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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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FAQ’s of Faith: Why the Bread and Wine?

(a sermon for March 4, 2018, the Third Sunday in Lent; third in a series, based on 1 Corinthians 11:23-32)

She was a dearly loved member of the congregation who was in the final stages of an incurable cancer, and had just arrived home from a lengthy hospital stay out of town; and she’d asked if the associate pastor and I might come out to see her.  And while certainly we were both very glad to do that, we were also more than a little concerned about it!  After all, this woman was still very weak from her latest round of chemo therapy, her trip home had to have been exhausting and besides, we knew there was already this long list of family members, neighbors and friends who had prayers, best wishes and casseroles to bring to her; so maybe, we suggested, another day might be better for us to visit.  But she was insistent; and so that afternoon we headed out to a farmhouse on the edge of town to make this pastoral call, deciding that whatever else happened, we pastors would be sure to make out visit brief!

However, as we should have expected, this woman would have none of that!  In fact, every time we’d start to rise to leave, she’d have another question about something going on in the life of the church, or else she’d ask about our families.  And this would inevitably lead to another story about her growing up; about the trials and tribulations she and her husband faced raising their own children, or what was happening now with her beloved grandchildren.  And I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that nearly every story, spiritually and joyfully speaking, had us in stitches.  There was a lot of blessed laughter in that room, to be sure, and it went on and on.

But then, almost an hour later as we made yet another attempt to take our leave, she says, “Can we have communion before you go?  Since I haven’t been able to get to church lately, I’ve really missed communion.”  The associate and I looked at each other quickly; though a great deal of our ministries had involved bringing communion to shut-ins, for some reason this possibility had never occurred to either one of us!  “Well, we’d love to,” I answered, “but we neglected to bring the elements, so perhaps when you’re feeling better…”

“Oh, we can find those,” she interrupted, and quickly dispatched her husband to locate what we needed.  Okay, then… but soon we hear the husband wearily calling back from the kitchen, “You know, I don’t think there’s any grape juice; not much bread either!”   “Just improvise,” she calls back, rolling her eyes in no small manner of exasperation.  “My land, Dean, anything will be fine!”  And a couple of minutes and the rattle of cupboard doors later, he emerges from the kitchen with our “holy feast” set before us on the coffee table:  a not quite day-old hamburger roll on a dessert plate, and a wine goblet literally filled to overflowing with… orange juice!  “Not exactly what we’d have on a Sunday morning at church, but it’ll do,” he said, and his wife nodded in agreement.

Not exactly, indeed!  I thought to myself, quietly wondering if this could actually even be considered “official” communion; after all, we were just about to break every sacramental rule in the book!  Where was the wine (or in our case, the grape juice) poured into little glasses?  How about the carefully cubed pieces of bread placed ever so carefully on a silver tray?  A leftover hamburger bun and some orange juice might – might (!) – suffice as a last minute mid-afternoon snack; but as elements in the reenactment of the Lord’s Supper, in a worshipful remembrance of the events of the last night of our Savior’s earthly life?   This seemed at best altogether too casual and flippant, and, well, at worst sacrilegious; I remember thinking that my seminary professors would be aghast at the very thought of such a thing!

You see, in a situation such as that the question becomes, when is communion… not?  And by the same token, how does such a simple, utterly basic little meal as this become a sacrament, imbued with the presence and power of our Lord?  And why the bread and wine; why does that even matter?

What’s interesting about our text this morning, taken from Paul’s first letter to the Church in Corinth, is that Paul seems to be addressing much the same kind of an issue. It seems that the Corinthians, who were pretty much of a factious and divided people anyway, were letting those divisions affect their celebration of the Lord’s Supper; for some, sharing the bread and wine had become little more than an excuse for eating and drinking to excess, and moreover, an opportunity for excluding others from the meal by virtue of wealth and their own gluttony!  For all their talk of Jesus Christ, there was precious little consideration amongst the Corinthians as to the true meaning of this particular table-gathering; in fact, just prior to our reading today Paul says to them, “when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.” (11:17) Basically there was nothing at all worshipful, much less sacramental, about what they were doing.  Rather than an act in which Christ is remembered, their coming together existed as little more than a private dinner party, and a very exclusive one at that!

