RSS

Category Archives: Paul

To Lead Lives Worthy

(a sermon for June 14, 2020, the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, based on Ephesians 4:1-16 and John 6:24-29)

Since confession is good for the soul, it seems like now would be as good a time as any to tell you that one of the things that Lisa and I have been doing to pass the time in these days of quarantine is “binge-watching” old episodes of the television show Survivor.

Now, we’ve actually been watching that show off and on for the 20 years (!) it’s been on the air, but recently we’ve been re-watching the first few seasons from back in the early 2000’s and it has been… (please don’t judge!) not only entertaining but fascinating!  To begin with, those early seasons were more wholly focused on two “tribes” of people literally working to survive alone together on a south sea island: you got to see them struggle to make fire, battle the elements, build a shelter, eat bugs and beetle larvae (which my wife still can’t bring herself to watch!) and at the end of each episode vote off the weakest link until there’s one “sole” survivor, all the while wasting away to nothing and getting filthier by the day!  Back then there were no “hidden immunity idols,” nor an “Edge of Extinction” island as a way of staying in the game longer as is routine now, and the so called “reward challenge” often yielded little more than a bag of Doritos and a Mountain Dew!

In many ways Survivor is a very different show than what it was when it started; but what’s interesting is that from the beginning the basic premise has always been the same:  that you gather this group of people of vastly different backgrounds competing to “outwit, outplay and outlast” each other all for the sake of winning a million dollars; while at the same time, perhaps, maintaining their own personal integrity in the process.  And if you’ve ever watched Survivor, then you know what I’m talking about here:  every season, almost every episode there’s always some contestant who’s lamenting as to how they can actually lie to, lie about or otherwise manipulate a fellow contestant – some of whom they’ve actually grown rather close to out there in the wilderness – all for the sake of moving themselves further along in the game and closer to that million bucks.  Trust me here, folks, there ends up being a whole lot of generally “good” people who end up doing some really terrible things on Survivor!  And what gets me is that their reaction to this kind of behavior usually goes one of two ways: either they say, “well, it’s just a game, after all, not real life,” or else they confess that “At the end of all this I need to be able to look myself in the mirror,” and thus act accordingly.  And isn’t it interesting that – not always, mind you, but generally speaking – these aren’t the people who end up the sole survivor!  If the question asked on a show like this – and on countless other shows these days – is “what would you do for a million dollars,” the answer would seem to be, “almost anything!”

The real question, of course, is, “why?” Why do this; even for a million bucks, why would you ever diminish yourself, your character, your reputation and your integrity do this? Now, I understand that there’s a fair amount of fakery on these so-called “reality” shows, so I don’t want to overthink this, but I suppose that at heart the reason comes down to human nature; our inner yearning, to quote the Rev. Thomas G. Long, professor of preaching at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, to “hit the jackpot… to [garner those] windfalls that give us more of what most people are after – fame, power, fortune” and even security.  It’s basically the same reason people buy lottery tickets or enter the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Giveaway; we want all of the benefits of that which we believe a million dollars will provide… even if ultimately, it won’t; or even if it’s not the true blessing we’re looking for!

Now, lest we think that this is a latter-day phenomenon of human life, consider the crowds from our gospel text this morning from John, who the day before had been well fed with a miraculous abundance of loaves and fishes and who were now actively seeking Jesus out, even following him eagerly all the way from Tiberias all the to Capernaum in boats, ostensibly to be nearer to Jesus and to hear more of his teaching.  But when they finally do find Jesus, he sees right through them, saying, “You are looking for me not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”  Or, if I might draw from The Message here, you’re “looking for me not because you see God in my actions but because I fed you, filled your stomachs – and for free.” In other words, they figured they’d gotten one good meal, so why not another!  And in the process of looking for that next meal, to quote Thomas Long again, they’d confused “the difference between the hunger for a blessing and the lust for a jackpot.” 

