the strength and ability to do something amazing or wonderful.  To be “grace-full” suggests someone with the skill to do what they do beautifully, smoothly and without wasted motion; it’s that intangible something that just seems to fill a particular moment, whatever it is, with perfection.

We also tend, do we not, to equate “grace” with something really good that happens to us; or perhaps more to the point, with something really bad not happening to us!  “There but for the grace of God, go I.”  Now there’s a quote that dates back as far as the 16th century (attributed to the English Protestant Reformer and Martyr John Bradford), but how often have we uttered pretty much the same sentiment; usually referring to one specific situation or moment in time when we chose to take one road in life rather than the other, a choice which made all the difference between our success or failure, wealth or poverty, righteousness or sin, and yes, even life or death!

Now admittedly, this does bring us a little bit closer to our biblical understanding of grace; by speaking of what happens to us as being “by the grace of God,” we’re talking about a God who shows forth favor – often unmerited favor – toward those whom he loves.  In fact, two words in ancient Hebrew that can be roughly translated as “grace” are, first, hen, which describes the compassionate response of a superior to an inferior, especially when that kindness is undeserved; and second, hesed, which is the word in scripture used to describe God’s loving-kindness and loyalty toward Israel, even when Israel turned away from God!  So then, “by the grace of God” ends up meaning that you may well not deserve it and probably don’t, but nonetheless the divine and almighty God – the very Creator of heaven and earth – this God loves you, and so here it is.  It’s yours, by GRACE.

I say all this as a way of preparing us for the hard truth of our Epistle reading this morning, in which Paul gets to the nitty-gritty of the matter of grace by letting the Ephesians and us know in no uncertain terms, “You were dead.”

That’s right… dead.  Dead and gone: as in the words of Dickens, “dead as a doornail.”  Dead “through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived;” dead in “following the course of this world;” dead from “following the desires of flesh and senses;” dead “by our nature [as] children of wrath, like everyone else.”  Friends, I would submit to you that this is not the kind of obituary any one of us would want for ourselves!  I’m reminded here of an obituary that ran in a Los Angeles newspaper a few years ago: it actually said that the deceased “had no hobbies, made no contribution to society and rarely shared a kind word or deed in her life. Her presence will not be missed by many, very few tears will be shed and there will be no lamenting over her passing.”

Can you imagine (!); now there’s an argument for writing your own obituary ahead of time!  Here was a final testament of life that included no highlights of this person’s existence, just the low lights; it was the record of a life with no redeeming qualities whatsoever!  And that seems to be exactly where Paul is headed as he writes to these early Christians in the city of Ephesus (as The Message translates this, “You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience!”) and such judgment would seem to preclude any hope of their redemption or salvation at all!  All you were, and all you could ever hope to be was… dead!

But… you’ll notice that Paul is very clear about using the past tense in that judgment; as in, “you were dead.”  Because in fact there’s very good news to share here:  “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”  “He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ…” (The Message again) and here’s the thing that is so amazing about it: “He did all this on his own, with no help from us!”  It is “by grace [that] you have been saved through faith, and this is not your doing; it is the gift of God.”  If I might borrow a great line from the Rev. Donovan Drake, a Presbyterian pastor out of Tennessee, just when we figure that all is lost for us, here Paul “pulls away from the grave news and towards the great news:” that we are made alive in Jesus Christ so that we might join him in the work that he is doing and dwell with him in the highest heaven… even when we don’t deserve it!

I love what Drake goes on to say about this: “God has set forth a bail-out package of enormous proportions! The amazing grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is gathering up our sins, our failures, our pains, our brokenness, our pasts, our presents, and our great illusions of foresight into the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection,” and we are saved.  “This is huge,” concludes Drake, “so huge that many cannot seem to fathom its size and scope.”  You and I, are all-too-human tendency is to decide that we somehow have to earn our way into the good “graces” of God (there’s another way we use that word!); that is, if we only act better, do better, be better than maybe – just maybe – we might squeak by with just a modicum of divine approval now and eternally.  But that’s not grace: grace is the assertion that “while we still were sinners Christ died for us,” (Romans 5:8) and rather than being dead, we are indeed made alive together through Jesus Christ.  And ultimately, that this happens has nothing to do with us at all, but everything to do with the infinitely graceful gift of God unto those whom he loves; all we need do is accept the gift.

