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Category Archives: Spiritual Truths

Every Flower Reaches for the Sun

(a sermon for June 17, the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Ezekiel 17:22-24 and Mark 4:26-31)

I’m not sure if it was a wedding present, or if it was for Christmas or a birthday, but once when Lisa and I were first married, we received a gift of…wait for it (!)… a can of seeds!

Thinking back, it was actually kind of neat; this was literally a coffee can sized container of wildflower seeds – direct from L.L. Bean, don’tcha know (!) – from which, when properly planted and nurtured, would grow a variety of flowers both annual and perennial.  Even now I still remember what an amazing thing that was: first of all, how despite the fact that all these seeds, at least to my untrained eye, looked pretty much the same, what we ended up with all that first summer and for many more to come were these immensely beautiful, fragrant flowers of every size and shape and color you can name.  I’ve lived in New England just about all of my life, but I’ll confess that I didn’t know we even had that many flowers in this part of the world; but that was the wonder – and the fun – of that particular gift!

But the other thing I remember about those flowers is how utterly relentless they were!  Like I said, there were quite a number of perennials included in that wildflower mix, which means that even given a modicum of care they should continue to grow year after year.  But here’s the thing:  after a couple of years we were shocked to discover that no matter what we did or didn’t do as regards those flowers, or how they may have been – however unintentionally (!) – used, abused or at the least disrupted, despite our best (or worst) efforts not only did they just keep on growing, sometimes they downright flourished!

I mean, inevitably every summer that garden plot where we’d sown those seeds had faced alternate bouts of drought and flooding; every winter it got snowplowed into oblivion; and this is to say nothing of what happened once we had little kids running around!   Understand, it’s not like we set out to ruin this gift or to destroy these wonders of God’s creation, but looking back, in all honesty given everything they went through they really shouldn’t have stood a chance at all! But such was the strong nature of these wildflowers; they seemed determined to grow sunward and to triumph over whatever nature (or humanity!) set in their way!  And because of this, every summer that we lived in that house we were not only treated to the utter beauty of nature as only a wildflower garden can provide, we were reminded in glorious fashion of the resiliency of all that which God has provided!

To put this another way, it’s in the DNA of a seed to grow, isn’t it; it is the seed’s design for the life that’s placed within it to take root and sprout up through the soil, prevailing over whatever hardship it encounters, so to fulfill its purpose as part of the circle of life.  What we’re talking about here is basic botany, and truly, “nature’s way;” but having said that, I’d also have to say that such an explanation says nothing about what ultimately comes from the seed as it makes its way sunward; nor does it really express any one of a multitude of ways that every flower that “reaches for the sun” will end up serving God’s purposes!

Which, come to think of it, is not entirely unlike our lives, yours and mine… after all, you and I might be able to say something about how we live and grow in this life; but that can’t possibly express in fullness what that life is for!

This is wonderfully expressed in a song written by Noel Paul Stookey, the “Paul” of “Peter, Paul and Mary:”

Every flower’s reaching for the sun
Every petal opens when the day has just begun
Even in the city where they grow up through the street
Every blossom needs the sunshine to makes its life complete.
Some are torn out by the roots and cast aside
And some might be arranged and brought inside
A flower’s just a seed when it’s young
And every flower’s reaching for the sun.

Some are bent by fears they cannot see
And some are touched by Love and set free
A flower’s just a seed when it’s young
And every flower’s reaching
Oh every flower’s reaching
Every flower’s reaching for the sun.

 – “Every Flower,” written by Noel Stookey, Bob Milstein and Peter Yarrow

In our gospel reading for this morning, Jesus offers up a parable about how the Kingdom of God “is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground… and the seed would sprout and grow,” despite the fact that the sower of said seed “has no idea how it happens.” [The Message]  It’s a reminder both agricultural and theological, that “just as seeds grow without our effort, so also will God bring about God’s reign.” [David Lose]  If Lisa and I learned anything from our long ago “mystery garden” of wildflowers, it was that ultimately its growth wasn’t up to us; we didn’t make it happen and whatever else we did or did not do to it (!), we couldn’t prevent it from happening either!  Seeds grow of their own accord, you see, and every flower reaches for the sun; and so it is with the Kingdom of God.

