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Category Archives: Ministry

Out Beyond the Big Rock

“The Big Rock,” just off to the right…

Beneath the waters just offshore of our summer home in Maine lies a rather sizeable boulder, placed there (or so I presume) by glacial movement eons ago and which remains as a prominent feature of an already rocky lakebed.  But given its large flat surface and the fact that it is also perched just so at the “dropoff” to deeper water, for at least a couple of generations of children in our family it’s always been “The Big Rock,” a great place to play and a natural boundary between swimming in relative safety and “going out over your head.”

I remember well as kids how we’d always use the Big Rock as our own underwater diving platform; as this was the one place where, if we dared, we could push out to swim out beyond where our toes could touch the bottom.  Of course, when we were very young and still depending on something akin to a “doggie paddle,” it was more than enough to keep our feet firmly planted on that stone precipice.  After all, venturing out that far from shore was hard, not to mention potentially dangerous; much better, we reasoned, to experience the beauty and wonder of the lake from a safe distance! On the other hand, however (and we all figured this out pretty quick), there were a whole lot of fun, exciting and even important things awaiting us if only we’d take the risk and simply learn to swim!

Fast forward a “goodly” number of years but still headed “uptacamp” every summer, this year I found myself looking out at the Big Rock with gratitude for the countless dreams and adventures that it had inspired in me over the years; glad that whatever fears or doubt I might have had at the time, eventually I’d made the decision to be bold enough to dive into those deeper waters…

…which, come to think of it, isn’t all that bad of a parable about what it means to live a life of faith.

All through what’s been, to say the very least, a very tumultuous summer we’ve nonetheless been given some wonderful glimpses of what can happen when people of faith dare to go out beyond their own safe places into the deeper water. I stand in admiration, for instance, of my clergy colleagues and the committed laity who bravely linked arms to stare down white supremacists in Charlottesville to show that love and equality are more than simply words.  Or consider the willingness of church people across the nation and beyond to gather up resources and immediately go and join the ranks of “first responders” in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria, or to leave home and family so to travel to Mexico to assist in recovery efforts following the tragic earthquakes there. This kind of faith-inspired outreach requires courage and more than a little boldness, and yet it’s clear that such an effort yields a harvest of love and mercy that our world sorely needs about now.

Even back in our own little corner of Christianity here on Mountain Road, again and again I’ve witnessed the same kind of boldness in the ways our people are living out their calling as disciples and as the Church.  It’s so interesting – and very gratifying to me as pastor – that whether the concern is one of stewardship, mission and outreach or simply doing what it takes to be a truly welcoming and inclusive congregation, hardly a week goes by around here without someone coming up with some new and creative way for us to be about the work of Jesus Christ in our life together. As a result, wonderful things happen; in the process challenging us to boldly move beyond the false assumptions that we’re too small, too old, too budget-crunched, or too set in our ways (!) to ever accomplish great things – or at least to accomplish small things in a great way – for the sake of God’s kingdom. And it’s all because someone, in faith, decided that it’s better to go deeper than to cling to the safety of shallow waters.

I’m actually reminded here of the words to a Vacation Bible School song from some years ago (for those who remember those VBS days, this one was from the year of “S.C.U.B.A.” which, by the way, stands for “Super Cool Underwater Bible Adventure!”): “I wanna go deep; I wanna obey;I wanna love God more every day.  (“I Wanna Go Deep” by Carol Smith)  Back then, it served as a tuneful reminder to our kids that when we trust God and love God, life becomes an adventure filled with many opportunities for bringing joy to others.  But the kicker, so to speak, and the part I always remember, came in the middle verse: “Faith’s not supposed to be ankle deep! Ready to swim? It’s time to leap! I’m not wadin’ in… instead, I want to be in over my head!”

It seems to me that this is one message that’s as applicable to us grown-ups as it is our children!  Now more than ever, in fact; as I have been fond of saying to the congregation as of late, in times like these – where tragedy, violence and division have become sadly commonplace – the first and best thing the church can do is to truly be the church.  But for that to become our reality requires from each of us the readiness to leap out from all of “the Big Rocks” of our lives, so to swim out over our heads into the deeper waters.

For the sake of the world in which we live, as well for the realm to come, may God grant each one of us the courage to take the risk.