And, friends, therein lies our confusion as well.  What Jesus makes clear in this passage is that he’s not about to be a short-order cook for the crowds at Capernaum, any more than our following Jesus is evef meant to be a means of wish fulfillment.  No, it goes much, much deeper than that.  “Do not work for the food that perishes,” Jesus says, “but [work] for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”  

Yes, these people had had their bellies filled in an amazing, miraculous way… but what Jesus was giving them was more than just perishable food that temporarily relieves a passing hunger; Jesus is offering up the nourishment of God, he food that feeds the soul and satisfies our deepest hunger.  And the beauty part is that it’s not even something that we have to earn, or win or “survive.”  It’s just given us as a gift… gracefully, lovingly, purposefully. “This is the work of God,” says Jesus, “that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

For each one of us as believers, you see, the most important question before us comes down not to what we’d do for a million dollars, but rather what we are willing to do for that which really matters.  How willing are we to work for the blessing rather than go for the jackpot?  Would we be willing to let go our grip of dependence upon all those things of this world and this life that will most certainly perish?  Are we willing to let go of all that so that we might grab ahold of the life that is true and abundant and eternal?  Are we willing to believe in something greater than ourselves, and then give over the whole of our hearts and lives to it?  Are we willing to renounce the need for windfall, or entitlement, or privilege for the sake of loving our neighbor – all our neighbors – as ourselves and as Christ as loved us?  Are we willing to lead lives worthy of the food we’ve been given, “the food that endures for eternal life?”

I’ve always been very fond of our second text for this morning, that portion from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in which he writes, “I… beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”   And also, by the way, once again drawing from The Message version of these verses, “Mark that you do this… not in fits and starts, but pouring yourselves out for each other in acts of love, alert in noticing differences and quick at mending fences.”  I love this passage because it serves as a reminder not only that our calling as disciples is a marathon rather than a sprint – a lifetime commitment to working for the bread that endures – but because of that bread, the work provides its own reward.  So though we might wonder what would happen if we made it to that final “tribal council,” for fame, fortune and security, ultimately really doesn’t matter if we never win the million dollars; just as in the larger landscape of our lives ad living, it makes no difference if the other castaways stick with their alliance and vote us off the island.  What matters is how we “played the game,” so to speak, because we know in faith that there’s a greater place and better meal awaiting.  Strangely enough, friends, the great Frederick Buechner expresses this perfectly.  He writes, “No matter how much the world shatters us to pieces, we carry inside us a vision of wholeness that we sense is our true home and that beckons to us.”

What matters is that our true home is ever and always going to be with God, beloved.  What matters is that the sum total of our lives will never to whatever fifteen minutes of fame we might have achieved along the way, but rather in how we were able to live lives worthy of all of God’s graceful gifts that have been bestowed upon us.  What matters in times of conflict and uncertainty is both that we stood up for justice and that we conducted ourselves after the manner of God’s whole peace – God’s shalom – and made that our intent and priority for the world.  What matters is that we love as Christ has loved us, and that we love our neighbor as ourselves. What matters are the ways we “[speak] the truth in love, [growing] up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body [is] joined and knit together.”

I pray that this will be the vision that beckons to each and every one of us, beloved, “until all of us is come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”

So might it be… and thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on June 14, 2020 in Discipleship, Epistles, Faith, Jesus, Paul, Sermon

 

Tags: , ,

A Dwelling Place for God

(a sermon for May 17, 2020, the 6th Sunday of Easter, based on Ephesians 2:11-22)

Unless I miss my guess, I suspect that most of us can recall a time in our lives when, for whatever reason, we felt “left out.”

I remember one time in particular: I was about 13 or 14 at time, it’s summertime and I’m at the lake, and one day I’m just sitting down on our dock all alone and feeling incredibly lonely while all my friends were out there on “the pond” having fun together.  Now, as I think back on it now I don’t think I could tell you the reason why; all the kids on our side of the lake had always hung together as one group.  I don’t know: maybe it was that by this time of our lives some of the guys and girls were starting to find more than a passing interest in one another and I didn’t quite fit into that equation; could be that some of the locals, who knew each other from school, tended to stay separate from us “summer people;” or maybe it was just a typical case of teenagers being fickle and flighty over matters of popularity!  All I know is that sitting down on the dock that day, I felt… awful!

