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Category Archives: Paul

Why We’re Here

(A sermon for July 7, 2019, the 4th Sunday After Pentecost, based on Galatians 6:1-16)

(Note: An audio version of this message can be found here )

One of the things I’ve come to realize over the course of 35-plus years (!) in this work is that it’s pretty much a rare occasion when your identity is not wrapped up in being a minister!

Not that this is a problem for me; truly, I think you know that I love what I do, and that this calling to ministry is part and parcel of who I am!  That said, however, I must confess that there have been moments when I’d have just as soon remained anonymous: like when you’re all dirty and grubby and tired from having worked outside all day and you’re rushing to get to the post office before it closes, only to be met in line by a perfect stranger who recognizes you as a local pastor, and wants to know all about your church; or like up when you’ve been invited to a marshmallow roast with your child and you end up being cornered by two men from another church in another town who want you to settle a horrible dispute they’ve been having in their congregation about how much the organist should be paid (true story); and let’s not even talk about those well-meaning people who wish to pick your brain about end times, the virgin birth and where Cain got his wife… all while standing in the frozen food aisle (also a true story)!

I think I speak for a lot of my colleagues in ministry when I say to you that this is why we tend to keep a low profile while we’re on vacation!  And, I know, we’re not alone in this need for some selective anonymity: police officers, teachers, doctors and all kinds of people in the public eye all have the same experience. All I know is that being identified as a “clergy type” just sort of goes with the territory!

By the same token, however, I’ve also discovered over the years that while you may be able to take the boy out the church it’s hard to take the church out of the boy!   I remember a camping trip in the White Mountains with Lisa and the kids; and I’m walking my daughter Sarah – who was just “itty-bitty” at the time (!) – to the campground’s lavatory facilities.  It’s well after dark, so we’re walking our way down the road with our flashlights shining and out of nowhere comes this other little girl, not much older than Sarah, who had somehow gotten separated from her mother in the darkness and was now unsure of where she was and how to get back to her campsite.

With a shaky voice, she asked if she might please walk with us, because she’d gotten lost and now she was pretty scared.  Of course you can, I replied, and in my best Daddy voice, I told her, don’t worry, we’ll get you back to your Mom; after all, you know, it’s really easy to get turned around in the dark!  And that must have been all the assurance she needed because then the little girl opened up and told us her entire life story; probably sharing much more than her parents would want me to know!  But that was okay; because as far as that little girl was concerned we were old and trusted friends!  It ended up that since her mother was also busy looking, we managed to bring the two of them back together fairly easily.  A scared child was home again safe and sound, a mother’s panic was replaced by relief and gratitude, and in the process perfect strangers had become caring friends.

Now was this an “official” pastoral activity of great religious significance?  No… truth be told, that night I was probably in more of a “Daddy Mode” than in “Pastor Mode!”  But thinking back on it now, I realize that in the truest sense it was ministry; in this case, quite literally a ministry of love and light to the lost.  It was a small moment; but one in which faith and kindness came into play in a real and meaningful way.

Christian ministry is not so much a job as it is a vocation; a way of life and living and love.  In other words, if you’re a minister of Jesus Christ, you’re always on duty, whether you’re “on the job” or on vacation; or for that matter, even when you’re waiting in line at Market Basket!  But lest you think this only relates to those of us who work in the church or perhaps have an “Rev” in front of their names, understand that this applies to you as well; it applies to each one here because as Christians, ministry is a vocation that belongs to each one of us.  It’s a calling that touches all the other tasks that provide the ebb and flow of our daily lives, no matter what it is that we do in earning a living, raising our families, making choices and setting priorities for ourselves; ministry is involved in everything that you and I go through in our days so that it might be lived with some sense of dignity and integrity.

