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“From Away”

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  –Galatians 3:28 (NRSV)

It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I speak “Down East” as a second language; and that despite my feeble efforts to suppress the impulse, it tends to slip out from time to time, even from the pulpit!

I’m referring, of course, to the dialect that is native to New England in general and Maine in particular; an accent that has long been part of the folklore in these parts, thanks in large part to the classic “Bert and I” stories recorded by Robert Bryan and the late Marshall Dodge. To be honest, what I speak is less that than it is a hybrid of the voices of people I grew up with, as well as those of some of “the locals” with whom I worked during summers years ago as a cabin boy at a rustic resort on the Maine coast; my friend Darrell and I were constantly attempting good-natured impressions, and I’m afraid that for me it stuck!  As a result of all this, however, over the years I’ve developed a fondness for the subtleties of dialect (yes, there is an Aroostook County accent, just so you know!) as well as a great love for good storytelling and especially an appreciation for Maine humor.

For the uninitiated, Maine humor is predicated on understatement (Visitor: “Have you lived here all your life?”  Mainer: “Not yet.”) as well as the gentle tweaking of strangers, fools, tourists and out-of-staters in general, all of whom are referred to as being “from away,” that is, not from the State of Maine. In other words, if you aren’t a native, then you simply don’t “get it!” The notion that one needs to have been born somewhere on the north side the Kittery bridge is the stuff of many a downeast story, not to mention the starting place for a great many folks’ grumbling each year between Memorial and Labor Day.

All these stories are unique to the culture and heritage of the Pine Tree State, and that’s why I love them; and yet what’s always been interesting to me is how well these stories hold up wherever they happen to be told.  For instance, after nearly six years now living and pastoring here in New Hampshire, I can tell you that the same kind of wariness that exudes from your average “Native Mainuh” is also found in great abundance here in the “Live Free or Die” State.  Even in places as far away from the Maine coast as the cornfields of Ohio (where I also pastored a church for several years), I soon discovered that my twice-told stories of farmers and fishermen getting the best of the “flatlanders” rang true. And as a clergy-type, I can well attest to the fact that one even tends to see a few of these stories play out in the life of your average church; from that greenhorn minister who unwisely runs afoul of some long-cherished congregational tradition to the Sunday morning visitor who discovers very quickly that he’d inadvertently sat down in “Mrs. Johnson’s Pew!”  I guess no matter where you are, there are always going to be people “from away” who threaten to interfere with life as it’s always been; just as, conversely, there will always be those quick to point out the interference!

What I’m talking about is all in good fun, of course… except when it’s not.

I must confess that as a pastor, I sometimes do stand amazed at the strange contradiction that often exists within the life of the church: how on the one hand, we’re called to be offering up what our denomination refers to as an “extravagant welcome,” biblically encouraged to seek out those whom the world routinely leaves on the outside looking in and to invite them to be part of our Christ-inspired circle of faith and love; and yet, on the other hand, how quickly and easily we tend at times to dismiss from our fellowship and affection those who are a bit “different” from our regular congregants. After 30-plus years and several pastoral charges, I’ve actually seen this unfold in quite a number of ways; ranging from the kind of innocuous concerns that routinely arise from personality conflicts that, let’s be honest, can exist in any congregation, all the way down to the mostly subtle but nonetheless cruel examples of exclusion that come about as a result of bad habits, misbegotten traditions or a wide array of deeply held prejudices. Yes, to be sure, issues of racism, gender inequality and homophobia can enter into it; then again, so do things like age, economics, classism and even geography.  And lest anyone think this happens only to those who sit in the pews, please know that more than once as a pastor I’ve been informed by well-meaning parishioners that unless I’d been born in that town or grew up in that congregation, I would have no hope of ever understanding what’s best for the church (oh, well… such is the curse of being “from away!”).

But wherever one happens to be on the receiving end of such an attitude, I have to say it’s a shame. As I said before, it is not only the mission of the church to welcome all those who want and need the love of God in Christ in their lives and to bring them into the fellowship of a true community of faith and love; it’s also our grand opportunity to benefit from all the diversity, vitality and fresh perspective these people bring to our shared ministry in Christ’s name. Truly, it is our “Great Commission” from Jesus himself to welcome those who are “from away;” and great things do happen for the sake of Christ and his Church when we stay focused on that mission.

That’s one of many reasons I continue to feel very blessed to be pastoring this particular little corner of Christianity, for the people of East Church really do seem to live out of that calling.  Ours is a church family diverse in background and experience but grounded in the knowledge that we are indeed “all one in Christ Jesus,” bound together by our unity in the Spirit and through our love for one another, a love that extends outward (and then draws inward) in countless ways both large and small. At the risk of sounding a little boastful here, one of the great joys of what I do is that I get to see this every day: whether it’s in the faith and joy expressed in our times of worship, in the food, fellowship and laughter that’s shared around the table, or in all the important work of care and outreach that happens “from season to changing season,” there is a vibrant ministry of love and acceptance that runs through everything we do as a church; and it is enhanced by every new person who comes in the door to share in the good life we have together.