And so, in light of all that, here is Paul now to remind them of the true meaning and reality of the Lord’s Supper: “that on the night when he was betrayed” – or “handed over,” which is probably the better translation – Jesus (and likely at the beginning of what we know to have been a Passover meal) “took a loaf of bread… broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is broken for you. Do this is remembrance of me’” And then after supper as the wine was being poured, he took the cup, saying to his gathered disciples that “this cup is the new covenant in my blood.  Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.  For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

Do this in remembrance of me, says Jesus… Do this to remember me… do this!  And that’s what Paul was seeking to convey to the Corinthians in the midst of their partying: that more than some small, offhanded and soon to be forgotten ritual in the midst of an evening meal (or, for that matter, as simply one more thing that happens in the middle of a worship service) this particular partaking of bread and wine is no less than a sacred act, for it acknowledges in a palpable way what Jesus has done (or, on that first Maundy Thursday, what Jesus was about to do!).  I love how The Message both translates and actually expands this admonition of Paul to the Corinthians:  “What you must solemnly realize,” he writes to them, “is that every time you eat this bread and every time you drink this cup, you reenact in your words and actions the death of the Master.  You will be drawn back to this meal again and again,” Paul goes on, “until the Master returns.”

Why the bread and wine?  It’s because when Jesus broke that loaf of bread and said, “This is my body,” it was so we might always remember that his body was broken, and that he died for us; for the sake of our salvation and a life abundant and eternal with God.  It’s that ongoing reminder each time we break the bread that we participate in the broken body of Christ; because it’s our sin for which his sacrifice paid the cost, and which brings us new hope forged in forgiveness.  And that’s why the wine: because when Jesus shared the Passover wine with them, calling it the “new covenant in his blood,” he was proclaiming a brand new life for all who would believe; a life of fullness and holiness that starts here and now, but will come to its fruition at that “heavenly banquet” in the Kingdom of God at the close of history.

Now granted, it’s hard for us to wrap our minds and hearts around something so personal and yet so utterly cosmic as this with something as simple as a sharing a tiny piece of bread and a little cup of unfermented wine (!)… but that’s we “do this” as often as we eat the bread and share the cup; that’s the reason for the sacrament we share!

I’m reminded here of a story from Martin Copenhaver’s book To Begin at the Beginning, in which he tells the story of the great dancer Martha Graham, who had just completed an inspired performance and was approached backstage by an ardent admirer of dance.  “Oh, Miss Graham,” he said, “that dance was wonderful.  Can you tell me what it means?”  “Honey,” Graham replied, still out of breath from the dancing, “if you I could tell you, then I wouldn’t have to dance it.” Copenhaver goes on to say that “the same could be said of a sacrament.  If words alone were sufficient, the sacrament would not be necessary.  The nature of a sacrament is such that nothing can convey its meaning as well as the sacrament itself.”

In other words, I can speak to you theologically or historically or biblically about what we’re doing here today in celebrating the Sacrament of Holy Communion, but what’s really important is the experience that each one of us has in sharing this sacred meal; it’s in partaking of the broken bread and the cup of blessing in the same manner that Jesus himself gave it and as so many over the generations have continued to do; and it’s in knowing the wonder and the deep, deep love of Jesus’ presence in it; in the anticipation of what our Lord Jesus will be saying and doing in our hearts and lives as we “do this” today in remembrance of him.

How it all happens and why, well that’s a mystery of grace.  All I know is that every time we gather in this sanctuary and come to feast at this table we come into the presence of the Lord who can and does turn our lives and our world all around; and I also know that when the elements are as “non-traditional,” shall we say, as a hamburger bun and orange juice something sacred and miraculous is bound to happen.

I remember that day at the farmhouse when I finally decided that this wasn’t going to be your run of the mill communion service, the associate pastors and I began repeating those familiar words of institution… do this in remembrance of me… take this, eat, and be thankful… the same words we’ll share together here in just a few moments, words not totally dissimilar to those that have been spoken at countless other celebrations of the Lord’s Supper over the centuries.

And yes, that man was right: this was certainly not the kind of communion you’d likely find in a church sanctuary, the prayers certainly weren’t as formal as you might speak them in a traditional worship service, and, trust me, sharing the bread and cup certainly didn’t taste like communion as you’d receive it on a typical Sunday morning!  But then, in the midst of it all, I looked up and realized why none of this mattered:  the husband and wife had joined their hands and were deep in prayer, most certainly sensing the presence of a loving, caring, healing Lord who had already been with them through so much and would remain close in whatever was yet to come.  Truly, in the breaking of the bread and in the sharing of the cup, the remembered him and his peace… and his hope… and his comfort… and his healing… and his love.  By any measure, I can tell you that it “worthy” of the sacrament, and it was a sacred moment indeed.

As the song goes, “there’s grace to be found in the bread and the wine.”  I hope and pray that as once we again come to this sacred table that we’ll remember; so that we might truly experience all that our Lord has to give us by his presence and love.

