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To Become Part of the Wind

(a sermon for May 20, 2018, Pentecost Sunday, based on Acts 2:1-21 and John 20:19-23)

Dr. Ron Lawrence is, at 92 years young, a retired professor of neurosurgery at UCLA Medical School; but he is perhaps even better known as a devout long distance runner, having run over 200 marathons in his lifetime, many of these even as he was well into his 80’s; an impressive achievement by any standard, so he’s also become something of a guru amongst marathoners.  I mention him today because some years ago, I read a magazine article he wrote about his running regimen that, though I’ll never be confused with someone who has ever had any kind of running regimen (!), it really hit me where I live.

The piece actually had to do with the various mental images that Ron Lawrence himself used to help him with the stamina and mental focus it takes to get through a difficult marathon.  He wrote in the article that “if [for instance] I’m going out for an 18-mile run, I will use a mental image in which I see my body as a collection of separate molecules.  [As I’m running] I’ll actually envision the air rushing through my body, until it’s as if I’ve become part of the wind.”  It was this image that not only fueled but enhanced his experience of running the marathon; and I remember reading that article and immediately thinking to myself, Yeah!  I get that!   I understood what Lawrence was talking about there, because that’s exactly how it is when I’m sailing!

Now, I know I’ve shared with you a few of my sailing stories over the years, but understand that most of my sailing experience has been on lakes as opposed to the ocean; and since most of our lakes in this part of the world are surrounded by hills and notches, the wind by which we sail tends to be rather gusty, whipping down around the hills, through the valleys and across the lake.  Sometimes, quite literally, the wind just seems to come out of nowhere; it makes for great sailing, but the thing is, you have to pay attention lest you be caught off guard, and you and your sailboat end up capsized in the water!

Let me tell you that some of these gusts of wind are so intense that you literally begin to feel the force of that wind pushing the boat both ahead and to the side.  You hear the sound of the bow slicing through the waves and the shudder of the bilge boards as you pick up a bit of speed.  And before long, you’re experiencing the sheer power of it:  the job and mainsail lines are pulling at your hands and making them burn; your arms growing tense and tired as you work to trim the sails; your whole body aching from having leaned out over the high side of the boat to keep it from heeling over too far!

But more than something merely physical, in that moment of what I would consider to be perfect sailing it’s almost like you’ve been picked up and carried by some invisible force!  You want to yell – and trust me, you do (!) – but mostly, you just keep focusing on the task at hand, doing what you have to do so that the wind will take you where it will.  You’re in control, but at the same time you’re not; in that moment, you really do become part of the wind!

Of course, the other side of lake sailing comes in those moments when the gusts disappear, the wind dies as quickly as it arises and now you’re out on the lake seemingly without a breath of breeze!   And when that happens – trust me again (!) – you either start paddling, or you wait, sometimes for hours at a time (!), for the wind to return.  But even then… even when you’ve been sitting out there on a glassy pond all afternoon thinking there’s nothing more that’s going to happen today, you look up and notice that the sails have just begun to move; first they flutter and “luff,” then they begin, ever so gently and slowly, to billow out.  Then you look down and see that your boat is just beginning to cut through the mirror image of the water.  Understand, it’s barely perceptible, but you are moving; there is a breeze at work and you’ve just become a part of it!  Just a little breath of hope, but I can vouch for the fact that those little wisps of air can bring you home in a way that’s every bit as incredible as the rushes of wind you experience on a gusty afternoon.

Two different kinds of experiences, but the same wind; the same source moving us in one direction, but with a different kind of intensity that blows us along in a different way…

…which actually, when you think about it, is an apt description of the Holy Spirit; for after all, isn’t this how God comes to us, both on the rush of a mighty wind as well as on the breath of a single breeze?  Friends, I’m here to tell you this morning that this is the dual nature of this amazing gift of Spirit that God bestows upon his people; and this is what this Day of Pentecost is all about.

It’s all borne out in scripture, of course.  The “mighty wind” of the Spirit is described for us in the Acts of the Apostles as “a sound like the rush of a violent wind” coming from heaven itself!  In The Message, it’s described as a “gale force” wind (a sailor’s reference, there!) so pervasive that no one could tell where it came from, but which could be felt even in the upper room where the disciples themselves were gathered.  And it wasn’t to be dismissed or ignored; we’re told that “like a wildfire, [this Spirit] spread through their ranks, and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them.” [The Message] And before any of them could even begin to understand or process what was going on, here were all these people on the streets, all these devout Jews staying in Jerusalem for the festival, suddenly bewildered and dumbfounded that they’re hearing the “God’s deeds of power” declared in their own mother tongues!