Like most of you, I suppose, I’ve always been very fond of our gospel reading for this morning, Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son; although I must confess to you that every time I return to this parable of Jesus, the more convinced I am that history and tradition has misnamed it.  Now granted, Jesus intended the story to illustrate the “joy in heaven over one sinner who repents,” (Luke 15:7) so the story of the sinful younger son who “comes to himself” and decides to return home to his father and face the music does ring true.  But more and more it seems to me the real truth of this parable is in what happens next; and what happens next is… God!   In the story, of course, it’s the father who saw his son “while he was still far off” in the field and goes running after him, but in truth, it’s God!

Did you notice in this story that the father never actually says anything to his son?  That there’s no effort to extract a confession from him, no “what have you got to say for yourself, young man?”  And that there’s just this loving embrace and the kiss, this incredibly emotional welcome home; and that it’s only after all this that the son can manage to get his confession out of his mouth; and that even while that’s happening the father’s busy calling the household staff to get the party started!

And that’s why I really do believe this ought to be called the “Parable of the Forgiving Father!” Because such forgiveness is utterly amazing, isn’t it?  The scribes and the Pharisees of Jesus’ time would have insisted (and quite honestly, so many of us even today would have to agree) that for such forgiveness to have taken place all laws and statutes would have to be followed to the letter, with everything from that moment on done properly and in good order; in other words, repentance followed by good (no, make that perfect) works being the only justification for any kind of forgiveness.  But now here’s Jesus, saying with all boldness that ours is the God who just up and forgives the transgressions of this so-called “prodigal,” not because all the dots have been connected, but just out of love (!); all because of that relentless desire of God has that every one of his children should be welcomed home, and that there should be this unending joy “in the presence of angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

That’s what grace is, you see… because ultimately, in the same way the younger son couldn’t change the hopelessness of his own sinful situation, there’s nothing you or I can do about ours: you can’t change what’s been done in your life; you can’t fix what is broken between yourself and God; and you can’t raise the dead… only God can do that.  But the good news, now and always, is that by grace, God does do that, and he does it for you and me by the redeeming power at work in Jesus Christ.

The story goes that during a British conference on comparative religion some years ago, the renowned theologian and author C.S. Lewis was asked in the middle of a very intense discussion what he considered to be Christianity’s unique contribution among the world’s religions.  Lewis responded, “Oh, that’s easy… it’s grace.”  And despite the brevity and simplicity of his answer, not to mention all the other sharp divisions that people of different faiths will sometimes espouse, on that one point, at least, everyone had to agree.  I love what Philip Yancey says about this; he writes, “The notion of God’s love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of humanity.  The Buddhist eight-fold path, the Hindu doctrine of Karma, the Jewish covenant, and the Muslim code of law – each offers a way to earn approval.  Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional.”

Turns out that our the glory of our Christian faith is ultimately is found not in our doing, but in our receiving; and so in that regard, I suppose that it’s not wholly unconditional, for it does require each of us to take hold of what we’ve been given.  But when we do, we become the recipients of “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”  We are made part of God’s “plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (1:9) And we are given life heretofore unimagined; full and abundant and eternal; all because of this incredible, unmerited amazing grace that’s borne of divine love.

In the end, you see, grace is all about love.  As Frederick Buechner says so very well, “The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”

Dear friends, the good news of this and every day is that we are loved beyond measure and by grace we are saved; and in a sacrificial act that will change the world forever, God’s own son is about to show us just how true of a thing that is.  So let us watch and wait, even unto the cross, for this gift of grace to unfold very soon now; so that we might embrace it as our very own.  So that there, for the grace of God, will go you and I.

Thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry


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FAQ’s of Faith: What’s Most Important?

(a sermon for March 11, 2018, the Fourth Sunday in Lent; fourth in a series, based on Mark 12:28-34)

I have to say that for me one of the great parts of the study of scripture is that no matter how many times and how many ways I return to a particular passage, there’s always something there that manages to surprise me!

Well, such is the case with our text for this morning; for in coming back this week to Mark’s account of how “one of the scribes” came to Jesus asking about which of the commandments is first and greatest of all, I was very surprised to discover that this actually is one of the rare instances in the gospels where Jesus and one of the religious leaders of his time actually… agree on something!