Actually, when you come down to it, it’s all about “reap[ing] whatever you sow” in the everyday of life, “…doing what is right… [and] work[ing] for the good of all.”  It’s about “bear[ing] one another’s burdens,” not as mere philosophy but as a way of living.  It’s about true forgiveness and the restoration of others “in a spirit of gentleness.”  It’s about viewing those around us not as strangers or mere acquaintances, but brothers and sisters to be loved and cared for in the same manner as Jesus Christ has loved us.  It’s about bringing ourselves to people who need to hear the good news of God’s kingdom; by our words, yes, but more essentially by the example of our very lives.

It’s true ministry; it’s what’s sometimes referred to in Christian theology as “the priesthood of all believers;” and, friends, it’s why we’re here.

In our text for this morning Paul is seeking to teach the Galatians, in essence, how they should act toward one another.  These new Christians at Galatia, you see, had a bent toward, shall we say, “scriptural correctness;” that is, they concerned themselves with staying wholly true to “the law of Christ,” almost to the point of becoming like the Pharisees.  In other words, they were devoted to doing everything right, spiritually speaking, but they were doing it arrogantly and without any kind of sympathy for others, and were isolating themselves from the rest of the world.  So the question here is, how much is too much?  When does staying true to the gospel and to God’s law – as important and essential as that is – get in the way of true faith and risk mocking God in the process?

What Paul seeks to remind them is that our Christian duty – our vocation, our job – is not just to ourselves but also to others.  We are called to bear one another’s burdens; we are supposed to help those who have gotten lost in regards to their lives and faith, so that we might gently lead them home.  And we’re to be generous with others; open and giving, without making everything we do an exercise in self-indulgence and false piety. You are to model your life in true adherence to God’s law: in the words of Sarah Henrich of Lutheran Seminary, you are to “do what is given you to do on behalf of your neighbor, as God on behalf of God’s people did what needed to be done for them.”  Because make no mistake, “God is not mocked.”  Or, as The Message says it, “No one makes a fool of God.” After all, says Paul, we do reap whatever we sow.  “What a person plants, he will harvest.” (The Message, again) “The person who plants selfishness, ignoring the needs of others – ignoring God! – harvests a crop of weeds.  All he’ll have to show for his life is weeds!”  But, Paul goes on to say, “the one who plants in response to God, letting God’s Spirit do the growth work in him, harvests a crop of real life, eternal life.”

And isn’t that what the kingdom is all about?  And isn’t that why we’re here?

The late Marshall McLuhan famously said that “the medium is the message.”  He was referring to the massive effect of media on our collective lives; how what we see on a television screen, or in the movies or in the papers ends up being what a great many people assume to be real about life, living and world (a theory, I dare say, that though posited in the 1960’s has never been more true than it is in 2019).  But may I suggest to you that’s it’s also true as regards the church and its mission… our mission.  Friends, we are called by Jesus himself to be about the business of God’s Kingdom; but if we truly want to do that, then we need to be living, acting and being as though that Kingdom has already come in its fullness; indeed, we are the medium that is the message!   We need to live a life that shows forth the truth that love is the only truly redemptive power; we have to order our priorities as persons and a people so that the others will not come to assume that the predominant culture is one of manipulation, violence and neglect.  If you and I are to proclaim Christ as the Lord of life, if we ever expect to change the world by Christ’s love, then we have to live unto the change that Christ has made in each of us!

Let me ask you something this morning: can you love your neighbor?  And I don’t mean in a greeting card kind of way, either; I mean can you really love your neighbor; are you able to do it?  Can you, for instance, love that person – and you know who they are – who just seems to go out of their way to be a thorn in your side?  Can you love that person who’s been very unkind; who’s been out there talking and telling lies about you behind your back? Can you love the one who’s hurt you, whose actions have made your life difficult?  Can you love the one with whom you disagree… vehemently?  Can you love them even when they haven’t loved you; can you love those who need that love the most?  Can you work “for the good of all?”

To quote Sarah Henrich once again, “Such a life needs graciousness, perseverance, a constant cheerful sowing, and a refusal to judge who is worthy of help and who not.”  And we should know that it’s most decidedly not easy. But if we hear what Paul is saying here (so emphatically, in fact, that Paul makes a point of writing it in large letters by his own hand!); if we know the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, then we also know that this is the life that’s expected of us as his disciples, and we must “not grow weary in doing what is right.”

