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Category Archives: Maine

Witnesses of These Things

(a sermon for April 15, 2018, the 3rd Sunday of Easter, based on Luke 24:36-49)

It’s fascinating – and more than a little bit telling, I think – that as Luke continues his version of the Easter story, the eleven disciples only really begin to connect the dots where the resurrection is concerned when Jesus asks them, “Have you anything here to eat?”

To sit down and have something to eat, after all, is probably the most basic and human thing that you and I ever do in our lives. But more than merely being necessary for our physical survival, food also has a way of bringing us comfort; and sharing a meal with others creates an opportunity for hospitality for nurturing relationships. There’s a reason that when someone is sick, or if their loved one has passed away, our first response in dealing with grief and loss – especially here in New England – is to bake a casserole; just as I can also tell you that apart from the fundraising aspect of it, the main reason that churches like ours hold Saturday night“bean suppahs” is because food and fellowship go together like… well, beans and ham!

But “having something to eat” can also open our eyes and hearts to something we hadn’t known or experienced before.  How many first dates “going out to eat” grew into something more because sitting across the table from someone while eating chicken parmesan not only lessened the awkwardness of the situation but also became the starting place of a whole new relationship!  And how often does food serve as an affirmation of who and whose you are?  Growing up, there was hardly a gathering of the Lowry side of the family that didn’t include oyster stew as part of the meal; and likewise, we’ve discovered as our own children have grown older that each one of them have favorite dishes that bring back good memories of childhood and which they still ask for when they come home!  Food, you see, is real; and it has a real way of help us discern what else is real as well.

Think about how the resurrection story unfolds in Luke’s gospel:  first, you have the women discovering the empty tomb and being greeted by the “two men in dazzling clothes” (24:4) who told them that Jesus had, in fact, risen; but not only does the idea of this terrify them, but when they return to the eleven to share this news, the apostles dismiss it as “an idle tale,” (24:11) which, by the way, in the original Greek is leros, which is where we get our word “delirious.”  So basically, the whole idea of Jesus being raised from the dead was being dismissed by the eleven as wild, unbelievable crazy talk!

And then you have, later on that day, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, who are actually walking with the Risen Christ, but who fail to recognize who he is until… notice this (!)… Jesus “took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them” (24:39) and their eyes were opened, recognizing him for who he was.  But still, it wasn’t enough to convince the eleven and their companions back in Jerusalem that what happened had actually happened!  Even when in that moment when “Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you;’” even that was not enough to lead them from fear to belief; nor was the offer from Jesus that they could touch his hands and feet if they needed to, or even the assurance that “a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have”  (which, it should be noted, brought joy to the eleven, but not yet belief, as, according to Luke, they were “still wondering.”  In other words, this is great and all, but how are we supposed to believe this? “It was too much; it all seemed too good to be true!” [The Message])

No; it’s only when Jesus asks if there’s something to eat, and then proceeds to eat that piece of broiled fish in their presence that the disciples finally start to get it:  Jesus was alive!  He had risen from the dead; and now, here he was with them, just like before!  And suddenly, right there in the middle of a fish dinner, all the doubt, all the hopelessness, all the barriers that had previously stood between them – barriers of sin and grief and death – were gone forever.  And now Jesus could truly open their minds “to understand the scriptures,” and for the apostles to discover, once and for all, that everything had Jesus had told them over the past three years about the Messiah having to suffer and then “to rise from the dead on the third day,” about “repentance and forgiveness of sins” and about the need to proclaim all of it to Jerusalem and the world; to know it was all real and true would change everything about their lives and living from that moment forward!

Which is what makes what Jesus says next all the more powerful:  “You are witnesses of these things… and see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised.”

Now, I’ve always imagined that at this point, the disciples’ reaction was yet another of disbelief; or, if not disbelief exactly, then certainly utter surprise! Excuse me, Lord?  We’re just now beginning to wrap our minds around the fact that you’re back from the dead and now you want us to be your witnesses?  Give us a moment to absorb this, Jesus… maybe later, but not now… not yet! But you’ll notice in our text this morning, Jesus is very clear regarding the tense of this assertion: it’s not “you were,” or “you will be,” but it’s that you are witnesses, right here and right now; witnesses of the resurrection and everything that represents!  And no doubt, in that moment, such a prospect was for the disciples, to say the very least, daunting!

