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Category Archives: Ministry

Get to the Heart of the Matter!

(a sermon for October 29, 2017, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost; last in a series, based on  Matthew 22:34-40)

One thing I’ve long found very interesting about the church as a whole is that for all our sincere talk of Christian unity and the fact that we’re still “all God’s children” despite whatever denomination or faith tradition we come from, nonetheless we really do have our share of differences; especially as to how things are done!

Take the sacraments, for example: whereas in our particular tradition communion (generally speaking at least!) is shared by the passing a plate of bread cubes from one to the other in the church pew, there are other churches that frown on such a practice, insisting that those receiving communion actually get up from their seats and approach the altar of God!  And baptism: there are those within the denominational spectrum who would question the very validity of our ever baptizing an infant, saying that to confess Christ as Lord and Savior is wholly a personal decision that can only be made when one is of age (of course, in our tradition, we entrust the child’s parents, family and church to nurture their faith until they are ready to confirm that faith as a young adult and I’d say that’s at least as valid as an adult baptism… but I digress!); and let’s not even talk about whether “sprinkling” or “dunking” is the proper way to go!

In the ways we do worship (is it better to be formal or casual, “high church” or “low church,” to sing traditional hymns or praise songs, to preach from a lofty pulpit, or to stand “on the level” with the congregation?); in the interpretation of scripture and its authority for the church and world; the methods by which we govern ourselves as a congregation; even in the process of how clergy-types like me are to be called and authorized for ministry: trust me,  in all these things and more there are as many ideas in the church as to how these matters are properly handled as there are congregations!

Sometimes the differences have to do with theology or denominational polity; often it will focus on where a church perceives itself to be in the world; or maybe sometimes it’s something much simpler than that.  I remember in a former congregation I was once asked why it was that at the end of each week’s worship service I always gave the benediction from the back of the church; after all, this woman explained, in a tone that suggested no small measure of concern, at that moment you’re offering a blessing to your church and yet the whole congregation has its back to you!  Was there, she asked, some deeper spiritual meaning to this?  Was this what they taught you in seminary, or is this a UCC thing?  Well, I got to thinking about it and I realized that for me there wasn’t any real deep-seeded theological impartment as to doing the benediction that way; it was simply that where I was standing was closer to the door (!); and much easier to get to where to where I needed to be to shake hands with people after church!

Not exactly the stuff of major church schisms, I know (!); but it points up the fact that in the church, there are always going to be differences of opinion, and approach and belief; and moreover there always have been.  Almost from its very inception, church history is filled with instances of debate, conflict and division, all having to do with how the will and Word of God is to be followed and administered!  To wit, this week marks the 500th anniversary of how in 1517 Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of the Catholic Church in Wittenberg in protest of what he considered the indulgences of the Roman Catholic Church; the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, which not only changed the face of religion and all of western civilization, but also in no small way, is a reason why and how we’re here worshipping in this place today!   You see, as much as we try to avoid it, these kind of differences and the conflicts that ensue because of them, are inevitable; but that’s not always a bad thing!  The difference of whether it ends up a bad or good, divisive or even unifying thing comes in how we “get to the heart of the matter” as regards these questions, and what we discover about faith in the midst of them!

And, as in all things, our example for how this best happens is Jesus.

For you see, even Jesus… that’s right, even Jesus (!) found himself in the midst of such conflict.  The gospels record several instances when Jesus was faced by “concerned religious leaders” (that is, the scribes and Pharisees) who could not, would not accept his teachings about God and the kingdom, and recognized that what Jesus was saying was threatening to them and their own power.  So now, they were doing everything they could to discredit Jesus amongst the people, catch him in uttering some sort of punishable heresy, or both.  Our text for this morning is of one such instance; actually, as Matthew tells the story, it’s the final attempt on the part of the Pharisees to trip Jesus up with a seemingly simple question: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

Now, the easy answer to this question, the non-confrontational answer to this question, and according to Pharisaic law the legally acceptable answer to this question would have been for Jesus to say, “Every commandment of the Law is great, because all of the Law comes from God.” But that wasn’t the answer the Pharisees were looking for; what they were hoping was that Jesus might randomly pick one from the 613 commandments in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Law (which, by the way, if you’re counting, amounts to 248 “thou shalts” and 365 “thou shalt nots,” one for every day of the year); because if Jesus did that, if Jesus picked just one commandment from all of those, then he’d certainly be guilty of denying or negating countless other commandments, and then the Pharisees could charge him not only as a law-breaker, but a blasphemer as well!  As far as these religious “uprights” were concerned, this was a no-win situation and now they had Jesus right where they wanted him.

