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We Are the Church

IMAG0997“O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!  For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” – Psalm 95:6-7 (NRSV)

While combing my ever-growing collection of “alternative” hymns for possible songs to include as part of our upcoming “Homecoming Sunday” worship service this week at East Church, I came across these lyrics, composed a number of years ago by Jay Beech:

The church is not a building where people go to pray;
It’s not made out of sticks and stones, it’s not made out of clay.
You can go to worship but you cannot go to church;
You can’t find a building that’s alive no matter how you search.
The church is not a business, a committee or a board;
it’s not a corporation for the business of the Lord.
The church, it is the people living out their lives,
Called, enlightened, sanctified for the work of Jesus Christ.
– from “The Church Song,” by Jay Beech
 

This song well expresses a truth that most of us who are “church folk” understand at some level, and yet often tend to forget in the midst of the day-to-day doings of congregational life: that four walls and a steeple do not a church make, but you and I together in the presence of our Lord.  Truly, after all our programs and events are done and over with, when all the meetings are finished and the sanctuary doors are closed, we who congregate in this place remain who we are: God’s people, the Body of Christ, the church in the world.

It has always sort of fascinated me, for instance, that for all the planning and preparation that goes into a worship service each Sunday, it ends up being the small and “unscripted” moments that resonate with the most meaning in our time together:  the innocent yet utterly insightful comment made by one of the children as they sit shoulder to shoulder in the front pew in the sanctuary; a particularly inspired rendering of a song or hymn that truly lifts it to the level of a “ministry of music;” the ways that a verse of scripture, a word of prayer or a comment in a sermon will somehow touch us just exactly in the places where we dwell (and, as I mentioned in an earlier blog post, sometimes in ways previously unimagined by the preacher!). Even in each week’s usual verbal housekeeping, there often ends up being something that goes joyfully beyond the realm of a common announcement!

All this is indicative of the fact that ultimately, our worship is about community:  people of faith gathering in fellowship with one another and above all, in communion with Jesus Christ, praising God and seeking out the movement of God’s own Spirit in and through our lives as persons and as a people.  What was it that Jesus said about true worship being “worship in spirit and truth?” (John 4:24)  Simply put, neither the physical space that surrounds us nor the trappings and logistics of the service itself are as important as what we gather to do together before God, which is to sing, to pray, to learn together of God’s Word, and to rededicate one another to the living out of that Word in our lives “out there” in the world.  It’s that kind of worship that not only affirms our true identity as the church, but also sends us forth into the future with a clear sense of direction.

Friends, it’s true what the words of that song suggests: rather than a random gathering of individuals devoted to the operation of “the business of the Lord,” here at East Congregational United Church of Christ, we remain what we’ve always been: a group of pretty good people who with all their myriad strengths and weaknesses (and despite them as well!), are seeking to live out their lives with a dignity and purpose borne in a faith in God; a congregation of believers who by grace are called, enlightened, and sanctified for the work of Jesus Christ.

To quote another “alternative hymn” I remember singing in worship when I was young, “I am the Church! You are the Church! We are the church together!” (Thank you, Avery and Marsh!) Truly, whether we’re inside or outside of that sacred space we share on Mountain Road, whenever we are gathered together for worship, work and fellowship, we are the Church, which is no less than the Body of Christ…

…and which transforms every Sabbath we share into a “Homecoming Sunday.”

c. 2013  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on September 5, 2013 in Church, Reflections, Worship

 

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Preaching 101

100_1004“Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction.” – 2 Timothy 4:2 (NIV)

Simply put, a sermon is an attempt to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ as it relates to our daily life.  It is an effort to take the “there and then” of Biblical faith, history and tradition and bring it to the “here and now,” affirming along the way something about the nature, being and activity of God.  It is, I believe, a joy, a privilege and a sacred task, one that as a pastor and preacher I take very seriously.  But I can also tell you, after over 30 years of doing this week in and week out, that it is dangerous business indeed!

Truly, a lot can happen in and through those words spoken each Sunday from the pulpit.  Sometimes a sermon serves as a word of comfort amidst discouragement and struggle.  Or it might provide “a teachable moment,” in which together, the congregation grows stronger and more knowledgeable in one aspect of faith or another.  A sermon can often be prophetic, in the sense that its hearers become cogently aware of the need for “faith-filled” change on both personal and societal levels.  There are times that it must be very direct and to the point as to a needed response; and then there are other messages that should be purposely open-ended, so that those who are listening might be led to reflect further on the issues involved.  And yes, though its source material should always be biblical in its focus, it should also relate to real life as we know it and live it; and as such can just as effectively and appropriately bring us to laughter as it can move us to tears. Whatever its form or direction, a sermon is designed to speak to us (mind you, that includes both the congregation and the preacher!), and perchance to stir us up as well.  As an old friend of mine, a retired pastor, was wont to say, as preachers “we are called to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

I am always struck by your comments to me regarding those 15-20 minutes I spend preaching every Sunday morning, and grateful for your good words and great kindness to me (most especially on those mornings when it seemed much longer than that (!), or those times – more than you might realize – when I was totally unconvinced that there was anything of value that flowed from my tangled tongue!); and moreover for the ways in which something that was said in a particular message somehow touched you.  I am continually amazed by this, friends; because in all honesty, there have been many times when what you receive from the sermon is not necessarily what I sought to impart!  But that’s wonderful in and of itself, for it is an affirmation that God’s Holy Spirit leads not only my speaking, but your hearing as well; and where this is concerned, let me just say that as a preacher I am not only grateful for the Spirit’s movement, I depend on it!