And as I think about that, friends, I realize that if that was the case for the eleven in the immediate aftermath of the events surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection – events that they had indeed seen, and heard, and participated in – how much more daunting is it for you and me; the people who, some 2,000 years later are still named and claimed as witnesses of the Risen Savior?  If even those who were there still wondered and doubted as to the truth of it all, what kind of witnesses are we ever to be?  I mean, it’s one thing for us to sing out those wonderful old words of how “he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own,” it’s quite another for us – any of us, really – to think of Jesus as “a very real person and, through the Spirit, as a very real personal presence in our lives.” (Scott Hoezee)  Indeed, from the time most of us went to Sunday School, we’ve been taught about Jesus living “in our hearts” and sharing that good news with others; but what about the real, live, physical fish-eating presence of our Risen Savior?  How are we ever supposed to witness to that?

Because that’s an important question, beloved; one, that as Karoline Lewis suggests, Jesus takes very seriously.  What Jesus said to the disciples, he says to each one of us: “You are witnesses, here and now, in this moment.  In this life. In your daily life.  For the sake of life.”  Jesus, Lewis goes on to say, is quick to remind us “of who we really are – resurrection people, resurrection witnesses.”  But just when we think that this is something impossible for us, Jesus tells us what makes it possible to be witnesses: “the promise of the Spirit.”  That’s why Jesus instructs the disciples to “stay… in the city until [they] have been clothed with power from on high,” and it’s why you and I as Jesus’ followers are gifted with the same.

What does all this mean?  It means that though we didn’t have the same kind first-hand experience of the disciples to share, we do have their witness to pass on; and, as it turns out, the kind of witness that comes in living out of what we’ve heard, and believed and lived out of throughout our lives.

We are witnesses of these things when we worship together; when we raise up our voices in prayer and praising, and when we sit amongst a community of believers.  We are witnesses of these things when we are moved to love others after the same manner that we have felt the experience of divine love and acceptance.  We are witnesses of these things when we recognize that life as we live it and the world as we know it does not have to be as muddled and complicated and divisive and hate-filled as it so often appears to be; and we decide for ourselves that we will be the example in making peace, justice, kindness, compassion and true grace and love the new reality of life and living.  We are witnesses of these things when we feed others in just the same way we have been fed; because, friends, it’s that wonderfully hearty spiritual food that not only makes us who we are as disciples of Jesus Christ, it’s what proclaims him alive forever more!

We – you, and you, and you and me – we are witnesses of these things, and Jesus is sending us forth to proclaim our good news to the world.

One summer day many years ago I went on a road trip with my father to visit a series of flea markets that were happening throughout northern Maine (as was typical of my Dad, he was ever and always seeking out specific things at these sales; I think at the time it was antique oil lamps).  We’d made our way way up to Madawaska on the Canadian border; where, as it happened, he’d spent a summer as a young man working playing trumpet in a big band, and where he’d boarded with a French Canadian family there in the town.  Well it had been well over 30 years, but my father got it into his head that he wanted to stop at this house and see if that family he’d stayed with all those years ago was still living there; they were very nice people, he explained to me, and I’d really like to say hello.

Well, I’m 22 or 23 at the time, and I’m skeptical to say the least!  And I’m thinking that this encounter would be awkward at best, and at worst they wouldn’t remember my father and that would be embarrassing!  But my Dad was determined, and while I waited in the truck and watched (!) he went right up to the house and knocked on the door!  There was this older woman who answered the door; and from the street I could see them talking quietly for a moment; and then… this woman quite literally shrieks with joy, her arms open wide to hug my father, and next thing I know we’re all sitting in this woman’s kitchen with her husband laughing, reminiscing, telling stories, drinking coffee, and lest I forget, eating the most incredible freshly made donuts and deflecting their insistence that we stay long enough to have a nice lunch… yup, it’s always about the food, isn’t it!