So might it be, and may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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Come and See… Come and Be

Call of Nathaniel

(a sermon for January 14, 2018, the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, based on John 1:43-51

It’s a scene that’s repeated itself, actually, quite a number of times over the years I’ve spent as a pastor. Maybe it’s after a funeral, or at a wedding, or on a hospital visit; or else in the midst of some conversation where the subject of my particular vocation comes up: someone will say to me, very sincerely, “You know, I like you… you’re normal.

Ummmm… thank you?

“Yeah,” they’ll go on to say, “you’re not like those other fire-and-brimstone-head-in-the-clouds-holier-than-thou types of preachers!  You seem like regular people, and I could really get behind a pastor like that!”  Okay, I’m thinking, I’ll take that as a compliment… not to mention this may be a chance for some meaningful dialogue between this person and me.  Could be that this conversation had suddenly become an opportunity for Christian outreach; maybe this is the moment this person gets to truly hear the Word of God; perhaps the Spirit has moved in just such a way that he or she is introduced to Jesus Christ!  Who knows; maybe I’ll even get them to come to worship sometime!

But then, usually before I even have a chance to get a word out, they’ll add these words that bring everything to a screeching halt:  “But just don’t ever invite me to church.  You’re fine and all, but I’m just not that much into religion!”

Oh, well… but I guess as the saying goes, you win some, you lose some… but as it turns out, some people don’t even want to play the game!  I also think that’s why, as I’ve been revisiting it this week, I’ve felt like our scripture reading for this morning sounded so very familiar!

You see, each year during the Epiphany season, we in the church return to the gospel accounts of Jesus calling the twelve disciples; and like most of you, I suspect, I love those stories!  I love them not only for their truth, but also their beauty and simplicity:  Simon and Andrew are fishing along the Sea of Galilee, and Jesus comes along, saying, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” (Mark 1:17)  And immediately, they both leave everything to follow Jesus; as do James and John and the rest.  John’s gospel tells the story a little differently, of course, with two of John the Baptist’s disciples inquiring of Jesus where he was staying; but there we hear Jesus’ simple answer for the first time:  “Come and See.” (1:39) It’s all so poetic and so wonderfully and immediately life-changing; and, for me at least, it expresses everything that an encounter with the Lord ought to be!

But then there’s the calling of Nathanael; good ol’ skeptical, sarcastic and – dare I say – even snarky Nathanael!  David Lose points out in an article on this passage that while in today’s culture it’s not at all unusual to hear sarcasm get used to make a point (in fact, way too much these days, I would say!), it’s rare to hear it used in scripture.  But as we heard it from John’s gospel this morning what’s the first thing that Nathanael says when he’s approached by Philip, already a disciple, about this amazing man “about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote,” this “Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth?”   It’s a smart-aleck comment about Jesus’ hometown:  Come on… “can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Simply put, where Jesus was concerned, Nathanael really had little or no interest in even meeting the guy!  As far as Nathanael knew, Jesus was merely another self-appointed teacher from some little backwoods town.  A prophet?  Not likely!  The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world?  Please!  Don’t even waste my time, says Nathanael.  And that might well have been the end of it; but no, Philip wasn’t going to take this for a response, and simply says to Nathanael, “Come and see.”  Just come and see… what do you have to lose?

And that, for Nathanael – as well as for all of us who sometimes wonder what all of what we do in the church is for, and why – that’s where this story gets very interesting.

Nathanael does decide to follow Philip to see Jesus, and as Jesus sees Nathanael coming, he offers up a bit of a quip of his own: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is not deceit,” or, as The Message puts it, with “not a false bone in his body.”  Jesus, you see, was referring back to the Old Testament story of Jacob, whose name eventually became Israel and who, if you know the story, was anything but a man without deceit!  It was a good natured joke on Jesus’ part, an ice-breaker, if you will; but ultimately it was something more.  And Nathanael must have sensed that, because his answer was to ask, no doubt defensively, “How do you know that?  How do you know me?  You don’t know my life!”

And that’s when Jesus says the thing to Nathanael that makes all the difference:  before Philip even brought you here, “I saw you under the fig tree.”  Now, understand that this more than Jesus confessing that he’d seen Nathanael “around” Galilee.  You see, in Jesus’ time, the image of someone sitting under a fig tree was synonymous with a that of someone both seeking – and imparting – spiritual knowledge.  It was not uncommon to see a rabbi – a teacher of the law – teaching his students the precepts of faith under the shade of the fig tree; and so, for Nathanael to be seen “under the fig tree” was immediately to suggest that he was longing for something more than just the here and now of daily life.  He wanted peace, and consolation; he needed the wholeness of divine blessing, and to truly know righteousness.

