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Category Archives: Psalms

“God Sightings!”

(a sermon for May 10, 2020, the 5th Sunday of Easter, based on Psalm 139 and John 16:33)

I think you’ll agree with me when I say that there are times and places and situations when it’s very easy to “see” God.

I remember as a youth taking my guitar with me as I hiked up through the woods to a grassy hillside overlooking one of the great panoramic views of northern Maine, and sitting down to sing and to dream and to pray… all the while absolutely certain that God was right there beside me!

I remember holding each of our three children in my arms for the first time and being filled not only with the wonder of such miracle as a new life but with this palpable sense of God’s joy and pleasure in it!

I remember moments such as when Lisa and I were married… when I was ordained to the Christian ministry… countless times of worship when a word or a song or a prayer awakened in me a clear awareness that I was never alone but in the presence of a Spirit that makes everything you do not only worth it, but wonderful… all the random moments of life when all at once you know, as the poet Robert Browning famously wrote, that “God’s in his heaven [and] all’s right with the world!” 

Yes, sometimes it’s easy to “see” God… or at least to know he’s there.

But then, and I think you’ll also agree with me here, that there are other times that you’ve really got to be observant to see God… and sometimes you’ve also got to make an effort to look around!

I’m remembering a day back in seminary when my fellow students and I were all feeling rather stressed because it was toward the end of the semester when exams were looming and papers were due.  That day, at the end of one of our classes our “Hungarian Hebrew” Old Testament professor Dr. Steven Szikszai suddenly raises up his hand to bless us and then, quoting from John’s gospel, says, “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (NKJV) Now, I have to confess that at the time, being a very serious and studious seminarian (!), I wondered what that was all about: I mean, all we’re talking about here is surviving to the end of the semester, right, and about getting our work done; we might be feeling burnt out at the moment but it certainly doesn’t rise to the level of tribulation, or the need for any kind of divine intervention!  This is just something I have to get through on my own; no need for the Lord to come and “cheer me” in the midst of it!

But of course, all these years later I’ve come to realize that Dr. Szikszai had the right idea and that I – in my limited world view and burgeoning faith – had actually succumbed to the false notion that God is too big, too mighty, too… eternal… for my small stresses and little problems!  And friends, that’s completely wrong! I’ve discovered that mistake – what I sometimes refer to as “bad theology” – time and time again in my life:  in moments of grief and profound sadness; times when I’ve felt totally inadequate to whatever task or responsibility that’s before me; situations going on with the people I know and love that I’d love to be able to fix but can’t; problems in life and in the world that are completely out of my control; times like, well, right now with this ongoing pandemic.  For our God is big and mighty and eternal, but God is also as close to us as our very breathing, and cares about what might seem to us, at least, to be the smallest of concerns but which is, in fact, of utmost importance to God; and we know this is true because God came to us in person of Jesus Christ who has, as we confess in faith, “has shared our common lot,” and knows how we live, how we feel and what we suffer.  As the psalmist sang forth in our text for today, “O LORD, you have searched me and known me.  You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.”   

What that means for the living of these days, friends, is whether this time of pandemic has touched our lives in ways that we fear our ourselves for those we love or if right now we’re simply trying to figure out how to do another week of staying safe (and sane!) at home, the good news is that the God who has overcome the world in Jesus Christ is with us, right here and right now, bringing us his cheer in the midst of our strange and uncertain days.  Even today, friends, it is possible to “see” God… but as I said before, we have to be observant to discern, as it were, some “God Sightings” in our midst.

And that, I’m pleased to report, is what you all have been doing!

A few weeks ago I asked if you would send to me some of your “God Sightings” in the midst of the days of quarantine; and your response, the stories that you’ve shared, were not only inspired but inspiring!

For instance, from Joyce: “Today I was out in my front yard filling the bird feeders.  A little girl I didn’t know stopped her bike to walk up my driveway.  She handed me an envelope and said, “this is your happy mail!”  Off she went to each neighbor’s mailbox to deliver Happy Mail.  Even before I opened it I was happy!  What a special delivery from a special girl.  These are difficult times we are living in, however, it is creating special moments like this!  For that I am grateful!!!”

And from Julie: “Dave and I have visited with Baby Tony and his parents several times now, through the glass door! A little odd but, necessary in these times! What a funny and happy lil guy! He laughs and snorts and just loves putting his hands up to ours on the door! He recognized us and our voices and smiles. (We do FaceTime visits with Aaron and Tony too!) As we were driving away we felt so happy to have had the opportunity to visit, even without hugs! We will have to work on blowing kisses!”  

Finding safe and creative ways to be with family definitely inspires a God Sighting:  from Gail, “This past Sunday, we unexpectedly went to see and surprise our son Carl and grandkids… Nicole, our daughter in law was in on it!! It was the best day ever … and I’m sure God approved!”