Well, obviously they did remember my Dad, and fondly!  But as wonderful as that was, I went away from that experience realizing that though they’d never met me before, it was as though they’d always known me, and in the process made me feel incredibly welcome.  There amidst the coffee and donuts, you see, was a witness to good memories, friendship and the many ways that our lives and our hearts are joined together even in the most unexpected kind of ways.

It seems to me, friends, that as believers in the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ we are similarly joined in heart, soul, mind and strength; and that each and every time you or I make the effort to reach out to others with the same kind of love and care that Jesus has shown us, we are witnesses of a living Savior who continues to change the world – and every heart within it – for the better and forever.

Don’t forget this as you set out into the business of life and living this week, beloved:  You are witnesses of these things.

And for this, and so much more, thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Get Out of the Boat!

(a sermon for October 15, 2017, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost; first in a series, based on Matthew 14:22-33)

And “immediately [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat” and said to them (in essence, at least), “You go on ahead… I’ll catch up later.”

If you read Matthew’s account leading up to our text for this morning, you can understand why:  Jesus, after all, had spent a very long day curing the sick; they’d all been involved in feeding a multitude of people with nothing more than loaves and fishes; and even now, there was the matter of getting this crowd over 5,000-plus to disperse.  And moreover, Jesus had been seeking to withdraw from there so that he could be alone to pray; so it just sort of followed that he would send his disciples on ahead to cross the Sea of Galilee.

For the disciples, however, it was a strange and uncertain experience!  They had not really spent all that much time apart from Jesus since they’d begun to follow him, and they were unsure as to exactly where they were supposed to go, or what they were to do when they got there; and, by the way, what if Jesus didn’t catch up with them; what if he “missed the boat,” so to speak… what then?  And if that weren’t enough, now it’s well into the night, the wind’s picking up and “the boat, battered by the waves, was far from land, for the wind was against them.”  And so now here we have all these disciples crowded together in a flimsy little boat; trembling and fearful for their lives and no doubt crying out, “OK, Jesus… you sent us out here… what do we do now?”

Every fall about this time, I’m filled with memories of days spent with my father walking through the northern Maine woods hunting for partridge; and later on as November came around, looking for signs of white-tailed deer.  When I was very young, of course, it was always about following close behind Dad as we worked our way through acres of hardwood ridges and black growth knolls; at that point, I wasn’t old enough to be out hunting on my own, and besides, I really didn’t know those woods all that well and most certainly would have gotten myself hopelessly lost!  But finally, the day came my father said, “Why don’t you go on ahead… I’ll catch up with you later.”  He made sure I had a compass, of course, and reminded me of some of the landmarks I ought to be looking out for; but finally Dad said, “You’ll be fine… just make sure you leave enough time to get back to camp before dark.”

And with that, my father headed off in one direction and I started out on the other.  And I’ve got to tell you that even now I still remember that sense of adventure in setting out into the wilderness, on my own, for the very first time; and that incredible feeling of great anticipation mingled with… abject fear!  Now, I’ve told you stories from this pulpit of those few times when I got myself turned around out in those woods, even long after dark; what I don’t think I’ve ever spoken about are all those many occasions when I almost got turned around, lost, or worse! These were times when I used my compass and still didn’t know where I was; when I didn’t recognize any landmark and every tree looked the same; when I kept an eye toward the western sky as the daylight grew dim and the air became damp and cold.  More than once, I remember saying to myself, “OK… now what I do?” and thinking how utterly mistaken my father was to believe I knew what I was doing!

But… and here’s the thing… I always (or almost always, anyway!) found my way back to camp; and along the way, I learned something… about how to calmly find my way through the wilderness; about that which my father and his friends always referred to as “woods savvy;” and also about how to be bold, because that’s where the adventure – and its opportunity – begins.

So here we have these disciples, in a boat far out from shore and in the midst of stormy weather.  You can imagine the scene: it’s the wee hours of the morning, and still very dark, but the wind’s howling; the rain’s coming down in sheets, and water’s swelling up the side of the boat and washing inside.  And even though most of them are fishermen (maybe because most of them are fishermen and know what kind of mortal danger the sea brings forth), they are… terrified, and moreover, wondering why Jesus would ever send them on a night like this!

