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Category Archives: Old Testament

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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Living the Sabbath Life

(a sermon for June 3, 2018, the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, based on Mark 2:23-3:6)

I think it’s probably safe to say that we don’t observe the Sabbath the way we used to.

Actually, one of the mixed blessings of having been in the ministry as long as I have is that I’m able to see the difference; and I suspect there are a lot of you who can say the same!  Time was – and not so very long ago (!) – that Sundays were set aside as a true day of rest; a time for church, home, family and a bit of relaxation.  As a general rule businesses were shut down, and most stores were closed for the day; school activities – sports or otherwise – were prohibited; and if you were a kid, if you had something happening on a Sunday afternoon it usually involved a church youth group activity.  Depending on your own particular tradition of faith, you might not even have gone to the movies or played cards on a Sunday, because those were things that you simply did not do on the Lord’s Day (that; and because playing cards were at one time considered the “devil’s playthings!”).

Not that everyone always approached this as a wholly (and holy) Christian thing to do, or even something that was particularly religious in nature; it was simply understood that there ought to be a “Sabbath rest” from the burdens of the rest of the week’s work, all rooted in the creation story from Genesis in which God, overwhelmed from the glorious work of creation, exclaimed that “indeed, it was very good,” (1:31) and then “rested on the seventh day.” (2:2) From the very beginning, you see, the Sabbath was intended a blessing to us from God of both body and soul, and as such was to be thought of as holy.

Of course, you know what’s happened; actually a combination of things over time:  the repeal of the so-called “blue laws” that allowed every mall in the country to run full tilt all day on Sunday; the encroachment of more and more Sunday sports and other activities on the weekend landscape; as well as a changing economy that has fairly well mandated the necessity of a two-income family; and this is to say nothing of a culture and life that just keeps getting busier and more convoluted with every passing generation, to the point where church has become for many, a second or third choice, if it’s a choice at all!

And the thing is, it’s all happened very gradually, almost without notice.  I’ve always found it ironic that as a pastor, the Sabbath has always and ever been my busiest workday (!); but I must confess that over the years, little by little I’ve discovered that my “window of opportunity,” shall we say, for ministry on a Sunday has been slowly but steadily shrinking over the years; and that’s because there’s so much going on with people and families these days that there’s hardly room for anything else on a Sunday, much less more church activities!  Like I say, pastorally speaking, the Sabbath just ain’t what it used to be!

Now, I don’t say all of this to complain (well… mostly I don’t!), but simply to point out how much things have changed; and really, in this instance, only over about the past 30 years or so.  And yes, where Sundays and the life of the church are concerned, a lot of us – myself included, sometimes – feel like we’ve lost something sacred, and wish that things could go back to the way “it used to be.”  But that having been said, I also have to wonder… that if in the midst of all these changes to life and living it’s not so much that we’ve lost the Sabbath, but that maybe we’ve missed the point of it.

Because friends, as scripture describes it and proclaims it to the faithful, Sabbath isn’t meant primarily to be just another day off or an opportunity for a “time out;” it’s not to be thought of as a reward for a week’s worth of a job well done; it’s not even wholly about rest, at least not in the sense of an afternoon nap.  Sabbath is about much more than that: it’s about life, and within that life, faith. Sabbath is for the renewal of life – ours, yes, but also the life of all of creation – and it is for the sake of resilience so that each one of us is strengthened and empowered to do God’s work on Monday morning and every day that follows.  It’s about a true ministry of life, yours and mine; and to quote Karoline Lewis, “When the Sabbath is for the sake of life, then it means getting back in there and figuring out where life needs to happen.”

This is what lay at the heart of our text for this morning, two back to back stories from the 2nd chapter of Mark’s gospel in which Jesus has already begun to run afoul of the scribes and Pharisees; specifically, regarding the proper observance of the Sabbath.  First, we have Jesus and his disciples walking through “a field of ripe grain,” [The Message] and because they’re hungry and because it’s the only food available to them at the moment, the disciples start “pull[ing] off heads of grain” to eat.  This, of course, was a major breach of the Law regarding the Sabbath: not only was the work of picking the grain prohibited, so was their traveling through this grain field in the first place; and if that weren’t enough, so was eating food that hadn’t been prepared the day before!  Needless to say, the ancient laws of the Old Testament were quite rigid regarding how the Sabbath was to be observed; in fact, the book of Exodus points out that “everyone who profanes [the Sabbath] shall be put to death,” (17:14) and “whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people.” (Think about that as you go home today, friends!)