Because ayuh, we’re all God’s children… no matter where we’re from!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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We Were There

His name was Alan, and he’d been a member of our church for many years; at least he’d been there since before I was pastor. I had come to ask him if he might consider becoming a deacon.  And after a long, long silence, he looked at me and with a tone of voice I’m still not sure was half-joking or wholly serious, he answered, “Well, I’m very honored… but I’m not sure you want someone like me to be a Deacon.”

Not sure of how I should respond, I asked him how that could be, and he said, “You see, in my last church, I once walked out of a Passion Play.  I’d been given the part of Pilate, and the most important thing I had to do as Pilate was to send Jesus to be crucified – but I couldn’t do it.  I just couldn’t do it!  I knew it was just a play, and this was just a part I was supposed to play, but to think that this man Pilate could have sentenced God’s own Son to death… to that kind of a death, that was too much.  It literally hurt to think about it!

“Maybe it hit too close to home, I don’t know,” Alan went on, “but I couldn’t bring myself to say the words… but I didn’t want any part of it… so I just walked out, and left them all high and stranded.”

Now, being the pastor, I probably said something benign like, “that’s OK, Alan; you can still be a Deacon…”  But what I still wish to this day I’d said was, “YES!    You really understand, don’t you?  You totally get what happened!  It’s like YOU WERE THERE!”

You see, the truth is that we all tend to gloss over this part of the story.  If we attend to it at all, as we usually do about now, our habit is nonetheless to keep a safe and polite distance. After all, we say to ourselves, it’s an ancient narrative, something that happened in a place a world away 2,000 years ago and long before any of us were around; it really doesn’t have any direct relevance to today’s world.  Moreover, it’s also a horrific story; the violence that’s depicted there is heinous and unthinkable, and the ending is tragic! And after Palm Sunday last week and coming up on Easter now, it’s really not the kind of uplifting story we want to hear about now.  And besides, we may even conclude, it really doesn’t have anything to do with me, does it?  This crucifixion story has nothing to do with how we live our lives here and now; the bottom line? We weren’t there!

Of course, if we had been there, it’d been different:

We wouldn’t have fallen away like the spineless disciples; and we certainly wouldn’t have denied knowing Jesus, like Peter;

And we wouldn’t have been shouting with the rest of the crowd to crucify him; I’d like to think we’d be the ones who were out there still crying out for all we’re worth, “Hosanna, Hosanna!”

And I know we wouldn’t have stood idly by and watched the powers-that-be and their thug soldiers beat Jesus and mock him.  We’d have done everything we could to save him, or if we couldn’t do that, then at least we’d gone with him….

But, of course, that’s not really worth thinking about because we weren’t there!

Or were we?

We need to remember that ultimately, what we remember this week is not about an isolated travesty of justice and faithlessness on the part of a very few people in the rather smallish city of Jerusalem during a Passover celebration some 2,000 years ago.  Historically speaking, this is how it all unfolded, but in every other way, what happened is not that small. What we remember tonight is about human sin.  It’s about the kind of atrocities that humanity is capable of, and how quickly and easily even the most seemingly innocent among us are drawn in.

It’s about death; yes, the death of a man on a cross, a man who was the Son of God.  But it’s also about our death, yours and mine, the death we have earned, the death we greatly deserve.

It’s about Jesus, yes; but in a very real way, it’s about you and me; about our hearts and our propensity to go against them time after time after time.

And it’s about all those times when we say and do all the things which we know we should not do, even if it’s denying Jesus.  Even if it’s joining with the mob when they shout “Crucify him.” Even if it’s cheering when Pilate gives the order.

There is one difference between us and the disciples, however.  You remember how during supper when Jesus said to them, one of you will betray me, and the disciples all answer, “Is it I?  Could it be me?  Not me, Lord…?” Here’s the difference: we don’t have to ask; we already know.

When we have the chance to speak our faith or to act on it, but like Peter, choose instead to keep mum about it, in some small way or another, we deny him.

When we take the path of least resistance, like so many of the disciples, or put ourselves and our personal gain over God, like Judas, we betray him.

When we persist, again and again, in walking our own road rather than the way of the cross, we crucify him.

We were there.  We are there.

And the reason that we’re here tonight is because there is grace that comes in knowing it, confessing it, and above all, in accepting his gift of pardon and salvation for our part in it.

Remember, Jesus went to the cross not to condemn us, but to save us. So as we draw nearer to the cross, let us be honest about it and remember who we are… and above all, let us remember who Jesus is.

Amen.

c. 2013 and 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on March 30, 2018 in Holy Week, Jesus, Reflections, Sermon

 

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Cleaning Out

(a meditation for Ash Wednesday 2018, based on Joel 2:1-2, 12-17)

I’m sure that all of us have come to times in our lives when it has become not simply desirable, but necessary to doing some “cleaning out.”