But that’s when it happens: something unexpected; something miraculous. The disciples look out beyond their boat into the raging storm and they see him – they see Jesus – walking toward them on the sea; walking on water!  And of course, their first response is to cry out in fear, assuming that what they’re seeing is a ghost; some kind of grim reaper or representative from Leviathan himself, the sea monster of biblical legend come to pull them into the deep and their sure and certain death.  But no… it’s Jesus, who immediately speaks to them, saying “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

It’s unexpected because by now the disciples are sure their lives are done; and it’s a miracle because everyone knows you can’t walk on water!  But here’s Jesus, doing just that; walking on water beyond all human capability and overcoming the utter chaos of deep, turbulent waters, all to let these fearful and panic-stricken followers of his know that “it is well,” and that the seas, while stormy now, would soon be calm for the journey ahead.   That, in and of itself is a powerful word; and it’s no wonder that at the end of all the disciples, “exhausted by the storm and overwhelmed by what they have witnessed… make the first profession of faith in Matthew’s gospel: ‘You are the Son of God.’” (Rev. Canon Michael Rusk)  This is a story that serves to remind us that in all of life’s chaos and confusion we can take heart, because are never alone; but in the presence of one who can and does calm our fears and promises, as the song goes, that we’ll be “safe and secure from all alarms.”  And that’s important to know, because life is filled with storms; the kind of chaos that threatens to undo us: disasters, natural and otherwise, descend; jobs disappear; relationships disintegrate; we lose touch with people, values and practices; death rips us apart.  It’s times like these when you and need to know that we have the Lord at our side to help us weather the storm until, quoting Ronald J. Allen here, “the water of chaos” is transformed “into the water of life.”

And that’s what happens here in the gospel… but that’s not the end of the story.  What also happens is that Peter – bold, impetuous, Peter – sees Jesus walking on the water and calls out, “Lord, if it is you,” (notice there’s a big “if” there) “command me to come to you on the water.”  And what does Jesus do?  He calls back to Peter, perhaps with a bit of a smile on his face, “Comecome!” And Peter – God bless him (!) – with the storm still raging all around them, gets out of the boat!  He doesn’t get very far, mind you, before fear takes over and he loses heart, sinking like a stone, that is, until Jesus reaches out and grabs Peter by the tunic and brings him to safety.  A few words about Peter’s lack of faith notwithstanding, it’s another powerful example of how, even in the worst of the storm – whatever kind of storm we’re talking about – and regardless of the depth of our despair in the midst of it all, the presence of the divine will ever be our safety and our salvation.  That is one “sure and certain” promise of our God; that God will be with us and stay with us in our need; giving us strength and hope until the seas calm, the chaos subsides, and the way ahead – with all its opportunity and purpose – opens up before us.

Because, yes, that’s the other piece of this story, one that quite honestly, I hadn’t thought too much about until recently.  There was, after all, a reason that Jesus sent those disciples on ahead to the other side of the Sea of Galilee; it was so that they could reach Gennesaret, where, if you read on in Matthew, there were more people who needed the presence and the touch of Jesus.  Likewise there was a reason, as unlikely as it may have seemed to them or to us, that Jesus invited Peter to step out on the open sea so that he could walk on water… it was because it was an opportunity; a chance for Peter to leave his fear behind, get out of the boat and live a truly “whole-hearted” life of courage and hope, with eyes and heart wholly fixed on Jesus and his kingdom.

And so should it be for you and for me, friends.  No, I’m not suggesting you head up to Winnipesaukee to try your and at a little surface sprinting (not to shatter any hopes, but that would likely be a fruitless endeavor… and cold!); but I would suggest to you that some faith-fueled boldness might well be in order for us; both as persons and a people of faith, even as a church, because ours is a God who encourages us “to cross rough waters and even step out of the boat in faith.”  But the thing is that this always comes with a promise.  I love what David Lose says about this:  God calls us to “more adventuresome lives of faith… God wants more for us, frankly, than simply safety and stability, and therefore God calls us to stretch, grow, and live into the abundant life God has promised us, trusting [as we do so] that God is always with us,” that God will grab us by the hand when we lose our focus or when fear overtakes us.  The journey may not always be easy, but once you’ve moved forward and the way ahead is clear; once you’ve caught sight of your destination and know the reason that you were so bold, won’t you be glad that you decided not to stay in the boat?