Now, some would dismiss it as drunken behavior; others were so confused they couldn’t begin to make sense of it; but a few of them somehow knew that this strange occurrence had to be of God.  They listened with awe to the proclamation given by Peter that God would “pour out [his] Spirit on all [people], that [their] sons and daughters [would] prophesy, [their] young men [would] see visions, and [their] old men [would] dream dreams.”   It was the stuff of high drama, no doubt; as literally and spiritually, God’s own Spirit came to them with the power of a hurricane.  And best of all?  All those who would let that raging wind touch them, blow through them, and carry them became a part of that Spirit; they became a part of the wind.

It’s an amazing story, no doubt; but compare this to the other account we have of the Spirit’s “gifting” from John’s gospel.  It’s a real study in contrasts, for whereas Luke tells his story in Acts with excitement and electricity and vigor, John’s account is quiet, serene, a bit understated and well, rather mysterious.  You know the story:  it’s Easter night, the disciples are still hidden away, fearful for their lives; and yet reeling not only from everything that had transpired in the past few days, but from the very real possibility that Jesus may have actually risen from the dead!

So think of it for a moment: it’s quiet and dark, there’s this group of grieving, fearful people huddled together because they had nowhere else to be, no one else to go to… but and now, suddenly and without warning, there in the midst of them is Jesus, standing among them, greeting them, as most certainly he always did, with the Hebrew greeting of Shalom“Peace be with you.”  So, as opposed to the rush of a mighty wind out of heaven, we’re told here that Jesus “breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit,’” giving these scared disciples life in much the same manner as God breathed life into clay at the time of creation; and when that happened, immediately, hopelessness gave way to assurance and joy!  It was the gentle breeze that blows across what seems to be a dead calm; the almost imperceptible momentum moving you from sea to shore and home.  Jesus breathed the breath of God upon them, and the disciples became part of that breeze, imbued with power to forgive and to heal as they had been forgiven.

Two different kinds of experiences, but the same wind; the same Spirit moving us in one direction, but with a different kind of intensity that blows us along in a different way…

Now I realize that these two stories offer up the kind of contradictory biblical conundrum that both skeptics and biblical scholars love to debate!  But I would suggest to you this morning that the point is not whether one version of the story is of more accuracy or importance than the other; rather it’s the abiding truth that God’s Spirit does come, with creative and renewing power!  It’s how God’s Spirit was given to us in two different, yet entirely unified ways; but then, that’s how it’s always been with God.  It’s there in Holy Scripture from Genesis to Revelation, and it’s the resounding theme of our Christian faith: that God comes to his people in a variety of ways and means, and those people are moved and changed in their encounter with the living God.

And friends, the good news is that continues in you, and in me.

So yes… God comes to us like a mighty wind, making us part of God’s own powerful presence of love.  God storms us at times like fire, with rough and cleansing gusts:  the addict who bottoms out; the couple who suddenly recognize in sharp detail the tensions that are pulling their marriage and family apart; the cancer patient who somehow garners the fighting spirit he or she needs to live.  These are people who just might have experienced the gale force of God in their lives in a truth discerned in the midst of the fray, or a presence discovered while the wind is blowing strong around them.  Maybe it’s a mountaintop experience when in one, incredible moment, all of life just seems to come together at once; or perhaps, more likely, it comes in the times spent meandering in the valley, the moments we feel so low that only a great stirring could ever possibly lift you up.  Either way, friends, these are the doors, the windows, the cracks and the crevices through which God’s Spirit pushes through, carrying us to freedom; and making us aware that we’ve become part of the wind.

Yet, God also comes to us quietly, at times almost imperceptive, in a way as unnoticed yet as intimate as breathing itself:  the realization that finally, after a long siege of life’s challenges, the struggle is… over!  The beauty of a sunset setting the sky ablaze in orange, the magnificence of a star-filled sky in mid-summer, or a precious early morning moment of quiet before the day begins; those times in which, much to our surprise and wonder, we’re suddenly seeing things in perfect clarity, and maybe for the first time it all makes sense!  Even when it doesn’t make sense, but still you know it’s going to be okay, because you’re palpably aware that you have that peace that the world neither gives nor takes away.  These are the treasured moments of our lives in which for reasons we can’t explain or describe or rationalize away, we know in deepest part of our souls that we are embraced, lifted, sheltered and loved; the times in which we’ve become part of the quiet Spirit of God; we’ve become part of the wind.

Two different kinds of experiences, but the same wind; the same Spirit moving us in one direction, but with a different kind of intensity that blows us along in a different way…

That’s the message we need to take home with us on this Pentecost Sunday.  The Holy Spirit is God’s divine gift, and we need to open ourselves to receiving it with gladness and in anticipation of what God wants to do in and through our lives.  Perhaps the storms that blow in our midst are more than storms; and, maybe the profound silence we’re experiencing at the moment is much more than it seems as well.  It could well be that for each and all of us, God is moving, stirring… blowing.

That’s our good news, beloved, so let us open ourselves to God’s stirrings, not only now as we worship together, and but most especially as we head out into the challenge and uncertainty of another week.  Who knows how God’s wind will blow through us this week, and how we might find ourselves becoming a part of that wind?

Come, Holy Spirit… Come!

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on May 20, 2018 in Holy Spirit, Jesus, Maine, Sermon

 

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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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Jesus Who Prays For Me

(a sermon for May 13, 2018, the 7th Sunday of Easter, based on  John 17:6-21)

What a feeling it is to realize that you have been prayed for.

It’s been almost 20 years now, but as you can imagine, the events surrounding our oldest son’s first surgery for the removal of a pituitary tumor are still indelibly etched in our family’s collective memory.  All of it: from the discovery, after a long search, of the tumor itself and the decision that something akin to brain surgery (the first of what turned out to be four such procedures over the next ten years or so) would be necessary to remove it; through the countless doctors’ appointments, consultations and follow-up visits; and leading up to all those horrible hours spent in hospital waiting rooms waiting for news.  It was a difficult situation, to say the very least; and this is to say nothing of the hard realization that all the medical advances in the world mean nothing when it’s your kid being wheeled into the operating room!

But that said I also have to say that what I also remember about that time was being awed, amazed and utterly humbled by the prayers being prayed for our son.  Now, we knew that our families and our friends would be praying for Jake as he was going through this, and that of course meant everything; and given not only that we were members of a close-knit church family but also that I was pastor of that congregation, we were very grateful to know that the church would be praying as well!  But I guess what was surprising was the depth, intensity and the utter expanse of that prayerfulness; as revealed by the women who gathered in the sanctuary on the morning of the surgery so that they could pray together at the exact moment the doctors were operating; or as evidenced by the prayers coming from the people in other churches in town, as well as from those at Jake’s school, others throughout the community and even from perfect strangers (!) who would came up to us in the supermarket to embrace us and let us know in a variety of ways that they’d been praying for us.

Friends, over the course of several months we got cards and letters from people we hadn’t heard from in forever or barely knew at all; and not only that, but also notes from churches out of town (and even out of state!) who wished us well and who wanted us to know that Jake’s name had been brought up in prayer concerns during morning worship!  I think my favorite, however, were the cards and pictures that came to us from an anonymous someone in Connecticut – we never did find out exactly who – but which was always signed by their cat, “Mittens;” as in, “Mittens is praying that Jake feels “purr-fect” very soon!”

It was amazing, it was uplifting… and it mattered.  It not only offered up to us a large measure of comfort and encouragement at a time when it was sorely needed, it also revealed something to us of the love of Christ in the midst of all our worry and stress.  All those prayers, no matter what their shape or form, made a real difference in our lives; it was such an incredible feeling, and so very important for us to know that our son was being prayed for; that Lisa and I and our whole family was being prayed for; and that there those out there who cared about us and who loved us and, moreover, who trusted God to hear them and respond to them as they prayed for us!

Those who have been there know what I mean when I say that this was life-affirming and in many ways, life-changing; and that’s why we should never underestimate the meaning of what we do together in our prayer time every Sunday morning.  There is power in prayer, and there is love expressed in the act of prayer; which is what makes it all the more remarkable to discover through our text for this morning that in the midst of those final moments just before the events of his crucifixion begin to unfold; even as, as David Lose puts it, he is “anticipating an immediate future that will include betrayal, trial, condemnation, beating, and execution,” Jesus stops everything to pray or those he loves… for his disciples… for those closest to him… and for you and me.

This passage from John’s gospel we’ve shared this morning continues on with what’s referred to as Jesus’ “farewell discourses,” but biblical scholars and church theologians often talk about these verses from the 17th chapter as being Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer.”  This is a reference to Old Testament tradition, in which the temple priest would go into the “Holy of Holies,” which was the central-most part of the temple, so to offer up prayers of the people and bring a sacrifice as a payment for their sins.  In our Christian faith, of course, we understand that Jesus stands as a mediator between God and ourselves; offering up the one, true sacrifice – himself – as the final and complete payment for our sin before God.  So… the tradition of the church has always held that this prayer of Jesus in John’s gospel represents Jesus acting as our temple priest; quite literally standing before the throne of grace offering up prayers for his people in preparation for the sacrifice that’s to be made.

