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Category Archives: Pentecost

A Little Bit Lower Than God

(a sermon for June 7, 2020, the 1st Sunday after Pentecost, based on Psalm 8)

That particular summer had been incredibly hot and humid, and up at the lake, we’d been going for a lot of “night swims” before going to bed; and friends, let me just interject here that there are very few things in life more refreshing than swimming in a spring-fed pond in the dark of a hot August night! 

And this night was special: it was about 11:00, there was a new moon, the sky dark and unbleached by city lights, and one could see the expanse of the Milky Way stretched wide across the heavens.  Moreover, it was the night of the Perseid meteor shower that year, and for a good couple of hours floating there on the water, as John Denver used to sing, we saw it “rainin’ fire in the sky!” It was incredible!  But what I remember most is that all the while this was going on I was filled up with this incredible sense of wonder and it made me feel utterly and amazingly… puny.

It was one of those moments of life that comes around once in a while when you suddenly realize what a speck of dust you are in relationship to the universe!  I mean, it’s one thing to feel a part of nature in a way that’s up close and personal; but to be literally enveloped by an infinite canopy of stars, bearing witness to the grandeur and might of God’s creating power, you cannot help but feel so very small in comparison; not only in relation to the world around you, but also in relationship to that world’s creator!

“O LORD, our Sovereign,” sings the Psalmist in our text for this morning, “how majestic is your name in all the earth!  You have set your glory above the heavens… when I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”

 I dare say that that’s truly one of the big questions of life; quite possibly the biggest.  After all, it gets down to the basics of our very existence, yours and mine: why would God would ever be mindful of us, anyway?   Why should you and I ever think of ourselves to be anything more than mere specks on the vast horizon of the universe; just another entrée on the lower end of the cosmic food chain?   Not to sound callous here, but how could we possibly count for anything more than that in God’s eyes?

And yet, the good news is that we do.   As W. Sibley Towner of Union Seminary suggests, what’s clear from the opening verses of scripture is that in the beginning “God set all this teeming creation in motion for one reason above all others – to make human life possible… [to coax] from this buzzing mass of creatures a creature so like God’s own self that it was said to be the very image of God… [to be] the crowning glory of God’s creativity.”

Or in the words of the Psalm, “…you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.”  A little lower than God?  Amazing!  Rather than being regarded as something small and utterly insignificant, it would appear that in God’s sight we have no equal in creation!

What’s interesting is that biologists and anthropologists speak of how it is our ability to speak and communicate and reason that sets humanity apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.  Theologians, on the other hand, say that of all the creatures of the earth we humans are the only ones invited to talk to and work with God.  In other words, ours is a direct relationship with the Divine, the result of “God’s own image” of what we should be.  So in comparison to the vastness of the heavens, we might well be infinitesimal, but that doesn’t matter because in God’s eyes we are great, important and, and in a very real way, “large and in charge;” entrusted as stewards of all creation, and keepers of the relationship that God has with that which he loves.

Knowing that that’s what we’re meant to be, friends, has a way of changing how we view things:  the ways that we care for our environment, for instance; and the sanctity of life in all its many forms. It forces us to see that we have some responsibility regarding dominion over the works of God’s hands, and for the many gifts we’ve been given; most especially each other.  Yes, to be a steward of creation is to be steward of the people around us, all the people whom God has created and who God loves.  And that has everything to do with our relationships with one another, the choices we make in this life, and the differences those choices make in the care and nurture of those around us.

Way back when I was still both a student pastor and single, I was a regular patron of the local movie theater.  I just liked to go to the movies – always have(!) – and those days I used to go to almost all of them that came to town!  But I could always count on the fact that if the movie was, shall we say, questionable, the woman at the ticket counter (who, God bless her, happened to be a distant relative of mine, and knew I was a pastor) would lean over and very quietly say to me, “This one’s probably a little rough for you, dear.” 