I mean, think about this with me for a moment:  here is Jesus, who long before this had established his overall opposition and basic animus for the practices of the religious establishment of his day; and then there’s this scribe, who’s not only a learned member of that religious establishment, but also part of the group who were intimately involved in the conspiracy to kill Jesus!  Add that to the fact that as we pick up the reading this morning, there had already been some rather intense words exchanged between Jesus and a series of representatives from the Pharisees, Herodians and Sadducees having to do with things like religious authority, the belief in resurrection and the legality of paying taxes unto Caesar; understanding, of course, that these “questions” had very little to do with theological discussion or debate and everything to do with at the very least undermining Jesus’ popularity amongst the people, or perhaps even trapping Jesus into saying something that could be branded as heresy, which would be most certainly be a punishable offense!  So it’s incredibly surprising that when this one, individual scribe – already, it should be pointed out here, impressed at how Jesus had answered those who had come before – asks this particular “frequently asked question” about the greatest commandment Jesus gives an answer on which they can both agree: simply put, it’s first to love God with your whole heart; and secondly, but just about as importantly, it’s to love your neighbor as yourself.

And that’s it; two simple commandments, dating back to the days of Moses, that would seem to encapsulate all the teachings of faith itself!  One could argue that there was a whole lot more that perhaps could have been said here; or that maybe Jesus should have seized the moment for a teaching about love leading to acts of righteousness or justice, or better yet, about the reality of hypocrisy regarding such matters!  But no, this time it’s just a simple response on Jesus’ part; and moreover, there’s nothing all that radical about what Jesus says here, nothing that any serious student of the Torah wouldn’t have already understood on some level!  But yet, it’s this very basic response that immediately leads to the scribe gushing about the correctness of Jesus’ answer, and it’s why Jesus could look to this scribe – the scribe, of all people (!) – and not only see that “he answered wisely,” but also be able say to this man who represented everything that was wrong with the practice of religion, “’You are not far from the kingdom of God.’”  For you see, whatever else divided them at that moment, where true faith was concerned they could agree on that which was the most important: to love God and to love others.

I must confess that even in my particular line of work, I don’t often get asked pointed questions about which of the commandments I feel to be the greatest.  I do, however, quite “frequently” get asked questions regarding what I think to be most important about faith, particularly among those who have been away from the church for a while, or who maybe are making their very steps toward faith.  Some want to know, for instance, how literally I take the Bible; or how, considering the world as it really is, how “optional” I would consider a few of the ten commandments to be (my answer to that has sometimes been to half-jokingly suggest that there’s a reason they’re not called “the ten suggestions,” but I’m not always sure that message is wholly understood!).

Some people will ask if I believe there’s a heaven and a hell; and more to the point, they want to know if everything they’ve done in the past could ever possibly qualify them for going to heaven when they die. They’re curious about this man Jesus, and they want to find out if he really is everything we Christians always say that he is; and though it’s not usually said in so many words, they truly want to know about salvation and redemption, and about things like confession and repentance; about love and grace (that’s next Sunday, by the way!); and what it means to be forgiven as well as to forgive.  Mostly, though, I have to say that in one way or the other the common thread running through all those questions is of what ends up being the most important facet of living a faithful life: of what it is we can and should do to best honor God; to obey Christ’s teaching in a way that pleases God and serves God by creating an atmosphere of justice, freedom and peace for all; and, ultimately, for each of us to be in this life the persons and the kind of people who we have been created to be from the beginning of our creation!

And I have to tell you – as a pastor, yes, but most especially as a person of faith – isn’t it interesting that the answer to this question of what’s most important turns out to be as simple – and as complicated (!) – as Jesus’ answer to that inquisitive scribe: first, to love God with our whole hearts, and second, to love our neighbor as ourselves.  This is, as the scribe noted, “much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices,” to say nothing of all the countless little rules and regulations, precepts and traditions, limits and boundaries we create for ourselves all for the sake of at least trying to get everything right where faith is concerned!  And I say “trying,” because inevitably such attempts, however well-intentioned, end up falling short of the mark.  To love God, and to love others… that’s what Jesus says, and that’s the most important thing.

Don’t, however, get the idea that this altogether simplifies things where faith is concerned! I love what the Rev. David F. Sellery, pastor and writer from Connecticut, says about this:  “Sure we’ve heard the words over and over,” he writes. “But do we live them over and over?  Is the message fresh and alive in us… shaping our thoughts and actions today… or has familiarity bred neglect… leaving love of God and neighbor as sweet sentiments reserved for Sunday mornings.”

“Love is the total reason for our being,” Sellery goes on to say, “the sole purpose for our Creation and our unique place in it.  Love defines us.  It must be who we are and what we do. If not, we’re just taking up space and wasting time.”