From Joyce again, who tells of visiting with her children at the appropriate social distance, and how one daughter came “to cut her Dad’s unruly hair” because “the barbershop is not an option right now.” She wrote about what a “sweet, caring moment it was.  Reminiscent of the biblical washing of feet.  A moment that ONLY occurred due to a Pandemic.”

It’s a time for trying new things… and for returning to old ones:  as Lisa writes, “One of my biggest blessings through all of this is that have more time to minister with my husband.  We used to be able to do so much together but getting older and hold down a full-time job has kept me from doing what I so enjoy… being a partner and working alongside Rev. Lowry in ministry.  Sundays and Wednesdays have become my happiest days now that I can help through the tough days of Covid-19.”  (And, trust me here, friends… I’m the one who’s blessed!)

And Susan wrote of her “adventures in babysitting:” over the past few weeks:

“I have been babysitting Aly, a seven year old, since the closing of schools due to the coronavirus; her parents are essential employees.  One sunny afternoon while walking, Aly was skipping along the sidewalk and singing away.  All of a sudden she stopped, looked back at me and said “Susan my heart is so full of joy today.”  She then turned back and began skipping and singing again.   One afternoon while outside, Aly picked up a lightning bug.  She ran to me, with her hands cupped and said “Now don’t be afraid” as she opened up her hands for me to inspect the insect.  “Lightning bugs are special too.”  Then she lifted her hands up and let it fly away.  

The wooded area behind my driveway is home to wildlife, mainly chipmunks, squirrels and birds.  Each morning breakfast is served consisting of sunflower seeds and peanuts.  Aly carefully scatters the goodies around wanting all to enjoy in the feast.  As she giggles in delight she replies “I hope they don’t tell all their cousins because if everyone comes to eat we won’t have enough food.”  

I am grateful for the gift of seeing life through the eyes of a child.  Aly reminds me daily that the simplest pleasures in life are worth noticing and celebrating.  Praise God for the little ones amongst our midst.”

And you know, the thing about this time is that for so many of us, these moments of joy and laughter are mingled with sadness over having to be in isolation, about missing family members and friends, about not being able to be together at church, and especially our concern for the people we love around Covid-19.  We’ve heard from some of you how worried you are about the spouses, and sons and daughters and grandchildren who have to be out there working, or who are at risk for catching this virus because of other health concerns… for some of you, friends, it’s very hard to see where God is in the midst of all this.

But even those moments – especially in those moments – God is there.  For instance, Ann tells us about receiving some home cooked meals from a friend and fellow church member – the lasagna was particularly good she said (!) – and how much that meant to her because she doesn’t have family around and things can get rather lonely.  And Reba writes us that even though, like for so many of us, she feels like she’s swimming in worry, the things that make her happy in the midst of these worries are “her daffodils and tulips [that] came up and opened along her walkway,” and how a quick call from a friend brightens the day.  And Deb, who’s actually been allowed to visit with her husband Bob (who’s suffering with Alzheimer’s Disease), writes that he “was having some really alert moments on Monday and was actually out of bed! I was sitting right across from him just chatting as always when he opened his eyes, wide! Those beautiful blue eyes. He smiled a sweet “old Bob” smile and said “Deborah!!”  That’s going to stay with me for a looong time!”

Friends, all through these past couple of months, we’ve been hearing about “not so random acts of kindness:” encouraging letters and cards to folks who are “home alone” and may or may not be connected to the internet; “goodie bags” of treats and inspiration delivered “incognito” to neighbors and friends (and, I might add, their pets) all throughout town;  there’s even been an “egg fairy” bringing fresh eggs to the parsonage! 

These are the things that bring us joy, certainly, but these are things that bring us hope as well:  as Joyce wrote us, “Earlier this week I went out to our composter along the woods in the backyard.  I had vegetable peelings and 2 very sad and slimy cucumbers to deposit.  As I was throwing them into the composter something bright and yellow caught my eye.  There on the ground in harsh soil, poking up through dead leaves was a mini daffodil plant!!!!  A gift to me last year that I had carelessly tossed out after it bloomed.  What a little survivor!!!  So I found a pot, spade and potting soil to enjoy this gift again!  I had to think it was a sign and reminder that even through dark times we can survive and thrive again!!  It made me smile and filled me with hope!”

And then, as conclusive proof that God’s at work, here’s what Carol Ann wrote us: “Here’s something that will work:  Two FREE prescriptions GOD gave to mankind to keep males+females well:  Laughter AND Tears! They help both the sick get well and keeps the well well, all the while spreading the Love of The Creator to all Creation!”