I remember literally feeling hurt to think that I was, in essence, now standing on the outside looking in and feeling somehow excluded from all the fun that all my friends were all having: diving off Barker Rocks, having cookouts down at Sand Cove, waterskiing behind somebody’s motorboat or for that matter, just cruising up and down the shoreline, laughing and hanging out!  I so wanted to be a part of that, I so wanted to be accepted and included and a part of things; but since I was far too shy and awkward at that point to do anything about that myself, basically I just sort of sat there on the dock all through that horrible afternoon feeling lonely and isolated, alienated and utterly excluded, all the while miserably watching from afar everybody else having a good time.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but at that very moment not only was I experiencing something of the ways of the world as it truly exists, I was also learning a very important lesson in Christian theology!

Now, I don’t think I have to convince any of us that you and I live in a world where people and groups are routinely and systematically “left out,” isolated and alienated from one another, and for any number of reasons:  racism, economics, age, classism, geography, issues of gender inequality and identity, red state/blue state; it goes on and on, each and all of it a catalyst for how any semblance of unity and community can be torn asunder, creating an “us versus them” mentality.  Sadly, note even the church is immune to such behavior: many is the time over the years when as a pastor I’ve seen firsthand how bad habits, misbegotten traditions and a wide array of deeply held prejudices serves only to create deep divisions within the church, leaving folks with the feeling that they’re unwelcome, unworthy and on the outside looking in.

And that, wherever or however it occurs, is not only a travesty, it’s also heresy.  Because ours is the God who in Jesus Christ “has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us,” so that, in the words of our text for this morning, those “who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ,”  with whatever dividing wall between us and God having been torn down, so that we are no longer “strangers and aliens, but… citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”   What that means, friends, is that not only are we brought close to God through Christ, but also that the barriers that divide us are torn down as well, and we are joined together and built spiritually into one household that is no less than “a dwelling place for God,” with “Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.”

Bottom line is that no one, for any reason, should ever feel left out of the fellowship that exists in this community of faith, this Body of Christ of which you and I are each a part; for the love that is sown here actively seeks to gather in all those who stand on life’s shoreline longing to be included.  It is, as our hymn for this morning has so aptly proclaimed, our church’s “charter of salvation,
one Lord, one faith, one birth,”
and each and every one of us, friends, are invited to be a part of that divine charter.  The good news, today and always, is that it is our Lord’s intent that no one should ever be left standing off to the sidelines, feeling lonely and isolated, alienated and utterly excluded from the sacred community of God’s people.

Of course, all that said, it should also be noted (and this will come as no surprise to you either!) that in these days of pandemic, the feeling of being “lonely and isolated, alienated and utterly excluded” has taken on a whole new meaning, even as it pertains to the church. 

What’s been interesting to me lately about all of this is that now, after two long months of having this unprecedented experience of having been unable to hold “in-person” services because of the threat of Covid-19, across the denominational spectrum we’re all trying to figure out what happens next.  Do we seek to cautiously reopen, do we take a “wait and see” attitude, or do we just decide right now, as some congregations have already done, that for the sake of health and safety we need to shut down for a year or more?  None of these are easy choices to make; and speaking as a pastor, believe me when I tell you that these are maybe the most difficult decisions for any of our churches will ever have to make.

But even more difficult is the reality that in these days of “staying at home” our congregations have become, well, scattered.  As I’ve said to you before, I’m very gratified at your understanding and support of these online services; but I’ll admit it, what we do here can never be quite as satisfying or as meaningful as our physically coming together at church on a Sunday morning.  And yes, I know, as the old saying goes, that “four walls and a steeple do not a church make,” but I do have to confess that there are times these days that I worry that in many ways without the building we end up feeling much like I did on that fateful day so long ago… as though we’re standing on the outside looking in, feeling as though we somehow don’t belong.

