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Category Archives: Life

Living the Sabbath Life

(a sermon for June 3, 2018, the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, based on Mark 2:23-3:6)

I think it’s probably safe to say that we don’t observe the Sabbath the way we used to.

Actually, one of the mixed blessings of having been in the ministry as long as I have is that I’m able to see the difference; and I suspect there are a lot of you who can say the same!  Time was – and not so very long ago (!) – that Sundays were set aside as a true day of rest; a time for church, home, family and a bit of relaxation.  As a general rule businesses were shut down, and most stores were closed for the day; school activities – sports or otherwise – were prohibited; and if you were a kid, if you had something happening on a Sunday afternoon it usually involved a church youth group activity.  Depending on your own particular tradition of faith, you might not even have gone to the movies or played cards on a Sunday, because those were things that you simply did not do on the Lord’s Day (that; and because playing cards were at one time considered the “devil’s playthings!”).

Not that everyone always approached this as a wholly (and holy) Christian thing to do, or even something that was particularly religious in nature; it was simply understood that there ought to be a “Sabbath rest” from the burdens of the rest of the week’s work, all rooted in the creation story from Genesis in which God, overwhelmed from the glorious work of creation, exclaimed that “indeed, it was very good,” (1:31) and then “rested on the seventh day.” (2:2) From the very beginning, you see, the Sabbath was intended a blessing to us from God of both body and soul, and as such was to be thought of as holy.

Of course, you know what’s happened; actually a combination of things over time:  the repeal of the so-called “blue laws” that allowed every mall in the country to run full tilt all day on Sunday; the encroachment of more and more Sunday sports and other activities on the weekend landscape; as well as a changing economy that has fairly well mandated the necessity of a two-income family; and this is to say nothing of a culture and life that just keeps getting busier and more convoluted with every passing generation, to the point where church has become for many, a second or third choice, if it’s a choice at all!

And the thing is, it’s all happened very gradually, almost without notice.  I’ve always found it ironic that as a pastor, the Sabbath has always and ever been my busiest workday (!); but I must confess that over the years, little by little I’ve discovered that my “window of opportunity,” shall we say, for ministry on a Sunday has been slowly but steadily shrinking over the years; and that’s because there’s so much going on with people and families these days that there’s hardly room for anything else on a Sunday, much less more church activities!  Like I say, pastorally speaking, the Sabbath just ain’t what it used to be!

Now, I don’t say all of this to complain (well… mostly I don’t!), but simply to point out how much things have changed; and really, in this instance, only over about the past 30 years or so.  And yes, where Sundays and the life of the church are concerned, a lot of us – myself included, sometimes – feel like we’ve lost something sacred, and wish that things could go back to the way “it used to be.”  But that having been said, I also have to wonder… that if in the midst of all these changes to life and living it’s not so much that we’ve lost the Sabbath, but that maybe we’ve missed the point of it.

Because friends, as scripture describes it and proclaims it to the faithful, Sabbath isn’t meant primarily to be just another day off or an opportunity for a “time out;” it’s not to be thought of as a reward for a week’s worth of a job well done; it’s not even wholly about rest, at least not in the sense of an afternoon nap.  Sabbath is about much more than that: it’s about life, and within that life, faith. Sabbath is for the renewal of life – ours, yes, but also the life of all of creation – and it is for the sake of resilience so that each one of us is strengthened and empowered to do God’s work on Monday morning and every day that follows.  It’s about a true ministry of life, yours and mine; and to quote Karoline Lewis, “When the Sabbath is for the sake of life, then it means getting back in there and figuring out where life needs to happen.”

This is what lay at the heart of our text for this morning, two back to back stories from the 2nd chapter of Mark’s gospel in which Jesus has already begun to run afoul of the scribes and Pharisees; specifically, regarding the proper observance of the Sabbath.  First, we have Jesus and his disciples walking through “a field of ripe grain,” [The Message] and because they’re hungry and because it’s the only food available to them at the moment, the disciples start “pull[ing] off heads of grain” to eat.  This, of course, was a major breach of the Law regarding the Sabbath: not only was the work of picking the grain prohibited, so was their traveling through this grain field in the first place; and if that weren’t enough, so was eating food that hadn’t been prepared the day before!  Needless to say, the ancient laws of the Old Testament were quite rigid regarding how the Sabbath was to be observed; in fact, the book of Exodus points out that “everyone who profanes [the Sabbath] shall be put to death,” (17:14) and “whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people.” (Think about that as you go home today, friends!)

