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Category Archives: Old Testament

And Forget Not All His Benefits

(a sermon for November 18, 2018, the 26th Sunday after Pentecost and Thanksgiving Sunday, based on Psalm 103 and Luke 18:9-14)

It’s an old story; one I first heard way back when I was still in school, but one that still resonates with me even today.

It seems there was this minister, who along with his regular duties as a church pastor, volunteered as a chaplain at a nearby prison.  Every Sunday afternoon, he’d leave church and go to this prison, so to lead worship and to visit with the prisoners there.  He’d actually been doing this for years; and since many of those imprisoned at that particular facility were serving long, and in a few instances, life sentences, not only was there a lot of valuable ministry happening in that environment but also some close relationships were developing between the minister and a few of the prisoners.  Over time, you see, this minister had not only become a pastor to these inmates; he was also seen as a good friend.

Eventually, however, as often happens in the ministry the pastor and his family were called to serve another parish in another state; and because of this his ministry at the prison had to come to an end.  And so of course he went to the prison one last time so he could tell the inmates that he was going to be moving away and say good-bye.   And, as is also often the case in ministry, the prisoners were very disappointed by the news and yet still they were happy for the minister, and wanted to wish him well in his new call.  In fact, almost immediately it was decided they needed to have a going away party for him; and there in the dayroom/chapel of this prison, the inmates quickly put together an impromptu and makeshift celebration, complete with a mini-buffet made up of bits of food they’d been keeping in their individual cells! And as they shared in this feast, the prisoners gathered around the minister so they could shake his hand, embrace him and express their gratitude for all the times they’d spent together.

And then, at the end of it all, one of the prisoners presented him with a package that had actually been wrapped in a old newspaper “borrowed” from the prison library.  And the prisoner said to the minister, “Here’s a going-away present to you from all of us; but we don’t want you to open it here.  Wait until you get home, and when you do, know that it is the very best that we could give you.”

The minister took the package home, and when he’d told his wife all about the going away party, together they set the package on the dining room table and tore open the newspaper wrapping.  And there, inside the package… was his wallet, his reading glasses case, his comb, some of his pocket change, even a set of keys he assumed he’d misplaced months before!  You see, all the while they’d been hugging him and wishing him well they’d also managed to pick every pocket clean!  And then they gathered up all of that which they’d stolen from him, wrapped it up and gave it back to him as a gift.

The most these prisoners had to give, you see, was what they’d already taken from him.

Well, once again it’s almost Thanksgiving; and if I might be pastorally honest with you for a moment, every year about this time I must confess that I find myself wondering what I might say to you about thankfulness that you haven’t already heard time and time again, even already this morning as we’ve been worshiping together!  That we ought to be more thankful than what we are?  Oh, yes.  That ultimately it does seem a little silly to set aside only one day a year for giving thanks when our many blessings continue “from season to changing season?”  Most certainly. That despite whatever our lingering feelings may be about mid-term elections and toward the people who don’t agree with us about that (!), nonetheless in this nation we are an especially fortunate people and not only ought we be exceedingly grateful for that, but also that it behooves us to work to become good and generous stewards of what we’ve been given as we reach out to others in need?  Absolutely! 

Actually, to suggest from this pulpit that you and I need to be thankful in all things kind of seems to me to be pretty obvious.  Because I dare say that most of us here are very much aware of our blessings, and even if it might take a family gathering and some turkey and stuffing to speak our thanksgiving aloud, we do understand what it means for us to be truly grateful for what we’ve received.  So maybe the best thing for me to do this morning is to start us off on another round of “We Gather Together,” pronounce the benediction and send us all forth on yet another glorious Turkey Day Feast!

But… then I remember that old story from so many years ago about the minister and the prison inmates, and I think twice about that.

You see, it’s one thing to count our many blessings; it’s quite another to acknowledge where those blessings have come from.  When it comes to thanksgiving, we’re very good at showing forth pride in our accomplishments, great in touting the hard work and steadfast effort it’s taken to get where we are in this life.  We’re good even in affirming the kind of good choices we’ve made that have led us along right pathways; but when it comes to facing up to the fact that so much of what we’re thankful for has come about not by our own effort but by sheer grace?  Well… maybe not so much!