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Bringers of Good News

(a sermon for September 24, 2017, the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Romans 10:5-15 and Matthew 28:16-20)

It was Lee Iaccoca, the former Chief Executive Officer of the Chrysler Corporation who said it:  “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

As simple as that sounds, I dare say that Iaccoca knew what he was talking about.  Those of us “of a certain age” will probably remember that back in the 1980’s when Iaccoca was named the CEO of Chrysler, that company was virtually bankrupt.  But somehow this very aggressive, no-nonsense leader managed to get a loan from the only “bank” that had enough money to bail them out – the United States government (!) – and not only did he turn the company around, he paid the loan back ahead of schedule!  It was, by any standard, an unlikely and amazing feat; but Iaccoca somehow pulled it off, and later on when he was asked about it, he’d keep coming back to that same idea about keeping “the main thing the main thing!”

What was interesting about all this, however, was that for Iaccoca the “main thing” for the Chrysler Corporation was not, in fact, to keep the enterprise solvent, nor was it to make all the employees happy; neither was it to make money for stockholders, or to increase efficiency and production.  It wasn’t even simply to sell more cars!  Iaccoca kept saying over and over again – much to the consternation of many in power – that the Chrysler Corporation existed first and foremost to produce vehicles that would satisfy the customer; if you stick to that, he said, then everything else would follow; because the main thing is always to keep the main thing the main thing!

It seems to me, corporate credos aside, that that this is one particular philosophy applicable to other areas of life as well, including our own as the church!  Seriously; consider the myriad of things we do together in this or any church.  We provide a time, a place and a method for Christian worship, and everything that goes along with it; we offer education and nurture in the history and tradition of our faith; we’re an arm of outreach, from one to another, extending outward to the wider community and the world.  We stand up, we speak out and occasionally we act up (!), all in the name of God; truly, we are the ones to whom politicians and policy makers are referring when they talk about “faith based initiatives.”

But we’re also here for the sake of fellowship and community; to share in the celebrations of life, and to be present to one another during times of hardship and struggle.  We marry the couples, we bless the babies, we bury the dead; and in and through all of this we bake casseroles, hold yard sales and plan holiday fairs and “bean suppahs,” all of which, I might add, are very important rites of the church!

But, even given all of that (and so much more besides!), it does beg the question: can it be said of any of it that it’s the “main thing?”

And the answer… well, is… no; at least not according to scripture!

You see, for all the many and laudable things we involve ourselves in as the church, in the end the main thing all comes down to the one thing that maybe we don’t do enough of that which Jesus himself sent us to do: to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”

Now, before anyone gets the idea that I’ve suddenly become “anti-bean supper,” understand that there is an essential and important place for bean suppers and everything else we do as a congregation (do you know how much fun I have telling people that we here at East Church volunteer at the race track twice a year?) ; but we also need to understand that all of this is ultimately a means to an end, which is the fulfillment of that “great commission” I just shared with you.

Paul Schrage, another corporate mogul, this time from McDonald’s, actually explains this rather well.  He is quoted in Walt Kallestad’s book, Turn Your Church Inside Out, and he says that for all the things that McDonald’s does to get people in the door, “One of the most important things we do is ask for the order.” That makes a lot of sense; I mean, you can’t sell somebody a Big Mac until you take their order!  Well, Schrage goes on to say, what’s missing in most [churches] is that we never ask for the order!   “If someone goes into a restaurant hungry and thirsty and no one ever asks them for their order, they will leave and not return.  [Likewise,] those outside the church come inside the church hungering and thirsting for God, seeking healing, looking for meaning and purpose, [but if] no one ever ‘asks for their order,’ they will leave and not return.”

It’s such a simple thing; and yet the implications of it are huge. For you and me who are the church of Jesus Christ, the “main thing” is ever and always to bring the good news of the gospel to a world that is crying out for the love of God!  And make no mistake; as we hear it proclaimed in our gospel text for this morning, it’s more than simply a calling, or even a polite request on the part of Jesus: this is a mandate!  This is no less than the Risen Christ pushing us, as his disciples, out the door, stirring us out of our highly valued complacency and compelling us to speak and to act clearly and boldly for the sake of accomplishing God’s purpose of love for the world; and in doing so, to fulfill our own destinies along the way. There’s a reason, friends, why this portion of scripture is not referred to as “the Great Suggestion,” but rather “the Great Commission!”

For all that it does and all that seeks to do and to be for its own purposes, ultimately the church exists to serve the purposes of God; and God’s purpose is to bring every single one of us into his own loving care, so to be named now and forever as one of his own; forgiven and redeemed.  This is the central truth of our Christian faith, one proclaimed by Paul in our Epistle reading this morning from Romans:  “For, ‘Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.’”  But here’s the thing; as Paul goes on to say (in what I’m finding to be one of the most haunting passages of the Epistles), “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?”