So here come the Pharisees, ever so quick to point this all out to Jesus, but Jesus is just as quick to remind them of a story about King David; how David had done something even more sacrilegious – stealing and eating bread from the temple that was reserved for the priests, and on the Sabbath, no less (!) – but how that was permissible because this was the one who was to be God’s anointed king, and the Law, however stringent, had to give way to need. Don’t you understand, Jesus says; don’t you get it?  “The Sabbath was made to serve us; we weren’t made to serve the Sabbath.” [The Message again] And then, in the most cutting response of all, Jesus adds, “So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

The point is brought home almost immediately afterward, as Jesus arrives at the synagogue and meets a man whose hand is withered and who desires to be healed; and immediately a decision has to be made.  On the one hand, it would almost certainly be true that if the Pharisees discovered this “unclean” man in the temple, he would not be permitted to stay and would be denied any participation in worship.  On the other hand, however, if Jesus were to actually heal this man’s withered hand – and on the Sabbath – he’d just as certainly be further raising the ire of the religious authorities!

In the end, the right decision was clear; because once again, “The Sabbath was made for humankind,” not the other way around!  The need for love and mercy in that moment exceeded the need for the exact letter of the Law to be followed; and the opportunity for Jesus to bring this man healing was far more important than whatever chastisement would be brought upon him by the Pharisees for doing so.  And with those fuming scholars of Sabbath day correctness looking on, here is what Jesus says (as translated by The Message): “What kind of action suits the Sabbath best?  Doing good or doing evil?  Helping people or leaving them helpless?”

And how do they respond to this?  In every translation the reaction is the same:  they’re angry, but even as their hearts were hardened, nonetheless “they were silent.”  Because in the end, how do you dispute the wonder of a healing act?  How can you squash a miracle of grace on the basis of a technicality of law?  How do you argue with life?

Let us not misunderstand here; by this flagrant act of breaking the Sabbath, Jesus was not flaunting the authority of the Law.  We recognize this all through the gospels: that Jesus regarded God’s law as holy and insisted that that the faithful need “to know, revere, and follow the law.”  But, in words of David Lose, “as important as the law is, it is – and shall always be – a means to an end, a tool, a mechanism in service to a greater purpose.”  Jesus knew that following the law is not what makes us who we are as God’s children; it is meant to help us live wholly unto that identity no matter what, no matter how, and might I add in this case, no matter when.

And that’s a truth that, on this particular Sabbath day, continues on in us.

The fact is that despite the rapid pace of life as we know it in these crazy, convoluted times we have not lost the Sabbath.  You and I are blessed with the invitation and opportunity – indeed, the mandate – to seek the kind of rest, resilience and renewal that is infused with holiness.  But what we need to remember is that our observance of the Sabbath is not to be thought of as the end of this week’s journey of faithfulness, but rather a pause for reflection before the next week’s journey begins.  From the very beginning of our creation, you and I are called to be living the Sabbath life; but ultimately that has much less to do with our stepping away from what we do than it does with getting ready for what is yet to be done!  God created us to love and support one another; to extend to others the same kind of grace and mercy and encouragement as Jesus has given us; to love as fully and openly and as sacrificially we have been loved.  Everything we do (or choose not to do) to keep the Sabbath is the way that we seek to be restored in this wonderful and triumphant ministry of life that we all share.

And, by the way, don’t get me wrong here; speaking both as a child of God and your pastor I do believe, with all my heart (especially now as the more leisurely summer months are getting underway!) that living the Sabbath life does include sharing in “the act and attitude of Christian worship.”  Our coming together here every Sunday morning; our songs and prayers; our proclamation of God’s Word; our shared moments of laughter and tears and silence and fellowship and even the after-church refreshment:  all of it combines to offer up praise and thanksgiving to God Almighty, but also to prepare our bodies and our souls for the work that awaits us as disciples of Jesus Christ.  But then again, so does the time we get to spend today with our families, our friends and our other assorted loved ones; so does that opportunity that might just present itself, wherever we are this afternoon, to reach out to someone in need in any one of a multitude of ways; so does seizing a few private few moments of personal prayer and reflection while hiking, or fishing, or maybe even lounging outside in an Adirondack chair; so does, occasionally, a well-placed afternoon nap with the sound of the Red Sox playing  in the background.

We were made for the Sabbath, beloved; that’s what Jesus said.  So let’s make this Sabbath count for the something as we ready ourselves for the week ahead… and today, let’s start by feasting at the Lord’s table, that we might know Jesus’ presence in the bread and the wine.

Thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Awakened by a Roar

(a sermon for May 27, 2018, the 1st Sunday after Pentecost, based on Romans 8:12-17 and John 3:1-17)

It has long fascinated me that sound – or more accurately, our experience of sound – is something very relative in nature.