Well, if you’ve been worried about that, or if about now you’re kind of feeling on the outside looking in, then let me say to you that it seems to me that this good news that Paul brought to the Ephesians belongs to us as well.

To put this in its proper context, there was actually a fair amount of division amongst the early Christians in Ephesus. Obtensibly, it had to do with the Jewish ritual of circumcision and how the letter of the law was to be followed, but what it really was all about was “the insiders” versus “the outsiders;” about who amongst them were the truest, longest and most important members of the church, and who among them who… weren’t.  And as far as Paul was concerned, this was unacceptable; it was a sin of division that not only compromised the church’s witness and its very existence, but which also grieved the Lord. Paul makes clear here that the church, as God intends it to be and as Jesus himself has gathered it, is meant to be ONE: as Paul says elsewhere in this epistle, “there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.”

In other words, it’s not about the stone foundations and white clapboards of a church building, it’s not about the program, it’s not even about the joy of our singing and praying and sitting together on a set of admittedly uncomfortable pews for an hour or so on a Sunday morning… it’s about who we are and how we are as a people of faith; a people who “once were far off,” but who now are near to God and, in the process, drawn ever nearer to each other; a people who through Jesus Christ “share the same Spirit and have equal access to the Father.”  As The Message translates this part of Paul’s epistle, “It’s plain enough.  You’re no longer wandering exiles.  This kingdom of faith is now your home country.  You’re no longer strangers or outsiders.  You belong here, with as much to the name Christian as anyone.”  And here’s the capper:  “And he’s using us all – irrespective of how we got here – in what he is building… he’s using you, fitting you in brick by brick, stone by stone, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone that holds all the parts together… a temple in which God is quite at home.”

You see, that’s the thing that we really do need to keep reminding ourselves of right about now: that church is not something we go to; it’s something that we are, that strong and indefatigable identity that we bring to a hurting and divided world, an identity given to us in the person of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. Jesus is the one who invites us, Jesus is the one who makes us who we are, and it is Jesus who gives us what we need to survive and thrive. To quote Kevin Baker, “Jesus is the singular, God/human wrecking crew that demolishes division and gifts us with unity, peace and reconciliation.”  And here’s the thing… even now – especially now (!) – Jesus will not ever leave us on the sidelines, apart from that unity and feeling lonely and isolated, alienated and utterly excluded.  Never… because you and I, all of us together, beloved… have been made into his dwelling place, and that will never, ever change.

I should tell you that in my particular story about feeling left out, and the biggest reason I still remember it so clearly, it was actually an experience short lived.   Maybe it’d been an oversight; perhaps one of them had seen me sitting there alone and figured I ought to be included.  But before long, here were all of my friends, inviting me to come along with them; and ten minutes later, we’re swimming and cruising and water-skiing and it’s like nothing had ever happened.  Just as quickly as I hopped into that boat, all those feelings of hurt over being left out vanished, replaced with this incredibly joyful feeling of… belonging.  And it felt good: good to be invited, good to be welcomed in, good to be inside that circle of friendship rather than on the outside looking in.

And beloved, that’s what our God wants for each one of us, most especially in these days when it has become so easy to feel scattered and disconnected from one another. 

I know that in the face of a still uncertain future it’s hard for us to think of ourselves as existing apart from our building, our traditions, our routine and our usual sense of purpose… but we need to understand that when our Lord talks of our being gathered together as the church, he’s talking about a house not made by human hands, but only by his loving hands; a house made up of people whose hearts and lives have been changed forever by the strong and saving v. Mgrace of Jesus Christ; and a house where community and fellowship and mission are not mere buzzwords, but the very way we live.  

We are the church… you and me together, from wherever we happen to be… we are the “holy temple the Lord… built together into a dwelling place for God.”

