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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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Resolutions

(a meditation for December 31, 2017, the First Sunday after Christmas and New Year’s Eve, based on Ephesians 3:14-21)

“I’ve made my New Year’s resolution this year.” Or so said the man on the radio as I was driving down the road one day about this time of year; and he went on to say, “And it’s the same one I make every year: not to make any New Year’s resolutions!”

Now that’s noble, I remember thinking.  What better way to avoid not keeping a resolution for the coming year than not to make one in the first place!   Kind of misses the whole point of the thing, but even then I had to admit I did understand his thinking!  I mean, how many of us have made all these grand commitments to self-improvement on January 1st only to find our firm resolve slipping away long before the month has passed!  At least this way you’re guaranteed success; because if you promise nothing then you’re responsible to nothing!

Of course, if you think about it for very long you discover that idea doesn’t really hold water, either.  The truth is that we’re all responsible to something or someone: our families, our friends, the people with whom and for whom we labor; and certainly, as Christians, we’re responsible to God!   Bottom line is that we have obligations of one sort or another that extend to just about every facet of our lives; and every decision we make on a day to day basis (even something as seemingly but deceptively simple as how we eat or exercise) ends up saying something not only about ourselves and our own lives, but also about how we value and relate to those around us.  So we can avoid making resolutions; but the responsibilities and the relationships that inspired those resolutions will always be there!

So what are we to do about this resolution conundrum, especially today as we literally come to the brink of a brand new year?   Maybe the answer comes in changing how we think of this idea of making resolutions.  Rather than making promises we’re not at all sure we can or that we’re even willing (!) to keep, maybe on this last day of 2017 we should be seizing the opportunity for honest assessment of where we actually are in our lives, so that we might make a “mid-course correction” for the journey that awaits us in 2018.  In other words, we need to ask ourselves, how did it go last year, anyway?  Were there things we should have done differently?  How far off track did we find ourselves wandering from where we wanted to be and where we are right now; and how do we keep that from happening in the year to come?  Because it’s one thing, friends, for us to make a list of resolutions for a new year; but it’s quite another to be purposeful in finding ways that’ll make those resolutions a reality in our lives.

I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot as of late; and perhaps it’s because it’s been such a tumultuous year in the world around us that we’ve felt a bit “blown off course,” so to speak, or maybe it’s because even as I’m getting older, I feel like I’m heading in a direction that inevitably becomes busier and busier (which is not really the direction I was expecting to go!), but it seems to me that this kind of “mid-course correction” would be most appropriate for any of us as enter into a new year!  In fact, as I’ve been thinking on this I realize I’ve come up with three “resolutions” that might just help in getting us “back on course,” not only in the walk of life but the walk of faith as well.  So in lieu of a real sermon today, I’d like to take a couple moments to share those resolutions with you.

The first resolution I want to make for 2018 is to GIVE MORE.   You know, not only in having had not one, but two hip replacements this past year and my wife Lisa having to deal with surgeries and illness of her own, but also in walking with many of you in the challenges, struggles and unwelcome transitions of life, I was reminded once again of the truth that there is so much in this life that is completely out of our control.  Though we might, in our weaker moments, fear otherwise,  I’m here to remind  us all of the truth that none of what happens to us is contingent on how “good” or “bad” we are; the bottom line, folks, is, as Christ himself said, it rains on the just and the unjust.  But… by the same token there is no way that any of us could possibly earn or be deserving of the blessings of love, joy and insight we’ve received at the hand of God and in the care of God’s people; as much as we may try, there is no way we can even begin to live up to what we’ve been given in such abundance.  In the end, all any of us really can do is to try to live our lives faithfully in the midst of all of its myriad joys and struggles.

So be it resolve that we give more of ourselves to God’s movement and purpose as life, with all its unpredictability, unfolds before us; to be more “in the moment” where faith is concerned; to be intentional in recognizing that in every happenstance and casual conversation God’s Spirit might well be moving and we would best pay attention!  Also, we need to listen better and talk a whole lot less; and to be more aware of the opportunities that will arise to show God’s love and care in what we say and in what we do. Let us resolve in 2018 to give more of ourselves to God.

The second resolution I want to make is sort of the flip side of this; for not only do I resolve to give more, I also resolve to COMPLAIN LESS.  That’s right… I said it!  Actually, I’m reminded here of the old joke you’ve probably heard me tell:  how many Congregationals does it take to change a light bulb?   And the answer is, CHANGE?   We can’t change that light bulb?  My grandfather gave that light bulb?  And besides, the old light bulb was just fine… we don’t need any new light bulbs in this church!

That’s a joke that applies in more ways than one!  I’ll make a confession here and now; sometimes change comes hard for me.  In the words of Paul Simon, “I seem to lean on old familiar ways.”   I like what’s comfortable and easy, and I don’t always want to see things move away from that; but you see, the problem with that kind of thinking is that life does not always flow in a way that’s comfortable and easy!  Life is always moving, always changing, always shifting, always creating a new landscape and offering up new challenges.   And truly, that’s now it should be; for that’s how the living God moves and works for the good.  Life is change, and in the end, we have a choice:  we can either be reluctant about change and grouse about it to the extent that we’ll miss its excitement and joy, or we can resolve to trust God’s leading us through the changes of our lives, and view it as the next good step of the adventure that the Lord is setting before us.  So be it resolved that we quit complaining about all the changes going on and… and let God lead us forward.  Let us rejoice that God is alive and moving, and has something wonderful in store for us as this new year unfolds!

And in that regard, finally, the third resolution I would make this year would be to PRAISE GOD ALWAYS.  There’s an old saying – I think it might have been C.S. Lewis who said it, I’m not sure – that “none are so unholy as those whose hands are cauterized with holy things; sacred things may become profane by becoming matters of the job.”   That quote has always hit close to home for me, because even as a minister, it’s very easy to lose sight of what it is I’m supposed to be doing; easy to become so consumed with the work of ministry that I get momentarily misplace, shall we say, my ultimate calling, which is to love and serve Jesus Christ our Lord as a pastor, as a husband and father, and as a man with all-too-human and occasionally quirky tendencies!

And unless I miss my guess, most of you can probably say the same thing!  Let me just say this outright:  in this year to come, we cannot let ourselves become so busy, so overwhelmed with all the minutiae of our lives that we I forget to praise God, and to do so with our words, our deeds and our very lives!  No matter what it is we say or do; no matter whether we succeed or fail in it; no matter how much we give of ourselves or how much less we complain about it, in all things the Lord needs to be acknowledged, or else it means… nothing.  Without praise and thanksgiving unto God, it’s just a job; it’s just a chore; it’s just another day.

So be it resolved that we praise God always; and in all ways!  At this time of the year more than any other, you and I must never forget that we are children of light, and that light needs to illumine everything we set out to do or to be as persons, as a people and might I add, most especially as the church.   Actually this resolution ends up the key to fulfilling the other two; for as you and I praise God with our whole hearts in the year ahead we will be moved to give more and what’s more, to complain less as we do; in the process we’ll discovering the true wisdom of life and living:  which is, as we’ve heard proclaimed this morning, “the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

I really can’t think of what would make for a happier or more blessed new year… but I dare say it begins with our resolve to make it happen!

So let us pray for each other in making and keeping these resolutions and others as well, as we embark on the next part of our shared journey of life and faith.

Happy New Year, dear friends; and may our thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
 

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