Yes, part of it is that so many of us live out of the principle that if we want something bad enough and work hard enough for it, it can be ours; truly, that’s at the core of the American Dream, and something to be thankful for, especially in these times!  But friends, that philosophy only goes so far; the whole truth, and what we ought to understand as people of faith is that everything we have, everything we are and everything we can ever hope to be comes to us by the loving and gracious hand of God!  When it comes to true thanksgiving, we’re much like those prisoners in the story in that we are only able to draw from that which we’ve received; and what we’ve received – indeed, what we’ve taken – is wholly from God, who is the source of all our blessing!

And when we realize that; when we come to grips with the truth that every bit of the glory and achievement of our lives comes from something and someone other than ourselves, than the way we approach Thanksgiving – not to mention our whole approach to life and living – cannot help but change!

Our gospel reading for this morning illustrates what we’re talking about quite beautifully; a parable of Jesus that is actually directed to some in his company who quite convinced that their own good names and their better nature was that which would most certainly confirm their righteousness before God!  It’s a story of two prayers and two “pray-ers” and how very different they can be:  first, there’s the Pharisee who “went up to the temple to pray,” specifically to pray a prayer of thanksgiving according to the custom of the time.  And in that regard let’s be fair; this Pharisee, as a learned elder of the faith, was doing exactly was he was supposed to do in terms of proper religious observance.  By all appearances, he was doing everything right and was the very model of faith.

Unfortunately, then the Pharisee opens his mouth.

Oh, the prayer starts out alright:  “God, I thank you,” but from there every word has very little to do with God and everything to do with his own arrogance.  As The Message translates it, the Pharisee “posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid…”  (and at this point he pauses to make a grand and dismissive gesture to another man in the temple, “standing far off” so not to be noticed) “…or heaven forbid, like this tax man.”  And then he goes on with his very self-aggrandizing oration, complete with references to his twice a week fasting and what he puts in the offering plate!  In other words, for all the Pharisee’s many words, there’s no real thanksgiving involved here; this is nothing more than self-congratulation.

And what about that tax collector, who was “slumped in the shadows” as The Messsage describes him)?  He’s also come there to pray, but in fact he cannot even bring himself to “even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’”  It’s not an eloquent prayer by any means, nor was it in keeping with temple ritual; and in all honesty, this man doesn’t even actually say “thank you” in any kind of usual or traditional way.  But it was utterly honest; and in confessing his own weakness and hopelessness the tax collector did the only thing he could possibly do, which was to turn to the only one who could provide him forgiveness, and mercy, and life: only God.  It was a simple and yet all-encompassing request for mercy, and in that there was an overriding affirmation that everything he ever had or could ever hope to have would come from God and God alone.

In other words, true thanksgiving.  As Jesus himself put it, “This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God.” (The Message)

The point here is in prayer – as in any act of thanksgiving – it is the humility of spirit that makes all the difference.  It is knowing – really and truly understanding – where our blessings have come from.  It is the confession of your own hearts that that the only source of our hope, our life, our health, our food and everything else that gives life its richness, its purpose and its joy is ultimately not us, but God and God alone.

And no, I don’t believe that Jesus is suggesting in this parable that we ought to carry on like great spiritual martyrs, wearing the misery of unworthiness on our sleeves.  Things like mercy, forgiveness and love; these are gifts that have been given freely out of the grace and infinite love of God, and they are given that we might rejoice in it.  But by the same token we can never allow ourselves to become like Little Jack Horner in the nursery rhyme, proclaiming with every new blessing, “What a good boy am I!”  True thanksgiving happens when you and I are humble enough to know that it is never our goodness that ought to be proclaimed, but God’s.