“Believe it or not,” she goes on, “trees thrive on what we breath out as we laugh out loud! So… take in a deep breath and double over with a big belly laugh!  Then, let it all out! You’ll make every GOD-made tree happy and well, just like you!”

That pretty much says it all, beloved:  God is here… right here, right now, right in the midst of the 2020 Global Pandemic, right here among us as God’s own people, right here as East Congregational United Church of Christ… bringing us in this season of anxiety and fear HIS hope, and strength, all peace in believing, and… his cheer.  And what better blessing can we have: “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

Thanks be to God in Jesus Christ our Risen Lord and Savior.

Amen and AMEN!

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

 

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“It Begins with a Voice…”

(a sermon for January 12, 2020, the 1st Sunday after Epiphany, based on Psalm 29 and Matthew 3:13-17)

We are a church that is, by its very nature, sacramental.

By definition, a sacrament is a holy act and visible sign declaring the promise of the gospel to those who receive it in faith and gratitude.  As Christians, we believe that a sacrament is holy because Jesus Christ himself, by word or example instituted it.  Now, in most protestant churches, including the congregational tradition of which we are a part, baptism and communion are the two celebrations of the church that are recognized as sacrament.  The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, also recognizes five other rites of the church as being sacramental: confirmation, penance, ordination, matrimony, and the sacrament of the sick (that which used to be known as “last rites.”).

That’s not say that these are of lesser value or importance in our tradition; it’s just that for us communion and baptism hold a special significance in the Christian life. We believe that the sharing of these sacraments make for the most intimate part of the worship experience, and are amongst the most meaningful parts of one’s walk of faith.  Sacrament, you see, is by its very nature a very physical act: a time when you touch Christ and Christ touches you; a moment in which your own relationship with the holy begins to take shape and grow.

All these ecclesiastical explanations aside, however, I’ve always loved what Frederick Buechner has written about the nature of sacraments: he says that while in the midst of such church oriented milestone moments, “you are apt to catch a glimpse of the almost unbearable preciousness and mystery of life….  church isn’t the only place where the holy happens.”  He goes on to say that “sacramental moments can occur at any moment, any place, and to anybody.  [For instance,] watching somebody be born.  Sharing love.  A high school graduation.  Somebody coming to see you when you’re sick.  A meal with people you love.  Looking into a stranger’s eyes and finding out he’s not a stranger” after all.  In fact, Buechner suggests, “if we weren’t all as blind as bats, we might see that life itself is sacramental.”

I love that; because what Beuchner’s words serve to remind us is that in amidst all of life’s many and myriad experiences is found yet another example of the mighty hand of God at work.  There is so much of the holy that’s happening all around us – so much in our lives that is truly sacramental in nature – but only if we have eyes to see it for what it really is!

What’s interesting, you know, is that in my own work as a church pastor I am, by definition and through ecclesiastical authorization through the United Church of Christ, a minister of Word and Sacrament, and so as you can imagine I’m dealing with that which is sacramental all the time… but not always in the ways you might expect.  There’s communion and baptism, absolutely, but there’s also, for instance, the sacrament of the Sunday School Christmas pageant, especially on those inevitable moments every year when one or more of our little ones (and maybe even a few of our big ones!) literally start groovin’ to “The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy.”  It’s the sacrament of “Silent Night” sung by candlelight; or, for that matter, of our reaching for the high notes of “Up from the Grave He Arose” at Easter Sunrise!  There’s the Sacrament of Fellowship and Laughter that’s found at Bean Suppers, Holiday Fairs and countless other gatherings, as well as the sacrament of sorrows shared and of burdens mutually borne in moments of grief and struggle and uncertainty; and within that, the sacrament of Prayers Ascending not merely on a Sunday morning but on every other day of the week.

What I experience on a regular basis as your pastor are the sacraments of not-so-random acts of kindness, of words of encouragement spoken, and of standing up for and with those in need.  These are also the sacraments that are revealed in countless untold blessings of our having been drawn together as a community – a true family – of faith; and then there’s the sacrament that come in the palpable sense of God’s presence, and his power, and his love… but not, as it turns out, here at 10:00 on a Sunday morning but at some other time and place during the week, perhaps even in amidst a situation where you least expected to find God… and yet, there God was.

Because, you see, while ours is a shared ministry of Word and Sacrament, the truth is that it doesn’t always happen at church!  For when you and I experience something like that – something like God – in our lives, whether it’s in joy, or in peace, or in struggle or even in the wake of great tragedy then life for us becomes a sacrament, something that is most holy and good and fully imbued with God’s presence and power and love. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest to you this morning that that the only place where true life and real living begins and grows and flourishes is with the voice of God.

It all begins, you see, with a voice….