At the time, that really offended me; I was an adult, after all, capable of making good and right decisions for myself, thank you very much!  But over time, I began to realize that some of my choices, especially as a young pastor, had an effect on others; such as, for instance, on the kids in my congregation who got busted for sneaking into an R-rated movie they were too young to see, but who told their parents it was OK because “Rev. Lowry was there!”  In retrospect, it wasn’t even that bad of a movie, but I realized this wasn’t the kind of message I wanted those kids to get from me; that by inadvertently glorifying something violent or degrading, I was not only devaluing my relationship with them, but also, in a very real sense, my relationship with God!

A small thing?  Probably… but the point is that if we’ve been created to be “a little bit lower than God,” then it follows that our lives ought to reflect the same kind of care and love God extends to his creation and the people who are part of it!

Not that the world sees things in this way.  Have you ever noticed that whenever we hear of someone who has been caught at some kind of immoral or unethical behavior – which seems to have happened a lot lately (!) – inevitably it’s described as “a human failing.”  Which is one thing, but such behavior is then explained away by saying that that person was “only human, after all.”   As if being human means that we’re bound to be failures at every level of life; as though our “human tendencies” are the lesser parts of our personalities!  

You see, that’s the very opposite of God’s intent, which is that our humanity is ultimately not  wrapped up in what’s bad or undesirable about us, but rather in what makes us precious in the sight of the Lord! 

Yes, friends, we are human, and we’re human because God made us that way:  crowned with glory and honor as we live out our lives in partnership with God; carrying out a vision of creation that’s been in place from beginning of time; equipping us and empowering us to take care of the world with joy and delight, protecting and nurturing one another with love and justice.  By the grace of God, dear friends, we have been shaped as the very pinnacle of all creation; you and me, dear friends!

Our challenge is live that way.

Truthfully, we do have that propensity toward self-involvement, and we do turn away from God far more often than we ever should; and if you want a theological term for that, it’s “original sin.” Moreover, you and I tend to fall into the temptation of not believing what we’re really worth, and that’s where patterns of despair, self-doubt and self-hatred take root.  But that’s why it’s good for us this morning to remember another central truth of our faith…

…that when God wanted to show the world his great and limitless love, God chose to come to us as one of us, as the example of the very pinnacle of his own creation: wholly God, yes, but also wholly human: in Jesus Christ our teacher, our brother, our Savior and our friend.  

What other assurance do we need of our place in God’s creation and our role in God’s plan?

Something to think about as we feast at the Lord’s table this day.  Thanks be to God, and

AMEN and AMEN!

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

 

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A Fresh Capacity to Listen

   

(a sermon for May 31, 2020,  Pentecost Sunday, based on Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-21; a podcast version of this message can be heard HERE)

To quote a line from an old movie – Cool Hand Luke, I believe – “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate!”

Would you not agree that at the heart of many of our problems lay issues regarding communication, or perhaps more to the point, the lack thereof?  I know that as a pastor I’ve seen this countless times: when the core issue of some disagreement or conflict between couples, within families or even among church members (!) comes down to basic miscommunication and misunderstanding; you know, the old story of “I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize what you heard is not what I meant.” 

In truth, there is much that confounds our hearing and speaking and thus our understanding of one another: the tone of voice we use, our body language, the underlying emotion that shows forth the words we choose, not to mention our own preconceived notions of what’s being said to us!  All of this, and much more, contributes to an occasional failure to communicate; and when you combine this with the fact that we’re all different kinds of people who approach things in different kinds of ways, it’s no wonder that oftentimes it seems as though we’re speaking totally different languages!

 I remember years ago going with our youngest son Zachary and his 2nd grade class on a field trip to a nearby farm where maple syrup was being made.  Now this farm was owned and operated by this delightful older couple who’d been tapping trees on that land for years.  And when we get there the first thing that happens is that the wife leads us all down this wooded pathway to one of the big maples standing there and she shows the children how the sap is collected; she tells them about how native American children used to drink the sap like it was Kool-Aid; and then she pours some of the sap coming from that particular tree into paper cups so they could all taste it for themselves!  And I remember that the kids were enthralled by what she was teaching them. 