For instance, as I was at home writing this sermon yesterday, the windows were open and I was hearing all the noise that’s fairly commonplace on Mountain Road, especially on a weekend: the steady stream of cars whizzing by (usually too fast!) or the roar of motorcycles headed up to the mountains;  lawn mowers, weed whackers and the buzz of an occasional chainsaw doing yardwork off in the distance; the snatches of music and conversation emanating from throughout the neighborhood; and this is to say nothing of the constant roar of traffic that floats up from nearby I-93!  It’s this ever-present droning of sound – like I say, not at all unusual, especially this time of year – but the thing is that most of the time I don’t even notice it!  Quite honestly, most times it takes a siren or a clap of thunder to get me to wake up to all the rest of the noise that’s going on around me!

Actually, the thought of this takes me back to my years growing up in Maine.  East Millinocket, the town where I grew up, was in those more prosperous days a huge paper mill town; and so the constant whirring and clanking of paper machines at the mill, along with the roar of all the other varied kinds of equipment used to move around pulp and paper, was a regular part of our lives 24/7… so much so that from day to day we hardly ever noticed the noise of it!  In fact, every morning around 7:45 there would be three blasts of the fire horn signaling the end of the night shift (and, as it turned out, to let us kids know that school was starting in a half-hour!); but let me tell you that when I was in high school, I could sleep through that fire horn blasting with no trouble whatsoever and be late for class as a result!

Contrast this, however, to what we experienced every summer when we went “uptacamp” at the lake; when without the noise of the mill filling our ears every night, the silence those first few nights could almost be deafening!  And when you woke up it wasn’t to the sound of paper machines, but rather to the sound of loons calling to one another from the far end of the pond; birds singing their songs high up in the trees behind the camp, and the first hints of a morning breeze rustling through the leaves.  Or maybe it’d be the putt-putt of a little outboard engine bringing one of the old men out to Barker Rocks in hopes that the fishing might be particularly good that morning.  Perhaps you’d even hear your parents out in the kitchen talking about putting on a pot of coffee, or hear a screen door slamming as one of them down to the spring for a jug of water.  These were no less than the quiet, gentle sounds of life “going on,” all of that which, unbeknownst to you, had pretty much been drowned out by the clamor of school, work and the routine of daily life!

And what I remember more than anything else is that whereas I could easily sleep through the blasts of the fire horn, all those sounds at the lake were almost like an alarm clock for me.  I’d hear all this from my bed and I’d want to get right up and see what was going on; to find out what the weather was going to be and get started on whatever adventure was waiting for me that day!  It was a new day, a brand new season full of possibility, and as such, I was new as well; part of a time and a place in which something wonderful was going to happen that I definitely didn’t want to miss!

Actually, if you think of that as a parable of sorts it’s not all that different than that which our epistle text for this morning sets forth: what it means for you and I to live in and be led by the Spirit of God!  You see, in his letter to the Roman church Paul speaks about this incredible power God has unleashed into the world in Christ’s resurrection; a Spirit of life that empowers all who call upon it in the same manner it empowered Jesus in the midst of his own suffering and death, to the extent that his glory becomes our glory as well!  Paul is very specific in saying that by that same Spirit “bearing witness with our spirit,” we are “children of God,” and as such “heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ,” and all the good things that come with that.

Think about that with me for a moment, because that’s big!  What that’s saying is that because of the Spirit and out of love, God has not simply made us his children, but views us as his children in the same way that he views Jesus himself!  Do you ever remember hearing someone refer to a child born to a family very late in life as an “afterthought;” meaning that this family thought they were long since past having any more children but then there was a baby on the way who was the “afterthought?”  Well, what we’re told here is that you and I are not to be thought of any sort of divine afterthought; but in fact, fully and wholly children of God and co-heirs with God’s Son Jesus.  And because of this, we’ve entered into this brand new style of life that comes to us by virtue of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This is why Paul is also very quick in our reading today to make a distinction between the old time and place when we were “debtors… to the flesh,” that is, living a life wholly caught up in the ways and means of the world, as opposed to now, as we’re living the new life of the Spirit in which we are regarded as Children of God!  Living in that Spirit, you see, brings us a whole new perception of life and living, in which we see and hear and experience things so much differently than we ever did before, thus changing how we live forever!  Once again, I found myself smiling at how The Message words this: “This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike ‘What’s next, Papa?’ God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are.”  In the more traditional translation, “…you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption.”  You’ve been given a spirit that is a living force dwelling within you, and it shapes who you are and what you do; and because of this, it’s a new day and a brand new life full of possibility, one that you don’t want to miss out on!  Yes, it might well lead to challenge and suffering, as it did for our brother Christ, but it’s also a life that inevitably gives way to wonder, and glory, and divine purpose.