But then Jesus does something that none of them were expecting: he takes a complicated, loaded question and gives them a very simple and familiar answer; moreover, with something they themselves would have known since they were children: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the greatest and first commandment.”  The Pharisees certainly knew this; this was from the Shema, words (from Deuteronomy) that are to be prayed by faithful Jews each and every morning and again in the evening.  First, says Jesus, you love God with heart and soul and mind!  Before anything else; before the other nine commandments and all the other laws and statutes and precepts that follow, before establishing any kind of faithful endeavor, first you must love God with heart and soul and mind!

It would have seemed to me that this confession of Jesus would have been more than enough to satisfy (or perhaps more accurately, infuriate) the Pharisees, but you see, Jesus wasn’t done yet. “And a second [commandment] is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  And before the Pharisee can even begin to ask what about all the other commandments, Jesus adds one more thought: “’On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’”  First you love God, you see, but then you also have to love your neighbor; and that’s everything, because we can’t really love God with our heart, soul, and mind unless and until we love our neighbor as ourselves.  As Kenneth Samuel has written, “the second greatest commandment is not just secondary to the greatest commandment.  It is essential to the greatest commandment, for we cannot love God whom we do not see and despise our neighbors who we see every day.”

In other words, when we get the heart of the matter as regards faith, it’s always going to be about LOVE: the kind of LOVE that puts God at the center of everything we do, and are and can ever hope to be; the kind of LOVE that ever and always reaches out and envelops those in need. To truly love God and to love neighbor: this is the kind of LOVE that makes us who we are; and that not only transcends and triumphs over every kind of difference we may have, it’s what provides the true purpose and the abiding principle for every part of the good work we seek to do as the church of Jesus Christ!

And for those of us 21st century Christians who might feel a little jaded and wonder if such a thing is, at best, kind of “pie in the sky” thinking, it’s helpful to take note of the fact that very soon after Jesus said all this to the scribes and Pharisees, they were gone; daring not to ask him any more questions.   Because at the end of the day, the heart of the matter is LOVE… it’s always LOVE… and how do you argue with LOVE?

Over the past few weeks we’ve talked a lot here about what it takes to live a life of adventuresome faith and to be the kind of disciples (and the kind of church!) we want to be.  We’ve spoken about how we need to be bold enough to “get out of the boat” of our own complacency and fear, so to follow Jesus where he leads; and about how very important it is, most especially in these days of divisive rhetoric and confused situations, for each and all us to “get to work” in this ministry to which we’ve been called, because there is a lot of work to be done!

And that’s why today we humbly and prayerfully ask – and also, we thank you and thank God – for your continued support of this ministry we share in Jesus’ name, and for your commitment to all that we do here at East Church: the work of Christian education and nurture for children and adults alike; the work of caring compassion and community outreach; the work of joy and hope that starts by being shared amongst kindred hearts, and then extended outward.  It’s the work of worship and fellowship and laughter and tears and peace and justice on a blessedly personal level, and it all happens right here with us and through us; and it takes our faithful stewardship, combined with God’s ever present grace, to keep it moving and growing.

But most of all, and never forget this… it also takes LOVE!

Because that’s the heart of the matter! In everything we seek to and to be disciples of Jesus Christ and as the church, we discover that there is and there remains this all-encompassing and faith-defining mandate to LOVE… to first, before anything else, to love God with heart and soul and mind, and then along with this to always love our neighbor as ourselves.  On this, says Jesus, “hangs all the law and the prophets;” and it continues to be, especially today, the pivot point of our lives as persons, as people and as the church.  It’s what makes the difference between truly carving out a life of faith and simply going through the motions; it’s the choice of enduring emptiness, on the one hand, or embracing a life of true abundance, on the other. It’s what gives us purpose, it’s what makes us real, it’s what helps us to grow; and it’s everything.

It’s LOVE, and friends, I pray that none of us will ever be so busy, so distracted, so hurt or confused, so suffering and grieving, so entangled in the minutiae of life that we lose sight of it.  Indeed, as you and I set out on the adventure of discipleship, let LOVE reign supreme: let it guide our thoughts, direct our devotion, set our pathways and help us along the journey.  Let LOVE be at the very heart of each of our lives, and at the heart of our life together at East Church; so that individually and collectively we might personify and manifest God’s love above all else.

After all, what’s that verse of scripture, the one we hear at just about every wedding, the one that Paul wrote to that squabbling, divided church at Corinth?  “For faith, hope and love abides, these three; but the greatest of these is… LOVE.”

LOVE!

So may it be… and thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Get to Work!

(a sermon for October 22, 1017, the 20th Sunday after Pentecost; second in a series, based on Matthew 9:35-10:23)

Her name was Queenice; and I’m not sure she ever knew this, but she held the dubious distinction of being the very first church member that I was ever called to visit as a young and newly-minted, greenhorn, still-wet-behind-the-ears student pastor!  And I remember this distinctly, friends, because as I walked into the hospital on that particular autumn afternoon to make this pastoral call I was suddenly and profoundly aware that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing!

Now, by this time I was in my second year of seminary; pastoral care was a major part of my course of study, so at least in theory I had some knowledge as to how to go about this.  And moreover, it’s not like I’d never been in a hospital before or had ever visited someone who was sick; so I knew what to expect.  But you see, this was different; because now I was the minister!  I was the pastor of Queenice’s church; and as such I was Queenice’s pastor, the one specifically called to bring spiritual care and comfort in her time of need; and trust me, folks, there wasn’t anything in all the textbooks I’d been reading that came anywhere close to the reality of what was now expected of me!  I mean, really; what could I, of all people, actually offer this woman that would have any spiritual meaning to her as she’s lying sick in that hospital bed? And what if I said or did the wrong thing; and could it make things worse?  Maybe the truth was that I just wasn’t cut out for this kind of work, and I should get out before I caused any really damage!

I know; that was a lot to worry about; but such was my mindset as I knocked on Queenice’s hospital door to introduce myself to her as the “new pastor.”  It was difficult and awkward, to say the least; but now, 35 years later, I can report to you that my visit with Queenice went… okay; not great, mind you, but okay.  Queenice was very cordial to me; and in a manner befitting her name, she was a bit erudite in her conversational approach to me as her pastor.  She was very nice; but even as I stumbled through the words of a prayer, in my heart I knew she was thinking, “Who is this child?” and “I really did prefer the old minister!”

As it turned out, over the next six months I would make quite a number of pastoral calls to Queenice; for you see, not only was Queenice very sick, she was dying; one medical complication after another that was basically leading to her organs shutting down. So I had many occasions to visit with her; and over that time I actually came to know her very well.  For one thing, I found out early on she had a wicked sense of humor; and that she delighted in telling her pastor a few jokes that were questionable at best (!).  I also discovered Queenice kind of enjoyed having the attention of a young man in her life, albeit one who was her pastor, because she started introducing me to everybody on that hospital ward as her “boyfriend!”  On the other hand, there were several days that as soon as I walked into the room she angrily demanded I leave; and made sure I knew that she’d had more than enough religion in her life, thank you very much, and why don’t you just stay away.  Queenice could be very difficult at times, if not downright exasperating, and though I did understand why, I still wondered what I was doing wrong to not be able to bring God’s healing love to her in such a horrible time as this.

And then one evening I came to visit her yet again; but this time she said very little, except to quietly ask if I might read from the Bible that was on her nightstand.  And for the next couple of hours, beginning with the 23rd Psalm (which she asked me to read again and again) I sat with Queenice in her dimly lit hospital room reading the Bible, and holding her hand as we prayed the Lord’s Prayer together.  And when it finally came time for me to leave, she took my hand and said simply, “I’m very glad that you’re here, Pastor.  Thank you.”

That was the last time I spoke with Queenice; she passed away a couple of days later.  What I’ll always remember about that night is that’s when I finally realized that something good, something healing, something wholly spiritual had indeed come from our visits; but it wasn’t so much from what I’d said or done, or how I said or did it.  Ultimately, you see, God had been at work in Queenice’s heart in those last few weeks of her life; and the best I could do is to do the work of hope and caring on God’s behalf.

And after all, isn’t that what ministry is all about?

In our text for this morning, we’re told by Matthew that as Jesus “went about all the cities and villages,” he saw the crowds of people and “had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”  So many people, so many needs… and so much work to be done to proclaim the coming of God’s kingdom!  It’s no wonder that Jesus then turned to his disciples and says, as translated in The Message, “What a huge harvest! [And] how few workers!  On your knees and pray for harvest hands!” 

But how interesting it is that the answer to that prayer of Jesus ends up being the disciples themselves!  I mean, think about it; this rather motley assortment of fishermen, tax collectors and thieves (that’s right, even Judas, “the one who betrayed him,” makes the list) would not have seemed to be apt choices in terms of preaching and teaching skills, to say nothing of their ability to heal the sick (or lack thereof)!  But in fact, here’s Jesus, expressly giving this group “authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness,” to essentially continue, and extend, Jesus’ work! “Go to the lost, confused people right here in the neighborhood,” he says to them. “[You go and] tell them that the kingdom is here.” (The Message)

It’s an amazing thing when you think about it.  What I find particularly fascinating about this passage is that as you read on you discover that Jesus isn’t sending these disciples forth in any kind of naïve fashion; in fact, there’s some steely-eyed realism in Jesus’ instructions to them:  travel light, for instance; “take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belt,” nor a bag for your journey; don’t take money for what you do, for “you received without payment; give without payment.”  When you come into a town, find a good and safe place to stay, and “let your peace come upon it.”  On the other hand though, “if anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.”  And never, ever forget, says Jesus, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

It’s a reality check, to be sure; and not exactly a confidence builder!  Honestly, there are moments in the gospels when I have to wonder why the disciples even stayed around; never mind the uncertainty of what Jesus was asking, or even the danger of it, the task at hand had to have been so much more than what that group of twelve utterly ordinary men thought they were capable of!  What if they messed up? What if they raised the ire of the local authorities and ended up “dragged before governors and kings” because of what they were doing and who they were doing it for?  And worst of all, what if they failed?  Where would they be then?  It seemed all the world like an impossible task…

…which is what makes what Jesus says next so amazing.  Whatever happens, he says, “do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”  In other words, “don’t quit… don’t cave in… it is all well worth it in the end,” even if it doesn’t happen in just the way you expect.  You just get to work; you do this ministry to which you have been called, and God will give you what you need and take care of the rest of it.  Or, if I might quote The Message one more time, “Be survivors! [Because] before you’ve run out of options, the Son of Man will have arrived.”

Not a bad thing for any of us to remember as latter day disciples of Jesus Christ; and, might I add, most especially right about now in our life together here at East Church.

Last Sunday, as you’ll recall, we talked about how the first step in living a life of adventuresome faith and truly being the kind of disciples (and the kind of church!) we want to be is to be bold enough to “get out of the boat” of our own complacency and fear, and come to Jesus, so that we might truly follow him where he leads.  But, friends, as important as that is, we also need to remember that this is not where our journey of discipleship ends.  For you see, after we’ve stepped out of the boat, after we’ve come to Jesus and after we’ve answered his call, there’s still something more that needs to happen.  We need to get to work!

Because make no mistake; as Christians and as the church, we have a lot of work to do!  As we’ve said more than a few times as of late, we are currently in the midst of a time and culture that needs the clear, unalloyed and unapologetic message of our Christian faith more than perhaps ever before.  When divisive rhetoric and violent behavior would seem to rule the day… day after day (!), there is a desperate cry in this world for true sanctuary; for the safety and shelter of a community that is girded in love and built upon real hospitality.  We have children, friends, who are growing up in a culture of darkness and are fearful of the world that they will soon inherit; who can’t begin to understand that perfect love casts out all fear because they’ve not had the opportunity to experience that love for themselves.  There are so many people who have always felt on the outside looking in, people who simply need to be invited into this circle of love so that their perspective will change; so many who hunger and thirst for something more than what this world can ever provide: something deeper, something healing, something wholly spiritual; something that only we can offer as the church of Jesus Christ. That’s the work that you and I are called to do.

Sometimes this kind of work can seem overwhelming; and we’re tempted at times to think it too involved, too time consuming, too expensive for us to continue.  After all, I’m only one person… we’re just a little church… there are only so many resources… and there’s so much to do!  What if we can’t do it, we ask. What if we run out of those resources?  What will happen then?  Well, friends, in the midst of such doubts comes the voice of Jesus… reminding us:  All you need to do is to answer my call, to come to me, and to get to work… I’ll take care of the rest.

And after all, isn’t that what this ministry is all about?

Beloved, as you;ve been hearing today, next Sunday is Stewardship Sunday at East Church; so let me just add here that I hope you will give some serious thought and prayer as to how you will support our work as a church in 2018.  Do I hope that you’ll continue to give, financially and otherwise, to our shared ministry?  Oh, yes.  Would I also love to see the level of that support rise in the coming year?  Absolutely!  I hope and pray for all these things and more; but mostly?  I pray that we’ll all set our hearts to doing the work to which we’ve been called; God’s work, the work of Christ and his kingdom; the work that we’ve always been about here, and the work we do so well.  The work that’s encompassed by acts of caring and compassion extended from one heart to another; the work that happens in the singing of a choir anthem, or a the midst of Sunday School lesson, or in those moments during a supper when we’re just a tad worried we might run out of beans (!); in the work that reaches out to the poor, the hungry and the homeless right in our own backyards here in Concord; and in the work that proclaims boldly and brilliantly that Christ is Lord of Heaven and Earth!

Beloved, I pray for East Church; giving thanks for all the good we’ve done, and praying that we find all the resources we need to continue working… knowing that in faith, our Lord will take care of the rest.

Give that your thought and prayer…

… and may our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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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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