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The People of What Happens Next

(a sermon for May 28, 2017, the 7th Sunday of Easter, based on Acts 1:1-14)

Actually, for me the whole scene has the look and the feel of a high school or college graduation!

To begin with, this story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven represents the last gathering of Jesus with his disciples and marks the end of a long and remarkable journey: from the shores of Galilee where this disparate group of fishermen, tax collectors and societal outcasts first heard Jesus’ call, through the agonies of the cross, to the empty tomb and beyond; indeed, we’re told that in the forty days just past Jesus had “presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them… and speaking about the kingdom of God.”  But that was all coming to an end, and now as “they were together for the last time,” (The Message) Jesus is giving these disciples some last minute instructions for the way ahead:  “on no account” should you leave Jerusalem, but instead you “‘must wait for what the Father promised: the promise you heard from me.’” Soon, and very soon, you see, “you will be baptized by the Holy Spirit!”

See what I mean here?  Just as in any kind of graduation ceremony there’s a definite sense of closure, but there’s also this baffling and rather disconcerting reference to the mysterious future that is just about to unfold!  I remember very well my own graduation from Bangor Seminary; in particular the moment when our seminary president, the Rev. Dr. Wayne Glick, stood at the podium and informed us in his rich, Appalachian drawl, “You people think you have learned all you need to know here at the seminary… well, I am here to tell you that the learning has just begun!”  What?  You mean to say that our full three years of engaging in intense biblical study, all that wrestling with theological conundrums both old and new, to say nothing of all of the “on the job training” for any and all pastoral challenges that we faced as student pastors wasn’t going to be enough?  To employ the language of the Old Testament, “Oy Vey!”

But you see, that’s the nature of these kinds of moments, isn’t it? You’ve reached this very important place in your life’s journey when everything has rightly seemed to come into focus, and yet – I dare say even for those whose pathway seems solidly set before them – there is an uncertainty about it all that is both unsettling and even at times terrifying!

And so it is for the disciples; especially after they ask Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” and Jesus answers, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” Can you even imagine what the eleven of them had to have been thinking at this point?  Jesus, we’ve come all this way and have experienced so much; to the point where the kingdom is in our very grasp and now you won’t even tell us when it’s going to happen?  Nope… as The Message translates it, “You don’t get to know the time.  Timing is the Father’s business.”

Oy Vey, indeed!  This was obviously not the answer they were looking for; they’d figured that now that the resurrection had happened everything else – for the world and for them – would most certainly fall into place.  But now they find out that their journey goes on, that the way ahead is just about as uncertain as it was before, and the Kingdom… well, the Kingdom will come when the Kingdom will come, and that’s all you really get to know right now!

But, Jesus goes on to say, even though you don’t get to know what happens next, “what you’ll get is the Holy Spirit.”  “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Power:  in the Greek, dunamis, meaning dynamic, dynamo or even dynamite; Witnesses: from the Greek word marturos, from where we get our word martyr!  So, in other words, what Jesus says to them – the very last thing that Jesus says to them, by the way (!) – is that the way ahead for you is still uncertain, but that the Holy Spirit, which God has promised to give you, will provide you with the power, the dynamic, if you will, to keep on the journey ahead and to be my witnesses even when that way ahead proves to be very difficult; but moreover to do so with a clear sense of purpose and with joy!  You are being called to go “all in;” to live wholly and completely unto your faith, bearing witness to God’s enduring presence wherever you are and in whatever comes. What happens next?  In many ways, you are the people of what happens next!

And with that said, Jesus ascended into heaven.

“As they were watching,” Luke writes, “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”  Just like that.  It’s no wonder that apparently, the disciples spent a long time “staring up into the empty sky;” also no wonder that it took two men “in white robes” to stir them out of their reverie, saying, “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” This Jesus, “who was just taken from among you to heaven will come as certainly – and mysteriously – as he left.”   The message was clear:  the time for standing around was over; there would be a moment when Jesus would return, but for now the next part of the journey – this immense, mysterious and seemingly improbable journey – was just beginning.

I love what  Barbara Brown Taylor has written about this; it comes from her book Gospel Medicine and she says that “no one standing around watching them that day could have guessed what an astounding thing happened when they all stopped  looking into the sky and looked at each other instead.   But in the days and years to come it would become very apparent… with nothing but a promise and a prayer, those eleven people consented to become the church and nothing was ever the same again, beginning with them.  The followers became leaders, the listeners became preachers, the converts became missionaries, the healed became healers.  The disciples became apostles, witnesses of the risen Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit… [and] surprising things began to happen.  They began to say things that sounded like him, and they began to do things they had never seen anyone but him do before.  They became,” concludes Taylor, believers who were “brave and capable and wise.”

They became the church… they were formed into a gathered community of people bound by a common mission and a shared calling, to witness unto the resurrection of Jesus Christ; beginning in those times and situations where perhaps only two or more are gathered, but then maybe throughout Jerusalem, and then Judea and Samaria, and then… who knows, even “to the ends of the earth.”  It’s a mission that has endured throughout the centuries…

… and it is the same calling that is extended and continues in you and in me today.

That’s right… lest we forget in these days of confused situations: this story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven; this story of this time that exists between “the now” of the world as we currently know it, and the “not yet” of the world as it is promised it will someday be?  It’s our story just as much as it was theirs; and as the church, you see, as the church of this generation, we are “the people of what happens next.”

You see, in every generation the question has always been the same:  when is the church truly being the church of Jesus Christ?  How that question gets answered and the ways that faith is expressed most certainly has grown and adapted over the course of those generations and in keeping with changing times and new challenges.  But ultimately, the answer to that question – when is the church truly being the church – has never changed; we are the church when we are living wholly and completely as witnesses of the Risen Christ!

We are the church when we speak boldly of the truth of Jesus’ teachings (by our words, if necessary, but much more importantly by our example) unto people and unto a world that is hurting profusely and is desperate for love, and for justice, and for a peace that the world cannot provide.  We are the church when we make the commitment to not be passive about moving into the future, letting ourselves become diminished by whatever the world’s latest set of priorities happen to be; but rather to let the power of God’s own Holy Spirit be our own dynamic as persons and as a people, so that we might truly be part and parcel of “what happens next” for the sake of God’s Kingdom within us and all around us, starting right here on Mountain Road, in Concord and New Hampshire, and even “to the ends of the earth.”

And don’t misunderstand me here; for us to be an effective “witness” is not measured by the size or the scope of the effort; but rather by its sincerity and the depth of its love.

Many years ago – I think it was that same summer I graduated from seminary – I was actually on vacation and got a call on a Sunday afternoon from a member of the church where I had been serving as a student, and now newly ordained, pastor.  “I just wanted to tell you what happened this morning, so you didn’t hear about it via the grapevine,” she said, and went on to tell me how one of the older women of the church had suffered a stroke during that morning’s worship service.  Apparently, they’d just finished singing the middle hymn (which at that church was sung just before the sermon), and though everyone else had sat down, “Edna” remained standing, unresponsive to those in the pew next to her.

Now understand that under ordinary circumstances this was a small congregation, but in mid-August, and while the pastor was away, it was downright cozy!   So there was no way this was going to happen quietly or unobtrusively; and of course, everyone immediately gathered around Edna. The worship leader that day, as I recall, was a lay preacher from our association name Leona, and even she put aside her sermon notes and she also came down from the altar to see what she could do to help.

As it was described to me, everybody had a job.  One of the women was a retired nurse, so she started checking vital signs.  Another quickly went to the kitchen to bring in some cold water, while still another rushed to the phone to call an ambulance. One of the men went out to the head of the church driveway to flag down the EMT unit when it arrived.  As for the rest of the congregation, they either prayed quietly or held hands with others as they prayed.   Soon enough, the ambulance came and the paramedics did their work, but even the folks of the congregation waited and watched as they took Edna back to the hospital for a full examination; with a couple of them going along for emotional support.

And after the ambulance had left, the members of the congregation going back to their pews, one of the Deacons of that church (as I recall, he was always a Deacon of that church!), turned to Leona and said, “Well, Madam Pastor, I guess you can preach that sermon now.”  And with incredible wisdom, Leona just smiled and said, “I think you folks already did.”

It’s a scene that as a church pastor I’ve seen repeated time and time again over the years; I’ve seen it happen here at East Church and with you in a whole variety of wonderful, life-giving, gospel proclaiming ways!

Beloved, we are, each and every one of us here, called to be witnesses to the Risen Christ and a living testimony to the Kingdom of God taking root and flourishing in our midst. What we do here in this place, and also what we do out there, serves to proclaim the ways that faith informs and directs what, for the sake of our faith, we intend for one another, for our families and friends, for our community and for our world.  We are the people of what happens next by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit working within us.

And so let us be bold in our witness; let us truly go “all in” for what we know is true.  Let the good news be heard and seen… in us.

May God in Christ bless our witness, and may our thanks for all things be unto God.

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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An Advocate for the Way

(a sermon for May 21, 2017, the 6th Sunday of Easter, based on John 14:15-27)

It might be the worst feeling of any we experience in this life: to suddenly realize you are completely, utterly and helplessly… alone.

Most of us, I suspect, can name times when it certainly felt that way to us: maybe in those first few awful days living away from home and family for the very first time, and thinking that feeling of homesickness would never go away; or perhaps in moments of overwhelming grief and loneliness after a loved one has passed away; or more than likely, at some point amidst some “bump in the road” in life when we’re absolutely certain that absolutely no one else could ever know or understand what we’re going through!  It’s a horrible feeling, to be sure; but thanks be to God (and also that friend who reaches out with a phone call or a casserole), that feeling of aloneness eventually passes

But what if it doesn’t?

Think, for instance, of those who struggle through issues such as financial trauma, job loss, physical illness or mental and emotional health, domestic violence, broken relationships and so much more I could name here; to go through all that, and yet have nowhere to turn in the midst of it all and to have no one who will stand with them in their struggle!  Or consider the children, some who live in our own community, who have been left to their own devices because of abuse and neglect, and very poor choices on the part of their families.  Or how about those people we all know who go through each and every day and every circumstance of their lives believing that they are somehow unworthy of love and thus utterly unlovable; who have come to see themselves as alone, lonely and forever isolated in the world; where they even come to believe that God has abandoned them?

To be alone like that might well be the worst possible thing to ever happen to us in this life; in the words of Bob Dylan, “to be on your own… a complete unknown… with no direction home?” (I’ll spare you my Dylan impression here!)  And so isn’t it amazing then, that during that time we’ve come to know as “the night of betrayal and desertion,” our Maundy Thursday, those moments literally just a few short hours before his own crucifixion, Jesus gives to his disciples and to us a promise: “I will not leave you orphaned.”   Or, depending on particular translation of scripture you might employ, “I will not leave you comfortless… abandoned… bereft… desolate… or alone.”  No matter how you read the verse, it’s an astounding promise:  I will not leave you alone; “I am coming to you.  In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.”

Our text for this morning comes from the portion of John’s gospel that is known as “The Farewell Discourses,” which represent the conversation that took place at the table in the upper room during the last supper on the night of Jesus’ betrayal.  It encompasses four full chapters of John, and one definitely gets the feeling that Jesus, fully aware of what was about to transpire, wanted to say as much as he possibly could to the disciples in the time he had left.  This is also, arguably, one of the most deeply theological passages of the gospels; in fact, as the last of the four gospels written (probably 60 years after the resurrection!), it’s clear that John sought for the early church to be able to put all of the events and teachings emanating from Jesus’ life, death and resurrection in its proper context; all of which is simply to remind us that Jesus’ words here are meant as much for you and me as they were for the disciples.

For you see, Jesus understood – most especially on this fateful night – that faith can often have a very short memory.  Life can seem to have more than its share of struggles; troubles mount to the point of becoming overwhelming, and in the process the strength that comes in believing will inevitably begin to fall away. Jesus knew – and so do we – that it is all too easy for us in this world to feel as though we are all alone; even when the truth is that we never were alone at all.  As the agonizing hours leading up to the cross would prove, when things are at their worst even the most devoted of disciples can scatter, or worst of all, begin to deny that which they’ve always known in their heart of hearts to be true.  So the question becomes, when our backs are against the wall and our memory of the divine around us and within us becomes faulty, how will we remember?  How will we live faithfully in the midst of all the uncertainties of that life; to, as Jesus tells us, to “love [him]… and keep [his] commandments?”  How are we to know what that even means moving forward; so that we won’t feel abandoned and alone in this difficult and often cruel world?

And therein comes that incredible promise: for to all these questions and so many more that we ask, Jesus answers that he will not leave us alone; but that he will “ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.”  An advocate… in the Greek, “Paraclete,” another biblical word that gets translated in a variety of ways: like as a “counselor” or “helper,” a “comforter,” “teacher,”  “friend.” …and Spirit.  The Spirit of truth, says Jesus, who will abide with us and will be in us; who will remind us again and again, even in those times when it will seem as though we’ve long forgotten, of just who and whose we are; and never, ever alone on the way.

This, beloved, was the promise that would serve to sustain those disciples as they moved from the despair of the cross to the glory of resurrection and beyond to the unfolding of their “Great Commission;” and it is the promise that remains our on-going word of hope as we move forward with our own lives today.  The Rev. Dr. Anna Hosemann-Butler, a Methodist pastor and writer out of Texas, describes this hope very well: in these few words from John’s gospel, she writes, “we seem to have the sum total of how to claim a full life in the face of the fear, terror, panic, isolation, loss, and grief that comes simply from living, that comes simply by the very nature of or existence in this world.”  In Jesus’ promise of a Spirit of truth – this “Advocate for the Way” – we will discover “what it means to live faithfully in the midst of life,” meeting every joy, every sorrow and every challenge that comes our way “with full assurance that we are loved [by God], no matter what,” and that because of this love, which is unceasing, “we are never alone, no matter what.”

This is not to say, of course, that by virtue of this Advocate/Spirit, those answers we seek for the way ahead come to us instantaneously and with utmost clarity; indeed, I think we all realize that there are far too many grey areas in this life for that to happen!  But even then, you’ll notice that Jesus is clear about faithfulness will come about, and it’s two-fold:  first, that “if you love me, you will keep my commandments;” and second, that “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit… will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you.”  In other words, to love the Lord is to love his word and to keep his word; and that will make all the difference in what follows.  Or, if I might borrow the words of one David Sellery: “Fill your heart with [God’s] love, and there will be no room for hate.  Fill your day with [God’s] love and there will be no time for mischief.”  But… even if along the way you forget what this love entails, or if it happens that this love may require a broader view of things (or perhaps more to the point a change in our view of things!), here comes the Advocate to teach us everything; to open our minds and our hearts to God’s presence, God’s intent and purpose for our lives, and above all, to bring us a deeper awareness of God’s great and redeeming love, which brings to us not only a fresh understanding of everything that Jesus has said to us, but also in the process offers us a peace that the world, for all of its supposed wisdom, cannot provide!

In that regard, isn’t it interesting there always seems to be this connection between the responsibilities of discipleship and this divine peace?  I’m reminded here of the story of Brother Lawrence, an early 17th century brother in a monastery in France, famous for his collection of writings on the subject of  “practicing the presence of God” even in the midst of his most routine daily tasks in the monastery;  things like baking, doing dishes and cleaning floors.  Lawrence saw each one of these tasks as a prayer unto the Lord; moreover as a means of developing “the habit of unbroken conversation with God without any artificiality” and thus discerning the good and proper pathway for his life.  In this unbroken communion with God, Lawrence concluded, we are “continually absorbed in praising, worshipping and loving God for his infinite acts of loving-kindness and perfection.”

As a spiritual discipline, it’s a beautiful thing (though I have to confess that I probably wouldn’t be very good at it; I’d likely be far more focused on the inner reflection rather than on the immediate task of getting all the pots and pans clean!).  Brother Lawrence’s example serves to remind us that true faith is not so much going to be found in the rush of warm, fuzzy feelings that’ll come to us at the very thought of God, but rather faith will be revealed in the manner of life and living that God’s presence has inspired in us!  Indeed, we are the people of a legacy, left by Jesus himself: we are called as disciples to continue loving our neighbor as ourselves; to see our brother and sister as God sees them and sees as all; and to live out of what we know of Jesus both in word and in deed.

Granted, for us to truly embody that kind of love in the world is at best a challenging thing; sometimes it’s even a risky proposition, given the climate of that world these days; frankly, these are times in which it simply seems much easier and safer to just keep silent than it is to act boldly for the sake what we believe.   But that is why we have an advocate for the way; a Spirit of God’s own singular truth to keep us “on task” and make us ever aware that in divine love, we keep Christ’s commandments; and as we do so, God is loving us and making a home with us; that we might never, ever be alone… in this life and the life that is to come

It is no wonder that as Jesus himself can say to us, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

So let us walk and live in faith; and as we do, may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on May 21, 2017 in Holy Spirit, Jesus, Sermon

 

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The Faithfulness of Exuberant Giving

One springtime some years ago I was asked to lead a graveside committal service for an 89 year old man from Florida who had passed away earlier that winter, and whose dying wish had been to be buried in the cemetery of our little town in Maine where he was born and raised, with the service led by the pastor of the church where he’d grown up; this despite the fact that he hadn’t even visited our town, or the church, in at least 70 years.  However, this was the one place he’d always thought of as home and it was very important to him that at the last, he would return there. When I spoke with the man’s widow about the service itself she suggested that perhaps I could look through church records to find some “historical reference” to her late husband’s activity in our congregation those many years ago; a task that in all honesty I was already thinking was going be like finding the proverbial needle in the haystack!

And I’ll admit, it was difficult; in fact, all I could manage to find was a reference to this man’s third-grade Sunday School class being presented with Bibles on a church “Children’s Sunday” way back in 1908! It wasn’t much at all, but it was enough; in one of those wonderful moments of grace that can only be attributed to the Holy Spirit, it turned out that the man’s family had brought with them that very same bible so they could show me!

The service ended up both a fitting memorial and a true celebration of life; and when it was all over, the man’s widow came up to offer her sincere thanks and presented me with an envelope which contained a very nice financial gift which was meant as her family’s contribution to the church’s work.  I thanked her very much for her generosity, passed on the money to our church treasurer and figured that was that.

Except it wasn’t: a few weeks later, I get this registered letter from some legal firm in Florida which contained another check from this woman in the amount of… well, let’s just say, a rather sizeable amount of money; designated specifically for the church’s restoration project. Moreover, the enclosed letter explained that there were to be more checks coming to the church in the future, the only request being that the money be put to good use and that the giver remain anonymous.  And if that weren’t more than enough, for a number of Christmases that followed Lisa and I would find this huge box of Florida grapefruit delivered to our doorstep, accompanied by a handwritten card from this same woman wishing our family well!

It was, to say the least, a wonderful series of gestures on her part; in fact, one day a couple of years in (!), one of her lawyers called me to confirm the church’s address; and in the course of our conversation, I made the comment of just how incredibly generous she had been to us.  The lawyer simply laughed and said, “Oh, Pastor, you don’t know the half of it!”  He went on to explain that some years before this woman had determined that her children and grandchildren were all financially comfortable on their own and thus in no need of her or her husband’s money.  So since as the saying goes, “you can’t take it with you,” she was determined to use up all that money before she died; making donations to countless charities, schools and churches, all with the stipulation that no “big deal” be made out of it.  The lawyer went on to describe how this old woman (who was in her 90’s at the time, mind you!) would walk into his office once a month with a brand new list of places for him to send more of her money, adding with a chuckle, “I’ve never seen anyone so happy about giving everything she has away!”

Even all these years later, I still smile when I think about it; and I have to confess that the memory of her extravagant giving always puts me in mind of the gospel story of the “Widow’s Mite” (Mark 12:40-44).  Granted, there are fundamental differences in these two widows: unlike the poor woman that Jesus honored for her supremely sacrificial gift at the temple treasury (“two small copper coins,” says Mark, “which are worth a penny.”), our benefactor from the Sunshine State was most definitely not poverty stricken and certainly had an abundance of resources at her disposal; so perhaps her giving was not wholly sacrificial. Nonetheless, there was in her own motivation a joyful exuberance for giving that both praised and served God; an utter gladness about what she was doing which was surely grounded in a true and active faith.  One thing was for certain: all we who were the recipients of that gladness were most certainly blessed because of it!

In a smaller church like the one I am now privileged to serve, where budgets are always tight and stewardship is an on-going concern, so much of the important work of ministry we do together is both equipped and empowered by this same kind of exuberant giving. Of course, these things don’t always happen on the grand scale of what I described above; most often around here it’s done quietly and without much fanfare, usually as a response to a specific need in the church or the result of someone taking notice that something wonderful could happen in our midst “if only” there were the proper resources available; sometimes it’s simply been an instance of good people showing up to help out at exactly the right time!

But no matter the variety of the gift, I’ve found that there’s always this joyful extravagance in the way that it is given; and as a pastor, I stand in wonder at just how representative it is of the kind of exuberant, faithful giving that not only builds up the church, but also ends up a true expression of the Kingdom of God in our midst.

Certainly by any measure, that makes us supremely blessed indeed!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on May 18, 2017 in Church, Joy, Ministry, Reflections, Stewardship

 

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