And that’s certainly true; in fact, these are verses central to our whole understanding of Christian theology; in particular the idea of Christ’s atonement for our sin, all for the sake of our salvation before God!  But I also have to say that because of how incredibly rich and dense the language in John can sometimes be, we can easily miss how very personal a prayer this is.  I mean, think of it; Jesus is speaking these words to his heavenly Father just prior to that moment in the garden when Judas and the soldiers come to arrest him.  Jesus knows that his hour is nigh, that very soon now he’s going to have to leave his disciples; and so he wants them to be prepared for what’s going to happen next.  Actually, you know, if you read all through these “farewell discourses” in John, you realize that up till this point, Jesus has been giving his disciples a whole series of last minute teachings – about his nature, about the sure and certain hope of life eternal, about peace that the world can’t give nor take away, and about the disciples’ own mission of love moving forward; three chapters’ worth of these teachings in John’s gospel (!) – but now, the lessons are done and in these last few moments before what’s destined to happen happens Jesus needs to pray for them!

And it makes sense; after all, these are the ones who have been the ones closest to Jesus, and these are the ones – whether they understand it or not at this point – who will carry on his ministry! Certainly Jesus wanted his disciples to have the protection and the assurance of God the Father in every uncertain moment that was to come to them, in the days and years to come.  So yes, he would pray for them, which in and of itself is an act of great love and affection; but – and this is important – it turns out that it’s not just the disciples that he’s praying for… Jesus is praying “not only on behalf of these” but also “on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word,” (vs. 20)   and that includes you and me, “that they may all be one.”

And I don’t know about you, but the very idea of it fills me with awe: that the very same Jesus who in his moment of deepest despair would seize that time to pray for his disciples is also the Jesus who prays for me!

And what a prayer it is!   It’s certainly not a prayer that all will go easily for his disciples, because Jesus knew it wouldn’t; that it couldn’t!  It’s interesting to note that all throughout this prayer, Jesus talks about how the “world” that hated him would also hate his disciples “because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.”  The Greek word that’s used here for “world” is kosmos, which more than just suggesting the physical nature of the earth, really means that which is totally alien and hostile to God’s intention to love and redeem all; in other words, Jesus knows that there will always be that “dark side” of humanity who will hate them simply because of who – and whose – they are!

So Jesus doesn’t pray that all will go along without incident, devoid of any difficulty or conflict in their lives ahead;  but rather that they, and we, might always be protected by the power of God’s name, “so they can be of one heart and mind” just as Jesus and his heavenly father were of one heart and mind.  And his prayers of intercession build from there: praying that more than simply having protection from their troubles, “they may have [his] joy made complete in themselves,” as they go forth with God’s word on their tongues and in their lives; praying that because of this they not be lost as Judas had been “so that scripture would be fulfilled;”   and praying finally, and above all, that they may be sanctified – that is, consecrated, made holy“in the truth;” which is God’s word.

And that’s important, too.

For what Jesus understood would be true for his first disciples would also be true for any of us who are followers of Christ: that the very nature of being his disciples, of adhering to the Word they’d received from him, would mean living their lives as outsiders, living “in the world but not of the world,” and yet because of this, having a clear purpose and mission for life itself; to be made holy for what we do, or as the word from the original Greek, hagios, suggests, to be “set apart for sacred use.”  Jesus – the Jesus who prays for me and for you – prays that in and through all our journeys and all our trials and all of our crises of life and even faith we might be set apart by God himself for sacred use!

It’s a big prayer; really, there’s no other way to describe it.  But in the end, you see, what it all comes down to is while that life is difficult, full of the unexpected, the unimaginable and very often the unmanageable, our Lord, in infinite love and care, has prayed – and is still praying – for us: that we might find the strength we need to get through; that we might glean joy in the midst of sorrow; and that we will be made aware in ways both large and small that we are not, and have never been alone in the struggle.  Jesus prays for us with the same constancy of care and compassion as that of the one who knows us the best; he shows us the deep and abiding love of God who brings to us life both abundant and eternal; and he assures us that even right here and right now, in the midst of it all, we’ve been set aside for a sacred purpose.

What a feeling it is to realize that you have been prayed for. 

I wonder what Jesus is praying for in us today.  Maybe that we find the strength, the encouragement or the patience to get through the stress and uncertainty of whatever it is we’re having to face at this moment; a medical issue, perhaps; or a “rough patch” in a relationship with a loved one, a friend or co-worker?  It could be that Jesus is praying that we find the courage we need to stand up in the face of injustice (both personal and societal), or that we might we finally get some sense of healing of mind, body, spirit… or all three at once.  Maybe he’s praying that we have the grace to receive and accept the forgiveness we’ve needed for so long; or else that we figure out that what we really need to do is to be more forgiving of others!  Maybe Jesus is simply praying that we’ll stop for a moment, and pay attention… pay attention to God’s presence and power, and remember how much we’re loved.

Whatever the need happens to be today, friends; know that Jesus already knows, and that he’s praying for you and for me; and that we are the recipients and the stewards of that truly amazing grace.

There is power in his prayer; there is power to comfort us, to strengthen us, and to move us through the joys and struggles of this life… and I pray that each one of us here today might be strengthened and renewed by the power of that prayer.

Thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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