RSS

Category Archives: Maine

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

Advertisements
 
2 Comments

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

 

Tags: , , ,

To Become Part of the Wind

(a sermon for May 20, 2018, Pentecost Sunday, based on Acts 2:1-21 and John 20:19-23)

Dr. Ron Lawrence is, at 92 years young, a retired professor of neurosurgery at UCLA Medical School; but he is perhaps even better known as a devout long distance runner, having run over 200 marathons in his lifetime, many of these even as he was well into his 80’s; an impressive achievement by any standard, so he’s also become something of a guru amongst marathoners.  I mention him today because some years ago, I read a magazine article he wrote about his running regimen that, though I’ll never be confused with someone who has ever had any kind of running regimen (!), it really hit me where I live.

The piece actually had to do with the various mental images that Ron Lawrence himself used to help him with the stamina and mental focus it takes to get through a difficult marathon.  He wrote in the article that “if [for instance] I’m going out for an 18-mile run, I will use a mental image in which I see my body as a collection of separate molecules.  [As I’m running] I’ll actually envision the air rushing through my body, until it’s as if I’ve become part of the wind.”  It was this image that not only fueled but enhanced his experience of running the marathon; and I remember reading that article and immediately thinking to myself, Yeah!  I get that!   I understood what Lawrence was talking about there, because that’s exactly how it is when I’m sailing!

Now, I know I’ve shared with you a few of my sailing stories over the years, but understand that most of my sailing experience has been on lakes as opposed to the ocean; and since most of our lakes in this part of the world are surrounded by hills and notches, the wind by which we sail tends to be rather gusty, whipping down around the hills, through the valleys and across the lake.  Sometimes, quite literally, the wind just seems to come out of nowhere; it makes for great sailing, but the thing is, you have to pay attention lest you be caught off guard, and you and your sailboat end up capsized in the water!

Let me tell you that some of these gusts of wind are so intense that you literally begin to feel the force of that wind pushing the boat both ahead and to the side.  You hear the sound of the bow slicing through the waves and the shudder of the bilge boards as you pick up a bit of speed.  And before long, you’re experiencing the sheer power of it:  the job and mainsail lines are pulling at your hands and making them burn; your arms growing tense and tired as you work to trim the sails; your whole body aching from having leaned out over the high side of the boat to keep it from heeling over too far!

But more than something merely physical, in that moment of what I would consider to be perfect sailing it’s almost like you’ve been picked up and carried by some invisible force!  You want to yell – and trust me, you do (!) – but mostly, you just keep focusing on the task at hand, doing what you have to do so that the wind will take you where it will.  You’re in control, but at the same time you’re not; in that moment, you really do become part of the wind!

Of course, the other side of lake sailing comes in those moments when the gusts disappear, the wind dies as quickly as it arises and now you’re out on the lake seemingly without a breath of breeze!   And when that happens – trust me again (!) – you either start paddling, or you wait, sometimes for hours at a time (!), for the wind to return.  But even then… even when you’ve been sitting out there on a glassy pond all afternoon thinking there’s nothing more that’s going to happen today, you look up and notice that the sails have just begun to move; first they flutter and “luff,” then they begin, ever so gently and slowly, to billow out.  Then you look down and see that your boat is just beginning to cut through the mirror image of the water.  Understand, it’s barely perceptible, but you are moving; there is a breeze at work and you’ve just become a part of it!  Just a little breath of hope, but I can vouch for the fact that those little wisps of air can bring you home in a way that’s every bit as incredible as the rushes of wind you experience on a gusty afternoon.

Two different kinds of experiences, but the same wind; the same source moving us in one direction, but with a different kind of intensity that blows us along in a different way…

…which actually, when you think about it, is an apt description of the Holy Spirit; for after all, isn’t this how God comes to us, both on the rush of a mighty wind as well as on the breath of a single breeze?  Friends, I’m here to tell you this morning that this is the dual nature of this amazing gift of Spirit that God bestows upon his people; and this is what this Day of Pentecost is all about.

It’s all borne out in scripture, of course.  The “mighty wind” of the Spirit is described for us in the Acts of the Apostles as “a sound like the rush of a violent wind” coming from heaven itself!  In The Message, it’s described as a “gale force” wind (a sailor’s reference, there!) so pervasive that no one could tell where it came from, but which could be felt even in the upper room where the disciples themselves were gathered.  And it wasn’t to be dismissed or ignored; we’re told that “like a wildfire, [this Spirit] spread through their ranks, and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them.” [The Message] And before any of them could even begin to understand or process what was going on, here were all these people on the streets, all these devout Jews staying in Jerusalem for the festival, suddenly bewildered and dumbfounded that they’re hearing the “God’s deeds of power” declared in their own mother tongues!

Now, some would dismiss it as drunken behavior; others were so confused they couldn’t begin to make sense of it; but a few of them somehow knew that this strange occurrence had to be of God.  They listened with awe to the proclamation given by Peter that God would “pour out [his] Spirit on all [people], that [their] sons and daughters [would] prophesy, [their] young men [would] see visions, and [their] old men [would] dream dreams.”   It was the stuff of high drama, no doubt; as literally and spiritually, God’s own Spirit came to them with the power of a hurricane.  And best of all?  All those who would let that raging wind touch them, blow through them, and carry them became a part of that Spirit; they became a part of the wind.

