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Category Archives: Mission and Outreach

After the Spirit

(a sermon for June 16, 2019, the 1st Sunday after Pentecost, based on Acts 2:42-47, 3:1-10)

“…and they lived happily ever after!”  And… Amen!

Now that’s how the story really ought to end, right (?); at least as it pertains to those first few verses of our text for this morning.  I mean, consider the “narrative arc,” if you will, of this part of the biblical story; think for a moment about everything that brought that group of twelve disciples from where they were – that is, as this rather motley assortment of fishermen, tax-collectors, and other assorted outsiders who’d left everything to follow Jesus – to what they are now, the Spirit-filled and Spirit-led Apostles in whom “many wonders and signs are being done,” and by whose proclamation of good news a new church is growing exponentially, to the point where once there were little more than a handful of believers and now – in a single day, no less (!), the day of Pentecost  – “about three thousand persons were added;” and as Luke goes on to tell us, “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

And it’s at this point in this sweeping narrative that Luke began in his gospel and now continues his “Book of Acts” that we’re given this incredible description of Christian community as it was truly lived out in the life of this new church.  We’re told that the believers were all gathered together and that everyone was filled with awe about all the signs and wonders they were witnessing; and along with worship and prayers and “devot[ing] themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship,” they also gave to one another as any had need, and – I love this part – “ate their food with glad and generous hearts.”  It’s worship, it’s fellowship, it’s compassion: from the very beginning these were the marks of the Christian life and to this day remain our model and the ideal of what the church of Jesus Christ is supposed to be.  Or, to put it another way, if I might quote Laura Truman of the Forum for Theological Exploration, “Oh my goodness, it is beautiful.   They are doing theology, they are living together, they are eating together, they are praying together – this is the kind of community that most church leaders would give their left foot for… This story of the beginning of the Church,” she writes, “is just glorious.  This is the Church alive.  This is the Church on the move.”

And so, do you see what I mean when I say that this might well be the place to end the story; that now we’re at the part of the gospel in which we can gaze upon this amazing new church – formed by Jesus Christ himself, crucified and risen, and gathered, led and empowered by his Holy Spirit – and know that from this point on, after everything those apostles had been through and more to the point, through what God had done in the person of the Christ (!) that they could indeed “live happily ever after.”  I mean, if I’m making a movie about this (I guess technically, given it’s about the apostles and their journey after the resurrection, it would be a sequel!), about the time the Spirit has come in all of its power and the believers are “praising God and having the goodwill of all the people,” it would be time to fade out and roll the credits; as I said before, that’s where the story ought to end, right?

Well, if we understand scripture, not to mention the mission of the church, the answer there would be… no.  In fact, it can well be said that “after the Spirit” is when the story begins anew; and in many ways, it’s the place where our story and truly, our mission as believers really comes into focus.

Actually, from a narrative point of view, it’s interesting to note that following this very grand and idealistic view of the beginnings of the Christian church, Luke in his telling of the story sort of pulls back a bit so to tell the story about how “one day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, about three o’clock.”  So, you see, already there’s a routine developing in the life of the church; and I don’t say that as a negative, nor am I in suggesting that the “wonders and signs” done by the apostles were in any way diminishing, because if you read on in the Book of Acts, you’ll know that this is not the case.  If anything, this “going up to the temple” every afternoon tells us that a discipline of prayer and worship was from the very beginning, as it continues to be, essential to the Christian life.