How are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? Or, in the parlance of The Message, “How can they know who to trust if they haven’t heard of the One who can be trusted? And how can they hear if nobody tells them?”

And that’s the “main thing” that we in the church need to keep the main thing; as simple (and as all-encompassing) as that.  What we’re talking about here, in the language of the church, is evangelism; a term that admittedly has long tended to make us mainstream and progressive Christians more than little bit uncomfortable (!); and yet, what is evangelism really, but Christian outreach at its most basic level? At its very heart, you see, it’s communicating – often one on one, in words and by action – the love of God in Jesus Christ; so that others can come to know God as we do.  And while that awareness may well come in the midst of one life’s huge moments or through the inevitable “times of stress and grief” that come to us all; it’s just as likely to happen in a conversation with someone over a cup of coffee; in some small, seemingly random act of caring and kindness extended to a friend or stranger in need; or even… hear this, beloved… in an invitation to someone near to you to come here to worship next Sunday!

The point is that Christ and his kingdom is profoundly proclaimed in ways we can’t even begin to imagine until it happens; and you and I need to recognize that we have the opportunity each and every day to be bringers of that good news!

Barry H. Corey, the president of Biola University in Californian, writes about his father, Hugh Corey, who was for many years a missionary on the poverty stricken streets of Bangladesh.  In a particularly difficult time in his ministry, the elder Corey told his son, “I don’t fully understand what Jesus meant when he said, ‘He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me.’  But this I do know.  In everything I do I must make myself receivable to people God places in my life.  If the lives God intersects with mine do not have the opportunity to receive me, how will they ever know the infinite love the Father has for them?  I must live my life in a way that strangers, friends, [the] aching, lonely… [can] receive me and receive through me the amazing love God alone has authored.”

In everything I do, I must make myself receivable to the people God places in my life; that is Christian evangelism defined, a life poured out for others so that they, too, can know God personally through Christ.  In other words, unless we are able to be open enough before others that they will see and hear who we are and whose we are, we will have missed the opportunity and the responsibility of proclaiming good news and making disciples… and by extension, strengthening the church in the process.

Friends, let me ask you this:  how open and receivable are you to the people that God is even now placing in your life?  What are the spiritual resources in your own life that you can use in the effort to reach out to those around you who need the love of the Lord… and are you making use of those resources?  Can it be said of you that your life is so marked by the love of Christ that it cannot help but overflow into the hearts and lives of others in need?  And are we the kind of church, the sort of people in this place, who make this a priority in everything we do?

It’s not about our being spiritually eloquent, or having all the answers; it’s simply about knowing who and whose we are, focusing our daily energies on growing in the grace and knowledge of God, and then being willing to open ourselves to others with that same kind of love that we ourselves have received!

For you see, what is true about ourselves is that whatever it is we experience on the inside of our hearts and souls eventually has to bubble up the surface and overflow to others.  So if what you experience with God is pure joy, then what you give away to others is joy.  By the same token, of course, if we’re feeding our souls with something less than God’s priorities for our lives, what’s going to come across to others won’t be much better; in fact, it’ll be counterproductive!  What’s the expression… garbage in, garbage out?  Well, as Christians and as the church, it’s the love and joy that we have in believing that will be the key in our being the bringers of that truly good news.

Maybe we’ll never fully know what comes of that kind of openness; pn the other hand, maybe we’ll change a heart… and a life.  Maybe, just maybe, next Sunday that person to whom we opened ourselves will be sitting there in the pew beside us; ready to joyfully receive all of the blessings that God has to give in Christ Jesus.  But whatever happens, we’re creating a legacy… a legacy of faith, hope and love in which the spirit will move and work for a lifetime and beyond.

After all, “as it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’”

So let’s get our feet to walking… and as we do, may our…

Thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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To Acknowledge the Lord

(a sermon for September 17, 2017, the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Hosea 5:15-6:6 and Matthew 9:9-13)

I will always remember the reaction of a high school friend of mine when I told him that I was seriously considering answering God’s call to become a minister.  He stared at me for a long moment, not at all sure of what he should say; but when finally he did reply, he took a deep breath and asked, “This doesn’t mean you’re going to get all good on us, does it?”

No, I do not think he was commenting on my complete and utter lack of goodness!