It’s why we’re here.

Sometimes you and I succumb to the temptation of believing that we can somehow compartmentalize our faith into a specific time and place; to keep it contained right here within these walls to be used only for a couple hours on a Sunday morning.  But that’s not the ministry to which we’re called by Christ; and it’s not where the Spirit leads us, which is out these doors and into our homes, our community and our world, proclaiming good news and working in every opportunity we have for the good of all.  We have this ministry in Christ’s name; and even now it’s unfolding in the times, the places and the people of our lives.

And who knows what may happen in our ministry, beloved?  Frederick Beuchner puts it this way:  “Who knows,” he wrote, “how the awareness of God’s love first hits people… some moment happens in your life that you say Yes to right up to the roots of your hair, that makes it worth having been born just to have happen… how about the person you know who as far as you can possibly tell has never had such a moment… the soreheads and slobs of the world, the ones the world has hopelessly crippled… maybe for that person the moment that has to happen is you.”

Beloved, let us never grow weary in doing what is right, for “at the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up, or quit.”  It’s why we’re here, and it’s the vocation, the ministry we share as believers and as the church of Jesus Christ.

May we be blessed in that ministry, and ever and always, may our thanks be to God.

AMEN and AMEN.

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Pressing On

(a sermon for March 17, 2019, the 2nd Sunday of Lent, based on Genesis 15:1-6 and Philippians 3:12-4:1)

It was Mark Twain who said it:  “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

Now, I recognize that that’s an odd and somewhat counterproductive way to start a sermon (!), so allow me, please, to rephrase Twain’s words in a bit more of a theological fashion:  that it can be aptly stated that true faith and trust in God comes in understanding that God’s word is firm and secure, and that his promises are true, even when all appearances might suggest otherwise!

I mean, it’s one thing to believe in the providence of a loving, giving God when everything in your life is going well and the future looks bright with promise; quite another when the days are dark and grey and everything all around you just seems to be hurdling out of control. Difficult to find “good news” in the midst of bad situations; hard to find wholeness when there’s so much in this world that’s broken; seemingly impossible, at times, to hold on to a heavenly vision of peace and love when here on earth there are continually those who insist on acting out of hate, terror and pure evil: I ask you, how does anyone “keep the faith” in times such as these?

And yet, we do.

We’re here, after all; we’re gathered together in this sanctuary once again to lift up the holy name of God, to give God our thanks and praise, and to embrace his sure and certain promises of life and of unending hope.  We’ve come with our prayers and petitions, seeking wisdom and courage for the living of these days – indeed, for the facing of this very hour (!) – so that we might go forth from this place today after the manner of Paul in our text for this morning, “press[ing] on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”  And then, a cup of coffee or two later, we’re right back out there: back to the world and all the messiness and utter uncertainties of daily life, “pressing on” with faith and trust, all because somewhere deep within ourselves we have reckoned that what God has said and what he has promised is so, and that God should be counted as righteous.

Granted, that might sound a bit audacious, shall we say – I mean, who are we to decide whether or not God Almighty, the Creator and Heaven and Earth and the God of the Ages is in fact a righteous God – but I’m here to tell you this morning that maybe this is how we keep believing in times like these.  After all, in the words of the Rev. Dr. Sara Koenig, who is professor of Biblical Studies at Seattle Pacific University, “Belief is hard enough when there’s a delay between God’s promises and their fulfillment.  It would be nigh impossible if the God in who we believe is not trustworthy, is not [by our reckoning] righteous.”

Now, lest you think that what I’m saying here is another example of our garden variety post-modern skepticism, we need to understand that there’s actually great biblical precedent for this kind of discernment.  Consider the response of Abram to God’s call in our reading from Genesis this morning: “’Do not be afraid, Abram,’” says God to Abram in a vision. “’I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’”  But how does Abram respond?  “’O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”  Understand, friends, this is no simple answer; this is the biblical equivalent of Abram rolling his eyes before the Lord and saying, “Really?  Seriously?”