As Paul proclaims it here, it’s an amazing gift; not to mention one of the central truths of our Christian faith.  But the question is… it always is… whether we’re ready and willing to embrace that gift as our own.

Our second reading for this morning is that passage that John that leads into what is arguably the most oft-quoted verses of the gospels: that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  But what we don’t always acknowledge is that this verse is actually the culmination of a longer (and, might I add, covert) conversation between Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus; a conversation which begins with Jesus speaking to this Pharisee about the need for being born again, not of the flesh but of the Spirit, or as our translation of scripture puts it, being “born from above.”  What’s interesting is that Nicodemus, despite being a Pharisee and, as such, a knowledgeable man on matters of faith and theology, responds with questions that sound almost like riddles: “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

There’s a spirited back and forth between Jesus and this Pharisee; to the point where in the end, it’s really not a lack of understanding that holds Nicodemus back (because as Jesus says it, he is a teacher of Israel; surely he understands that “what is born of the Spirit is spirit”), but rather, I suspect, the sheer reality of what it means this same Spirit – God’s Spirit – start one’s life all over again!  Nicodemus, being a Pharisee and being a tireless purveyor of the Law, would have to know that such an understanding would mean following God along a new pathway; and that the things of heaven – the things relating to God’s plan, God’s kingdom, God’s love – would have to take precedence over earthly things, even some things relating to the law!  It would have to mean that you might well find yourself living a new kind of life, a life in which would have to trust God’s Spirit to give you courage, and strength, and love in order to witness to that truth in the world.  And make no mistake, friends, that was a daunting prospect for Nicodemus; and it continues to be for us as well.

But the good news is that we are given the kind of Spirit that empowers us to be God’s children in the here and now, even as we lay the groundwork for the kingdom to come in its fullness. As Paul also said, this time to in his 2nd letter to Timothy, “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”  (1:7)  And here’s the challenge that goes with that good news:  by the power of this Spirit given us, we are to wake up to this brand new day and truly live!

Not long ago I read something very interesting about the psychology of lions; which is in truth, part folklore and part the result of years of studying prides of lions and their habits of life and survival. But what seems to be true amidst the folklore is that lion cubs, despite what we all know to be true from watching “The Lion King,” (!) basically come into the world pretty much stillborn; and that they are “awakened to life” by the roar of another lion.  The legend inherent in this is the reason why lions have a roar in the first place: it is to awaken young lions who are asleep, because otherwise they can never be born, and thus live and grow and take their proper place in the pride.  Lions are never able to truly fulfill their destiny unless they are awakened to the possibility of it by a roar!

It’s really not too much of a stretch think of ourselves in the same way.  After all, there are so many people who come into this world, who live their lives and do their jobs and go through their days as though stillborn, without really having life as it is meant to be.  Maybe there’s somebody here today who does everything they’re supposed to do in this life, and yet deep down feels as if they’re merely going through the motions; like there’s supposed to be something more to who they are and what they’re supposed to be:  a deep passion, a holy rage, a joyous aggression that fulfills everything that life and living is meant to hold.  But something holds that back.

Well, beloved, the good news is that once in the town of Galilee there was a lion who roared: a lion who roared to life those who were yet stillborn; children who by the sound of this mighty roar of life became sons and daughters of God, heirs of God and brothers and sisters of Christ.

That lion’s name is Jesus, and if we will only attune our ears to sound of his voice, which truly roars above the din of human anxieties and fears, he will awaken us to things we never heard, or seen, or done, or have been before.  He will give to us a Spirit that dwells within us and allows us to truly live with wonder, and purpose, and incredible joy manifest in divine love.

May this be the day we’re awakened to that Spirit… and as that happens, may our thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on May 27, 2018 in Epistles, Holy Spirit, Jesus, Life, Maine, Paul, Sermon

 

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“From Away”

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  –Galatians 3:28 (NRSV)

It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I speak “Down East” as a second language; and that despite my feeble efforts to suppress the impulse, it tends to slip out from time to time, even from the pulpit!