Love God… with heart and soul and mind and strength… and love others… with the same intensity and depth by which God loves us, and after the same manner that we are meant to love ourselves.  As people of faith, it is both our mission in this generation and, might I add, the legacy that we leave for the next.  I’m actually reminded here of something that John Westerhoff wrote about our shared task of Bringing Up Children in the Christian Faith (his book of the same title).  He correctly asserts that we cannot rely on the culture in which we live to impart faith to our children; this, in fact, is a task that belongs to each of us as Christians, and all of us as the church.  Not that we can “give” them faith, per se; faith, writes Westerhoff, “is a gift from God given to both us and our children.  [But,] we are called to live faithfully in childlike ways with our children so that we both might know the gift of faith and live in its grace.”

So it is with the all-important commandments to love God and to love others.  Granted, our love, whatever its shape or form, can only be but a pale reflection of God’s love that, in Christ, “surpasses all knowledge” and understanding (Ephesians 3:19); nonetheless the kind of divine love that’s reflected in us serves as a palpable and lasting way that we give form, substance and meaning to every one of the joys and challenges, the laughter and sorrow, the excitement, the boredom and the utter routine of our daily lives.  Moreover, and I can’t stress this strongly enough, love isn’t always about our being nice!  Quite frankly, some of the worst affronts to love and justice and true “Christian” morality has come about because of a refusal to be anything less than “nice” about the evils around us that we ought to deplore.  Love, as God gives it, intends it and yes, commands it means that we are both accountable for our own behavior and responsible for nurturing one another and our world in ways that are moral, ethical and in keeping with the all-inclusive love of Jesus Christ.

At the end of the day, and at the beginning of each new day, it’s important… most important (!) in everything we do that we love God and love our neighbor. If I might throw in just one more quote, this time from Mother Teresa, “It is not how much we do that is pleasing to God, but how much love we put into the doing.”

That is what’s most important.

Did you hear the story about the wife who wrote a letter to her husband who was in prison for armed robbery?  It was coming on to this time of year, close to springtime, and so in the letter she asked her husband, “I’ve been wondering; what’s the best time to plant potatoes in our garden?”  And the husband immediately wrote back, “Whatever you do, don’t dig in the garden, because that’s where I’ve hidden all of my guns!”  Well, as you might imagine, the mail going in and out of prison was intercepted, and soon as the guards read that particular sentence several men were dispatched to go to the woman’s home and dig up every square foot of her garden plot from one end to the other; but even after all that, they didn’t find a single gun!  When the wife reported this in a letter back to her husband, the husband again quickly wrote back to say, “Alright, then; the garden is now ready for you to go ahead and plant the potatoes!”

Well, it strikes me that just as you can’t throw seeds on hardened ground but rather have to plant them in soil that’s been first tilled and nurtured, it’s also true that for God’s purposes to be fulfilled, our hearts and lives need to be opened up and carefully tended so that real love, divine love transformed into human love can take root there.

The thing is that most of us, I believe, have come here today wanting to be, trying to be and are committed to being faithful by way of loving God and loving others in and through our very lives.  And yes, I’ll admit that these are times when given the world around us and the forces that tempt us to other sorts of responses that commitment to love often becomes difficult and confusing.  But we know what’s important where faith is concerned; we want to do what’s right, we want to live as we ought, and at heart, I believe that each and all of us wants to be the best we can be before God; and what the Gospel tells us this morning is that, as the song goes, “all you need is love.”

But remember, friends,  what makes the difference is love that has source in the one who first loved us, who lived and died for us in the person of Jesus Christ, and who continues even now to bring us closer to him by his Holy Spirit.  This is love made real in his presence and his power; and it’s love that can and will transform us into something brand new; that we might truly love as we have been loved… today, tomorrow and in every day that comes.

Thanks be to God for that love we are given, and that we are challenged to share.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on March 11, 2018 in Faith, Jesus, Lent, Love, Sermon, Sermon Series


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FAQ’s of Faith: Who Is Jesus?

(a sermon for February 18, 2018, the First Sunday in Lent; first in a series, based on Matthew 16:13-20)

“Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

It might have seemed a simple question, but when Jesus asked it of his disciples they knew immediately that there was any number of answers they could give.  “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the [other] prophets.”  Basically, Jesus, it depends on who you ask and when you ask them; truth is, everybody out there seems to have a different take on just who you are and what you’re all about!