And if you’re somehow struggling with that; if you’re wondering how it’s even possible to be that humble, or maybe if you’re seeing all the hoopla of the holidays looming on the horizon and perhaps need to remember what Thanksgiving is all about, then let me give you this reminder in the words that were read (and danced!) earlier this morning:

“Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.  Bless the LORD, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits – who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”

It is worth noting, you know, that the Hebrew word that we translate as “soul” is nephesh, which actually is better understood as one’s “inmost being;” the nephesh, the soul, is in fact all of who a person is; it is everything you and I are.  So true thanksgiving, beloved, involves much more than a word of grace spoken around the table; it’s much more than simply being aware of our many blessings.  True thanksgiving is when we are moved to bless God with everything we are.  True thanksgiving, if I might quote Paul Myhre here, is when our every breath “inhales and exhales praise. It is [our capacity] to know God and to exclaim that God has done and that God continues to do amazing things.”

We are truly blessed, you and I; we have been gifted, nurtured and sustained by a loving, divine hand.  So for the nourishment of good food, the shelter of a warm home, the love of family and friends, the caring support of this family of God’s people, for the times of celebration in which we danced for the sheer joy of it and for the times of sadness in which we found strength in crying on one another’s shoulder; and for the moments when even in great weakness we found the strength and hope that we needed…

… may the thanks of our inmost soul be unto God.

Happy Thanksgiving, friends, and

AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on November 18, 2018 in Jesus, Old Testament, Psalms, Sermon, Thanksgiving

 

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Remembering the Future

(a sermon for November 4, 2018, the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4)

You might call him… “The Unknown Prophet.”

Because in truth of fact, we really don’t know all that much about the prophet who is named “Habakkuk.”  His words occupy a scant three chapters near the end of the Old Testament, and he’s almost overlooked amid a sea of so-called “minor prophets,” sandwiched between Nahum and Zephaniah. Even the meaning of his name is shrouded in mystery:  some biblical scholars have suggested that Habakkuk means “to embrace” or “to clasp,” as in hands clasped in prayer, while others say that it’s simply a boy’s name derived from an ancient Hebrew word for a certain plant or vegetable!  We’re not even totally sure when Habakkuk lived and prophesied; he might have been a contemporary of Jeremiah, and could have lived around about the 5th Century B.C.; again, we just don’t know for sure.

We do have a sense, however, that this particular prophetic word – it’s referred to here as an “oracle” – was given, as one commentator has put it, “in a time of dread,” in anticipation of an impending invasion by a foreign enemy, more than likely the Babylonians who had already invaded Judah, taken over Jerusalem and destroyed the temple, and now threatened total control over Palestine as a whole; a situation that did not sit at all well with Habakkuk.

In fact, if it sounded as though the words in those first few verses we read this morning were rife with anger, you heard correctly; indeed, though it is one of the shortest books of the Bible, the Book of Habakkuk remains one of the most poignant and painful passages found in all of Holy Scripture!  Biblically and literarily speaking, this particular passage is considered to be a “lament,” (that is, a profound expression of loss) but that’s putting it mildly; what we actually have here is quite literally a complaint unto God!  It’s all right there in the very first verse: “O LORD, how long shall I call for help, and you will not listen?  Or cry to you, ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?”   How long, O Lord?  After all, the “wicked surround the righteous,” and we are most definitely outnumbered!  I ask for justice, he says, yet all I see is destruction, strife, and contention.  I ask for peace, yet all there is before me is hopelessness and fear.  Judgment, he says “comes forth perverted.”

To say the least, this is heavy stuff.

One of my seminary professors back in the day used to tell us again and again that the point of all preaching is ultimately to bring the “there and then” of God’s word to the “here and now” of our lives today; that our task was ever and always to interpret these ancient texts of the Bible in such a way that it will proclaim timeless and divine truth that will sustain us along our own pilgrimages of faith.  And needless to say, that can often be difficult; after all, we didn’t live 2,500 years ago during the Babylonian exile; very few, if any of us can speak to what it must have felt like to have been torn from our faith and ancestral homes for a length of time that by now had spanned many generations.  Quite honestly, the kind of things that Habakkuk is lamenting here seem “long ago and far away” to our 21st century ears!

Or does it?