So here come the Pharisees, ever so quick to point this all out to Jesus, but Jesus is just as quick to remind them of a story about King David; how David had done something even more sacrilegious – stealing and eating bread from the temple that was reserved for the priests, and on the Sabbath, no less (!) – but how that was permissible because this was the one who was to be God’s anointed king, and the Law, however stringent, had to give way to need. Don’t you understand, Jesus says; don’t you get it?  “The Sabbath was made to serve us; we weren’t made to serve the Sabbath.” [The Message again] And then, in the most cutting response of all, Jesus adds, “So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

The point is brought home almost immediately afterward, as Jesus arrives at the synagogue and meets a man whose hand is withered and who desires to be healed; and immediately a decision has to be made.  On the one hand, it would almost certainly be true that if the Pharisees discovered this “unclean” man in the temple, he would not be permitted to stay and would be denied any participation in worship.  On the other hand, however, if Jesus were to actually heal this man’s withered hand – and on the Sabbath – he’d just as certainly be further raising the ire of the religious authorities!

In the end, the right decision was clear; because once again, “The Sabbath was made for humankind,” not the other way around!  The need for love and mercy in that moment exceeded the need for the exact letter of the Law to be followed; and the opportunity for Jesus to bring this man healing was far more important than whatever chastisement would be brought upon him by the Pharisees for doing so.  And with those fuming scholars of Sabbath day correctness looking on, here is what Jesus says (as translated by The Message): “What kind of action suits the Sabbath best?  Doing good or doing evil?  Helping people or leaving them helpless?”

And how do they respond to this?  In every translation the reaction is the same:  they’re angry, but even as their hearts were hardened, nonetheless “they were silent.”  Because in the end, how do you dispute the wonder of a healing act?  How can you squash a miracle of grace on the basis of a technicality of law?  How do you argue with life?

Let us not misunderstand here; by this flagrant act of breaking the Sabbath, Jesus was not flaunting the authority of the Law.  We recognize this all through the gospels: that Jesus regarded God’s law as holy and insisted that that the faithful need “to know, revere, and follow the law.”  But, in words of David Lose, “as important as the law is, it is – and shall always be – a means to an end, a tool, a mechanism in service to a greater purpose.”  Jesus knew that following the law is not what makes us who we are as God’s children; it is meant to help us live wholly unto that identity no matter what, no matter how, and might I add in this case, no matter when.

And that’s a truth that, on this particular Sabbath day, continues on in us.

The fact is that despite the rapid pace of life as we know it in these crazy, convoluted times we have not lost the Sabbath.  You and I are blessed with the invitation and opportunity – indeed, the mandate – to seek the kind of rest, resilience and renewal that is infused with holiness.  But what we need to remember is that our observance of the Sabbath is not to be thought of as the end of this week’s journey of faithfulness, but rather a pause for reflection before the next week’s journey begins.  From the very beginning of our creation, you and I are called to be living the Sabbath life; but ultimately that has much less to do with our stepping away from what we do than it does with getting ready for what is yet to be done!  God created us to love and support one another; to extend to others the same kind of grace and mercy and encouragement as Jesus has given us; to love as fully and openly and as sacrificially we have been loved.  Everything we do (or choose not to do) to keep the Sabbath is the way that we seek to be restored in this wonderful and triumphant ministry of life that we all share.

And, by the way, don’t get me wrong here; speaking both as a child of God and your pastor I do believe, with all my heart (especially now as the more leisurely summer months are getting underway!) that living the Sabbath life does include sharing in “the act and attitude of Christian worship.”  Our coming together here every Sunday morning; our songs and prayers; our proclamation of God’s Word; our shared moments of laughter and tears and silence and fellowship and even the after-church refreshment:  all of it combines to offer up praise and thanksgiving to God Almighty, but also to prepare our bodies and our souls for the work that awaits us as disciples of Jesus Christ.  But then again, so does the time we get to spend today with our families, our friends and our other assorted loved ones; so does that opportunity that might just present itself, wherever we are this afternoon, to reach out to someone in need in any one of a multitude of ways; so does seizing a few private few moments of personal prayer and reflection while hiking, or fishing, or maybe even lounging outside in an Adirondack chair; so does, occasionally, a well-placed afternoon nap with the sound of the Red Sox playing  in the background.

We were made for the Sabbath, beloved; that’s what Jesus said.  So let’s make this Sabbath count for the something as we ready ourselves for the week ahead… and today, let’s start by feasting at the Lord’s table, that we might know Jesus’ presence in the bread and the wine.

Thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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Cleaning Out

(a meditation for Ash Wednesday 2018, based on Joel 2:1-2, 12-17)

I’m sure that all of us have come to times in our lives when it has become not simply desirable, but necessary to doing some “cleaning out.”