Well, from there we walk up to the sugar shack where her husband is waiting to tell us all about how the sap becomes maple syrup; and he proceeds to tell these 2nd grade children about the relative yield of syrup in relation to the sap collected, about the boiling point of sap and the type of firewood necessary to provide optimum and consistent heat, the different grades of syrup that gets produced, and even about the gauge of the stainless steel used in building the sap storage tanks!  The man went on and on with this litany of technical data relating to maple syrup production, even as the children’s eyes were glazing over!  In fact, I’ll never forget it; when it was finally done, and the man asked if there were any questions, one little boy just raised his hand and said, “You know, that’s a really big fire in there.”

Now I know he meant well, but that man might as well have been speaking Greek to those kids: they just didn’t understand!  It goes to show how easily it can happen that we fail to understand what’s being said to us and moreover, how it is that so often, we fail to be understood; and it’s how a lack of proper communication can so often make or break any semblance of community we might possibly have together!

But it’s especially true, I think, as regards the church.  Trust me here; after a lifetime spent in the church and nearly 40 years in pastoral ministry I can readily affirm that given all the diversity of thought and emotion and experience that exists amongst God’s people, it’s a wonder we even understand each other, much less have the kind of unity we seek!  The question is, how can we truly be a community of faith if we don’t communicate with each other, and how are we to communicate with each other if we can’t hear and understand each other?

That’s why it’s good news indeed that God has given us that which we need to understand; what Walter Bruggemann refers to as “a fresh capacity to listen,” that is, a new ability to truly hear and to respond.  It comes in God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, the miracle of Pentecost, that day which Bruggemann describes as “a veritable festival of listening,” involving people from the four corners of the world and every walk of life, each of whom hear in a clear and unalloyed fashion the good news of God’s love.

What’s interesting about our two texts for this morning is that they pretty much serve as mirror images of each other; the same story but with opposite conclusions.  First, there’s the story of the Tower of Babel from Genesis, in which human arrogance and sin leads to a judgment of separation and confusion.  Simply put, “in the beginning” God had given his people a common sense of understanding and the ability to speak the same language; it was ever and always God’s intent, you see, that we truly understand one another and that our lives be built from that understanding.  But when those same people became wholly attuned to the sound of their own voices rather than to listening to each other and most especially to God (as evidenced by the building of “a tower with its top in the heavens,” which was built solely as a monument to themselves), God rightly determined that this “speaking the same language” thing could never end well.  And so God “confuse[d] their language… so that they [would] not understand one another’s speech,” and then divided and scattered the people “over the face of the earth,” making it all the more difficult to understand and be understood! So what we have here is the judgment of God upon our own human tendency toward self-centeredness, isolation and alienation!

But then, in the Book of Acts we have God’s reversal of that judgment, when the Holy Spirit comes down from heaven with “a sound like the rush of a mighty wind,” through the streets of Jerusalem that were filled with “devout Jews from every nation under heaven,”  all speaking all their varied languages unknown to each other.  Except that now, by this miracle of the Holy Spirit, they heard… and they understood.  All of them – no matter their background or experience or prejudice – had that “fresh capacity to listen” to the good news told by the disciples, to hear “in [their] own native language… about God’s deeds of power;” about God’s intention that his Spirit be poured upon all flesh.  It was truly a miraculous day and a vibrant new beginning for God’s people!

One of the central gifts of the Holy Spirit is that because it is the real and living presence of God – one part of that “blessed Trinity” of Father, Son and Holy Spirit – it enables us to truly hear and understand God’s Word with a spiritual clarity unlike ever before; I dare say that in many ways, it is that “fresh capacity to listen” that makes us the church, in that we are called together to attune our ears and our hearts to that Word.  But what I want to tell you this morning is that there’s another part of that gift, one that we don’t always recognize: that in hearing and understanding God, by extension the Spirit also enables us to hear each other more clearly. 