For remember, this is not the first time that God has made such a promise unto Abram: the first time, back in chapter twelve, God had already called him to go from country and kindred and his father’s house to a place yet to be determined!  “’I will make of you a great nation,’” God assures Abram, and “’I will bless you, and make your name great.’”  And, of course, Abram went (with his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot along with him); and at 75 years old, no less!  It was a difficult, if not altogether improbable journey; but they did go, by faith and bolstered in the assurance the promise made would soon be the promise fulfilled.

However, as we pick up the story today. a fair amount of time had passed by (about 10 years, in fact), and frankly, not much had progressed on that front – there’d been famine, a conflict with the Pharaoh of Egypt, a few inter-family struggles with his nephew Lot, and a whole lot of wandering around – but as of yet there was no sign of that “great nation” that God had promised.  And Abram… well, he’s starting to lose patience; after all, it’s not like either he or his wife Sarai were of child-bearing years to begin with when all this started, and now… well, it had gotten to the point where Abram’s thinking that the only chance he’s got for any heir at all is to adopt one of his servants for that purpose!  The truth is that right about now, Abram’s faith in God and in God’s promises was stretched to the limit; because, as we’ve said before, it’s hard to believe in what, but all outward appearances, just “ain’t so.”

Of course, the great part of this story is that God doubles-down on the promise! Immediately God takes Abram outside, points him to the sky, and challenges him to start counting stars “if you’re able to count them;” because Abram, my friend, that’s how many children you’re going to have!  Incredible; ten years out on this journey, not a single child yet, Abram and Sarai are getting older with every passing day, but still here’s God promising that “with the passing of generations the descendants of Abram and Sarai would number in the thousands or even the millions!”  Clearly, God was taking the long view here; but nonetheless, to quote Ralph Klein this time: “How like God,” he writes. “When the promise was hard to believe, God upped the ante.”

And the best part?  Abram believed!  He believed; and in fact, this account from Genesis makes a point of saying that not only that he “believed the LORD, [but] that [he] reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  And that’s where this story gets really interesting: you see, there’s always been some question on exactly how this verse ought to be translated.  On the one hand, it can be rightly assumed that because Abram believed the LORD, thus the LORD reckoned that belief of Abram as righteousness, in that he trusted God with everything in his life and because of faith was worthy of the promises made.  However, the original Hebrew in this verse really only translates this as to how Abram believed and how he reckoned it as righteousness, suggesting that it might well be that Abram was reckoning God as being righteous; in other words, because God was intent on making his promise unto Abram even greater than before, Abram knew that God was worthy of faith and trust, and thus could believe, and press on to where God was leading him.

Granted, there’s a fair amount of ambiguity in that admittedly very small piece of translation, but the point is very clear and unalloyed:  that God is righteous and that his promises, however delayed or unfulfilled they might seem to us at times, are sure and certain.  It was because of the certainty that God would make good on his promises that Abram could believe, and so it is for you and for me today; ours is the God who is worthy of our trust, and thus we press on… no matter what.

Though I can in no way relate to it personally (!), I’ve always been drawn to the rather athletic imagery that Paul uses in the reading we’ve shared this morning from Philippians; that idea of “press[ing] on toward the goal,” that is, the heavenly call of God, being something akin to a race; as The Message translates it, “I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward – to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.”  It’s an apt comparison, to be sure; a life of faith, as in the running of a race, is marked by a sense of movement toward something more, and the urgency to get there; to reach the goal, to win the prize.  And yet, is it not also true that the race is not merely to the swift; it also matters how you run the race.  As Paul himself points out, it means “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead;” it requires a certain maturity of mind, body and spirit, as well as the ability to “stay on the right track,” as it were.  And perhaps above all, it takes staying wholly focused on where you’re headed; and yes, as the saying goes, it means keeping “your eyes on the prize!”

