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Category Archives: Mission and Outreach

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

 

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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