…a voice that is at time raucous and profound as thunder crashing across the silence of a summer night; at other times as gentle and as subtle as the sound of crickets after a storm.  It begins with a voice that’s “tympanic… symphonic,”  [The Message] filled with “glory and strength” and “full of majesty.” It begins with a voice: the voice of God.

Realize, of course, that when I speak of the “voice of God,” I am referring to the biblical understanding of what that voice is.  For when the people of the Old and New Testaments referred to “the voice of the LORD,” they were not as much referring to an audible, speaking voice coming down from out of heaven (although scripture is full of moments when that was the case) as much as they were referring to the ongoing activity and the powerful nature of God!  What you’ll always throughout scripture is that the words “the Lord spoke” are almost always synonymous with “the Lord did.”  It’s right there from the very beginning in the creation story in Genesis:  “Then God said, ‘Let there be light;’ and there was light.”  Actually, our English translation of scripture sort of suggests a cause and effect – that first God said it, and then it happened – but the original Hebrew is lot more direct and to the point: at God’s very utterance, the deed is done, and it’s done with power and might, in the process shifting all that we ever expected to be true about life, so to be in accordance with his will.  We see this very clearly in our reading this morning from Psalm 29, in which the Psalmist sings – because remember that these psalms were in fact songs meant to be sung with all due emotion and even bravado (!) – that “the voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire; the voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness.”  In this psalm we bear witness to a God of action: a God who, when he speaks, the oaks whirl, the forests are stripped bare, and strength is given to his people.  In fact, God’s involvement in every aspect of life and in creation is so readily apparent that all in the temple can but cry, “Glory!”

So, that in mind, it is no coincidence that the ministry of our Lord Jesus begins first with baptism and only with the voice of God; and even then, that voice is manifest in action and divine love, with the spirit of God descending upon Jesus like a dove from the heavens, opening at just that precise moment.  It’s a voice as from a loving parent, perhaps even as a mother would sound cradling her child in her arms:  “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” I have long been fond of speaking of our celebration of baptism in the church as a sacrament of welcome: be it be the christening of an infant or an adult baptism, it’s a welcome into a life of faith, a blessing for the beginning of a journey toward whatever life brings, and the affirmation of God’s presence and love being there at every part of the journey.  And truly, that’s what was happening here: a visible (and audible) sign of God’s active and continuing involvement in the redemption of his people.  It’s important to note here that the ministry of Jesus Christ did not begin in a vacuum but by the voice of God: a voice that was heard and felt by his people gathered that day by the River Jordan; a voice that made clear what God was doing in sending Jesus to this earth to bring forth his kingdom and to do the work of redemption; a voice that even now reminds you and me of the holy presence of God in our lives, yours and mine; of our baptism, and of who – and whose – we truly are.

In fact, lately, I’ve been thinking that for all the “sacramental” aspects of what I do as a pastor, at the end of the day I’m more of an officiant than the actual provider!  By that, I mean I’m not the one who truly “baptizes” the baby, any more than I’m the one who sanctifies the wedding vows between two people in love, or that I am the one who makes a simple meal of bread and grape juice the body and blood of Christ. I am simply the intercessory of what God is doing, the instrument of the music that God wants to be played.  God does the baptizing; God blesses the marriage vow; God in Jesus Christ, by his great and redeeming love, who makes the elements of bread and wine infinitely more than the commonplace.

In all of these sacraments, and so many others as well, there is the voice of the Lord, speaking in and through our hearts, our lives, and in the fellowship of faithful, kindred hearts; speaking so powerfully and personally that the very ways that we speak, and act and love are perceptively shifted in positive and creative ways.  I know that I have heard that voice speaking into my own heart and through the continuing journeys of my own life; and, unless I miss my guess here, I suspect you have too.  We experience that voice in the countless ways that God’s spirit moves in unexpected, life-renewing ways; and we hear it in the comings and goings of our our daily lives, if we’ll but have ears to hear what’s being said.  The good news is that all the love, and the peace, and the hope, and joy that is manifest in the voice of Jesus Christ has been spoken, and even better is that it continues to be spoken – even and especially now.

And that’s the challenge of the gospel, beloved: to listen for the voice of God!  Slow down for a minute; be quiet for once; listen in the middle of the silence for the voice that’s inside you, and pay attention:  for perhaps it is the voice of the Lord seeking at this very moment to lift you higher so you might walk along his pathways rather than your own.  Listen… for just maybe in the midst of all the other noise that fills up our ears we might just hear the sound of his voice; perchance to experience something holy and good.

Because it all begins with a voice… and with God.

Thanks be to God.

AMEN and AMEN.

© 2020  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on January 12, 2020 in Baptism, Communion, Epiphany, Life, Psalms, Sermon

 

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