What Jesus is wanting his disciples and us to know through this little parable is that the Kingdom is indeed coming as surely as will come a harvest of grain, but rest assured that it comes apart from our efforts.  To quote David Lose, “We can’t bring God’s reign of redemptive and surprising love and grace, but neither can we control it, moderate it, or domesticate it.  And we definitely can’t stop it.”  God is on the move, you see; God is at work – in our life, in our community, in our world – and that work will be done in God’s way and in God’s good time. Whether or not you and I actually see or even know what’s going on; the fact remains that by God’s full intent and grace, his kingdom is coming to us in ways and with an intensity that we can’t even predict.  In fact, as Jesus points out in the second little parable he shares in our gospel text for this morning, the kingdom might well be “like a mustard seed,” the source material for what can be described as “an out of control weed [that] grows and spreads and can hardly be contained, even if you’re not sure [at that particular moment] you want it.” I mean, it’s definitely not the lofty, noble cedar we heard about from the Ezekiel reading; it’s a mustard plant!  But there’s no denying that the end result of its growth into “the greatest of all shrubs” fulfills its purpose: to be that one place where every possible bird of the air can find a place to rest and to “make nests in its shade.”

Seeds grow; and every flower (even every weed) reaches for the sun!

So what do we say to this?  How do you and I deal with this utterly relentless God who promises us that in due course his rule and his will will be enacted among us?

Well, to begin with, we let that prayer we repeat each and every Sunday morning become real for us:  Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10)  More than merely another piece of worship liturgy, these words serve as our acknowledgment that God is at work as surely as seeds sprout and grow in the soil and “the earth produces of itself.”  And we also need to be patient about the way that happens and how long it takes; for the world as we know it and live in it most often tends to live in steadfast opposition to God’s plan and purpose for it (all the more reason to pray, again and again, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done…”).

But mostly, what you and I always need to be doing is to simply be about the work of that kingdom until it comes in its fullness, to “enact God’s reign wherever we are,” living out of our confidence that God’s promises are true and that the kingdom will come in its fullness.  What that means is that you and I become the flowers reaching for the sun; doing that which we’ve been fashioned for from the very moment of our creation: to align ourselves with God’s will and way; to seek to love and nurture others in the same manner that we have been loved and nurtured; to let our hopes and dreams, our talents and skills, our opportunities and challenges, our joys and even our sorrows become intermingled with our ongoing call to be Christ’s disciples.  At best, what that means is that every piece of our lives – and every fiber of our being – becomes centered on how God has always intended for his creation to be; filled with hope and love, and the joy of living in a close relationship with the Creator.  And by the same token, and once again I’m quoting David Lose here, “when life is hard, when we meet resistance, or when we fail or fall far short of our hopes… we can take refuge in the promise that God is still at work and has not given up on us or the world.”

Because seeds grow; and every flower – and yes, that even includes you and me – every flower reaches for sun.

I think I’ve shared with you before Lisa’s and my other great gardening story, also from early on in our marriage: the year that we grew a bumper crop of beautiful butternut squash… which was amazing, because we never actually planted any butternut squash!  Moreover (and I’m a tad embarrassed to even admit this!), there wasn’t a single crop we planted in that particular garden than managed to make it to harvest or at least past some hungry raccoons!  As we came to understand it, it turns out that there were a fair number of squash seeds in the soil of that garden plot; the remnant of the previous growing season before we’d lived at that house or ever had attempted to plant our pitiful little vegetable garden.  So something else – dare I say, someone else? – was at work.  And the good news was that at the end of it all we had squash enough to last us well into the fall; and trust me, that was truly something!

I kind of like to think of the Kingdom of God that way, beloved.  Because as much as we try to make it happen, and even think we might succeed in it by our own efforts, in the end what grows in our spiritual garden comes about because of what God is doing just beyond our sight with a firm and steadfast resolve.  There’s an old saying, you know, that seems applicable here:  that we should “work like it’s up to us, and then pray like it’s all up to God.”  In other words, plant those seeds of faith and love; tend that garden of righteous living; and do whatever it takes to keep growing up through the soil and to rise up ever sunward, in the great hope and expectation that you’ll become exactly what you’re meant to be.  But know that if that doesn’t work (and despite your best efforts, it might not, because who can predict what happens in a growing season), you’re still meant to blossom; because at the end of the day, what makes a garden strong and beautiful and purposeful is the work that God puts into it.  Beloved, no work done in love is ever lost, especially when that work is done by God; and God, in time and with care, will draw all things together for good so that the harvest can come.

Seeds grow, you see; and every flower reaches for the son.

And for this, and so much more, thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on June 17, 2018 in Faith, Jesus, Sermon, Spiritual Truths

 

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Living the Sabbath Life

(a sermon for June 3, 2018, the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, based on Mark 2:23-3:6)

I think it’s probably safe to say that we don’t observe the Sabbath the way we used to.