May it be said of us, beloved, that God was and is alive and well at this church… and in us.

And may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

.© 2020 Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.

 

Tags: ,

Unabashedly Joyful

(a sermon for April 26, 2020, the 3rd Sunday of Easter, based on Philippians 4:4-7)

In pondering our text for this morning, and in my continuing quest these days to unearth some inspirational music from what might be referred to as “the grooveyard of forgotten favorites,” here’s one song that’s been running through my head all week:

“Here’s a little song I wrote,
You might want to sing it note for note
>Don’t worry – be happy!
For when you worry your face will frown,
And that will bring everybody down,
So don’t worry – be happy!
(Don’t worry, be happy now)”

— “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” by Bobby McFerrin

Now, speaking pastorally, if there’s going to be one song on our lips after this morning’s service it probably ought to be “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee,” but I do have to confess that “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” might just fill the bill at a time like this!  Because I dare say what we all need a whole lot of right now is joy; and given that for most of us joy is intermingled with feelings of happiness, one of the best ways to bring that forth is to sing it out!  Because to quote another forgotten favorite, “if you’re happy and you know it… then your face (and your voice!) will surely show it,” and so not only does that serve to inspire joy in those around you, it also becomes an affirmation of our faith and an act of praise.  And isn’t that, after all, what Paul is getting at in our text for this morning: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.  Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  The Lord is near.” 

Of course, in all fairness, I suspect that when Paul speaks of rejoicing, he’s talking about something much deeper than to simply not worry and be happy!  What Paul is talking about here in his epistle to the Philippians is about real and unrestrained rejoicing: the kind of joy that lifts us up from the place where we are; the kind of joy that sets the standard for everything else in life, the kind of joy that comes in having ones heart and mind wholly guarded in Christ Jesus.  What we’re talking about here is the kind of joy that exists at the very core of our Christian faith and what ought to serve as the hallmark of our lives as followers and disciples of our Risen Savior.   It is joy unabashed and it is joy unrelenting; and therein lies not only its power and its great importance for our lives… but also its challenge.

And I suspect you know why!  I mean, especially right now: how do you speak of unrestrained joy in an age of pandemic?  How do you tell someone to rejoice who has had to suffer through the effects of the Covid-19 Virus, or worse, who has lost someone to that disease?  What are we supposed to say to all those people whose lives and livelihoods have been totally upended over these past few weeks, with no real resolution in sight? How do you think they’re going to respond to Paul’s exhortation to rejoice in the Lord always?  Quite frankly, I suspect they’d be apt to think it shallow at best and condescending at worst: your life is falling apart?  “Again, I say rejoice!”

 In that context, an unrestrained and unrelenting joy doesn’t seem all that realistic or reassuring, does it?  And yet, in this age as in every age that has come before, that’s exactly what you and I are being called to bring forth in faith! 

So… what are we to do about this? How do we reconcile this call to be “unabashedly joyful” with all the real-world difficulties and struggles that we face?  Can we really “rejoice always,” or not?  Was Paul simply naïve and blind to what was really going on, or when he tells the Philippians and us to “rejoice,” does he have something else on his mind?

Perhaps part of the answer lies with Paul himself.  After all, here was a man whose entire ministry in Christ was marked by worldly persecution and ridicule; who was himself driven out of several towns and cities (often under the cover of darkness), and through the course of his life was also shipwrecked, imprisoned, beaten, and exposed to death, danger, hunger, thirst, fatigue and cold, all for the sake of the Gospel!  At the time of this letter to the church at Philippi, it’s late in his life; Paul’s in prison again, this time under guard of the Imperial capital of Rome, and expecting at any moment that judgment will be rendered and he’ll be executed.  And as if that weren’t bad enough, it turns out that the Philippian church is full of problems: they are few in number; they’re filled with fear and doubt about the future, persecuted by everyone in the city; and what’s more, there’s in-fighting going on at just about every level of the church.