You don’t have to be a marathon runner to understand that! In fact, I remember as a young man spending time out in the Maine woods with my father, and how he used to tell that if I ever found myself “turned around” out there in the woods – which was the term we used for getting lost in the woods (!) – the key was never to panic and certainly never to just start wandering aimlessly; but rather to take out your compass, calmly figure out what direction you should be heading and then take a bead in that direction on some very nearby landmark: a rock or a fallen tree; any location that’s clear and attainable.  And then you walk over to that tree or rock, you stop and you take out your compass once again, and take another bead toward another nearby landmark; repeating this process again and again until eventually you find yourself back on the familiar pathway that leads homeward.  It might take you awhile; and for a time along that journey the way will almost certainly seem unfamiliar at best.  But if you stay true to the point of the compass, pressing on in the right direction as opposed to backtracking or going around in circles, you will eventually, if slowly, reach your true destination.

I’ll ask again:  how does one keep the faith in times such as these?  How are you and I to be pressing on toward the goal of living our lives with faith and integrity when it seems like everything around us and often within us would seek to tear us away from what we believe?  Well, it certainly begins with believing God and believing in his righteousness; understanding, in every good and lasting sense, that there is more to our lives than the here and now, and that the troubles of this world, of our lives and of this age are not the end of the story, and that God’s promises will come to pass in fullness in God’s good time.  Like “Father Abraham” before us, we need to remember that even if at times we have trouble believing a promise, God is ever and always at work making the promise even better.

But as much as we are to believe in God’s great providence in leading us to the promised land of our life and living; it is also crucial that we stay focused on the journey itself.  For life is indeed filled with all manner of “bad situations” that can easily get us “turned around” along the way and away from where God would have us go.  It might be the stuff of sin and guilt, of unresolved conflict and old hurts that have never healed.  It could be the kind of worldly ways and means that do weigh heavily in keeping us on track:  money troubles, health issues, broken relationships; and this is to say nothing of the constant barrage of anger and hatred that would daily challenge our belief in a perfect love that casts out all fear. There is so much in this world and in our lives that would seek to tear us away from God’s righteousness and our heavenly call in Christ Jesus; and that is why it is so crucial not only in these moments of prayer and worship, but even more so in all the moments yet to come, to stop… figure out where we are and then, slowly, deliberately and above all, prayerfully take a bead as where we go next; preparing ourselves to press on with love, and peace, and the otherworldly joy that comes from true righteousness; all the while standing firm in the Lord along every part of the journey.

The journey continues, beloved… may it truly be a blessing as we go; and may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on March 17, 2019 in Epistles, Faith, Lent, Life, Old Testament, Paul, Sermon

 

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Made to Worship: After the Benediction

(a sermon for October 28, 2018, the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost; last in a series, based on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10)

I hope that if there’s one thing that has become readily apparent about your pastor as we’ve gone through this sermon series is that he really loves our time of worship together!

Honestly, friends; I can tell you that of all the many facets of my work here at East Church as your pastor, it is by far this time we spend together in worship that I enjoy the most and which holds the deepest spiritual meaning for me.  I love the flow and the feel of our worship in this place; the fact that whether the accompaniment happens to be organ or guitar nonetheless every Sunday as we sing our praises unto the Lord we do so with conviction and joy. I never cease to be spiritually moved not only by the moments we spend together in prayer, but also by what you bring to that experience in the joys and concerns that are shared as we ready ourselves for that time.  Needless to say, I never stop being surprised by whatever it is that one of our kids might say during our children’s ministry (!); and I never cease to be amazed by how something I say from this pulpit might just resonate with you in ways that I could not have predicted (understand, friends, there are days when what you get out of a sermon is not necessarily what I intended to impart!  But that’s the Holy Spirit for you, and I stand here humbled and grateful for that).