Actually, one of the mixed blessings of having been in the ministry as long as I have is that I’m able to see the difference; and I suspect there are a lot of you who can say the same!  Time was – and not so very long ago (!) – that Sundays were set aside as a true day of rest; a time for church, home, family and a bit of relaxation.  As a general rule businesses were shut down, and most stores were closed for the day; school activities – sports or otherwise – were prohibited; and if you were a kid, if you had something happening on a Sunday afternoon it usually involved a church youth group activity.  Depending on your own particular tradition of faith, you might not even have gone to the movies or played cards on a Sunday, because those were things that you simply did not do on the Lord’s Day (that; and because playing cards were at one time considered the “devil’s playthings!”).

Not that everyone always approached this as a wholly (and holy) Christian thing to do, or even something that was particularly religious in nature; it was simply understood that there ought to be a “Sabbath rest” from the burdens of the rest of the week’s work, all rooted in the creation story from Genesis in which God, overwhelmed from the glorious work of creation, exclaimed that “indeed, it was very good,” (1:31) and then “rested on the seventh day.” (2:2) From the very beginning, you see, the Sabbath was intended a blessing to us from God of both body and soul, and as such was to be thought of as holy.

Of course, you know what’s happened; actually a combination of things over time:  the repeal of the so-called “blue laws” that allowed every mall in the country to run full tilt all day on Sunday; the encroachment of more and more Sunday sports and other activities on the weekend landscape; as well as a changing economy that has fairly well mandated the necessity of a two-income family; and this is to say nothing of a culture and life that just keeps getting busier and more convoluted with every passing generation, to the point where church has become for many, a second or third choice, if it’s a choice at all!

And the thing is, it’s all happened very gradually, almost without notice.  I’ve always found it ironic that as a pastor, the Sabbath has always and ever been my busiest workday (!); but I must confess that over the years, little by little I’ve discovered that my “window of opportunity,” shall we say, for ministry on a Sunday has been slowly but steadily shrinking over the years; and that’s because there’s so much going on with people and families these days that there’s hardly room for anything else on a Sunday, much less more church activities!  Like I say, pastorally speaking, the Sabbath just ain’t what it used to be!

Now, I don’t say all of this to complain (well… mostly I don’t!), but simply to point out how much things have changed; and really, in this instance, only over about the past 30 years or so.  And yes, where Sundays and the life of the church are concerned, a lot of us – myself included, sometimes – feel like we’ve lost something sacred, and wish that things could go back to the way “it used to be.”  But that having been said, I also have to wonder… that if in the midst of all these changes to life and living it’s not so much that we’ve lost the Sabbath, but that maybe we’ve missed the point of it.

Because friends, as scripture describes it and proclaims it to the faithful, Sabbath isn’t meant primarily to be just another day off or an opportunity for a “time out;” it’s not to be thought of as a reward for a week’s worth of a job well done; it’s not even wholly about rest, at least not in the sense of an afternoon nap.  Sabbath is about much more than that: it’s about life, and within that life, faith. Sabbath is for the renewal of life – ours, yes, but also the life of all of creation – and it is for the sake of resilience so that each one of us is strengthened and empowered to do God’s work on Monday morning and every day that follows.  It’s about a true ministry of life, yours and mine; and to quote Karoline Lewis, “When the Sabbath is for the sake of life, then it means getting back in there and figuring out where life needs to happen.”

This is what lay at the heart of our text for this morning, two back to back stories from the 2nd chapter of Mark’s gospel in which Jesus has already begun to run afoul of the scribes and Pharisees; specifically, regarding the proper observance of the Sabbath.  First, we have Jesus and his disciples walking through “a field of ripe grain,” [The Message] and because they’re hungry and because it’s the only food available to them at the moment, the disciples start “pull[ing] off heads of grain” to eat.  This, of course, was a major breach of the Law regarding the Sabbath: not only was the work of picking the grain prohibited, so was their traveling through this grain field in the first place; and if that weren’t enough, so was eating food that hadn’t been prepared the day before!  Needless to say, the ancient laws of the Old Testament were quite rigid regarding how the Sabbath was to be observed; in fact, the book of Exodus points out that “everyone who profanes [the Sabbath] shall be put to death,” (17:14) and “whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people.” (Think about that as you go home today, friends!)