It’s an amazing story, no doubt; but compare this to the other account we have of the Spirit’s “gifting” from John’s gospel.  It’s a real study in contrasts, for whereas Luke tells his story in Acts with excitement and electricity and vigor, John’s account is quiet, serene, a bit understated and well, rather mysterious.  You know the story:  it’s Easter night, the disciples are still hidden away, fearful for their lives; and yet reeling not only from everything that had transpired in the past few days, but from the very real possibility that Jesus may have actually risen from the dead!

So think of it for a moment: it’s quiet and dark, there’s this group of grieving, fearful people huddled together because they had nowhere else to be, no one else to go to… but and now, suddenly and without warning, there in the midst of them is Jesus, standing among them, greeting them, as most certainly he always did, with the Hebrew greeting of Shalom“Peace be with you.”  So, as opposed to the rush of a mighty wind out of heaven, we’re told here that Jesus “breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit,’” giving these scared disciples life in much the same manner as God breathed life into clay at the time of creation; and when that happened, immediately, hopelessness gave way to assurance and joy!  It was the gentle breeze that blows across what seems to be a dead calm; the almost imperceptible momentum moving you from sea to shore and home.  Jesus breathed the breath of God upon them, and the disciples became part of that breeze, imbued with power to forgive and to heal as they had been forgiven.

Two different kinds of experiences, but the same wind; the same Spirit moving us in one direction, but with a different kind of intensity that blows us along in a different way…

Now I realize that these two stories offer up the kind of contradictory biblical conundrum that both skeptics and biblical scholars love to debate!  But I would suggest to you this morning that the point is not whether one version of the story is of more accuracy or importance than the other; rather it’s the abiding truth that God’s Spirit does come, with creative and renewing power!  It’s how God’s Spirit was given to us in two different, yet entirely unified ways; but then, that’s how it’s always been with God.  It’s there in Holy Scripture from Genesis to Revelation, and it’s the resounding theme of our Christian faith: that God comes to his people in a variety of ways and means, and those people are moved and changed in their encounter with the living God.

And friends, the good news is that continues in you, and in me.

So yes… God comes to us like a mighty wind, making us part of God’s own powerful presence of love.  God storms us at times like fire, with rough and cleansing gusts:  the addict who bottoms out; the couple who suddenly recognize in sharp detail the tensions that are pulling their marriage and family apart; the cancer patient who somehow garners the fighting spirit he or she needs to live.  These are people who just might have experienced the gale force of God in their lives in a truth discerned in the midst of the fray, or a presence discovered while the wind is blowing strong around them.  Maybe it’s a mountaintop experience when in one, incredible moment, all of life just seems to come together at once; or perhaps, more likely, it comes in the times spent meandering in the valley, the moments we feel so low that only a great stirring could ever possibly lift you up.  Either way, friends, these are the doors, the windows, the cracks and the crevices through which God’s Spirit pushes through, carrying us to freedom; and making us aware that we’ve become part of the wind.

Yet, God also comes to us quietly, at times almost imperceptive, in a way as unnoticed yet as intimate as breathing itself:  the realization that finally, after a long siege of life’s challenges, the struggle is… over!  The beauty of a sunset setting the sky ablaze in orange, the magnificence of a star-filled sky in mid-summer, or a precious early morning moment of quiet before the day begins; those times in which, much to our surprise and wonder, we’re suddenly seeing things in perfect clarity, and maybe for the first time it all makes sense!  Even when it doesn’t make sense, but still you know it’s going to be okay, because you’re palpably aware that you have that peace that the world neither gives nor takes away.  These are the treasured moments of our lives in which for reasons we can’t explain or describe or rationalize away, we know in deepest part of our souls that we are embraced, lifted, sheltered and loved; the times in which we’ve become part of the quiet Spirit of God; we’ve become part of the wind.

Two different kinds of experiences, but the same wind; the same Spirit moving us in one direction, but with a different kind of intensity that blows us along in a different way…

That’s the message we need to take home with us on this Pentecost Sunday.  The Holy Spirit is God’s divine gift, and we need to open ourselves to receiving it with gladness and in anticipation of what God wants to do in and through our lives.  Perhaps the storms that blow in our midst are more than storms; and, maybe the profound silence we’re experiencing at the moment is much more than it seems as well.  It could well be that for each and all of us, God is moving, stirring… blowing.

That’s our good news, beloved, so let us open ourselves to God’s stirrings, not only now as we worship together, and but most especially as we head out into the challenge and uncertainty of another week.  Who knows how God’s wind will blow through us this week, and how we might find ourselves becoming a part of that wind?

Come, Holy Spirit… Come!

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
1 Comment

Posted by on May 20, 2018 in Holy Spirit, Jesus, Maine, Sermon

 

Tags: ,

“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

 

Tags:

 
%d bloggers like this: