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Category Archives: Old Testament

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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Uphill and Down

(a sermon for February 11, 2018, the Last Sunday after Epiphany, based on 1 Kings 19:9-18 and Mark 9:2-9)

It was a powerful moment; that much is for certain, one that up to that point had to have been the most profound experience of their entire lives.

And as Peter, James and John stood up there on the mountain with Jesus, they were stunned at what they were seeing; and yet at the same time fascinated, exhilarated and warmed to their very souls.  This was no less than glory itself; and as the three of them stood there amidst the brilliant and shimmering light of their teacher Jesus transfigured before them, watching him “in deep conversation” (The Message) with Elijah the prophet and with Moses (!), who could blame Peter for his excitement and for blurting out the very first thing that came into his head?  Mark’s account of this story tells us that Peter responded to all this by saying, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here,” but he might just as well have said, “Is this great or what?!”    Because he wanted to hold on to this experience forever! Let’s build three dwellings, three tents, he says, “one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah,” and then we can just stay right here and never have to leave!

Like I said, it was a powerful moment; and it’s all punctuated by a voice from heaven proclaiming, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!”  and you can understand why they’d want to stay atop that mountain for as long as possible!

Of course, that doesn’t happen; for soon the vision fades, the glory dissipates, and once again it’s just the three of them there with Jesus.  And now it’s time to come down from the mountain and to get back to the intense daily realities of following Jesus: the long walks going from town to town; the throngs of people clamoring at Jesus’ feet, the cries of people looking for healing and teaching and love; it was so much more than anything they’d ever imagined back on that morning mending nets on the shore of the Galilean lake.  But this was the life they’d chosen (or, perhaps more accurately, the life they’d been chosen for), and it would go on now just as it had before; except that because of this glimpse of glory they’d received, everything was somehow different.  They were different.

One of the great “little pleasures” of ministry for me has always been those all too rare occasions when I happen to run into a couple at whose wedding I officiated a few months or even years before.  After all, the nature of pastoral ministry, to say nothing of the nature of life itself, is such that you sometimes just lose track of these couples, so it’s great to get caught up on what’s happened to them since that fateful day I got to join them in holy matrimony!  And there’s always stories to tell; but I always have to laugh that almost inevitably when I ask how they’re doing, one or the other will always answer, “Oh, we’re ‘old marrieds’ now!”

“Old marrieds!”  Now there’s a label for you!  It sounds kind of like “used car,” or “factory seconds,” doesn’t it?  I wonder, what does that even mean; “old marrieds?”  Certainly, it can’t mean that the experience of marriage has caused them to age pre-maturely (or at least I hope not!), and I do hope that it’s not an indication that the excitement and passion has gone out of their relationship!  No, I suspect that when they use the term “old marrieds” they’re telling me that over time and experience their marriage has become, well, familiar.

You know what I’m saying; now that the wedding and honeymoon is behind them, they’ve settled into this new daily routine of life that more than likely includes home, work, family… the whole thing.  Moreover, they’ve gotten used to each other’s little quirks of personality; maybe they’ve even set out to “adjust” a few of those qualities, in the other if not themselves!  They’ve probably already had times that they’ve grown closer together and other days they’ve felt like they’re drifting apart; and I’ve no doubt they faced more than a few challenges along the way.  And they’ve probably also come to realize, as I like to say to couples about to get married, that that stuff about “for better or worse, for richer or poorer” ain’t just boilerplate; it’s the ebb and flow of real life that enters into every marriage!

You see, the interesting thing about all of this is that no matter how glorious or memorable the wedding, eventually that day of celebration passes into memory, and life goes on pretty much as it did before; except that now, because of the marriage that’s been forged on that wonderful day – because of vows taken and commitments made – all of life and living is forever changed; and that’s because they’ve changed!

Well, I think that the message of the gospel this morning is that likewise, even as we carry the mantle of Christian discipleship life does indeed go on; and rest assured, friends, that combination of faith and life-as-we-know-it-and-actually-live-it is not always – if ever (!) – going to be easy.  But you see, it’s how we incorporate the glory of what it is we believe into the minutiae of daily life that gives that life meaning, purpose and joy!

The fact is, whereas we weren’t there on the mountain with Peter, James and John, we know all about mountain-top experiences, don’t we; those incredible moments of perfect clarity and insight that occasionally come along in our lives in which we are made profoundly aware of God’s presence and love.  For some of us, that experience came in times of great joy and elation: in the birth of our children; in moments of sudden inspiration and creativity; or when we discover for the first time a fellowship with the divine in the singing of a hymn or a saying of a prayer.  Or that experience may have come right in the midst of pain and strife: in the realization that your prayer for strength and healing was answered; in an inner peace that passes all understanding but somehow brought you through what you never thought you could endure.  These are moments that are both divine in their nature and utterly transformative; truly, this is, in every spiritual sense of the word, transfiguration.  It’s what it means to be up on life’s mountaintop when suddenly, without warning, God cracks open the crust that forms over daily life and suddenly we see, hear and feel God’s awesome presence.  And when that happens, it’s a truly glorious thing.

But the thing about mountaintop experiences is that they’re not meant to last forever.  It may indeed be glorious, but sooner or later the time is going to come when you have to walk down the hill and return to the valley from which you came.  David Lose writes that one of the most significant parts of the Transfiguration story is that “after all of what happened on the mountaintop… Jesus came back down.  Down to where the rest of the disciples are, down to where we are, down to the challenges of life ‘here below,’ down to the problems and discomforts and discouragements that are part and parcel of our life in this world.”

And that’s where we are called to go as well: as Jesus makes clear again and again in the gospels, true discipleship is not as much in what happens atop the mountain as in what we encounter down in the valley!  The way of Christ is the way of the cross – it’s no mistake, by the way, that on the Christian calendar, Transfiguration Sunday happens just before the beginning of Lent and our shared journey to that cross – and when we walk faithfully the way of the cross there will be, as we confess in our statement of faith, a cost as well as a joy in that discipleship.  But the thing is;  as disciples we do walk downhill and we face whatever comes; but not so much because the journey has changed, but rather because we have changed for the journey!

I’ve always loved that passage from 1 Kings we shared today; a beautiful and evocative piece in which God’s reassuring voice is heard not in the noise of wind, earthquake or fire, but rather in the “sound of sheer silence” that follows.  That’s a sermon in and of itself (!), but even given that, for me what’s most telling about this story is what brought Elijah to the cave in the first place; for you see, it was not faith as much as it was despair, and Elijah’s deep desire in that moment to quit being a prophet!  And you can understand why: nothing was working out right; the Israelites had forsaken God’s covenant, they’d torn down the altars of worship and now they were seeking to kill all prophets; including and especially Elijah himself!  So Elijah has fled to this cave, not only in fear for his life but also feeling utterly abandoned by God; he’s disillusioned and angry, and he cries out to God in despair, and as a great storm rages both outside and from within, Elijah waits for the Lord to answer… which God does… in the silence.

But did you notice that when God eventually does speak to Elijah, what he tells Elijah to do?  God tells Elijah… to go!  Whereas by our thinking the easiest and safest thing to do would have been for Elijah to stay holed up in that cave and safe from danger, God says, “Go!”  Get out of the cave, Elijah, and go back to the wilderness; go back and anoint Hazael as King over Aram; go down from this mountain and then wait to follow my lead.

While Elijah is looking at the failure of the moment, you see, God is looking at the big picture and the promise of a certain future that would transcend the success or even the failure of Elijah’s efforts.  God’s plan will unfold as God intends; and life within that plan will go on as before. So what matters most now is whether or not Elijah will choose to stay true to the task to which he is called; and if he’ll remember, even in the midst of risk and strife, that incredible moment of transformation and glory that led him to answer God’s call.  The question is whether or not Elijah will walk down the hill with the same kind of faith and determination with which he walked up!

Each one of us here is called to be disciples of Jesus Christ, but the truth is that Christ is Lord not only of the bright mountaintops of our lives, but also is the Lord of the shadowed valleys of living. If we are to follow Jesus where he goes, the pathway will not only wind through green pastures, but also through the briars and what my father used to call the “puckerbrush.”  If we’re to model ourselves after him, we’ll surely come to times of triumph, celebration and great certainty along the journey, but we’ll also come to crossroads of grief and despair in which we’ll find ourselves struggling to find the right answers.  And if we are to be true to him, we’ll reach out with love to others in the same place.

As Christians, ours is a day to day journey of faith that goes uphill and down; and as we seek to move forward in this life with some sense of God’s will for ourselves, our neighbor and our world, we do so never entirely sure of what’s beyond the next horizon.  But whatever happens, one thing is always for certain:  in our walk, wherever it leads, we have been the recipients of glory.  The movement of God’s own Spirit in our lives and faith has offered us a glimpse of how God’s own realm will be.  Truly, we are people of a promise that transcends any of the setbacks and the stumbling and the despairing we face as we go along the journey.  The only question is whether we’ll be true to that promise, whether we’ll take the risk to put one foot in front of the other and walk down the hill and into the valley.

Before long, our service of worship will be done for today, another Sunday will have passed and tomorrow it’ll be… Monday.   Soon enough – maybe even before the day is through – we’ll be back to life as usual – going back to work, buying groceries and doing the laundry – and the experience of our prayers and songs in this hour will be but a fading memory; at least until next week when we do it all again!  Truth is, life will go on pretty much the way it did before today; and yet, it’ll be different – it can’t help but be different – because by the gentle, graceful and utterly glorious touch of God, we’re different.

Beloved, in God’s purpose and plan, this week contains a wealth of possibilities for faith, service and love; but you see, we’ll only know what God can do in our lives if we are bold enough and trusting enough to let God’s glory us downhill and into the valley of life and faith.

Just go, God says to us, just keep walking; and always remember that you’ll never be along

Thanks be to God who in Jesus Christ walks with us on the journey.

AMEN and AMEN.

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
 

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A Promise for the Fussing and Bothered

(a sermon for November 19, 2017, the 24th Sunday after Pentecost and Thanksgiving Sunday, based on Joel 2:12-17 and Matthew 6:25-34)

“Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life…”

Don’t you just love that verse?  I mean, I think you’ll agree with me when I say that so often Holy Scripture has a way of shaking us out of our complacency and challenging what we’ve always held to be true in this life; there are times that biblical truth can be downright unsettling!  But not this time; here we have a simple and powerful affirmation from the mouth of Jesus himself: a sure and certain reminder that we need not ever be concerned about the stuff of life and living, because God will provide all that we need!  Whether it’s about what we’ll eat or drink, or our bodies, or our clothing; whatever it is for you, Jesus says, don’t worry, because it’s all good!

Like I said before, I love this verse; it speaks to the bounty of God’s blessing upon all of our lives, and what better time to lift that up than right now as we draw near to our celebration of Thanksgiving Day. There’s a lot of comfort to be found in Jesus’ words; so why is it that even as I hear them today, inside I’m thinking, “Are you kidding?  How am I not supposed to worry?”

The fact is, we all have more than enough to worry about, don’t we; worries attend us like bees to honey!  There are worries at home and about our loved ones; there are worries at work; these days we have worries about our safety and about the state of the world, worries that are exacerbated just about every time we turn on the news!  And then there’s all the rest of those unnamed anxieties that never seem to leave our thoughts.  Never mind that truism that states that 40% of the things we worry about never happen, another 30% have to do with things we can’t change anyway, and another 12% have to do with needless fears (I really can’t speak for the math there, but you know what I’m saying!); it just seems as though everywhere we turn in this life, we discover yet another thing to worry about!  It ends up being like the old story of one man who said to another, “You know, I’m so worried that if anything happens to me today, it will be two weeks before I can worry about it!”

So in the face of all of that, as wonderful and as inviting as it sounds for Jesus to say to you and to me, “Therefore, don’t worry about your life,” well, that just seems out of step with the kind of lives we lead in this modern age, to say nothing of the anxiety-ridden society of which we’re a part!  With all due respect, simply to go through life singing “Hakuna Matata” (which, if you happen to be familiar with the Disney musical “The Lion King,” is that “problem-free philosophy” that means “no worries, for the rest of your days!”) basically means you don’t understand the situation!  Bottom line is that there are problems in this world, and in our lives; so there’s plenty of things that give us concern… and we worry!

So all that said, what are we to do with Jesus’ admonition not to worry?  Where’s the truth in that word of comfort? Well, I would suggest to you this morning that our answer to that question comes in putting Jesus’ words in their proper context; because, in truth, I don’t think that Jesus is advocating for a “Hakuna Matata” lifestyle, any more than he would want us to spend all of our days whistling, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy!”  There’s more to life than this; and frankly more to following Jesus than this! In fact, if you’re truly paying attention to the whole of Jesus’ teachings you begin to realize that the ability, the grace, not to worry actually comes in everything that Jesus has said before!  It’s all right there in one word that began our text for this morning; it’s a word – an adverb – so small and seemingly inconsequential that I’m guessing that most of us didn’t even notice it: “Therefore…” 

…as in, “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life…”

Remember, you see, that this reading from Matthew’s gospel comes toward the end of his account of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” that very familiar series of verses in which our Savior deals with some of the central and arguably heavier issues of walking in faith: the realities of being salt of the earth and light of the world, and what it means to obey and fulfill the laws of God; about the dicier aspects of dealing with anger, and forgiveness, and love.  Interestingly enough, in the verse just prior to what we read this morning there’s even a rather unsettling teaching about… guess what?  Money!  “No one can serve two masters,” says Jesus, “…you cannot serve God and wealth.” (6:24)  This sermon of Jesus, taken as a whole, ends up as no less than a summation of what God expects from his people; and by any standard, it’s a lot!  But here’s the thing; it’s right after all of this that Jesus looks to the crowds gathered around him and says to them, and to us, “Therefore… don’t worry about your life.”  In other words, quoting the Rev. Neil Chappell here, what’s happened is that “Jesus presents us with this long list of things to do, to follow, to remember and [of course] we worry whether we’re up to challenge.”  And this is when Jesus tells us, don’t worry!

To put a finer point on this, I found it particularly interesting this week how Eugene Peterson’s The Message translates this passage.  To be clear, this is a paraphrase and not a strict translation; but there’s something about Peterson’s interpretation of this text that makes clear sense about this admonition against worrying.  “If you decide for God,” it says, “living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes, or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion… [likewise] has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch?”  To put this still another way, in the end it’s not that we don’t worry because God provides; it that because God provides, we don’t worry!

What Jesus reminds here is that when we are in relationship with God, and when God’s presence and guidance and love is at the center of everything we face in this life, we have entered what David Lose refers to as “the realm of abundance, the world of possibility, the world of contentment,” a place – which Jesus calls the “Kingdom of God,” by the way – where “not worrying actually becomes an option!”  Consider the birds of the air, or the grass of the field; “are you not of more value than they?”  God takes care of them, and so God will take care of you; even you who worries about anything and everything!  To quote The Message one more time, “People who don’t know God or the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. [So] steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions.  Don’t worry about missing out.  You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.”

Don’t worry… be happy (Okay, I couldn’t resist!), for if you “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you.”

You know, biblically and historically speaking, we really don’t know all that much about the prophet Joel; from whose book our Old Testament reading this morning is drawn. We know that he is named as one of the minor prophets, and that his words possibly date back to the eighth century before the Christian era; beyond that, we know very little… except that Joel was a spokesperson for God in a harrowing time, in the aftermath of a plague of locusts that left the land (and by extension, its people) utterly destroyed.  So the setting of the Book of Joel is of one of great calamity, followed by despair and all the deep anxieties that would most certainly come from that.  And yet, what does Joel say in the face of such worries?  “Do not fear… be glad and rejoice, for the LORD has done great things!”

It’s a beautiful and amazing passage; we read of how God will care for the land and the animals; how God will bring early and abundant rain “for [their] vindication,” and make the threshing floors once again full with the grain of the harvest.  “I will repay you,” says the Lord, “for the years that the swarming locust has eaten… you shall eat in plenty and be satisfied.”  And perhaps most interesting of all here is that rather than calling the people to remorse or even to repentance, God calls them… to trust in his promise of abundance and to give thanks: “Praise the name of the Lord your God,” he says, “who has dealt wondrously with you.”

This is the beginning of faith, dear friends, and it is the very life to which Jesus calls you and me even now: one of true abundance that can only come from God.  Granted, to trust in that kind of promise is a hard thing for us in these times; especially given all the many kinds of scarcity and fear in this world that seek to cause us so much worry.  But if we focus on that which is good – acknowledging what God has done and continues to do in this world and in our lives, and living out that abundance – we may well find ourselves ready to heed Jesus’ call to relax, to breathe and to simply trust in God’s everlasting providence.

Well, in just a few days now, most of us will be gathered with some combination of family or friends to engage in that yearly, time-honored ritual of feasting we call Thanksgiving.  And in amidst the copious servings of turkey, mashed potato and pumpkin pie I trust that prayers will be said offering up thanks for the many blessings we’ve known in the past year: blessings of life and health and food; of love received and given; of the joys that were embraced and the sorrows that were somehow successfully endured.  Wherever we are and whoever we’re with this coming Thursday, we’ll be expressing praise and gratitude to the God “from whom all blessings flow.” And with humility and grace we’ll simply say, “Thank you.”

And so it should be… but might I suggest another prayer as well? It seems to me that this year we’d all do well to pray that in the year to come the Lord might deliver us from fussing… from allowing ourselves to become bothered by all those all-consuming and ultimately debilitating worries that keep us from wholly embracing the abundance of blessings that God has to offer us. I’m reminded here of something the late Henri Nouwen used to say about what it means to truly pray.  He used the image of a clenched fist, and explained that if we, after the manner of that closed hand, hold on tightly to those “clammy coins” we insist on keeping – things like hate and bitterness, disappointment and even worry – then you’re never going to be able to open your hand to receive all of the love the Lord wants to give you; to receive, you see, first you have to let go.

And so it is with all the worries that keep us from giving our full attention to what our Lord has to give us in the here and now, and also in the days to come; as the old saying goes, we simply need to “let go, and let God!”  Yes, there is true abundance in God, beloved; therefore, let us not be worried, but instead set ourselves to striving first for the kingdom of God… for in doing so, “all these things will be given to you as well.”

Happy Thanksgiving, my dear, dear friends, and may God continue to bless you and yours.

And may our thanks ever and always be unto God.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on November 19, 2017 in Discipleship, Jesus, Life, Old Testament, Sermon, Thanksgiving

 

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