And so it is even now; I mean, of all the “FAQ’s” (that is, “Frequently Asked Questions”) with which I could have started this sermon series, this question about who Jesus is would seem to generate the most wide array of responses!  For instance, for a whole lot of people their primary (and perhaps solitary) picture of Jesus is that of the baby in the manger; while others will immediately connect the name Jesus with the figure that hangs on a crucifix, even if they’re not at all sure what that even represents.  The fact is, there are countless people who can easily name Jesus as a historical figure or know that he’s some sort of religious icon, and yet not really know much more than that about who he is!

Then again, even those of us who have spent much of our lives knowing Jesus to one degree or another can attest to, shall we say, a changing point of view where he’s concerned.  For instance, if you grew up going to Sunday School, I’m guessing that somewhere in the back of your mind there’s an image of Jesus as having long, flowing black hair, milky white skin and a robe of white and scarlet; surrounded by children and cradling a lamb in his arms; maybe that’s still how you like to think of Jesus!  Or if you are of, as they say, “a certain age” or perhaps more accurately, of a certain generation, it could be that your image of Jesus is that of the ultimate counter-culture icon; the one who vehemently turned all the values and assumptions of our middle-class world upside and inside out, the one, writes Philip Yancy, whose every teaching was “jarringly antimatrialistic, antihypcritcal, pro-peace and pro-love.”  Indeed, in all times and especially in these times Jesus can appropriately be seen as the vanguard of social justice on every level of human society.

Dig a little deeper, however; get into the biblical and theological perspective as to the identity of this Jesus of Nazareth and you discover a whole realm of possibilities as to how we might know him.  He’s the Christ; he’s Lord of Heaven and Earth; he’s King of Kings and Lord of Lords; he’s the Messiah, and our Savior; he’s the Good Shepherd and the Blessed Redeemer; he’s the Bread of Life, he’s Living Water and he’s the Light of the World; he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world; the Anointed One, Son of God and Son of Man; and he’s our Emmanuel, God With Us.  Jesus is the one to whom John refers to in his gospel as the “Word made flesh [that has] lived among us,” (John 1:14) and who Paul described to the Hebrews as “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” (Hebrews 1:3)  He is the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) and he’s the Incarnate Word of God!

And yet for all of that and so much more that I could recite to you here, we really can’t tell you all that much about what he looked like; about his life between the time he was born and the beginning of his public ministry nearly 30 years later, or even if he had brothers and sisters (biblical scholars have been debating that question for centuries!). We really don’t even have a sense of everything Jesus might have said or taught in those three years of itinerant ministry; all we can claim as truth are the accounts of the four men who wrote the gospels, with the rest coming from biblical history, church tradition and the kind of discernment and analysis that is renewed with each successive generation.

So… when Jesus asks that question – “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” – I guess the answer does come down to who you ask and when you ask them!  (Actually, maybe the best response came from the renowned theologian Karl Barth; who when asked by a student if he could summarize his whole life’s work in theology in a sentence, he answered, “Yes, I can… [it’s] ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”)

But then, in our text this morning Jesus asks another question; and this one cannot be answered in such a second-hand manner: “He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’”  This is where things got personal very quickly!  I have to imagine that at this moment the disciples were all very quiet and looking to the ground, each one of them careful to avoid eye contact with Jesus, like students in a classroom hoping and praying that the teacher won’t call on them!  Because it’s one thing, you see, to report the “conventional wisdom” of the people and even share a bit of the gossip that’s out there; but it’s quite another to commit yourself!  Answering this kind of a question requires something of you; as if to say it means that you know it and you live it!   Those disciples knew full well in that moment that however they answered Jesus, life as knew it would never be the same again; they knew, as do you and I, that we are what we claim!

It turns out, you see, that as much as we might try to seek out answers to this question of who Jesus is, ultimately the real question that needs to be asked is who Jesus is to us; and the thing is, friends, how we answer that question will inevitably affect our responses to every other question of faith and life itself.  And it’s not to say that all the things we’ve seen, heard and learned about Jesus don’t come into play here; in many, many ways we are all the by-products of  two millennia of Christian teaching and tradition, not to mention all those years we spent hearing Bible stories and doing arts and crafts in Sunday School!  But in the end, what all that means and how all of it comes into focus in our lives is revealed by our own confession of faith; it is what and who we say Jesus is has everything to do with who we are and who we’re willing to be!