I’m referring, of course, to the dialect that is native to New England in general and Maine in particular; an accent that has long been part of the folklore in these parts, thanks in large part to the classic “Bert and I” stories recorded by Robert Bryan and the late Marshall Dodge. To be honest, what I speak is less that than it is a hybrid of the voices of people I grew up with, as well as those of some of “the locals” with whom I worked during summers years ago as a cabin boy at a rustic resort on the Maine coast; my friend Darrell and I were constantly attempting good-natured impressions, and I’m afraid that for me it stuck!  As a result of all this, however, over the years I’ve developed a fondness for the subtleties of dialect (yes, there is an Aroostook County accent, just so you know!) as well as a great love for good storytelling and especially an appreciation for Maine humor.

For the uninitiated, Maine humor is predicated on understatement (Visitor: “Have you lived here all your life?”  Mainer: “Not yet.”) as well as the gentle tweaking of strangers, fools, tourists and out-of-staters in general, all of whom are referred to as being “from away,” that is, not from the State of Maine. In other words, if you aren’t a native, then you simply don’t “get it!” The notion that one needs to have been born somewhere on the north side the Kittery bridge is the stuff of many a downeast story, not to mention the starting place for a great many folks’ grumbling each year between Memorial and Labor Day.

All these stories are unique to the culture and heritage of the Pine Tree State, and that’s why I love them; and yet what’s always been interesting to me is how well these stories hold up wherever they happen to be told.  For instance, after nearly six years now living and pastoring here in New Hampshire, I can tell you that the same kind of wariness that exudes from your average “Native Mainuh” is also found in great abundance here in the “Live Free or Die” State.  Even in places as far away from the Maine coast as the cornfields of Ohio (where I also pastored a church for several years), I soon discovered that my twice-told stories of farmers and fishermen getting the best of the “flatlanders” rang true. And as a clergy-type, I can well attest to the fact that one even tends to see a few of these stories play out in the life of your average church; from that greenhorn minister who unwisely runs afoul of some long-cherished congregational tradition to the Sunday morning visitor who discovers very quickly that he’d inadvertently sat down in “Mrs. Johnson’s Pew!”  I guess no matter where you are, there are always going to be people “from away” who threaten to interfere with life as it’s always been; just as, conversely, there will always be those quick to point out the interference!

What I’m talking about is all in good fun, of course… except when it’s not.

I must confess that as a pastor, I sometimes do stand amazed at the strange contradiction that often exists within the life of the church: how on the one hand, we’re called to be offering up what our denomination refers to as an “extravagant welcome,” biblically encouraged to seek out those whom the world routinely leaves on the outside looking in and to invite them to be part of our Christ-inspired circle of faith and love; and yet, on the other hand, how quickly and easily we tend at times to dismiss from our fellowship and affection those who are a bit “different” from our regular congregants. After 30-plus years and several pastoral charges, I’ve actually seen this unfold in quite a number of ways; ranging from the kind of innocuous concerns that routinely arise from personality conflicts that, let’s be honest, can exist in any congregation, all the way down to the mostly subtle but nonetheless cruel examples of exclusion that come about as a result of bad habits, misbegotten traditions or a wide array of deeply held prejudices. Yes, to be sure, issues of racism, gender inequality and homophobia can enter into it; then again, so do things like age, economics, classism and even geography.  And lest anyone think this happens only to those who sit in the pews, please know that more than once as a pastor I’ve been informed by well-meaning parishioners that unless I’d been born in that town or grew up in that congregation, I would have no hope of ever understanding what’s best for the church (oh, well… such is the curse of being “from away!”).

But wherever one happens to be on the receiving end of such an attitude, I have to say it’s a shame. As I said before, it is not only the mission of the church to welcome all those who want and need the love of God in Christ in their lives and to bring them into the fellowship of a true community of faith and love; it’s also our grand opportunity to benefit from all the diversity, vitality and fresh perspective these people bring to our shared ministry in Christ’s name. Truly, it is our “Great Commission” from Jesus himself to welcome those who are “from away;” and great things do happen for the sake of Christ and his Church when we stay focused on that mission.

That’s one of many reasons I continue to feel very blessed to be pastoring this particular little corner of Christianity, for the people of East Church really do seem to live out of that calling.  Ours is a church family diverse in background and experience but grounded in the knowledge that we are indeed “all one in Christ Jesus,” bound together by our unity in the Spirit and through our love for one another, a love that extends outward (and then draws inward) in countless ways both large and small. At the risk of sounding a little boastful here, one of the great joys of what I do is that I get to see this every day: whether it’s in the faith and joy expressed in our times of worship, in the food, fellowship and laughter that’s shared around the table, or in all the important work of care and outreach that happens “from season to changing season,” there is a vibrant ministry of love and acceptance that runs through everything we do as a church; and it is enhanced by every new person who comes in the door to share in the good life we have together.

Because ayuh, we’re all God’s children… no matter where we’re from!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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