Actually, it seems to me that right about now we know a great deal about what it is to live in “a time of dread.”  I mean, in the past couple of weeks alone our eyes and ears have beheld the worst of what the world and its woefully misguided people can dish out; from the Synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh to the bombing threats throughout the country, all of it underscored by the ongoing and increasingly divisive and hateful rhetoric that has permeated both the airwaves and our political discourse as the mid-term elections are approaching.  And the saddest part of all is that this kind of violence and hatred is swiftly becoming “the new norm” in our culture!   It’s no wonder that so many these days are looking at this situation we’re in as a nation and a people, and desperately asking the question, “How long, O Lord, how long?”

Perhaps Habakkuk’s lament isn’t all that removed from our own after all!

For that matter, anyone of us who has ever hoped and prayed to the Lord with their whole hearts for some semblance of relief in their lives – the healing of a sickness, the solution to a problem, the resolution of a conflict, the lessening of deep and profound grief – only to continue feeling the pain of those experiences all the more deeply also knows what it is to cry out in the midst of our tears, “how long, O Lord, how long?”   When we’ve “been through the ringer,” so to speak, we know what it is to wonder where God has been and why nothing has seemed to have changed.  In the words of H. Beecher Hicks, Jr., writing about his own “dark night of the soul” in his book Preaching Through a Storm, “[The Psalm does say,] ‘weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes with the morning.’  But what I want to know is, ‘how long is the night?’”

That’s what Habakkuk’s lament is all about; and sadly it’s just as relevant “here and now” as it was “there and then.”  But the good news is God’s Word does indeed have something to say to us amidst our own “times of dread.”  You see, the thing about laments – most especially those of the biblical variety – is that they always begin in utter despair but they end in the sure and certain hope of God.  And our text for this morning shows us just that: the movement of Habakkuk’s own dialogue with God, going from confusion and uncertainty to faith and purpose; from challenging God to heeding God’s Word!  Turns out, you see, that the Lord has very specific advice in how we are to deal with these “times of dread,” and it starts with remembering the future: but not the dreaded future of our fear and despair, but rather the envisioned future; the promised future that God had already set before us, but which may have gotten lost in our hearts somewhere along the way

Actually, in those couple of verses in the second chapter of Habakkuk are three steps for remembering God’s promised future; and the first is to write it down.  “Write the vision,” the Lord says.  “Make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.”  In other words, be clear about what it is that God has set before you and let it loom large in your lives for you and everybody else to see.  If you truly believe in the providence and guidance of the Lord our God, then proclaim it; proclaim it again and again, and not in a small way but in a fashion that can be clearly understood.  Then the vision becomes palpable and real even if everything else around you seems to discount it.

I’m reminded here of those billboards that you still see along some highways across the country; you know the ones, the ones that say things like, “You know that love your neighbor thing?  I meant it. God;” or “Will the road you’re on get you to my house? God;” or my personal favorite, “Don’t make me come down there! God.”  This was one way, albeit one a bit unconventional, of writing the vision; of expressing the truth of a spiritual, Godly life in letters quite literally large enough for everyone to see.  The point is that those of us who are people of faith need to know and express what we believe, and to do so boldly.  That does not mean “forcing” our faith on people, but it does mean staying focused on our faith even when “the vision” seems blurred in the face of circumstances that at the moment seem bleak and barren.

So write the vision; and secondly, be patient.  Because the vision, however it is expressed – in health, through wholeness, in freedom or in peace – awaits an appointed time:  “It speaks of the end,” says the Lord, “and does not lie.  If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.”  Many times over the years as a pastor I have spoken with people whose primary spiritual struggle has been with the belief that their prayers are not being answered quickly enough.  Don’t misunderstand, I don’t mean that quite as harsh as it sounds (!); it’s simply speaks to a very human truth that for most of us it is difficult to prayerfully wait out the struggle; that is, to let the Lord work out the good in his time and fashion, and not ours.  Maybe it has to do with the fact that in this high-tech era we’re too used to quick gratification and resolution:  I mean, we like our TV shows ”on demand,” our computers to be speedy and glitch free, and our conflicts to be swiftly resolved; it’s not in our post-modern sensibilities tohave to wait weeks, months or years for things to “work out.”  Or maybe the truth is that we’re losing the capacity to completely trust God, letting go of our own control of whatever situation is ours and trusting that God’s Spirit will lead us in directions, however measured that lead will be.

One of the other great lessons I learned back in seminary as I did clinical pastoral education at Eastern Maine Medical Center is that as a pastor I couldn’t always instantly “make it all better.”  As a young buck of a pastor, that was hard for me!   I wanted to bound into the rooms of these sick people and “fix ‘em right up,” spiritually speaking at least.  But, as one of my advisors reminded me, most of these folks had been sick for a long time.  They didn’t need quick fixes; they needed to know that God was with them slowly and steadily, bringing them strength and healing with every long, passing moment.  Be patient; for with every passing moment God is working his vision out; slowly, steadily and even in the face of all opposition.

So be patient… and finally, says the Lord, live in faithfulness.  “Look at the proud!  Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live in faith.”  It’s important for those of us who seek to keep the faith to live faithfully; and that means being faithful to the law, just in our own relationships, and pious (in a good way!) about our own religious observances.  Throughout scripture, we are called to choose life over death.  When we choose life, we are making the choice to live in fidelity to God; and the fullness and abundance of life is our reward.

In other words, beloved, at some point in our struggle, it ceases to be about what’s wrong with things.  It stops being about our fear over the elections or how the people who don’t agree with us are going to ruin the world; it’s not even about whether or not everything is working out for us as it should.  It stops being about whose fault it is, or how bad we’ve been hurt by what they’ve done to us.  At some point, it starts being about how we are, how we live, how we choose to respond to these times of dread, and whether or not we truly know God’s vision and remember his future as we live this life.

For us as God’s people, a full life is always defined by faithfulness; and in faithfulness, we can live joyfully, no matter what.  That’s how some people can move on from the tragedies of their lives somehow stronger than before; that’s how someone in the worst of circumstances can talk of how God has given them a sense of peace and the ability to celebrate life.  It’s a willingness to trust God in the longer range and wider scope of things, to face all the questions of justice and mercy and fairness head on and choose to live life faithfully as God’s people no matter how unjust or unfair life or the world might be.

The truth is, as the Psalmist has said, “weeping may endure for a night,” and the night may well be a long one; but joy will come with the morning!   So the question is, how we will live as the long night progresses?  How will we keep the faith? How do we keep on keeping on in this time between the now and not yet, between the promise and the prize, between the vision and its reality?  How will we live, beloved?  Will we remember God’s promised future, or will we let fear and dread cloud our memory?

The choice is ours to make, beloved; but remember that is the righteous who live by their faith, and it’s righteousness that helps us to know, even in the most uncertain of times, the presence of a power for joy and purpose and love… and that surely will change everything for the good.

For the future our Lord intends and even now is fashioning for you and for me…

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN.

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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Made to Worship: In Tune With Holiness

(a sermon for September 9, 2018, the 16th Sunday after Pentecost; first of a series, based on  Exodus 19:1-8, 16-19 and 1 Peter 2:4-10)

It’s now three months after crossing the Red Sea, and the Hebrews have found themselves at the base of Mt. Sinai, setting up camp in the wilderness desert there in front of the mountain.  And headed up the mountain itself is Moses, who is in the process of going to meet God; but in fact, God calls down to him from the mountain and says to tell this to the people of Israel:  “You have seen what I did to Egypt and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to me.  If you will listen obediently to what I say and keep my covenant, out of all peoples you’ll be my special treasure… a holy nation.” (The Message) 

That’s the message from the mountain, and you gotta know that down in the desert, the people are more than willing to say yes to that; and yet, as we find out just a little bit later, when God comes to them in “a thick cloud on the mountain” and there’s a blast of a trumpet,” with smoke billowing and the very mountain itself shuddering for the sheer power of it, “everyone in the camp trembled.”  You see, as we read it in the book of Exodus, Moses brought the people out of their camp so that they could meet God; but what the people got was an experience of the holy unlike anything they’d ever known before, a palpable encounter that not only reminded them of what God had done up till that point but which also served to reassure them as to what God had promised yet to do!

I don’t know about you, friends, but when I hear a Bible story like that, I’m convinced:  much of the problem with us 21st century people of God is that all too often we have totally lost any sense of the holy!

The Rev. Dr. M. Craig Barnes, author, preacher and currently president of Princeton Seminary, has written that “since we are creatures made in the image of God, we all yearn to find holiness.  It just comes in our wiring; it’s part of what it means to be human.

“When we go too long without [encountering] anything transcendent,” Barnes goes on to say, “or anything that inspires us, or anything that compels us to bend our knees in reverence and awe, our souls begin to whither inside us.”  And while it is possible to walk around in this life for a long time with withered, dried out souls, we’ll never be really, fully alive in such a state.  No, Barnes says, “we have to find holiness… it is living water for our parched souls.  We have to have it to be really alive.”

Actually, I think I would have to say that – setting aside all the social and communal aspects of what we do here aside – what Barnes is talking about is ultimately this is the main reason that we all come to church, isn’t it?  After all, most of us here are aware that in God, there is something, someone much bigger than ourselves, and we come to this place, this temple of God, in the fervent hope that in and through our worship we can somehow experience that “awesomeness” of the divine for ourselves, perchance have that transcendent moment in which our souls come alive.  And oftentimes it happens, too:  in a hymn or through prayer; in those nearly indiscernible ways that the Holy Spirit moves through our liturgies of Word and Sacrament; to say nothing of our very human mixture of silence and laughter and tears in which the Divine interacts.  What happens here every Sunday morning at least has the potential of being a holy experience!

What concerns me, though, is how often – to quote Craig Barnes again – “we encounter the holy and we try to domesticate it into something unholy that we can manage.”  It’s hard enough to get a sense of the holy these days, given all the competing voices that clamor for our attention in this life, but then we take what we know is holy and, to put it in secular terms, we market it, we program it, we try to make it user friendly by putting into a mold that we can embrace, and then we put God’s name on it even though inevitably, it all ends up looking more like our plans and preferences rather than those of God!

To put it another way, oftentimes we forget what it is we’re doing here:  I love the story that Marva Dawn, a Lutheran pastor and author, tells about how one day in her church a man came through the line to announce to her in no uncertain terms that he did not care for the hymns they’d sung in worship that day.  And to this, Marva Dawn simply responded by saying, “That’s okay; we weren’t singing them to you!”  (I wish I’d thought of that!) Well, this is so often the problem: we try to make the experience of holiness fit us rather than the other way around!

Holiness, you see, can’t be made to fit into our pockets; it can’t be contained within an hour or so on a Sunday morning; and it can’t be tailored so that each one of us leaves here assured of feeling all warm and fuzzy inside!  The fact is, holiness defies our human attempts to contain it, and that’s because the experience of holiness is about God, not us!  Let me tell you something here this morning that I hope that you already know but that I’m truly afraid gets lost from time to time:  our worship is about meeting God at the edge of the holy mountain, and it’s about letting God breathe life back into our dry, parched souls so that we might truly live.  True worship is about remembering who God is and who we are; it’s about you and I remembering the past so that we might move to the future; it’s about affirming that the same God who has always carried us on eagles’ wings will continue to carry us home; and it’s about you and me, individually and collectively and as the CHURCH truly embracing the role of God’s “treasured possession,” becoming “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation,” through our own obedience to God.

That, as I’ve said, is true worship; and friends, the thing is, what that’s going to involve is the shaking of the mountains around us and the trembling of our own hearts within us!   But may I just say right now, if that’s what it’s going to take to give us a true experience of the holy; if that’s what will bring us closer to God’s presence and purpose for our lives, then I think it’s worth some fear and trembling.