It might be the attic that has become too cluttered with a generation’s worth of records and keepsakes and other “stuff” you couldn’t bear to throw out.  Or it might be the garage or workshop filled with furniture in need of repair and all those unfinished projects.  Or as is often true in my case, it could be a desk covered with letters to be answered and business that needs to be taken care of.  Now, you may well be a very neat and organized person, and I commend you for that; but I would also suggest that for most, if not all of us sooner or later the time will come when we look around at everything we’ve accumulated and know the time has come simply to get rid of it!

I remember that on one of our moves from one church to another, the movers packed a box of things from our old home and labeled it “miscellaneous.” As I recall, as the movers were unloading things into our new home, I had absolutely no idea what this “miscellaneous” box might contain, so I told the movers to just put the box in the shed that was connected to the garage, figuring I would just get to it later.  Well, seven years later… we moved again, and in the process of sorting and reaming things out, I finally opened this “miscellaneous” box and discovered that there was absolutely nothing useful or meaningful or even remotely memorable inside of it!  Friends, the movers had wrapped up some old magazines that had been on a nightstand; a couple of empty mason jars; and I kid you not, a few rolls of toilet paper that had been under the bathroom sink!  It was all just… junk; and I had saved this box of nothing for seven years and let it take up space in my life in the false belief that it had to be filled with things that were indispensable or irreplaceable!  Rest assured, that box got “cleaned out;” and at least in that one small moment, our “burden of stuff” was made considerably lighter.

Today we enter the season of Lent which liturgically and spiritually is our journey to the cross of Jesus Christ, a time in which our worship and study focuses on the meaning of the sacrifice made upon that cross for you and for me, and what it means for you and for me to take up our own crosses and follow Christ.  It’s a time for deepening our relationship with God by seeking to walk a little more in step with Jesus in the entire journey of our lives and living.

But part of doing this requires getting rid of all the things that hold us back or weigh us down: the burden of old regrets and past mistakes; the debris of nagging doubts and long held fears; the sheer suffocation of choices made that always seem to leave us mired in sin and regret.  It makes sense; after all, before we set out to go anywhere, we always need to ready ourselves for the journey. So it is with our Lenten journey: to be spiritually ready means that we should be “cleaning up and cleaning out” our very lives, that we might rightly pick up our crosses and walk with our Lord with confidence and stamina.

We read today from prophet Joel, “Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly.  Gather the people, consecrate the assembly; bring together the elders, gather the children, those nursing at the breast.” (NIV) This verse is a call to worship in the fullest and purest sense of the term, but what we need to understand is that this particular worship gathering not primarily for the purpose of celebration, but rather of confession; this is a call to repentance and a return to God, a call for faith to be renewed and for loyalty to be restored.  This is a call for all the people to come in deep humility to receive the mercy and forgiveness of God.  “Rend your hearts and not your garments,” says the LORD; in other words, there is more required here than simply going through the motions of confessing our sin; this is about true repentance for the sake of God’s mercy, and truly “cleaning out” the sin that separates us from God and from one another.

And that, to say the least, is a difficult thing. It requires from us true honesty and deep humility of spirit; and it means that we are to confront our sin as something real (and without, by the way, adding the words, “yes, but…” as in, “Yes, I have sinned but I have several excellent excuses!”).  To return to God takes a willingness to leave behind old ways and old attitudes and to fix our course by the lead of the one who is wiser and more powerful than we ourselves.  It takes a determination to turn ourselves 180 degrees in the opposite direction of where we’re headed; and the openness to receive grace when we find that we can’t make that turn by ourselves.

In short, we are called to bring all the cultch that keeps us from a faithful relationship with God, and set it aside; assured that in divine love, that sin will be carried away for us, never to burden us again.  But the key here is first that we have to bring it out of hiding, confess its uselessness and then… let it go.

On the wall of a church sanctuary that I know of in Maine hangs this huge, beautiful banner: all in the color of violet, which of course is the liturgical color of lent, but what draws you in is all that’s pictured on this banner is a… broom! And beneath this picture is printed the words of a prayer that has been attributed to a young girl from Africa: “O Great chief, light a candle within my heart that I may see what is therein and sweep the rubbish from your dwelling place.”

Friends, let us take some time today – and certainly, throughout this Lenten season – to sweep out the dwelling place of God within our hearts and remove the rubbish that has accumulated there.  Let us confess our sins.  Let us lay our burdens at the foot of the cross.  And in the process, let us also make room in our hearts and lives for Jesus Christ, who is the Lord of life and living. Let us do this so that the journey that lay ahead – to the cross and beyond – may be traveled in the proper spirit.

Thanks be to God.

Amen and Amen.

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2018 in Lent, Old Testament, Reflections, Sermon

 

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