I’ll admit it; as a person and “parson” who’s a little too much of a perfectionist at times, I greatly value the times when everything in our worship beautifully comes together as one seamless whole (almost as if we actually intended it to be that way!); but I also have to confess that over the years I’ve learned there is much glory in not knowing exactly what’s going to happen between the Call to Worship and the Benediction (I’m remembering a wonderful quote attributed to an elderly Baptist preacher at a church down in Atlanta, who every Sunday used to start his worship services with the following prayer: “Dear God,” he prayed, “may something happen in our service this morning that’s not printed in our church bulletins!”).  But whether it’s all properly planned out or if it ends up happening by the Spirit’s intervention, there’s palpable joy that comes in knowing that somehow, some way, the right thing happens to touch a heart at the perfect moment.  And to that, let me just say that as your pastor, I am fortified by your love expressed in smiles, handshakes and hugs; truly, there is rarely a Sunday noontime when I don’t go home newly reminded of Christ’s presence in my life; and I can’t thank you or God enough for that.

So having said all that, friends, please understand me when I tell you now that as far as this pastor is concerned the very best part of our worship together is… when it’s over!  And no, that’s not because I’m in any real hurry to have our time together end, get home, change my clothes and take the rest of the day off (although I’ll admit that this week a nap may be in order, but I digress!).  No, it’s because everything I’ve been saying here today – indeed, everything we’ve been reflecting on all through this sermon series – comes down to that incredible movement of worshiping God: from our praise and thanksgiving in song and prayer, to hearing and reflecting upon the Word of God by the reading for scripture and its proclamation, to finally responding to that Word with lives dedicated to faithful service as disciples of Jesus Christ!   And while in many ways that happens in the context of our worship, our true response to God really begins the moment you and I walk out the doors of this sanctuary!

You see, friends, ultimately the best part of our worship comes after the Benediction: when what we’ve received and shared in here is brought to a hurting world out there, the divine love by which we’ve been blessed being shared with others in need of a blessing; in the process deepening our own relationship with God, a relationship that cannot help but gird and inform every part of our lives.  When our time of worship comes to a close and the benediction is done, you see, that’s when the Christian life truly begins!

Not that this is the easiest thing for any of us to remember, much less live unto, especially in these times.  I’ll be the first to admit that oftentimes it’s very hard to maintain the “attitude of worship” with the act of worship is done!

I remember at different times over the years how the congregations I served would send our youth to church camp for a week during the summer (in the Maine Conference of the UCC, it was always Pilgrim Lodge, but here in New Hampshire it’s the Horton Center), and for some of these kids it was to say the least a spiritual awakening!  The songs, the prayers and the outdoor worship; for some of them it was quite literally a life changing experience as they truly came to a faith in Jesus Christ for the first time!  And when the week was done, they’d come home feeling filled to overflowing with the love of the Lord in their young lives; but sooner or later, as life returned to normal, something would happen. Maybe there was a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend; an argument ensuing with a brother or sister; or maybe Mom or Dad simply asked them to pick up their socks at exactly the wrong time!  Whatever the reason, suddenly and inevitably that bubble of hope/peace/joy/love would inevitably burst; and while the warmth of their new-found faith was not exactly lost forever, it certainly got misplaced for a bit!

And the thing is, whenever a parent would tell me a story like that, I got it; because the truth is that it happens to all of us from time to time!  It’s most decidedly not easy to live out of our faith in a way that is clear and unalloyed, when all the while the waters of life-as-we-know-it has become muddled by pervasive challenges and lingering uncertainties!  How wonderful it would be to not have to reconcile the joy of our faith to the harsh realities of violence and hatred and all the issues that seem determined to divide us; how great it would be today to simply go home with our hearts renewed and fortified for every good thing that awaits us outside these doors!  Unfortunately, there’s a world outside these doors that would seem to do all it can to work against that, in the process seeing to burst our own bubble of hope/peace/joy/love!

So the question is, what do we do about that?  How do move from the joy of worship to love and faith “after the benediction?”

I think our reading from 1 Thessalonians can help us with that.  A little background:  we’re told that this particular epistle represents one of the earlier letters that Paul wrote, and was essentially a letter of encouragement.  Paul had been instrumental in bringing the Thessalonians to Christ, and in many ways they were the very model of just about everything this new community of believers was meant to be.  In fact, these people had this incredible reputation for a strong and steadfast faith; biblical commentator Sarah Dylan Breuer writes that the Thessalonians’ faith “was known such that there was no need to speak about it, because the lived it out with consistency and integrity.  In other words,” Breuer goes on to say, “they didn’t shout about having turned from idols; they LIVED in a way that proclaimed God’s lordship… in their lives.”