I think that the point of the Exodus story is that the God of holiness and righteousness is asking of each one of us to bring that holiness and righteousness into our lives and living, and to be honest, I think that the very thought of that ought to be causing us to tremble, even us here at East Church! For you see, as God’s people what makes us a “a treasured possession out of all the people” – what The Message refers to as God’s “special treasure” – is not based on how many people we have sitting in the pews, how great our time of worship happens to be or how much money we make on a bean supper.  Ultimately, it has to do with our faithfulness and obedience to God; this is what makes us, in the words of our epistle reading from 1 Peter, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.”

At the end of the day, folks, it’s what we do, how we live that matters.  Like the Hebrew people before us, we too are called to obey God’s voice and keep his covenant; to do “everything that the Lord has spoken.”  That means we are to adhere to God’s laws and precepts over the worldly and all-too-human standards that so often rule the day (it’s no accident, by the way, that right after the scene from Exodus we’ve shared today, Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai and brings the people the ten commandments); but, lest we think that this is exclusively Old Testament thinking, as Christians forgiven and saved by the grace of Jesus Christ, we need to remember that there is the added element of taking on Christ’s holiness as our own:  in short, if we are truly, as 1 Peter puts it, to be “built into a spiritual… offer[ing] spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ,” then we need to work at loving one another as Christ has loved us; to ourselves be the kind of spiritual house that God intends us to be.

What that means, friends, is that we have to do more than talk a good game here: we have to model the love of Christ, beginning in our relationships with each other and expanded to include the community as a whole. Friends, believe me when I say to you that we cannot be “a holy nation,” in this church or anywhere else, and might I add, we will never become the people God wants us to be if we allow ourselves to be consumed with words and actions that hurt and divide, rather than that which creates an atmosphere for healing and unity. To live in holiness and righteousness as God calls us to live can never happen in tandem with treating those around us – all those around us, whether they happen to agree with us or not – with any less compassion, care and respect than that shown unto others by Jesus; and we all would do well to remember that.

But the good news today is that we can remember that; for truly, as our scripture today tells us, remembering comes in the experience of holiness; and the experience of holiness begins in “the act and attitude” of worship.  As the song (and the name of this sermon series!) suggests, you and I are “made to worship” so that we will always remember what God has done and be wholly aware of what even at this moment God is doing in our midst!    And when what we do here as a church is centered on that – when what you and I do here as persons of faith is centered on that – then everything else that we hope and pray for will follow; even the fear and trembling we experience cannot help but become glory in the light of God almighty.

Now if that imagery seems a little too dramatic to you, then think of it this way: anyone here has ever had much to do with music, particularly with musical instruments has probably seen one of these.  It’s what’s known as a “tuning fork,” and its primary purpose is to offer a true tone (a concert A – 440) by which other instruments, primarily pianos, can be tuned.  It’s an ingenious piece of hardware that is actually and delightfully very low-tech: you strike the fork, it makes this tone, and based on that pitch, piano tuners can begin the laborious task of making sure every note on the piano relates properly and harmonically to one another.  But here’s the beauty part: if we were place put 50 grand pianos side by side in this sanctuary, as long as those pianos were each in tune with this single tone emanating from this tuning fork, all those pianos would automatically be in accord with each other!  And while it might be a little crowded in here for all the pianos playing, what a sound that would make when those pianos are in concert with one another!

Well, folks, God has given us that tuning fork, and Christ is the single note to which each one of us is tuned; he is the one standard that keeps us at perfect pitch always.  When we are in tune with the holiness of Jesus Christ, we have what we need to let all our melodies and harmonies soar; we can serve God with gladness and in unity, using all the many and varied gifts we’re given to play any given song that’s before us.  But friends, here’s the thing:  as any musician will tell you, before you start to play you’ve first got to be in tune; and so it is for you and me as God’s people.  You and I are made to worship, but even more than this, we need to worship to be in tune with the holiness of God!

And it starts, friends, by standing at the edge of the mountain; embracing this sacred moment of worship that we share here this morning, opening our hearts that God might breathe life into our souls and give to each of us an experience of the holy; so that, in turn, each one of us can move into the future, wherever that might lead us, doing “everything that the Lord has spoken.”

Thanks be to God.

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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