It was enough to make any of us throw our hands in the air and give up trying.  And yet, here’s Paul – who remember, is getting old and feeble and at a point where a bit of discouragement would be understandable – nonetheless saying, boldly and without hesitation, “Rejoice in the Lord always.  Again, I will say it:  Rejoice!”  In fact, Paul says this over and over again – sixteen times in only four chapters of this epistle (!) – and he can do it because this isn’t rejoicing merely for the sake of feeling happy, but because of the one in whom he rejoices.  Rejoice in the Lord, Paul says.  Rejoice in the Lord always!

It turns out that there are two basic types of joy: external joy, the kind that comes and goes with whatever is happening in our lives, and which is wonderful, but is finite and can be easily be displaced or destroyed at a moment of conflict or struggle; and internal joy, the kind of joy that comes from within.  When Paul talks about joy, he means the internal joy that the Lord himself places within us. The great theologian Karl Barth said it well when he wrote that the joy of which Paul speaks is “a defiant ‘nonetheless,’” which draws strength from the gospel story and “from laying one’s deepest concerns before God with thanksgiving.”  This is a deep joy that takes root even in darkness; joy that has its source in God’s great presence and God’s hope for whatever the future may hold.

To put it even more simply, it’s not so much rejoicing because of all the things that have happened to us in life; in fact, very often we rejoice in spite of all that has happened to us, and that’s because we look first to Jesus Christ and what he has done for us, and in us, and to us.  Our joy is to be “in the Lord,” and because of this, you and I can rejoice in all circumstances, even those that are difficult and painful and involve suffering; not because of what it is we’re going through, mind you, but because of the grace of the Lord; the hope, strength, love and understanding we’re given to see it through, no matter what!

A few years ago, Lisa and I were invited with some others to the home of a Jewish rabbi, to share in a Shabbat meal, that is, a Sabbath meal; that night we did everything kosher, the food and the liturgy, and it was wonderful.  Having studied some Hebrew in seminary, it was nice to hear the biblical prayers spoken in their original language; all the traditions that go along with eating in a Jewish household are rich and meaningful, and the music – yes, we all had to sing in Hebrew, folks (!) – was fun and very, very joyful!  And how do I know this?  Because most of the songs we learned to sing that night had a chorus that the Rabbi promised that even we Gentiles could sing: “Di, di, duh, duh, di, di!”   I could do that!

Actually, one of the songs we sang that night I’ve never forgotten; it’s called “Dayenu,” and it’s a song for Passover.  I would not presume to sing that one here today, but suffice to say that the lyrics are a long enumeration of all of God’s blessings to his chosen people, but with a twist: with every verse, we sang about what would have been had God not given one of those blessings!  “Had he brought us out of Egypt, and not fed us in the desert, but brought us out of Egypt, well, then, Dayenu,” which in Hebrew means, “for that alone we would have been grateful.”  It’s a fun song to sing, and what it reminds us is that no matter the challenges we face in the present moment, we still have this relationship with a God who is present and powerful and moving in and through our lives in ways that we can’t even begin to measure or fully understand. 

When we have that, friends; even when we can only perceive it as though it were the size of a mustard seed; well, that’s when we learn to “not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let [our] requests be known to God,” truly knowing that peace which passes our human understanding… and rejoice.

I know… six weeks and counting in this time of quarantine and it’s all too tempting to let ourselves become sad and angry and embittered over what life and this world has “done” to us.  But it is faith in the wisdom, care and perfect mercy of God that strengthens us to transcend these difficulties of life so that we might know life’s real joy, which comes to us in Christ.  I’ve quoted a lot of songs today, but maybe the one we really ought to take to heart is the one about that “joy, joy, joy, joy, down in our hearts to stay.”  Because when others see such unabashed joy in us, they – and our world – cannot help but be the better for it.

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

© 2020  Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.

 
 

Tags: , ,

 
%d bloggers like this: