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Hand to the Plow

(a sermon for June 30, 2019, the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, based on Luke 9: 51-62)

(Note: A podcast recording of this message can be found here.)

I think you’ll agree with me that in life at least two things are for  certain: first, that there are always choices to be made, some very important, others seemingly inconsequential but most of them fairly essential; and second, that inevitably there will be something seeking to distract you from those choices!

There’s a story from the Hindu tradition that tells of young yogi (that is, a student of the Indian philosophy) who was instructed by his teacher that the pathway to true enlightenment was to spend his days sitting under a tree by the banks of a river in deep contemplation of God.  And this is exactly what the student had decided to do; and in fact for this purpose had divested himself of all his worldly possessions, save for a begging bowl with which he would daily beg for scraps of food from those in the nearby village, and a loincloth, by which he covered up his… nakedness!

But this was fine, for this was all the student needed in his pursuit of enlightenment; except that one night after the student had washed out his loincloth and hung it on a tree to dry, he awoke the next day to discover that rats had torn and chewed up his loincloth beyond all repair. So now the student was naked and not only embarrassed to be seen that way but also that he was now forced to beg both for food and a new loincloth!   Eventually, the student did manage to find a charitable donor for that particular piece of clothing, but upon returning to the river’s edge the student realized that there were always going to be rats; and since it was rather unseemly for a man of God to be continually begging for a loincloth, this young yogi decided to handle the problem in a different way:  by getting a cat, so to be chasing the rats!

Which was very wise, indeed; except that the cat now needed to be fed, which required the young yogi to go out to get milk for the cat, which led to him looking for a stray cow from which he could get that milk!  And even that was fine; that is, until late into the summer when the grass burned away from the lack of rain, and the cow needed some kind of fodder, any kind of fodder just to stay alive.  So what did the yogi do?  Of course, come the next rainy season he set out to plant some crops – just a few for the cow because after all, the cat needed milk so that it would keep chasing the rats so that there would be no need for him to have to go begging for another loincloth – oh, and perhaps he ought to plant some rice and a few vegetables for himself as well!

Well, you can guess what happened: he spent so much of his days farming he could hardly find time at all for spiritual pursuits!  He did seek to remedy the situation by hiring some workers to tend the fields, but the workers needed supervision; which led him to the rather patriarchal decision to take a wife who could oversee the operations of the farm, all so he himself could be free to get back to communing with God!  But – you guessed it (!) – his new wife was not content to live under a tree by the river and so he set out to build a house; a large house, especially now she was expecting their first child!

Five years had passed, and the yogi had grown wealthy and fat living there by the banks of the river.  The story goes that one day his teacher reappeared, and asked with some dismay in his voice what had happened in his quest for enlightenment.  “Revered teacher,” replied the yogi, head bowed and eyes to the ground, “this was truly the only way I could keep my loincloth.”

I’ll say it again: so often what life amounts to are the choices that we make; but there will always be something that seeks to distract us from those choices!

Our text for this morning is all about choices and distractions; specifically the choice to follow Jesus and the distractions that threaten to keep us from doing so.  Actually, I don’t know about you, but I have to say that for me this passage from Luke’s gospel feels kind of harsh.  There’s nothing particularly positive in anything that Jesus has to say here; in fact, to borrow a word from another preacher, Jesus’ words come off in this reading as, well, a bit “cranky,” seemingly going “out of his way to say difficult things, things people, even good and decent people, will simply have a hard time accepting, to say nothing of actually doing.” (Rev. Stacey Sauls)

Granted, Luke tells us that this is the point of the gospel story in which Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” and the inevitability of the cross that awaited him there; so there is a certain seriousness about this very pivotal moment.  But to seemingly dismiss that faithful admirer alongside the road promising to follow Jesus wherever he would go by saying, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” or as The Message renders it, “Are you ready to rough it? We’re not staying in the best inns, you know;” and then to answer the would-be follower who first needed to bury his father, and then to another who wished to say farewell to his loved ones with the curt response of “Let the dead bury their own dead,” well, there’s something that most decidedly does not fit the profile of “Jesus, friend, most kind and gentle!” And for the moment, let’s not even talk about Jesus’ rebuke of James and John who were ready to “command [heavenly] fire” to consume the village of Samaritans who had refused to receive Jesus along his journey!

I mean, up till now, all that we’ve heard about this business of following Jesus has had to do with the coming Kingdom of God taking root in our midst and about you and I being “fishers of people;” it’s all been about healing, and miracles and stories of seeds taking root in good soil.  But there’s more to it than that, and now we encounter Jesus in a “teachable moment” that not only shows forth the great seriousness of that call to follow but also reveals the great urgency of it; which is exactly what Jesus is talking about when he says to that wanna-be disciple who first needs to straighten things out at home before he leaves that “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Once again, to make his point Jesus brings forth an image that any of those listening would have understood, and as people who know at least a little bit about the rural culture, so do we!  From an agricultural point of view, it just makes sense: any farmer worth his salt would never think to look back from the plow, for to do so would be to risk cutting a crooked or shallow farrow and thus ruining the work (or more to the point, if I might quote an ancient Greek poem on the subject – from 700 B.C., to be exact – the plowman is one “who attends to his work and drives a straight furrow and no longer gapes after his comrades, but keeps his mind on his work.” [Hesiod, Works and Days]).  The point that Jesus is trying to make here is that in the task before you there is “no place for looking back or even trying to look in two directions at once.”   Quite literally, writes Biblical commentator Mikeal Parsons, Professor of Religion at Baylor University, you can’t be “two-faced,” and so it is with being a disciple of Jesus.  If you are to follow Jesus, you “must be single-minded in purpose, setting [your face] like Jesus on the task at hand.”

What we need to understand about this passage is that Jesus’ words are not as “cranky” as they might seem at first read; indeed, his call (quoting Karoline Lewis of Lutheran Seminary now) “is not an insensitive plea to abandon that which is important to us, who matter to us, who make a difference to us.”  This is not a call to abandon family or to “let the dead bury their own.”  But it is a reminder to you and to me and to all who seek to follow Jesus that there is an important, essential job before us and that every single moment before us matters in what we have to do.  When it involves the Kingdom of God coming into our midst, every moment counts; and thus it includes and encompasses “all the contexts and circumstances of our lives… it is the convergence of time, people, purpose and place.”

Or, to put it far more simply, in and through all the routines and rhythms of our lives, yours and mine, we have decided to follow Jesus… and we dare not let ourselves become distracted from that choice we have made.

The fact is that even when I think about it a little bit, I can totally understand the reaction of those who respond to Jesus calling by saying, “Oh, yes, Lord… absolutely I’ll follow… but first let me take care of a few things.”  I mean, we do want to follow Jesus, right?  That’s kind of why we’re here today: we’ve heard Jesus calling, we’ve built that relationship with God in Christ and we do have some sense of God’s Spirit moving in our lives; this is why we gather ourselves together as the church – even on a hot and muggy June morning (!) – because while we don’t fully understand it and we don’t always know where it’s going to lead us, Christ has called us and we do want to be disciples!  But even given all that, there’s so much in life that seeks to distract us; so much that would take our hand off the plow given the chance:  “real life” distractions, things like job concerns, matters of financial security and the time and space that’s needed to take care of ourselves and people we love.  There’s also the kind of distractions that emanate from the relentless challenges of convoluted days and an over-scheduled life; to say nothing of a pervasive culture that actively tries to pull us in every direction except that where Jesus is walking.  And then, of course, there are the distractions of sin and sorrow and anger and hurt and regret to which we so often tend to cling; precisely the kind of life (or more accurately, the kind of death) from which Jesus has come to save us all in the first place!

Barbara Brown Taylor has written, “Discipleship costs all that we have, all that we love, all that we are.  And Jesus does not want us to be fooled about that.”  That doesn’t mean that in following Jesus we aren’t ever going to love, or to laugh, or to have a life that is rich and full and eventful and surprising.  It just means that the call to follow our Lord where he goes – even unto Jerusalem (!) – doesn’t happen after all of that; it happens while all of that is going one.  Jesus calls us to proclaim the kingdom of God while we’re living… while we’re growing… while we’re grieving… while we’re facing the inevitable changes that come our way… it happens as much while we’re in the midst of our farewells as it does in the new beginnings of our lives.  Discipleship, you see, isn’t something for another day; it’s for now… it’s for here… it’s for life “its own self.”

It’s for planting and it’s for harvest, and in-between that, it’s for plowing… and as Jesus is quick to remind us here, we’d do  very well, you and me, to not be distracted from the task at hand… to ever and always keep our hand to the plow and never look back.

Which begs the question, beloved:  how’s the field looking?

Beloved, I hope and pray that as disciples of our Lord Jesus, we might truly, in the words of the song, “plant our rows straight and long, seasoned with a prayer and song” so that there will be a harvest truly fit for the kingdom.

And as our garden grows, may our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on June 30, 2019 in Discipleship, Jesus, Sermon

 

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God of the Crushed Silence

(a sermon for June 23, 2019, the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, based on 1 Kings 19:1-15)

The time had finally come for us to go home.

We knew that; we’d actually been preparing ourselves for that inevitability for quite some time.  But given the stress of those last few weeks – trying to pack up everything we own so that most of it could go into storage, dealing with countless last minute details and a few tearful goodbyes, to say nothing of seeking to bring some semblance of faith-centered closure to a five year ministry that had been… difficult – we were not only physically exhausted but also emotionally and spiritually drained.  And if that weren’t enough, quite literally as we were packing the last of what was going with us into the cars, our cats – four of them, mind you (!) – choose that moment to decide to make a break for it and scatter throughout the neighborhood!  It took several hours of Sarah and her best friend Breana coaxing the cats back with an opened can of tuna fish (!) and a night spent at a local hotel, but it did happen: early the next morning we did leave Ohio and were finally on our way back to Maine.

And… all these years later I still remember what a terrible, horrible, awful trip it was.

To begin with, as fate would have it, this was the weekend just prior to the 4th of July, which meant that there was nary a decent hotel room to be found anywhere from the Berkshires east; at least not one that didn’t cost an8 arm and a leg, or more importantly, one that was “pet friendly.” (And which – I guess after all this time I can confess this – eventually led us to literally “smuggle” those four cats into a Motel 6 somewhere in Chicopee, MA!) Moreover, it was inordinately hot and muggy that weekend, the traffic was bumper to bumper and interminably slow all the way to Maine, and the whole trip – hour after hour, mile after mile – was accompanied, by the noise of roaring engines, blaring horns, wailing sirens and hip-hop music being played at excessive volume and bass!

I have to tell you, however, that the worst part of it all was that there was way too much time for thinking… thinking about what had brought our family to this moment; thinking about what went wrong and what I could have done differently; thinking about disappointment, and failure, and – if I’m being honest – about the fear and, yes, the anger I was feeling at that moment about a hard present and an uncertain future.  Now, could this have been, at least in part, the inevitable result of all the stress my family and I’d been experiencing, of too little sleep and too much caffeine, to say nothing of having had all this cacophonous road noise filling my ears and brain for two days straight?  Maybe… but let me tell you what I remember the most about that trip: we finally got to northern Maine and to camp about dusk, and we were so tired we didn’t even unpack; we just made up the beds, crawled under the covers and collapsed.  And I remember lying there in the darkness – too exhausted to do anything else but sleep, but so keyed up from all the driving to close my eyes – and in that moment the only thing I could hear was… the quiet.  “A sound of sheer silence,” as scripture so eloquently puts it; a lack of sound so profound and so all-enveloping as to be overwhelming; almost crushing.

And I’d never before heard – or not heard – anything like it.

What’s interesting about our text for this morning, the story of the prophet Elijah’s encounter with God at the cave on Mount Horeb, is that it really should have been should have been the moment of Elijah’s greatest triumph!  After all, he had just come from Mount Carmel, where he’d challenged – and completely routed – some 450 prophets of the pagan god Baal; God’s singular power and presence had been displayed for all to see, and if that weren’t enough, a long-standing drought had come to an end, just as God had promised and as Elijah himself had proclaimed!  By all reasoning, this prophet of God should have been in high spirits, confident for the future and ready for his victory lap!

And yet, as we pick up the story today, Elijah is far from feeling the thrill of victory.  He’s tired, scared and – thanks to a death threat from a vengeful, Baal-worshiping Queen Jezebel and her power yet spineless husband King Ahab – he’s on the run for his very life; first escaping to the city of Beersheeba and now hiding out in the wilderness.  Needless to say this was not how things were supposed to work out; and Elijah – who by now is lamenting his circumstances and feeling pretty desperate – is also filled up with self-pity.  Never mind that an angel is waiting on him with food and drink for the journey; never mind that the Lord himself comes to ask after him: all the while Elijah is ranting about how much had gone so wrong, and fairly well begging God just “to take him now,” since as a prophet he was such an utter failure; “no better than [his] ancestors,” he says.  And he’s thinking, this whole thing’s so unfair: he’d done what the Lord had asked him to do; he’d stood firm in his commitment to God, against all odds and at great personal risk: that ought to count for something, right?  But no… as far as Elijah is concerned this business of being God’s prophet, it’s all for naught… it’s a losing game.

Not exactly the stuff of heroism, is it; nor of the kind o leadership that’s truly of “biblical proportions.”  But we do understand, don’t we?  We get it… because most of us at one time or another have been there.

It’s been said, you know, that this story from 1 Kings is one of relatively few occasions in scripture where we get insight into the inner thoughts and emotions of the characters in the biblical story; mostly we have to rely on things like translation, history, tradition and the overarching message of holy scripture so we can “read between the lines.”  But not this time; we really do know what’s happening with Elijah, because you and I understand all too well what things like crisis and fear and discouragement and utter despair can do to someone; we get how life will at times become so exhausting, so disheartening, so incredibly soul-searing that you end up feeling like you’ve been trampled upon and are too weak to stand. You and I look at Elijah, and we know that there just seems to come a point when, having been beaten down, burnt out and abandoned in the midst of life’s hardships and injustices, we wonder if it’s all worth it.  It’s what led the Psalmist to cry out in despair, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?” (Psalm 42:5)

It’s truly, in the words of the poet, “the dark night of the soul.” But it’s also the place where God comes with power and with love.

And so it is for Elijah; and it’s important to note here that when God comes to Elijah it’s not out of anger nor is it to chastise him for a lack of faith; rather it’s for what might be referred to as “unexpected encouragement” that defies our expectations.  As it turns out, God does not come in the power of a wind so destructive it was “splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces;” nor was the Lord to be found of an earthquake after that; and no, God’s voice isn’t one of fiery judgment and divine retribution.

When God speaks, it’s with silence.

In fact, in one of the richest images that’s found in the Old Testament, we’re told that the voice of the Lord comes in “a sound of sheer silence,” as it’s often translated, “a still, small voice;”  I’ve even seen it referred to as “a whistling of gentle air.” Actually, I’ll give you still another translation, from the original Hebrew, which directly translates in English to a “crushing silence;” that is, a quiet so all-encompassing that it envelops and overwhelms everything else around it.  Or to put it another way, it’s God’s voice speaking at the exclusion of all others; and this was a voice of mercy, compassion and love, a voice that spoke directly to Elijah’s heart, leaving him so exposed and so vulnerable that, we’re told, he immediately wrapped his face in his robe because it was all too overwhelming for him to face.  I mean, can you imagine it?  Can you even envision how it would be for you and me to stand there with all the noise suddenly silenced and every one of our fears and doubts on full display to God in all his glory?  But it’s precisely in hearing the voice of God in that crushed silence that Elijah could begin to find his healing and hope.

And so it is for you and for me; indeed, so often what it takes is get past the cacophonous noise of our lives – that unending barrage of sound that comes both from outside and within –  so that we might start to hear the voice of the Almighty speaking directly to us in the midst of the quiet.  And while when we finally do hear it the effect might be jarring – even crushing, if you will – when we stop to hear God’s voice, to listen and yes, to actually, pay attention to what’s being said, it’s there we find the peace we’re looking for and we’ve so needed, and might I add, renewal for the way ahead; because it’s also worth noting in this story that when Elijah finally comes out of the cave to, this time, really listen to God, what does God do?  God sends him to Damascus on another assignment!  As Richard Nelson has written, “God’s therapy for prophetic burnout [usually] includes both the assignment of new tasks and the certain promise of a [new] future that transcends the prophet’s own success or lack of it.”  In other words, friends, in the silence God helps us to move forward in faith, in service and in love.

Now, I would like to tell you that on that dark night of my own soul so many years ago that having experienced a truly “crushing silence” that I was suddenly aware of the voice of God speaking to me, and that immediately everything was okay and life went on much better than before; that certainly would have been a better ending to my story today, but the truth is that I still had a rather long and occasionally arduous journey ahead of me.  But I will tell you this much:  that night I slept better than I had in weeks; months, even.  And the next night, once again retiring to the evening quiet of our “pond,” it was the same thing all over again.  In fact, all through that summer, I came to look forward to those times of dwelling in the “crushed silence,” because it was there, away and apart from all the noise, I could let go of anguish and the fear and the despair; it was there where I could weep; it was there I could pray… and there where I could listen.  And I didn’t know it at the time, but it was there where I was being encouraged to move forward and to be led along the very first steps of a journey that, while still involving a few twists and turns, would by God’s grace and mercy eventually lead me… here.

It is a noisy world out there, beloved, and sometimes it’s just more than we can take!  My hope and prayer for each one of us today is that we would seek to come away and apart from the cacophony so that we might truly hear and listen to our God of the crushed silence, who even now is calling our name and offering up peace, comfort… and life for today, tomorrow and always.

In praise of the one who speaks in that still, small voice, may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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A New Podcast: “Love to Tell the Story!”

Over the now 35 years (!) I’ve spent in the ministry, I’ve come to realize that a large part of what I do, in particular as a preacher, has to do with being a storyteller.

Nearly every Sunday I have the unique privilege and great joy of standing in front of a congregation to “tell the story;” the Biblical story, first and foremost, but also stories related to our Christian faith and how that gets lived out in life, yours and mine. It remains, even after all these years, my favorite part of ministry and, might I add, the most fun I have on the job! And so, spurred on by my family, encouraged by the good folk of the congregation I serve here in New Hampshire and in the interest of finding new and creative ways of telling those stories of faith I’m pleased to announce I’ve recently launched a pastoral podcast:  it’s called “Love to Tell the Story,” and as the title suggests, it consists of “sermons, devotional and other random stories” emanating from my life as a husband, father, Christian and New England pastor, including some some audio recordings of messages delivered from the East Church pulpit (the texts of which have been posted on this blog), regular mid-week reflections about life and faith and… well, a story or two.

Please know that I will continue to post sermons and reflections on this blog, but I’m really excited about this new opportunity and new means of storytelling, and I invite you to check it out… also know that this is very much a work in progress and I hope you’ll let me know what you think.

To listen by computer or phone app, visit https://anchor.fm/michael-lowry, or via Spotify, Google Podcasts and Breaker as well as other podcast apps, with more to be announced soon!

 
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Posted by on June 20, 2019 in Sermon

 

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