We know what that’s like, don’t we?  You and I might not understand why or how it should come about; but we do know that we need it, that we want it, that we yearn for it: this assurance that everything in our life and living… somehow makes sense and has greater meaning and purpose.  We want to know that our faithfulness means something, and that the love and kindness we espouse makes a difference in the world; speaking personally and globally – and most especially, spiritually – we want everything to come out good in the end!  Perhaps we don’t always express it in exactly this way, but in and through it all, we have this desire that heaven and earth come… together!

As John tells the story, when Jesus says this about the fig tree immediately something changes for Nathanael; it’s like for him a light suddenly flickering to brightness!  In fact, if we correctly understand the meaning of the word “epiphany” as light and a higher level of spiritual awareness, then it’s clear that Nathanael had an epiphany!  We don’t know exactly why or what it was about the fig tree analogy that got him; all we know is that now Nathanael is a follower of Jesus.  “Rabbi,” he says, hardly believing that the words are coming out of his mouth, “you are the Son of God!  You are the King of Israel!”

Granted, it does seem like a all-too sudden reversal of what must have been a lifelong level of skepticism on Nathanael’s part; but then, isn’t that the nature of faith, that oftentimes it’s not the logical or provable theorem that convinces us to embrace God’s presence and power; that it’s not always the sign or the miracle that will convince us to follow the Lord, or to find religion, or to go to church (!).   Sometimes it’s simple a new awareness of something more… to life, to living, to ourselves… than what we ever sensed before.  Faith is less of a conviction than it is an experience, friends; and the thing is, so often that experience begins with that loving and gracious invitation to “come and see!”

But wait… there’s more…

I love how John’s account of Nathanael’s call does not, in fact, end with his confession as Jesus as the Son of God; that Jesus answers back to Nathaniel by asking, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?”  Because Nathanael, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!  And Jesus goes on to talk about how Nathanael’s going to see the heavens opened, and “the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man,” just like Jacob’s Ladder of old!  Get ready, Nathanael, because it’s all going to happen, and much more!  Come and see, yes, but come… and be… be part of it!

I think that this is the thing that most of us forget about our confession of faith: that it represents not a destination, but a journey.  Martin Luther (the Protestant Reformer!) said it very well, I think:  “This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness; not health, but healing; not being, but becoming; not rest, but exercise.  We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it.  The process is not yet finished, but it is going on.  This is not the end, but is the road.  All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.”

Jesus calls us: o’er the tumult, o’er life’s wild restless sea, in and through the joys and all of the great challenges – and sorrows – of human life.  But he does not call us to one defining moment or one, all-purpose answer or to a single, pithy response to all of life’s persistent questions; Jesus, in fact, calls us to follow him.  To come and see who he is and what he teaches, and what wonders he imparts; but then, just as importantly, to come and be… to quote David Lose one more time, to “be what God has called you. Be the person the world needs. Be all you can be.  Be the beloved child of God” who invites others to the same kind of transformative experience you’ve known along your own journey with Jesus Christ on the way.   Always remember, friends, that while faith begins with believing, it certainly doesn’t end there.  Faith also means becoming; and that is not only true for each one of us, but also for every single person out there who finds themselves beneath a shady fig tree.

You know, over the years I’ve come up with a lot of responses for people who, while they might like me alright, are quick to dismiss what and who I represent.  Sometimes, for instance, I like to point out that it’s okay to be skeptical of religion, because religion is easy, and it’s faith that really matters;  other times, if they make a point of saying they don’t like organized religion and I’m feeling particularly snarky that day, I simply invite them to church anyway, because we “haven’t gotten ourselves organized yet!”  Mostly, to be honest, I just go on with the conversation, hoping and praying that our dialogue about things faith-related and in some small way, my example, might spark something in them later on.  You know what I’m saying; even as pastors, we don’t want the conversation to become somehow awkward, do we?  It’s the same for all of us; but what we’re reminded here this morning is that it doesn’t have to be that way

What would it be if we simply answered the skeptics of this world not with words that are defensive, or irritable, or boastful, or demanding, but with an invitation that is both gracious and loving? To simply say to them, “come and see?”  Why don’t you come and see what it is we’re about; perchance to see what you’re all about along the way?

Beloved, it is in our graciousness, our hospitality, and above all, in the love that we embody and which we share that makes us true disciples, and eloquent tellers of the good news of Jesus Christ.   Remember always that so much of what our Lord has to offer – forgiveness, redemption, life abundant and eternal – begins with simple invitation; to come and see… come and be.

I pray that as each one of us accepts that gracious invitation, that we will be just as willing to extend that invitation to everyone all around.

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

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on January 14, 2018 in Church, Epiphany, Faith, Jesus, Ministry, Sermon

 

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