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Living Faithfully (While Standing on Your Head)

(a sermon for June 21, 2020, the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, based on Matthew 10:24-39)

Let’s talk for a moment this morning about paradox.

As the dictionary defines it, a paradox is a statement or proposition that contradicts itself and may even sound absurd in nature, but in fact is true.  It’s a statement of fact that goes totally against the grain of how we usually understand and interpret things.  It is a paradox, for instance, that a creature as small and seemingly insignificant as an ant should be able to carry some 50 times its own weight, or for that matter, that a tiny mosquito has the ability to cause so much discomfort when we’re outdoors this time of year!  It’s a paradox that sometimes it’s the people with everything that money, power and prestige can provide who end up with nothing but misery and heartache in their lives, while those who by worldly standards have next to nothing at all can claim happiness without hesitation.

In other words, paradox is what happens when what happens is not how we expect things to go; it what boggles the mind by defying our way of thinking and yet stands there as undeniable truth!  No wonder that the great G.K. Chesterton once defined paradox as “truth standing on her head to get attention,” because these are the truths that require from us inside out, upside-down thinking! 

And if that’s true, friends, then I think it can also be said that the Christian faith is actually a pretty topsy-turvy religion!

Think about this with me for a moment, because the truth is that in a great many ways Christianity is very paradoxal in nature!  It’s a paradox that at the center of our faith is one who was the Son of God – Jesus Christ by name – yet who was not a political ruler nor a powerful leader of the religious establishment of his time; but rather a lowly carpenter.  It’s a paradox that this one who healed the sick, raised the dead, and brought goodness, joy and salvation to a hurting world would be, in fact, summarily executed in a horrific fashion at the hands of the very people to whom he brought that goodness, and that he should be executed with the tools of his own trade: nails and hammers and cross-beams of wood!  And perhaps the greatest paradox of all, that the instrument of Jesus’ death, the cross, remains for us a symbol of life abundant and everlasting; that to this day we “cherish the old, rugged cross!” 

And then there’s our text for this morning from Matthew’s gospel, a series of admittedly less than uplifting teachings of Jesus: “I have not come not to bring peace, but a sword.”  What? “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother.”  Well, then, Happy Father’s Day, everyone!  “One’s foes will be members of one’s own household… whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”  Not exactly a celebration of family here!  And for the moment, let’s not even talk about that verse about fearing the one “who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”  But then there’s this, which seems to sum the whole thing up: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”   Friends, if you came online this morning hoping to hear some words of comfort from the Bible, this might not be your day (!) because what we have here is confrontation, pure and simple; for the same Jesus who assures us that “even the hairs on [our] head are all counted” by our Heavenly Father and that we need not ever be afraid then goes on to warn us that “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

And that, folks, is paradox.

But then, that is the nature of faith, isn’t it: it’s grace coupled with responsibility; forgiveness that goes hand in hand with repentance; the call to follow Jesus that leads to true discipleship and a brand life that comes with risk as well as reward!  The idea that glory comes out suffering, that victory is won out of defeat, that gain comes in our loss: these are the paradoxes that lay at the very foundation of Christian belief!  And yet it’s precisely in these kinds of upside-down, inside-out truths that we gain our greatest insight into things like love, courage, strength and faith itself.

What we can take from Jesus’ words to us this morning is that there is indeed a cost as well as a joy in discipleship, but amidst all the difficulties we are loved and protected by God.  And we know this because of Jesus, who says, “everyone… who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven.”    But keep in mind there’s a flip side to this promise as well… and a warning: “…but whoever denies me before others,” Jesus goes on to say, “I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”

Again with the paradoxes (!); unconditional love on the one hand but the need for complete accountability on the other!   But that’s what Jesus’ words about families set against one another for the sake of discipleship is all about.  Bottom line is that when it comes to our faith we need to ask those difficult questions that Jesus sets forth:  like, have we denied Christ before others?  Do we, in fact, love others more than Christ?  Have we, at some crucial moment of life, refused to take up our crosses to follow Christ where he would lead us?  At the crossroads of life and living can it be said of you and me that we are worthy of Jesus and his “acknowledgement;” or is the truth of it that we’ve been so all-consumed with doing what we want to do for our own edification that we’ve risked losing everything that truly matters? 

What we’re talking about here, in the words of Clarence Jordon, is the difference between being “an admirer of Jesus and his disciple;” the difference between those whose faith stumbles at the first sign of challenge, struggle… or paradox (!)… and those who are willing and ready to bring a sword of righteousness against that and those who are wrong; those who are willing lose something of themselves and their lives for the sake of everything that can be gained.

Is it risky to acknowledge Christ in these strange times in which we live?  Sometimes; but then, true discipleship has always proven to be risky in some circumstances.  But as Jesus makes clear in our text this morning, the stakes involved are high; no less than life itself.  It seems to me that what you and I need to be doing, especially now, is cultivating within ourselves the ability to live faithfully while standing upside down; to embrace the glorious paradox that when we risk ourselves to the Lord – when we lose our life – we discover is that the old is made new, the lost is found, the weak are made strong, the hurts in our lives and those in others are made healthy, and that we find sight in our blindness, hope in the midst of hopelessness, and love and power in times and places we never thought could ever be.  Because when “truth stands on its head to get attention” – when we are willing to live faithfully while standing on our head – then the maze and craze of human life becomes a pathway to the kingdom.

Some years ago when they were still quite young, another Dad and I packed up our kids one night to take them to see a double-feature at a nearby Drive-In movie theater. We always loved going to the drive-in, but as I recall, the two of us taking all these kids to the movies required preparation only slightly less than a 3-day camping trip!  We had to find the perfect spot, then back up the mini-van up and lift the rear hatch up and fold the seat down so the kids could lay in the back and watch the movie in comfort, while tying down the hatch enough so not to block anyone else’s view.  (I know, this sounds excessive, but this is what you do when you take a bunch of kids for an outdoor movie!)

As you can imagine, this all took quite a while to get set up properly, but just as we had finished here comes one of the managers of the drive-in who asked us, very politely, if we might move. It seemed that this rather stern looking couple in a Toyota Celica in back of us couldn’t see, and complained to the management.  Now I looked back at that this car and saw that there were probably six slots to their right and three to their left, each one empty free and with a clear, unobstructed view of the screen; never mind that all the while we were setting up they’d been parked behind us and never said a word to us.  And I’ll be honest here; I looked down at all this little makeshift campsite that would now take several minutes and a goodly amount of effort to pick up and move I thought to myself, “Well, that’s fair!”  But please, the manager said, we’re sorry, and we hate to ask, but those people are being very, very difficult.  So I looked at my friend and he looked at me and, well… we picked up and moved the whole shebang over ten feet; not particularly happily, I must confess, but we did it.

But then a strange and interesting happened:  the owner of the place comes over to personally thank us for being helpful and “so reasonable.”  The kid at the concession stand recognized me, and pretty much talked my ear off about how much they appreciated what we did, and how some people were just hard to get along with (apparently this wasn’t the first time something like this had happened)… as I remember, he even snuck an extra bag of popcorn in with our order!  As I headed back to our car to watch the movie feeling that not only had we done the right thing in that situation, but perhaps a good thing as well; maybe even the faithful thing!  And I suddenly realized that I could no longer grumble about the hassle of what we’d been asked to do because my perspective had changed.  I’d just seen things differently; the way you see things differently when you’re standing on your head!

Was this some great and heroic religious experience that furthered the cause of Christ?  No, of course not… but it was in some small way acknowledging our faith by our actions and through our attitudes.  And I tell you about it because every day each one of us has countless opportunities, both large and small, to do the same thing: to offer up some word of kindness and support even if we risk something of ourselves, our comfort and even our own valued sense of tradition and propriety and to do it.  Truth be told, most of the time faithful living simply requires from us the ability to see things and understand circumstances in an entirely different way than we have before.  Our challenge always is to do as Christ would do, and that can be difficult at times, to be sure; but the rewards are most certainly worth the risk.  For the gospel holds true: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord.

AMEN and AMEN!

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

 

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To Lead Lives Worthy

(a sermon for June 14, 2020, the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, based on Ephesians 4:1-16 and John 6:24-29)

Since confession is good for the soul, it seems like now would be as good a time as any to tell you that one of the things that Lisa and I have been doing to pass the time in these days of quarantine is “binge-watching” old episodes of the television show Survivor.

Now, we’ve actually been watching that show off and on for the 20 years (!) it’s been on the air, but recently we’ve been re-watching the first few seasons from back in the early 2000’s and it has been… (please don’t judge!) not only entertaining but fascinating!  To begin with, those early seasons were more wholly focused on two “tribes” of people literally working to survive alone together on a south sea island: you got to see them struggle to make fire, battle the elements, build a shelter, eat bugs and beetle larvae (which my wife still can’t bring herself to watch!) and at the end of each episode vote off the weakest link until there’s one “sole” survivor, all the while wasting away to nothing and getting filthier by the day!  Back then there were no “hidden immunity idols,” nor an “Edge of Extinction” island as a way of staying in the game longer as is routine now, and the so called “reward challenge” often yielded little more than a bag of Doritos and a Mountain Dew!

In many ways Survivor is a very different show than what it was when it started; but what’s interesting is that from the beginning the basic premise has always been the same:  that you gather this group of people of vastly different backgrounds competing to “outwit, outplay and outlast” each other all for the sake of winning a million dollars; while at the same time, perhaps, maintaining their own personal integrity in the process.  And if you’ve ever watched Survivor, then you know what I’m talking about here:  every season, almost every episode there’s always some contestant who’s lamenting as to how they can actually lie to, lie about or otherwise manipulate a fellow contestant – some of whom they’ve actually grown rather close to out there in the wilderness – all for the sake of moving themselves further along in the game and closer to that million bucks.  Trust me here, folks, there ends up being a whole lot of generally “good” people who end up doing some really terrible things on Survivor!  And what gets me is that their reaction to this kind of behavior usually goes one of two ways: either they say, “well, it’s just a game, after all, not real life,” or else they confess that “At the end of all this I need to be able to look myself in the mirror,” and thus act accordingly.  And isn’t it interesting that – not always, mind you, but generally speaking – these aren’t the people who end up the sole survivor!  If the question asked on a show like this – and on countless other shows these days – is “what would you do for a million dollars,” the answer would seem to be, “almost anything!”

The real question, of course, is, “why?” Why do this; even for a million bucks, why would you ever diminish yourself, your character, your reputation and your integrity do this? Now, I understand that there’s a fair amount of fakery on these so-called “reality” shows, so I don’t want to overthink this, but I suppose that at heart the reason comes down to human nature; our inner yearning, to quote the Rev. Thomas G. Long, professor of preaching at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, to “hit the jackpot… to [garner those] windfalls that give us more of what most people are after – fame, power, fortune” and even security.  It’s basically the same reason people buy lottery tickets or enter the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Giveaway; we want all of the benefits of that which we believe a million dollars will provide… even if ultimately, it won’t; or even if it’s not the true blessing we’re looking for!

Now, lest we think that this is a latter-day phenomenon of human life, consider the crowds from our gospel text this morning from John, who the day before had been well fed with a miraculous abundance of loaves and fishes and who were now actively seeking Jesus out, even following him eagerly all the way from Tiberias all the to Capernaum in boats, ostensibly to be nearer to Jesus and to hear more of his teaching.  But when they finally do find Jesus, he sees right through them, saying, “You are looking for me not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”  Or, if I might draw from The Message here, you’re “looking for me not because you see God in my actions but because I fed you, filled your stomachs – and for free.” In other words, they figured they’d gotten one good meal, so why not another!  And in the process of looking for that next meal, to quote Thomas Long again, they’d confused “the difference between the hunger for a blessing and the lust for a jackpot.” 

And, friends, therein lies our confusion as well.  What Jesus makes clear in this passage is that he’s not about to be a short-order cook for the crowds at Capernaum, any more than our following Jesus is evef meant to be a means of wish fulfillment.  No, it goes much, much deeper than that.  “Do not work for the food that perishes,” Jesus says, “but [work] for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”  

Yes, these people had had their bellies filled in an amazing, miraculous way… but what Jesus was giving them was more than just perishable food that temporarily relieves a passing hunger; Jesus is offering up the nourishment of God, he food that feeds the soul and satisfies our deepest hunger.  And the beauty part is that it’s not even something that we have to earn, or win or “survive.”  It’s just given us as a gift… gracefully, lovingly, purposefully. “This is the work of God,” says Jesus, “that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

For each one of us as believers, you see, the most important question before us comes down not to what we’d do for a million dollars, but rather what we are willing to do for that which really matters.  How willing are we to work for the blessing rather than go for the jackpot?  Would we be willing to let go our grip of dependence upon all those things of this world and this life that will most certainly perish?  Are we willing to let go of all that so that we might grab ahold of the life that is true and abundant and eternal?  Are we willing to believe in something greater than ourselves, and then give over the whole of our hearts and lives to it?  Are we willing to renounce the need for windfall, or entitlement, or privilege for the sake of loving our neighbor – all our neighbors – as ourselves and as Christ as loved us?  Are we willing to lead lives worthy of the food we’ve been given, “the food that endures for eternal life?”

I’ve always been very fond of our second text for this morning, that portion from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in which he writes, “I… beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”   And also, by the way, once again drawing from The Message version of these verses, “Mark that you do this… not in fits and starts, but pouring yourselves out for each other in acts of love, alert in noticing differences and quick at mending fences.”  I love this passage because it serves as a reminder not only that our calling as disciples is a marathon rather than a sprint – a lifetime commitment to working for the bread that endures – but because of that bread, the work provides its own reward.  So though we might wonder what would happen if we made it to that final “tribal council,” for fame, fortune and security, ultimately really doesn’t matter if we never win the million dollars; just as in the larger landscape of our lives ad living, it makes no difference if the other castaways stick with their alliance and vote us off the island.  What matters is how we “played the game,” so to speak, because we know in faith that there’s a greater place and better meal awaiting.  Strangely enough, friends, the great Frederick Buechner expresses this perfectly.  He writes, “No matter how much the world shatters us to pieces, we carry inside us a vision of wholeness that we sense is our true home and that beckons to us.”

What matters is that our true home is ever and always going to be with God, beloved.  What matters is that the sum total of our lives will never to whatever fifteen minutes of fame we might have achieved along the way, but rather in how we were able to live lives worthy of all of God’s graceful gifts that have been bestowed upon us.  What matters in times of conflict and uncertainty is both that we stood up for justice and that we conducted ourselves after the manner of God’s whole peace – God’s shalom – and made that our intent and priority for the world.  What matters is that we love as Christ has loved us, and that we love our neighbor as ourselves. What matters are the ways we “[speak] the truth in love, [growing] up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body [is] joined and knit together.”

I pray that this will be the vision that beckons to each and every one of us, beloved, “until all of us is come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”

So might it be… and thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

 
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Posted by on June 14, 2020 in Discipleship, Epistles, Faith, Jesus, Paul, Sermon

 

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A Little Bit Lower Than God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our challenge is live that way.

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

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

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

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

AMEN and AMEN!

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

 

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