But now, you see, this new church was facing all manner of political and social turmoil, not to mention all the persecution that goes along with it.  The Thessalonians had felt this incredible awakening in their faith, and the surge of the Holy Spirit in their lives; and they were convicted in that faith.  But with suffering taking the place of rejoicing on a daily basis, it was now becoming a struggle to hold on to what had inspired them in the first place.

Now, I’ll grant you that it’s hard for us to identify with the idea of persecution, at least in the manner that faced the early church; but we do know what it’s like to have the burdens of our lives be so great that the joy of our faith takes a backseat to everything else; the transformative experience of worship little more than a distant memory amidst the struggles and challenges of daily life.

We know all too well how that can happen, and Paul knew that as well; and so in beginning this letter of encouragement to the Thessalonians, he offers up a reminder both to them and to us, that whatever the situations of our lives and living God has reached out to each one of us that he has chosen; and that “our message of the gospel came to [us] not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.”  In other words, “after the benediction” God wants that experience of his presence and power to continue unabated.  As we step out into the world our joy is to be full, our thirst is to be quenched at the well of living water, and our hunger is to be satisfied with living bread; we are ever and always meant to be connected with the divine in every aspect of our daily lives.

And make no mistake; there’s not only strength that comes from that, there’s also great power.  Actually, what Paul says here is that as a result of that Godly presence in your life, “you became imitators of us and of the Lord.”  Now, I know that sometimes as we read through Paul’s words, he sometimes comes off sounding as if he’s simply saying, “Okay, you just do what I do and do what Jesus says,” and you’ll be free of any and all persecution and relating difficulties.  But that’s not exactly what Paul means here; the original Greek of this epistle in fact suggests that to be an imitator of Paul or Christ means that you’re going to keep the faith in spite of persecution!  It means that rather than rolling up into a ball and hiding from the difficulties and challenges of life, you continue to receive with joy what God in the Holy Spirit has given you for the way.  What matters is not that bad things happen, or that the stresses of life just keep piling on, but that in the midst of it all “after the benediction” you keep an attitude of joy and faith; and that you seek to be and continue to be in these difficult times an imitator of Jesus Christ.

Beloved, we are indeed “made to worship;” but even more so we are made to respond to our worship with lives of faithful service. It’s about being witnesses to the love we’ve known as our own; about being able to say to others just as it’s been said to us, that we are the beloved and chosen ones of God and God; about letting the presence and power of God in our own lives affect a change in the hearts of others while changing the world – or at least a small piece of it – at the same time!

In his book, Don’t Cry Past Tuesday, Charles Poole asks an interesting question, “Do you look like God?”  And as odd as that might sound, he goes on to explain. “They just got back from the funeral home,” Poole writes, “picking out the casket and setting the time for the service.  You had cleaned their house and cut the grass before all the out-of-town family started coming in.  And for a minute there… you looked just like God.”

And then, “they had just gotten her home from the surgery and got her into bed, when they heard the doorbell.  You were standing there at the screen door with a casserole, biscuits and a pie. And when they got to the door and saw you, for a minute there, juggling your Tupperware and your Pyrex dishes on the front step… you looked just like God.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Poole goes on to say. “They know God does not look [exactly] like you.  They are not going to worship you or confuse you [in any way] with God… it’s just that sometimes, you just seem so much like God!”

That’s the stuff that happens after the benediction; that’s how you and I end up being “imitators of… the Lord.”   That’s how we thrive as Christians and as the church of Jesus Christ; and who knows what great things can happen if we embrace the wonder of our faith as we head out these doors today.  Truly, may it be said that even as our worship ended today, our faith and action as God’s people had just begun!

And always, may our thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c, 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
 

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