Well… even now the journey looms before us, and in many, many ways.  Even now, Jesus is calling us “o’er the tumult of life’s wild, restless sea” to come; to be bold and come out of the safety of our boats so that we might participate more fully as Jesus’ disciples and on behalf of the Kingdom of God; so that we can know the possibilities and the adventure of following God’s Spirit where it leads.

And that’s especially true, I believe, when it comes to our life together here at East Church.

As you know, we’re just about to move into our annual Stewardship Campaign here at East Church, a time when together as a church, not only do we reflect on our support of this shared ministry in the coming year, but also a time when we should pause a moment to seek and affirm God’s vision for our future. It is, as this year’s stewardship theme suggests, a “Journey to Generosity” that has its pathway in the way of Jesus; truly, everything we do here as part of our stewardship is in response to the one who is always with us; who stands out there in the midst of our own storms; who seeks to calm our fears until the chaos subsides; who lifts us up when we feel ourselves sinking like a stone.

Beloved, I believe that right here and right now our Lord is there calling us to boldness; to come out of our complacency and be disciples in new and creative and adventuresome ways; to move into our 176th year with faithful optimism and hearts for Jesus Christ.  I have said this to you often in recent weeks, and very intentionally: there is no limit to what this “little church” can do with faith, and in the love and joy that we have here in such abundance; but for these things to happen, first we have to get out of the boat!

“Come.”  That’s how Jesus is calling you, and you, and me; that’s how Jesus calls us all.  So how will you respond?  I hope that we’ll all give that some thought and prayer in the days to come…

…and with our thanks unto God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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When God Shakes the World

(a meditation for Easter Sunrise, April 16, 2017, based on Matthew 28:1-10)

It was one of life’s delightful little ironies, and I remember it as though it were yesterday: this was back in my seminary days, and a group of us were heavily engaged in this deep, theologically based discussion as to why the State of Maine was a great place to live!  You see, a lot of my out of state classmates, after having spent their first winter in Maine, were not at all convinced, but for those of us who were “native Mainuhs,” this was a matter of pride; so hence the heated debate!  I particularly remember this discussion because one of our arguments in favor of the Pine Tree State did have to do, believe it or not, with our temperate climate!

I know, I know… but listen to our reasoning: at least, we said, in Maine we didn’t have to deal with the kind of natural disasters that other parts of the country suffer through on a regular basis. Rarely did we have to contend with the hurricane force winds that plague the southern coastline; we didn’t have the kind tornadoes that literally decimate entire towns as happens in the south and Midwest; and we never get earthquakes like they do in California! Hey, it might get cold here and yes, there’s mud season, but at least we didn’t have to be dealing with all of that!

It was a great and convincing argument; except that not a week later, the city of Bangor was near the epicenter of a small yet significant earthquake; one that, while pretty low on the Richter scale, was still severe enough to cause some building damage, even managing to loosen up some bricks and mortar from the outside of our own dormitory!  So much for our notion that Maine is always “safe and secure from all alarms (!);” and don’t think that our classmates didn’t remind us of this on a regular basis from then on (and all we could say in response was, “well, it was just a little earthquake!”).

My wounded “Mainiac” pride aside, it ended up a not-so-subtle reminder that while we might be tempted to succumb to the notion that we have everything in creation under our control, God has another notion altogether!  And quite honestly, friends, what is true for nature is also true for much of life. It’s part and parcel of our human nature: we like to think of ourselves as models of sufficiency and self-reliance; that we are, to some degree, masters of our own destiny!  We pride ourselves in knowing what’s what: we know the rules, we understand the boundaries, we get what separates life from death; it’s with that kind of self-assurance we carry ourselves, and well, usually it works…

…and yet, just about the time we think we’ve got it all covered and everything under our control… isn’t that always when the earthquake hits? Maybe it feels devastating, a major disruption of our life’s routine and everything we hold to be true; or perhaps it’s life-affirming – falling in love, having a baby – but these are the moments when we realize that we’re not in charge after all, and moreover, we never really were in the first place!  There are the moments, you see, when we realize that it’s God who has shaken our world!

And actually, friends, if this morning you’re looking for a simple definition of what Easter’s all about, that’s a pretty good one.  Because one of the very first thing that Matthew tells us about that resurrection morning so long ago is that as the women were approaching the tomb, “suddenly there was a great earthquake,” so great as to move a massive stone at the entrance of the tomb… and so much more than that.  Our God sent an earthquake that rocked the very foundations of what is and what can ever be in this life; this was an earthquake that moved heaven and earth and brought forth a whole new world in the process.  That’s what Easter is, beloved, and that’s why we’re our here this morning: because with the empty tomb and the risen Christ, God shook the world.

And when God shakes the world, nothing is ever the same again!

When the two Marys went to the tomb that morning, they were no doubt sad and red-eyed from all their tears; utterly confused and grieving deeply over everything that transpired in the past few days.  But there still were things that needed to be done: Jesus’ lifeless body needed to be anointed and wrapped in a clean cloth, and finally laid to rest. These were matters of tradition and ritual, and also of great compassion; and yes, they represented closure.  Just this one more thing, they’d thought, and then it’s done, once and for all. You know that saying about how the world ends not with a bang but with a whimper?  Well, this simple act of mourning was truly the whimper of resignation at death’s finality and the end of hope.

But then the earth heaved; then an angel appeared who looked “like lightning and [with] clothing as white as snow,” was sitting atop the massive stone that now was rolled away; then suddenly Pilate’s soldiers who’d been placed there guarding the tomb from grave robbers and the potential for Jesus’ followers to create “another” uprising had the ground, are shaking in terror and, says Matthew, “became like dead men.”

And then… and then (!) this angel, with a voice that conveyed both comfort and utter defiance, says to the women, “Do not be afraid.” You’re looking for Jesus? He isn’t here!  Now, the two of them are running… running “with fear and great joy” to tell the others, only to be surprised – again (!) – by the risen Lord himself who meets them there and greets them on the pathway.

Do you see what happened to these women?  It was the same thing that was about to happen to the rest of the disciples, and indeed the whole of creation:  in one incredible instant, everything that their world had been built upon was being shaken; any ground that any of them had ever held to be solid beneath their feet had now shifted so completely that the way ahead had to have changed forever!  Christ was risen; he was risen indeed!  God shook the world; and when God shakes the world, things are never the same again!

History has proven that there will always be those, even within the church, who will attempt to explain away the resurrection; people who will try very hard to somehow minimize that which is the central claim of our Christian faith, that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead.  And on a human level, I guess I can understand that.  After all, we know the rules, don’t we?  Hard as it is, we can accept the finality of death, even the death of our Lord; but when God says that death isn’t the final word… well, that’s something different.

Well, the good news is that we’re not in charge, but God is!  Easter is about God being in complete charge of heaven and earth and all creation!  Easter is about a God who shakes the world and creates a way when there is no way, a God who brings unending light into the world’s darkness, triumphant over evil and conquering death now and forever; all to assure us, once and for all, that nothing will ever separate us from him!

This is the same God, beloved, who has given us the gift of his Son as our Savior:  Jesus Christ, who says to you and to me on this Easter morning and every morning from now on, “’Do not be afraid,’” because I am alive forevermore, and I will bring you safely through every joy and sorrow, every day of sun and every day of rain, every triumph and every disaster from the cradle to the grave and beyond… I will be with you forever, even unto the end of the age!

He is risen… he is risen indeed!  Thanks be to God who gives us the victory in Christ Jesus.

AMEN and AMEN.

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on April 17, 2017 in Easter, Jesus, Maine, Sermon

 

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