Maybe you’ve heard of the concept of “active listening.” It’s an essential component of all manner of caregiving, and what it means is that if we are truly listening to someone, then we need more than just our ears; it takes careful and special effort to be attentive and sensitive to the person speaking.  In other words, active listening requires a “third ear;” one that listens with love in order to sense what’s really going on with that person; to go beyond the words spoken to get to the heart of what’s being said!  To put this another way, and I suspect that most of us can vouch for this, when somebody truly listens to us, not just with the ears but with the heart, we are given a message that we matter; that we’re not alone in whatever it is we’re facing; and that we’re loved.

That’s what the Holy Spirit gives us; that third ear, that fresh capacity and great ability to listen to those around us with love. For you see, as our hearts are opened to hear God’s voice through his Spirit, we begin to listen to each other with a spiritual sensitivity; we begin to understand the language of the heart; a language much deeper than words as it proclaims the truth of the gospel even as we show forth our love for one another.

Friends, how many times in our relationships with each other have we come away from some kind of conversation or conflict thinking that we’ve totally understood each other, when in fact we’ve actually only heard a small part of what’s been said; for that matter, how often does it happen that we’ve heard only what we want to hear and little more? How often have we been guilty of “turning a deaf ear” to those who stand in the need of love and healing, even and especially those who are the closest to us? And why is it that all too often we’re far more set on what we think we have to say than what we need to listen to? It’s a “failure to communicate” that leads to that which is much worse; and let me just say here that if this is damaging for us as family members, friends or loved ones, how much more devasting is it when such behavior becomes a catalyst for hatred and violence in this world, as we are witnessing right now!

This is not what God intends, beloved, for our language or for our lives; but the good news in our texts for this morning is that God has never been content to allow us to “babble” on without any understanding.  God sends us his own Holy Spirit so that we might truly listen with understanding, and respond in love.

On the day of Pentecost, the people of God were made to truly hear and understand as “the Spirit gave them ability,” and in doing so became the church of Jesus Christ.  And today, in this time and place, you and I continue to be the Church as we seek to be attentive to that same Spirit in our lives: actively listening for the many and creative ways we can reach out in love and ease one another’s burdens, striving to dwell in unity and with true justice as we go about the work of God’s kingdom; on earth as it is in heaven!

But friends, our actually being the Church and living as true Christian disciples… all this starts with listening for, and then listening to the voice of the Spirit.  And the beauty part is that despite all the other noise in this world that threatens to block it out God has given us all that we need – our ears and our hearts – for us to truly hear and understand what matters. 

But, beloved, first we need to be attentive.  For who knows what the voice of the Spirit will be saying next; or for that matter, what might the Spirit is saying to us right now?

Let us be listening for, and then listening to that Spirit, beloved… and as we do, may our thanks be to God!

    AMEN and AMEN!

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

 

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After the Spirit

(a sermon for June 16, 2019, the 1st Sunday after Pentecost, based on Acts 2:42-47, 3:1-10)

“…and they lived happily ever after!”  And… Amen!

Now that’s how the story really ought to end, right (?); at least as it pertains to those first few verses of our text for this morning.  I mean, consider the “narrative arc,” if you will, of this part of the biblical story; think for a moment about everything that brought that group of twelve disciples from where they were – that is, as this rather motley assortment of fishermen, tax-collectors, and other assorted outsiders who’d left everything to follow Jesus – to what they are now, the Spirit-filled and Spirit-led Apostles in whom “many wonders and signs are being done,” and by whose proclamation of good news a new church is growing exponentially, to the point where once there were little more than a handful of believers and now – in a single day, no less (!), the day of Pentecost  – “about three thousand persons were added;” and as Luke goes on to tell us, “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

And it’s at this point in this sweeping narrative that Luke began in his gospel and now continues his “Book of Acts” that we’re given this incredible description of Christian community as it was truly lived out in the life of this new church.  We’re told that the believers were all gathered together and that everyone was filled with awe about all the signs and wonders they were witnessing; and along with worship and prayers and “devot[ing] themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship,” they also gave to one another as any had need, and – I love this part – “ate their food with glad and generous hearts.”  It’s worship, it’s fellowship, it’s compassion: from the very beginning these were the marks of the Christian life and to this day remain our model and the ideal of what the church of Jesus Christ is supposed to be.  Or, to put it another way, if I might quote Laura Truman of the Forum for Theological Exploration, “Oh my goodness, it is beautiful.   They are doing theology, they are living together, they are eating together, they are praying together – this is the kind of community that most church leaders would give their left foot for… This story of the beginning of the Church,” she writes, “is just glorious.  This is the Church alive.  This is the Church on the move.”

And so, do you see what I mean when I say that this might well be the place to end the story; that now we’re at the part of the gospel in which we can gaze upon this amazing new church – formed by Jesus Christ himself, crucified and risen, and gathered, led and empowered by his Holy Spirit – and know that from this point on, after everything those apostles had been through and more to the point, through what God had done in the person of the Christ (!) that they could indeed “live happily ever after.”  I mean, if I’m making a movie about this (I guess technically, given it’s about the apostles and their journey after the resurrection, it would be a sequel!), about the time the Spirit has come in all of its power and the believers are “praising God and having the goodwill of all the people,” it would be time to fade out and roll the credits; as I said before, that’s where the story ought to end, right?

Well, if we understand scripture, not to mention the mission of the church, the answer there would be… no.  In fact, it can well be said that “after the Spirit” is when the story begins anew; and in many ways, it’s the place where our story and truly, our mission as believers really comes into focus.

Actually, from a narrative point of view, it’s interesting to note that following this very grand and idealistic view of the beginnings of the Christian church, Luke in his telling of the story sort of pulls back a bit so to tell the story about how “one day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, about three o’clock.”  So, you see, already there’s a routine developing in the life of the church; and I don’t say that as a negative, nor am I in suggesting that the “wonders and signs” done by the apostles were in any way diminishing, because if you read on in the Book of Acts, you’ll know that this is not the case.  If anything, this “going up to the temple” every afternoon tells us that a discipline of prayer and worship was from the very beginning, as it continues to be, essential to the Christian life.

And so it is on this particular day, we have Peter and John on their way to the temple for afternoon prayer – for “prayer meeting,” The Message calls it – and as they pass through the gate of the temple known as the “Beautiful Gate” they encounter a man “crippled from birth,” [The Message] “asking for alms;” that is, begging passersby for any kind of handout they might we willing to offer him as one poor and needy.  Now, we don’t know much about this man: he’s not given a name nor is there much of a backstory about what’s brought him to this station of life; all we really can glean from the text is that being “lame from birth,” he’d been carried to this gate and placed there for the purpose of begging, and that apparently he’d been doing this for quite some time, because later on we find out that all the people who entered the temple by this so called “Beautiful Gate” had recognized this  man as one of “those people” who were always there on the fringes begging for whatever spare change anybody might give him.  And so likely what he was doing that afternoon was what he always did, which was with eyes to the ground and arms extended crying out… crying out again and again and again for alms… for money… for something, anything that might help.

But whereas most people going to temple that afternoon sought to ignore the beggar’s cries and probably did everything they could to avoid any encounter with him altogether, we’re told that Peter and John heard the man’s cries and stopped; but even more than merely stopping to hear the request, Luke tells us that “Peter looked intently at him, as did John,” and said to this beggar, “Look here…” “Look at us…”   which, as even you and I in these times, was a pretty radical response!   I remember years ago someone I went to school with describing to me of her experience one summer living and working in New York City.  Now, this girl was not only still pretty young, she was also from Maine; and her first instinct on the streets of Manhattan was to smile and say hello to everyone she passed on the street!  But, she explained, that exuberant spirit was short-lived, as very quickly her more streetwise co-worker informed her that the first rule of walking down along a New York City street was not to make eye contact; this, after all, is not Bangor, Maine!  And we understand that, don’t we; especially as it applies to those in this life and in this world that in all honesty we’d rather avoid: from that person across the aisle at the market who makes us feel uncomfortable to the one who’s standing there with the handwritten cardboard sign on the median of Fort Eddy Road; just keep your head down and keep moving, and there’s no problem.