And so it is on this particular day, we have Peter and John on their way to the temple for afternoon prayer – for “prayer meeting,” The Message calls it – and as they pass through the gate of the temple known as the “Beautiful Gate” they encounter a man “crippled from birth,” [The Message] “asking for alms;” that is, begging passersby for any kind of handout they might we willing to offer him as one poor and needy.  Now, we don’t know much about this man: he’s not given a name nor is there much of a backstory about what’s brought him to this station of life; all we really can glean from the text is that being “lame from birth,” he’d been carried to this gate and placed there for the purpose of begging, and that apparently he’d been doing this for quite some time, because later on we find out that all the people who entered the temple by this so called “Beautiful Gate” had recognized this  man as one of “those people” who were always there on the fringes begging for whatever spare change anybody might give him.  And so likely what he was doing that afternoon was what he always did, which was with eyes to the ground and arms extended crying out… crying out again and again and again for alms… for money… for something, anything that might help.

But whereas most people going to temple that afternoon sought to ignore the beggar’s cries and probably did everything they could to avoid any encounter with him altogether, we’re told that Peter and John heard the man’s cries and stopped; but even more than merely stopping to hear the request, Luke tells us that “Peter looked intently at him, as did John,” and said to this beggar, “Look here…” “Look at us…”   which, as even you and I in these times, was a pretty radical response!   I remember years ago someone I went to school with describing to me of her experience one summer living and working in New York City.  Now, this girl was not only still pretty young, she was also from Maine; and her first instinct on the streets of Manhattan was to smile and say hello to everyone she passed on the street!  But, she explained, that exuberant spirit was short-lived, as very quickly her more streetwise co-worker informed her that the first rule of walking down along a New York City street was not to make eye contact; this, after all, is not Bangor, Maine!  And we understand that, don’t we; especially as it applies to those in this life and in this world that in all honesty we’d rather avoid: from that person across the aisle at the market who makes us feel uncomfortable to the one who’s standing there with the handwritten cardboard sign on the median of Fort Eddy Road; just keep your head down and keep moving, and there’s no problem.

Sadly, that’s too often our attitude, but not Peter and John; they look this beggar square in the eye and pretty much demand that he look back at them in just the same way; thus treating him and engaging him as a person… as the child of God that is rather than the nameless beggar that the world has always perceived him to be.  And then Peter says something very interesting: he says, in the very poetic language of the old King James Version of scripture, “Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk.” (Or, if you’d prefer a more contemporary translation, how about this from The Message: “I don’t have a nickel to my name, but what I do have, I give you.”) Either way, Peter then reaches out to this man, this man crippled from birth, pulls him up (!) by his right hand, “and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.”  So strong, in fact, that the beggar immediately starts leaping and dancing for joy; praising God for all he’s worth and, might I add, totally disrupting any semblance of a serious prayer time that afternoon and astonishing everybody who’d witnessed what happened to this now former beggar there at the Beautiful Gate!

This story from Acts serves to tell us that “after the Spirit” came on the Day of Pentecost and filled them up with its power, the disciples’ story begins anew; with their being called to and given the gift of healing in the name of Jesus.  And moreover, writes Craig Barnes, it’s also a reminder that ultimately, in a multitude of ways – not just physical, mind you, or even financial; but also in the emotional, relational, even spiritual sense – “we’re all beggars, and it’s only in the name of Jesus that we’re going to get back up on our feet again” and we, as believers, have the ability, the call, the power to proclaim that name “that gets people back up on their feet.”  But even beyond all that, friends, what this story proclaims is that all of us – you and me and everyone in this sanctuary, all of us who count ourselves as believers – do have this ministry of healing and of life in Jesus’ name.

After the Spirit, you see, there’s the church of Jesus Christ… and we are the church.

In the end, you see, it’s not about the almsgiving, though in Christian love and creativity, we do do that, and we should; reaching out to those in need, however that may happen, is always to be at the very center of our mission as believers.  But it’s not just about that; likewise, it’s not only about the acts of healing, though I know that there are many of us in this very room, myself included, who can tell the stories of how healing prayers and words and gestures and creative, Spirit-led, actions led to the healing of mind, body and spirit.  It’s not even about the miracle, per se: because, you know what, miracles are not always what they at first seem to be, or not to be; sometimes the miracle with that overwhelming sense of the holy in our midst; in that peace Jesus spoke of that the world can neither give nor take away.  In the end, it’s about this Spirit that all of us have been given and this ministry we share; this calling to be witnesses to all we’ve seen and heard and received, sometimes by what we say, but always by what we do.

And the thing is, we never know exactly how that might unfold until it happens:  we’re having this random conversation with a friends or a co-worker, maybe someone we hardly know, but suddenly they’re pouring out their pain and grief in all its intensity and suddenly the “small talk” has become something much deeper and wholly cathartic.  You’re running an errand or taking care of a long-dreaded chore, and all of a sudden you get this idea that what you’re doing in that moment could be helpful for somebody else whose pride has long prevented them from asking for any kind of assistance.  You’ve been wrestling with some sort of big decision in your life, and trying to weigh how what you’ll do changes things for you; but then you wake up in the dawn of a new day and you’re seeing that choice from a different point of view: maybe that of your children or your family or even how it might affect a hurting world.  Or, could be you’re sitting in this sanctuary this morning, you’ve been singing the songs, you’ve prayed the prayers, you’re wondering if the minister’s ever going to wrap this thing up (!) so you can go to lunch… and in that moment you’re inspired… moved, somehow, to call somebody to go to lunch after worship with you, and maybe then invite them to come to church next Sunday….

…who knows? 

Give alms to the poor; feed the hungry; clothe the naked; visit those in prison; love, cherish and nurture all of God’s children; be kind, for Jesus’ sake!  Just know, beloved, that however it takes shape and form this is our ministry, yours and mine together, and that God’s Spirit comes as we do what we do.  And it is in that ministry that beggars become leapers, and that miracles happen.

I hope and pray that now that Spirit has come, we will be bold to embrace its power to do God’s work in this place and time… always in the healing name of Jesus.

And in that holy name, may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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Made to Worship: What Shall We Bring?

(a sermon for October 21, 2018, the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost; sixth in a series, based on Micah 6:6-8 and Mark 12:38-44)

“The morning offering will now be received.”

It occurs to me that of all the usual things that get said during our times of worship together, aside from “let us pray,” “Our Father, who art in heaven,” and maybe “please rise and sing,” this is the phrase that’s most likely to be spoken regularly from service to service! And that’s because with a few exceptions throughout the year, there’s almost always going to be an offering as part of our worship!  Oh, there are churches that seek to find alternative ways of dealing with this part of their life together – from creating a faith-based “honor system” that assumes that the good stewardship of their members will happen without having to pass the plate every Sunday, to actually placing several electronic kiosks throughout the church building so that worshippers can conveniently give to the church with their credit or debit cards (no joke!) – but by and large, no matter the size or the tradition of a particular congregation, there’s always going to be a time in the midst of worship in which we are pastorally encouraged to give freely after the manner that we have freely received!

Now some people, as I’ve shared with you before, refer to this part of the service as “the collection” (a label which as you well know, I dislike intensely!); and then there was the man from a prior church I served who ever and always called it “the pew tax,” much to his wife’s consternation!   I even have a clergy colleague who speaks of it to her congregation as “TCB,” that is, “Takin’ Care of Business!”  My preference, of course, is simply to refer to this part of the service as our offering unto God, your and my tangible expression of thanksgiving unto the Lord for all of our many blessings and our continuance of the Biblical tradition of giving a portion of the “first fruits” of our lives back to God.  In the parlance of the Old Testament, it’ tithing, giving 10% of what we have unto God (and that’s to start, friends!); but if not that, at the very least a significant and sacrificial and above all, faithful, gift.

Of course, if we’re being honest, then we do have to acknowledge that there’s a practical component in having the offering: indeed, the financial gifts we receive through the offering and by our faithful stewardship as members of East Church is what keeps this church up and running from year to year (did I happen to mention that next Sunday is Stewardship Sunday?  Just sayin’!). The morning offering is meant for the support our shared ministry as part of our local church, as part of the United Church of Christ and extending out to the whole Body of Christ; and electric and heating bills, snowplowing and (if I might borrow a word from our church treasurer here, gulp!) even pastoral compensation is all part of that!   So there is the practical, real world component to consider here; but nonetheless we need to understand that from the very beginnings of our faith and the life of the church, the time of offering in our worship has always represented the very movement that we’ve been talking about all through this sermon series; going from praise and thanksgiving, to hearing and reflecting upon the Word of God, to finally responding to that Word with lives of faithful service as disciples of Jesus Christ!   And how is the best way to respond but by giving of ourselves in real ways and real time by our time, our talent, and yes, friends, our treasure!

So… as you and I are “made to worship,” it’s not a question of if there will be an offering as we do so; but of your and my response to those words that get spoken each and every Sunday morning: “The morning offering will now be received.”  Ultimately, for us as people of faith the real question is – as it’s always been for as long as people of faith have gathered to worship the Lord – “what shall we bring?” How are we to answer this call to give of ourselves?  Scripture is actually full of insight as to how we might respond to that, but this morning I want to focus on one answer that’s found in this morning’s reading from Mark’s gospel, the familiar story of the “widow’s mite.”

But be aware, though… it may not be the answer you’re expecting!

You know the story:  Jesus is there at the temple in Jerusalem, taking the position of a fly on the wall as he watches the faithful bringing their offerings to the temple treasury during this celebration of the Passover.  And of course, from this vantage point he can see all the rich and powerful sauntering in, showing off their fine clothes and making dramatic gestures as they put their large yet ostentatious gifts into the treasury receptacles.  To this display of largesse, Jesus is profoundly unimpressed; but then, up walks this elderly woman, identified in scripture only as “a poor widow,” who quietly takes out two small copper coins – worth a half a cent each, if that – and places them into the receptacle and walks away without a sound.  A tiny offering, just a mite, made even smaller in comparison to all the other, much larger offerings that had been made that day; but this is the gift that Jesus praises over and above anything that the rich and famous offer up because, Jesus says, “all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Truth be told, however, there’s more to it than that.  It’s worth noting that just prior to Jesus sitting down to observe what was happening in this “service of offering” at the Temple, he’d actually been railing against the hypocrisy of the scribes; the scribes who, remember, were the educated class of religious leaders and were thought of as those who were pious and wise and deserving of respect (or perhaps more accurately, those who at least liked to think of themselves in that way!).  And yet, nonetheless, the scribes were also the ones who flaunted all of that; they were the ones “who like[d] to walk around in long robes, and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,” the ones who sought out the best seats in the synagogues and who loved sitting at the head table during the temple feasts, and who would do whatever they needed to do assure themselves a comfortable life in the seat of religious authority, even if that meant “devour[ing] widow’s houses.”  I dearly love how D. Mark Davis, a biblical scholar and an expert in New Testament Greek, describes these so-called religious leaders:  as “Pretentious Pretenders Pressuring Penurious Penniless Pensioners!”  And if that glorious alliteration weren’t enough, Davis adds that Jesus’ words about “devouring widow’s houses” actually was a very intentional and rather sharpened play on words on Jesus’ part, for the sad truth was that these scribes, all for the sake of preserving their own power, were feasting as much on the resources of the poor as much as that which was on the menu at the Passover meal!

So it’s wonderfully fitting that even as Jesus is right there, teaching his disciples all about the scribes’ hypocrisy, selfishness and utter abuse of power,  here comes this elderly, powerless and impoverished widow; quite literally bringing her “two cent’s worth” as her offering to God and it’s everything.  It’s everything she had to live on, it’s her whole life; she walks up to that offering receptacle and gives it to God and she does it faithfully and unselfishly.  It’s a monumental gift, to be sure, and utterly sacrificial, but the question is why? Why would she make that offering if that was all she had?  Karoline Lewis, professor of biblical preaching at Luther Seminary in Minnesota, wonders about that.  Was her offering made “out of obligation,” she asks.  “Respect?  Demand? Expectation? Religiousity? Piety?  All of the above?”  After all, the reality of the time and of the religious belief and tradition that righteousness would be related to one’s sacrifice at the altar!  No, this was different; Jesus could see that and so can we. In the end,  yes, the widow gave because she needed to; but she needed to because something deep within her knew that what she was doing, what she was bringing before God would “manifest itself in something beyond herself.”  It was her response to the very essence and the power of God in her life and in the world.

Not bad for a couple of copper pennies!

It turns out, you see, that it’s not the amount of the gift that matters as much as the way the gift is given.  In other words, the begrudgingly “generous” gift from the one who has money to burn might fill the offering plate but has far less meaning than the modest but heartfelt gift from the one who literally didn’t have two pennies to rub together; it’s the difference between reluctantly making a contribution and truly giving an offering unto the Lord, offering up your whole self in praise and thanksgiving for all that God has done in your lives!

What all this means is that whatever the gift we need to consider the motivation for our giving.  Because ultimately, you see, our offering is all about the grace of God and what we do with we received.  Scott Hoezee writes that “we all live immersed in the… grace of God in Christ” and that everything we do in the Christian life – including giving to the offering plate – is an outflow and an overflow of that grace.”  That grace, says Hoezee, “allows us to rest easy by taking joy in whatever we are able to do for God.  Grace gives us the freedom to be who we have become as new creatures in Christ.  We use our gifts and give of ourselves not because of some stern external obligation or pressure or because we’ve been made to feel guilty as we are manipulated by the church.  Instead we are free to be who we are, free to let the Spirit move us along in ministry.”

And what that all means, friends, is that every Sunday morning after we’ve prayed together as a congregation and I say a few words that lead up to the regular admonition that “the morning offering will now be received,” we’re not setting forth the requirement of doing the right thing and putting a few dollars in the offering plate.  What we’re doing is presenting the opportunity to let all that we’ve received in the love and care of God in Jesus Christ overflow into the life we seek for ourselves, for our church and for the world.

How would it be, I wonder, if we really did view our Sunday morning offering as an opportunity for a true spiritual blessing to take root and grow in the gardens of our lives?  For that matter, since it is stewardship season after all (!), what would happen around here if the pledges and promises we make for the coming year, be they financial or otherwise, not be made so much out of an obligation to the budget but rather as wholly embracing the possibilities of who we are and what we can do in this place as disciples of Jesus Christ and members of East Church?   What if our offering plates became more than merely the receptacle of this week’s (okay, I’ll say it…) “collection” but rather the place where hopes, dreams and prayerful intercession are transformed into Spirit-led action?

Well, beloved, the good news is it can and does happen when God’s grace is involved.  How else do you explain the strong stewardship of the people of this remarkable congregation?  How else can you describe how an initial offering made last year to help “lift the gift” in our church’s operating budget has expanded to the point where on many months we’ve been able to NOT draw monies from our invested funds?  How else could you ever say how, whatever the need happens to be, we have people in this congregation who do step up in miraculous and life-changing ways; and how that transforms us from, as we’ve often been know, from “the little church that could” to “the little church that can… and does.”  Yes, it happens because of your faith and your commitment and your hard work that it happens (and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for that), but ultimately it’s because of grace revealed and responded to.  It’s because of what each one of you brings as an offering, in praise and thanksgiving.  It’s what illustrates, in wonderful and miraculous ways, the words of Micah who says that’s what’s required of is to “do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God.”

You and I are made to worship… and as part of that, you and I are called to make an offering… this Sunday, next Sunday and truly, on every day of our lives as we walk faithfully with our God.  And as we do, may what we give be matched and increased by how we give, so that by grace our resources will grow.

And always, may our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  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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