Rather, I believe his reaction to my future plans was a reflection of how he viewed the church; both in our little town and as a whole.  To him, you see, the church was always that place willed with “Capital-G Good” people.  You know the kind: the solid, serious, religious-type people; the variety of folks who wear their good suits and nice dresses as they come to worship each and every Sunday morning and who were always calm, composed and assured of themselves as they sat there in the pews.  These were the people who appeared to have a handle on most everything in life; and who always seemed to be, well, a little bit better off than everyone else!

Thinking back on it now, I’m not sure if my friend didn’t really see me as fitting that kind of a mold, or if the fact that I did was somehow threatening to him.  But either way, I have to tell you that even back then I understood where he was coming from; because truthfully, I held much the same point of view!  For me, the church was that special haven of faith-inspired human goodness, and I deeply wanted to be a part of that kind of community!

And you know what?  After just about 35 years now serving as a church pastor in congregations of varied shapes and sizes, I can readily affirm that yes, the church of Jesus Christ is filled to overflowing (!) with wonderfully good people; but I can also tell you that the church also includes as unlikely a cast of characters as you’ll ever meet… anywhere!

What I didn’t know back then but have discovered again and again over the years is that whereas there are a great many joyful folk who populate the pews, there are also a goodly number who are angry; and who have come to worship harboring a great deal of resentment over what life has brought them.  Calm and composed in every situation?  Yes, I’ve known a great many parishioners who are just like that; then again, in every congregation of which I’ve been a part there have also been those who are depressed, despairing and occasionally delusional.  In every set of church pews, you see, there’s to be found the sick, the lame, the grieving and the broken, and plenty of people with problems: some with problems that have absolutely nothing to do with them, and others whose problems are of their own sad, misguided creation.

And yes… hard as it is for me to admit, it is true what you’ve always heard: that there exists a few – just a few, mind you (!) – hypocrites in the church!  Moreover, there are those people in our congregations who do think they’re smarter or stronger or better or more spiritual than everybody else; but I need to tell you that there just as many who labor under the false and needless  burden that they are of lesser value than anybody else around them!  There are lots of people who take the command to “love one another” very seriously, and make that conviction real in their lives; but in all honesty there are also those out there who, knowingly or unknowingly, actually kind of hate other people, but who hate themselves even more.

The worriers, the careless and thoughtless, the ungrateful, the impatient, the greedy, the gossipy, the gloating, the scowling and the self-pitying: they’re all a part of this community of faith we call the church.

And, oh… in case I’ve left anyone off this list …so are you …and so am I.

That’s right; it’s not always pretty, but we are the church, and amazingly, each one of us belongs!  Not to further shatter any illusions (!), but ultimately what we’ve got here is this rag-tag and rather motley assortment of ordinary people who fall just a little bit short of “good,” people whose love of the Lord is all too often as we heard described in Hosea this morning: “like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early,” not exactly fitting into that “Capital G Good” church member mold!

And yet, here we are – as we are – nonetheless welcomed into the company of the faithful: named and claimed as children of God, called to be the disciples of Jesus Christ himself.  It’s a wonderful thing; but the question is, “Why? Why have we, of all people, been welcomed in?”  As we’ve illustrated, it certainly hasn’t come about as a result of our inherent goodness; it cannot be said that we’ve earned our place in this community in any true and meaningful way, as much as we may have tried… so why then… why us?  It turns out that the answer to this question, the only answer there can be, is God!  What is true is that the God who desires from us “steadfast love and not sacrifice” has in fact been steadfast in his love for us; the same God who seeks our knowledge of him wants to know us as his own! Or, as Jesus said it, “I have come not to call the righteous but sinners.”

Or to put this another way, it’s all about grace.

Grace is what’s at the heart of both our readings for this morning: each one about how God loves sinful, imperfect people and is relentless in wanting them to return to him.  First, from the Old Testament book of Hosea, we have this marvelous dialogue between Israel and God: God declaring that he will wait for his people to return and “seek [his] face” and admit their guilt; Israel responding, “Come, let us return to the LORD,” (in some translations adding, “let us press on to acknowledge him”), even as God expresses some doubt as to the level of their sincerity!

Even so, the Lord continues to wait for Israel to return, and to truly know and acknowledge him.  And he does this because goal here is for LOVE; or in the original Hebrew, “hesed,” which actually includes the whole realm of steadfast love, righteousness, loyalty, and mercy.  Hesed, you see, represents a full and right relationship with God; it encompasses everything that God desires from his people. And what we find in the message of the prophet is that God will do whatever it takes for that kind of relationship to happen; even boldly welcoming into that relationship those whom others would cast out.