Granted, to make that kind of confession does involve some risk.  It’s no accident that of all the disciples with Jesus that day it’s only Peter – good ol’ impulsive, I-can-walk-on-water-just-watch-me Peter (!) – who even dares to respond to Jesus’ question:  “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  It was a bold answer, albeit one as he ended up revealing again and again, that Peter didn’t really completely understand; but he said it, and with every fiber of his being, he meant it.  Somehow, the whole mystery of what God had done in and through Jesus had gotten through to him, and though he couldn’t begin to explain or interpret it in any kind of way that made sense or that resolved the mystery of it, Peter knew that from now one every single moment of his life to come would be a reflection of his being in the presence of the promised Messiah of Israel, the one who was and is “Son of the Living God.”  And indeed it would; as Jesus himself goes on to say, it’s upon Peter himself – the one whose very name, Cephas, means “rock” – that the church would be built, “a church so expansive that not even the gates of hell will be able to keep it out.” (The Message)  Peter’s confession of faith would be the catalyst for more than he could ever possibly imagine; a life, says Jesus, where “a yes on earth is a yes in heaven… [where] a no on earth is no in heaven.” [again, The Message].

See what I mean about what it is that we believe and say about Jesus making all the difference?  We are what we claim!

So I lift up this “frequently asked question” to each of you this morning:  Who is Jesus?   Or more to the very important point, Who is Jesus… to you?

Let me tell you a bit of what I think; keeping in mind that what I think about Jesus – as a pastor, as a person, as a Christian – ever continues to grow and evolve over time and experience and changes in my life.  Some years ago – sometime in the mid-90’s, I think – there was this song on the radio sung by Joan Osborne entitled “One of Us.”  You might remember the lyrics:  “What if God was one of us?  Just a slob like one of us? Just a stranger on the bus trying to make his way home.”  The song was a big hit, and I think it even won a Grammy award; but I’ll be honest with you in that when it came out, I didn’t much care for the song!  And mostly, it was because of that one line in the chorus that suggested that God might be “a slob like one of us.”  It seemed to be to be yet another pop culture putdown of my Christian faith; and besides, I had to put up with all these confirmation kids who delighted in pointing out to the pastor that God might just be nothing more than “a stranger on the bus!”

But over time (and also, I must admit, hearing the song played over and over again on the radio!), I got to thinking about how actually one of the central truths of our Christian faith is how in grace and perfect love God did come to us… as one of us; first as a helpless, crying baby in the arms of a young mother, then as a young man with calloused carpenter’s hands and likely middle-eastern features; then as a teacher and healer and friend imbued with the fullness of God, one who spoke with boldness, compassion and unending hope even and especially to all those who were forever without hope and dwelling on the fringes of life; and finally, as one who went willingly to his own death on the cross for the sake of our having a relationship with God now and eternally!  Beloved, of all the ideas and images that we’re given of the divine presence, the most remarkable and extraordinary of all is this incredible truth that God – God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth (!) – was “present, active, speaking, giving and healing through this [singular] human life!” And that’s everything; as Norman Pott has put it, “our faith is not so much resting on the hope that Jesus is like God… [but that] God is like Jesus, that is compassionate, forgiving, accepting, welcoming… if we affirm God in Jesus, we are opening to the possibility of God in ourselves.”

And I have to tell you… that though my pastoral sensibilities still tend to make me shy away from the image of God being “a slob” in any way, shape or form (!); the truth is that when I think of who Jesus is, it’s not the “stained glass window Jesus” that I envision, nor is it so much someone walking around as an earthbound angel with a golden halo overhead.  It’s the Jesus who’s one of us; the one who’s just like me, who knows my joys and even more so my sorrow.  It’s the Jesus who knows, like I do – like we all do – how hard life can be; and it’s the Jesus who weeps at the loss of children in an unspeakable act of violence, and who knows that somehow and in so many ways we can be better than that.  It’s the Jesus who is one of us – but who is also one with God – that changes everything and makes all the difference for me.

Jesus comes to each one of us across the years, beloved; and he does so vividly, powerfully and beautifully.  But in the midst of it all, his question remains: Who do you say that I am?  And he waits for us to answer, each one of us in our own way.

So… what do you say?  Who is Jesus… to you?

May God bless us with the faith and insight to make confessions of our own.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on February 18, 2018 in Faith, Jesus, Lent, Sermon, Sermon Series


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