So here come the Pharisees, ever so quick to point this all out to Jesus, but Jesus is just as quick to remind them of a story about King David; how David had done something even more sacrilegious – stealing and eating bread from the temple that was reserved for the priests, and on the Sabbath, no less (!) – but how that was permissible because this was the one who was to be God’s anointed king, and the Law, however stringent, had to give way to need. Don’t you understand, Jesus says; don’t you get it?  “The Sabbath was made to serve us; we weren’t made to serve the Sabbath.” [The Message again] And then, in the most cutting response of all, Jesus adds, “So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

The point is brought home almost immediately afterward, as Jesus arrives at the synagogue and meets a man whose hand is withered and who desires to be healed; and immediately a decision has to be made.  On the one hand, it would almost certainly be true that if the Pharisees discovered this “unclean” man in the temple, he would not be permitted to stay and would be denied any participation in worship.  On the other hand, however, if Jesus were to actually heal this man’s withered hand – and on the Sabbath – he’d just as certainly be further raising the ire of the religious authorities!

In the end, the right decision was clear; because once again, “The Sabbath was made for humankind,” not the other way around!  The need for love and mercy in that moment exceeded the need for the exact letter of the Law to be followed; and the opportunity for Jesus to bring this man healing was far more important than whatever chastisement would be brought upon him by the Pharisees for doing so.  And with those fuming scholars of Sabbath day correctness looking on, here is what Jesus says (as translated by The Message): “What kind of action suits the Sabbath best?  Doing good or doing evil?  Helping people or leaving them helpless?”

And how do they respond to this?  In every translation the reaction is the same:  they’re angry, but even as their hearts were hardened, nonetheless “they were silent.”  Because in the end, how do you dispute the wonder of a healing act?  How can you squash a miracle of grace on the basis of a technicality of law?  How do you argue with life?

Let us not misunderstand here; by this flagrant act of breaking the Sabbath, Jesus was not flaunting the authority of the Law.  We recognize this all through the gospels: that Jesus regarded God’s law as holy and insisted that that the faithful need “to know, revere, and follow the law.”  But, in words of David Lose, “as important as the law is, it is – and shall always be – a means to an end, a tool, a mechanism in service to a greater purpose.”  Jesus knew that following the law is not what makes us who we are as God’s children; it is meant to help us live wholly unto that identity no matter what, no matter how, and might I add in this case, no matter when.

And that’s a truth that, on this particular Sabbath day, continues on in us.

The fact is that despite the rapid pace of life as we know it in these crazy, convoluted times we have not lost the Sabbath.  You and I are blessed with the invitation and opportunity – indeed, the mandate – to seek the kind of rest, resilience and renewal that is infused with holiness.  But what we need to remember is that our observance of the Sabbath is not to be thought of as the end of this week’s journey of faithfulness, but rather a pause for reflection before the next week’s journey begins.  From the very beginning of our creation, you and I are called to be living the Sabbath life; but ultimately that has much less to do with our stepping away from what we do than it does with getting ready for what is yet to be done!  God created us to love and support one another; to extend to others the same kind of grace and mercy and encouragement as Jesus has given us; to love as fully and openly and as sacrificially we have been loved.  Everything we do (or choose not to do) to keep the Sabbath is the way that we seek to be restored in this wonderful and triumphant ministry of life that we all share.

And, by the way, don’t get me wrong here; speaking both as a child of God and your pastor I do believe, with all my heart (especially now as the more leisurely summer months are getting underway!) that living the Sabbath life does include sharing in “the act and attitude of Christian worship.”  Our coming together here every Sunday morning; our songs and prayers; our proclamation of God’s Word; our shared moments of laughter and tears and silence and fellowship and even the after-church refreshment:  all of it combines to offer up praise and thanksgiving to God Almighty, but also to prepare our bodies and our souls for the work that awaits us as disciples of Jesus Christ.  But then again, so does the time we get to spend today with our families, our friends and our other assorted loved ones; so does that opportunity that might just present itself, wherever we are this afternoon, to reach out to someone in need in any one of a multitude of ways; so does seizing a few private few moments of personal prayer and reflection while hiking, or fishing, or maybe even lounging outside in an Adirondack chair; so does, occasionally, a well-placed afternoon nap with the sound of the Red Sox playing  in the background.

We were made for the Sabbath, beloved; that’s what Jesus said.  So let’s make this Sabbath count for the something as we ready ourselves for the week ahead… and today, let’s start by feasting at the Lord’s table, that we might know Jesus’ presence in the bread and the wine.

Thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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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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