That’s made very clear in our gospel reading today, about the calling of Matthew, a simple and beautiful act of grace that provokes immediate controversy!  Matthew, you see, is a tax collector, and in those days to be a tax collector was to be a collaborator with the Roman occupation forces in Israel; and by extension a thief and a thug who cheated the people out of pretty much everything they had.  So it was no wonder that when the “Capital G Good” religious people of his day saw Jesus hanging out with the likes of Matthew, they were outraged; and then, as if that weren’t bad enough, now Jesus had gone to Matthew’s house for a banquet in his honor!  This caused a great deal of commotion; after all, being seen in the presence of one known sinner, that might be considered outreach; having dinner with a houseful, well… that’s collusion!  It was a clear violation of sacred tradition as the Pharisees understood it:  they believed that you keep yourself pure and you stay away from the wrong kind of people; because if you hang out with sinners, you must be a sinner yourself!

But to this, Jesus simply says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”  And then he does a very interesting thing; he pulls out a word from the prophets that so called “religious uprights” would immediately recognize: “Go and learn what this means,” he says.  “’I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’  For I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners.” 

It’s a perfect case of having one’s own words (or at least one’s own tightly held philosophies) turned back at them:  Jesus says, if what is needed is an acknowledgement of God and a desire for mercy, isn’t that what we’re seeing in this man Matthew who heard my call and immediately left his collector’s booth?  And isn’t that what we’re starting to see with the rest of these so-called “sinners” who have come to celebrate with Matthew at the beginning of his new life?  Isn’t the point that this one who was sick be healed; that this one who’s been torn and struck down “return to the Lord” and have his wounds bound up?  Shouldn’t his relationship to God be restored, for isn’t that what the Lord has wanted all along?

It was the point missed by the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, and it’s a point we still miss so often in the church today; that while it’s all well and good for us to aspire to be the “good” religious people of this world, but if we’re not careful such behavior can all too easily fly in the face of the one who desires mercy, and not sacrifice; and who seeks out the lost not on the basis of their inherent righteousness but rather on out their deep need to be brought home!  Our being the church ends up having very little to do with us, but everything to do with the depth of God’s mercy, his tender compassion and genuine acceptance; and we’re reminded in these texts that how we live as the church must show forth that same kind of depth.

To wit, just we have been welcomed into fellowship of God, as unlikely and as unworthy as we are, we also need to extend welcome to all those who stand in the need of hesed.  You and I are called to be givers of that kind of life-changing and ever enveloping relationship we have with God to all those around us who have never known what it is be truly LOVED.  You and I are called to a ministry of acceptance and inclusiveness and care; we are meant to be about the business of spiritual nurture and uplift.  That’s who we’re meant to be as the church, even here on Mountain Road; but for that to happen first requires us to acknowledge the Lord and to embrace his purposes.

It’s said that the difference between the waters of the Sea of Galilee and those of the Dead Sea, both of which are biblical landmarks in the Middle East, is that the Sea of Galilee is a natural lake that is formed by a depression of land.  Water flows freely from the mountains into this sea and keeps right on flowing, and as a result the Sea of Galilee always remains fresh, life-giving and full of fish.  The Dead Sea, on the other hand, also has water that flows in from the mountains, but has no outlet; the water basically collects there and eventually evaporates, leaving the salt and creating a body of water in which there is virtually no life, which is why it’s known as the “Dead” Sea.

Well, think of that as a parable, and it goes a long way in helping us understand what God wants us to be as his church.  The Sea of Galilee, you see, exists to give.  It receives its water, and gives it all away, and thus it remains fresh and full of life, with the ability to nurture and restore the land and life around it.  The Dead Sea, on the other hand, exists to receive; it only takes and never gives, it never seeks to nourish anything or anyone – and because of this, it dies.

The fact is, I do believe that we here at East Church are a church family made up of good people; as Garrison Keillor might put it, we’re “pretty good people,” but might I add we’re pretty good people by the grace and mercy of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.  We are the church, beloved; but in the words of William Willimon, “A church that stops reaching out is not his church.  A people who hunker down with their faith, holding on to what they’ve got, timid and uncertain, unwilling to move out are not his people.”

Are we his people, beloved?  Are we willing to acknowledge the Lord by our desire – his desire – for mercy, steadfast love and arms opened to all who would come?

That’s something good for us to think about as we do our work together.

Thanks be to God.

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
 

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