Sadly, that’s too often our attitude, but not Peter and John; they look this beggar square in the eye and pretty much demand that he look back at them in just the same way; thus treating him and engaging him as a person… as the child of God that is rather than the nameless beggar that the world has always perceived him to be.  And then Peter says something very interesting: he says, in the very poetic language of the old King James Version of scripture, “Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk.” (Or, if you’d prefer a more contemporary translation, how about this from The Message: “I don’t have a nickel to my name, but what I do have, I give you.”) Either way, Peter then reaches out to this man, this man crippled from birth, pulls him up (!) by his right hand, “and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.”  So strong, in fact, that the beggar immediately starts leaping and dancing for joy; praising God for all he’s worth and, might I add, totally disrupting any semblance of a serious prayer time that afternoon and astonishing everybody who’d witnessed what happened to this now former beggar there at the Beautiful Gate!

This story from Acts serves to tell us that “after the Spirit” came on the Day of Pentecost and filled them up with its power, the disciples’ story begins anew; with their being called to and given the gift of healing in the name of Jesus.  And moreover, writes Craig Barnes, it’s also a reminder that ultimately, in a multitude of ways – not just physical, mind you, or even financial; but also in the emotional, relational, even spiritual sense – “we’re all beggars, and it’s only in the name of Jesus that we’re going to get back up on our feet again” and we, as believers, have the ability, the call, the power to proclaim that name “that gets people back up on their feet.”  But even beyond all that, friends, what this story proclaims is that all of us – you and me and everyone in this sanctuary, all of us who count ourselves as believers – do have this ministry of healing and of life in Jesus’ name.

After the Spirit, you see, there’s the church of Jesus Christ… and we are the church.

In the end, you see, it’s not about the almsgiving, though in Christian love and creativity, we do do that, and we should; reaching out to those in need, however that may happen, is always to be at the very center of our mission as believers.  But it’s not just about that; likewise, it’s not only about the acts of healing, though I know that there are many of us in this very room, myself included, who can tell the stories of how healing prayers and words and gestures and creative, Spirit-led, actions led to the healing of mind, body and spirit.  It’s not even about the miracle, per se: because, you know what, miracles are not always what they at first seem to be, or not to be; sometimes the miracle with that overwhelming sense of the holy in our midst; in that peace Jesus spoke of that the world can neither give nor take away.  In the end, it’s about this Spirit that all of us have been given and this ministry we share; this calling to be witnesses to all we’ve seen and heard and received, sometimes by what we say, but always by what we do.

And the thing is, we never know exactly how that might unfold until it happens:  we’re having this random conversation with a friends or a co-worker, maybe someone we hardly know, but suddenly they’re pouring out their pain and grief in all its intensity and suddenly the “small talk” has become something much deeper and wholly cathartic.  You’re running an errand or taking care of a long-dreaded chore, and all of a sudden you get this idea that what you’re doing in that moment could be helpful for somebody else whose pride has long prevented them from asking for any kind of assistance.  You’ve been wrestling with some sort of big decision in your life, and trying to weigh how what you’ll do changes things for you; but then you wake up in the dawn of a new day and you’re seeing that choice from a different point of view: maybe that of your children or your family or even how it might affect a hurting world.  Or, could be you’re sitting in this sanctuary this morning, you’ve been singing the songs, you’ve prayed the prayers, you’re wondering if the minister’s ever going to wrap this thing up (!) so you can go to lunch… and in that moment you’re inspired… moved, somehow, to call somebody to go to lunch after worship with you, and maybe then invite them to come to church next Sunday….

…who knows? 

Give alms to the poor; feed the hungry; clothe the naked; visit those in prison; love, cherish and nurture all of God’s children; be kind, for Jesus’ sake!  Just know, beloved, that however it takes shape and form this is our ministry, yours and mine together, and that God’s Spirit comes as we do what we do.  And it is in that ministry that beggars become leapers, and that miracles happen.

I hope and pray that now that Spirit has come, we will be bold to embrace its power to do God’s work in this place and time… always in the healing name of Jesus.

And in that holy name, may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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