It might be the attic that has become too cluttered with a generation’s worth of records and keepsakes and other “stuff” you couldn’t bear to throw out.  Or it might be the garage or workshop filled with furniture in need of repair and all those unfinished projects.  Or as is often true in my case, it could be a desk covered with letters to be answered and business that needs to be taken care of.  Now, you may well be a very neat and organized person, and I commend you for that; but I would also suggest that for most, if not all of us sooner or later the time will come when we look around at everything we’ve accumulated and know the time has come simply to get rid of it!

I remember that on one of our moves from one church to another, the movers packed a box of things from our old home and labeled it “miscellaneous.” As I recall, as the movers were unloading things into our new home, I had absolutely no idea what this “miscellaneous” box might contain, so I told the movers to just put the box in the shed that was connected to the garage, figuring I would just get to it later.  Well, seven years later… we moved again, and in the process of sorting and reaming things out, I finally opened this “miscellaneous” box and discovered that there was absolutely nothing useful or meaningful or even remotely memorable inside of it!  Friends, the movers had wrapped up some old magazines that had been on a nightstand; a couple of empty mason jars; and I kid you not, a few rolls of toilet paper that had been under the bathroom sink!  It was all just… junk; and I had saved this box of nothing for seven years and let it take up space in my life in the false belief that it had to be filled with things that were indispensable or irreplaceable!  Rest assured, that box got “cleaned out;” and at least in that one small moment, our “burden of stuff” was made considerably lighter.

Today we enter the season of Lent which liturgically and spiritually is our journey to the cross of Jesus Christ, a time in which our worship and study focuses on the meaning of the sacrifice made upon that cross for you and for me, and what it means for you and for me to take up our own crosses and follow Christ.  It’s a time for deepening our relationship with God by seeking to walk a little more in step with Jesus in the entire journey of our lives and living.

But part of doing this requires getting rid of all the things that hold us back or weigh us down: the burden of old regrets and past mistakes; the debris of nagging doubts and long held fears; the sheer suffocation of choices made that always seem to leave us mired in sin and regret.  It makes sense; after all, before we set out to go anywhere, we always need to ready ourselves for the journey. So it is with our Lenten journey: to be spiritually ready means that we should be “cleaning up and cleaning out” our very lives, that we might rightly pick up our crosses and walk with our Lord with confidence and stamina.

We read today from prophet Joel, “Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly.  Gather the people, consecrate the assembly; bring together the elders, gather the children, those nursing at the breast.” (NIV) This verse is a call to worship in the fullest and purest sense of the term, but what we need to understand is that this particular worship gathering not primarily for the purpose of celebration, but rather of confession; this is a call to repentance and a return to God, a call for faith to be renewed and for loyalty to be restored.  This is a call for all the people to come in deep humility to receive the mercy and forgiveness of God.  “Rend your hearts and not your garments,” says the LORD; in other words, there is more required here than simply going through the motions of confessing our sin; this is about true repentance for the sake of God’s mercy, and truly “cleaning out” the sin that separates us from God and from one another.

And that, to say the least, is a difficult thing. It requires from us true honesty and deep humility of spirit; and it means that we are to confront our sin as something real (and without, by the way, adding the words, “yes, but…” as in, “Yes, I have sinned but I have several excellent excuses!”).  To return to God takes a willingness to leave behind old ways and old attitudes and to fix our course by the lead of the one who is wiser and more powerful than we ourselves.  It takes a determination to turn ourselves 180 degrees in the opposite direction of where we’re headed; and the openness to receive grace when we find that we can’t make that turn by ourselves.

In short, we are called to bring all the cultch that keeps us from a faithful relationship with God, and set it aside; assured that in divine love, that sin will be carried away for us, never to burden us again.  But the key here is first that we have to bring it out of hiding, confess its uselessness and then… let it go.

On the wall of a church sanctuary that I know of in Maine hangs this huge, beautiful banner: all in the color of violet, which of course is the liturgical color of lent, but what draws you in is all that’s pictured on this banner is a… broom! And beneath this picture is printed the words of a prayer that has been attributed to a young girl from Africa: “O Great chief, light a candle within my heart that I may see what is therein and sweep the rubbish from your dwelling place.”

Friends, let us take some time today – and certainly, throughout this Lenten season – to sweep out the dwelling place of God within our hearts and remove the rubbish that has accumulated there.  Let us confess our sins.  Let us lay our burdens at the foot of the cross.  And in the process, let us also make room in our hearts and lives for Jesus Christ, who is the Lord of life and living. Let us do this so that the journey that lay ahead – to the cross and beyond – may be traveled in the proper spirit.

Thanks be to God.

Amen and Amen.

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2018 in Lent, Old Testament, Reflections, Sermon

 

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