This is because much of the “good news” we proclaim as Christians is, I believe, “tough love.”  Scripture does not offer us mere “warm fuzzies” for the living of these days; it proclaims hard, radical truth that flies in the face of the sin and injustice rampant in our world.  This is, to say the least, uncomfortable for any of us hear; in fact, it has the tendency to make us squirm, whether we’re sitting in the pew or standing in the pulpit!  But in truth, this isn’t a bad thing: to adequately speak and hear the Word of God very often requires us to face that rather harsh mirror image of ourselves, and to confront the old ways, false understandings and shop-worn attitudes and behaviors that keep us from living a life of faith.

I’ve realized over the years that often times the hardest sermons for me to write and preach are also the hardest ones I have to hear – yes, I do preach to myself as well as to you (!) – and inevitably, in one fashion or another, these are the messages that demand of us to choose between the ways of life and death; for indeed, while life might be the best choice, it is rarely the easy one. But the “good news” is that when we rise to that challenge, life becomes so much more than it ever was before, and as persons and as a people, we are transformed into disciples of Jesus Christ and members of his Body.

Granted, that’s a lot of weight for the average sermon to carry, but I dare say that’s what keeps things interesting for the preacher; and the beauty part (and I’d say this applies both in preaching and hearing) is that there’s always next week!  Already, even as I’ve been writing these words, I’ve been wrestling with that message to come, aware that on Sunday morning, we’ll again have that joyous opportunity to come together in worship, to truly “be attentive to the Word of God” as it is revealed in scripture, to sing it out in the melodies and harmonies of our hymns and anthems, to experience it in prayer, feel it in our shared moments of ministry with our congregation’s children, and then, even in and through the modest words spoken from the mouth of this particular pastor.

How it’ll all turn out, what it’ll sound like, how it’ll be received… I still don’t know… like you, I’ll find that out somewhere between 10:00 and 11:00 a.m. on Sunday.  But I pray that my words might by some miracle be transformed into a true WORD for the facing of this hour and the living of these days; for that will be the best I could hope for.

c. 2013  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on August 7, 2013 in Church, Ministry, Reflections, Scripture, Worship

 

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Inspiration/Perspiration

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(a sermon for May 19, 2013, Pentecost Sunday, based on Acts 2:1-21 and Romans 8:14-17)

What exactly is the Day of Pentecost? Well, biblically and historically speaking it is the “Feast of Weeks,” or Shavuot, a Jewish festival of the summer harvest that was traditionally held 50 days after Passover.  On the Christian calendar, however, it is a commemoration of one such festival long ago, when on the streets of Jerusalem the world experienced the presence of God’s Holy Spirit in a new and powerful, strikingly vivid way; so for Christianity, the Day of Pentecost became a pivotal point of human history!

You might say, in fact, that for us, Pentecost represents the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end!  Think about this with me: years of waiting for the Messiah had finally come to an end, for Jesus had come; and more than this, Jesus, who had been crucified at the hands of a sinful humanity, had risen from the dead, the “first fruits of those who have died,” (1 Cor. 15:20) the opening up of the gates of eternity!  But now, with Jesus’ ascension into heaven and his disciples left to carry on, a new time of waiting was just beginning: waiting for the Messiah to return in glory, ushering in the kingdom of heaven.  In the meantime, however, there’s much work to be done!

So Pentecost, in truth of fact, is really where the whole thing begins again!  And with the rush of a mighty wind, God gave the gift of God’s own Spirit – in Hebrew, ruach, meaning the “breath of God” – to get it all moving. This was a gift that gave the church its very mission; and moreover, its empowerment in the work of God’s kingdom until that kingdom comes in its fullness.  So in a very real sense, it is true that it’s the birthday of the church we celebrate here today, because here is where the church as we know it begins; but it’s also about our on-going vocation as ministers in Christ’s name, and the continuing movement of God’s Spirit in the midst of this and every generation.

It’s big and it’s glorious and, I’ll admit, almost indescribable for the utter scope of it; but, if I might coin a phrase from Thomas Edison, the one about genius being “one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration,” it seems to me that at the very heart of it this “Day of Pentecost” ends up being all about our movement as believers from inspiration… to perspiration!

We actually see this very clearly in the disciples; who as we pick up our reading from Acts this morning, are huddled together in a secluded room, not at all sure what to do next, given they’ve been given this “great commission” which they’re supposed to fulfill now without the presence of their leader and teacher.  There’s most definitely a sense of their being at a loss, yet you know what happens; the Spirit’s wind fills up their room and suddenly these same disciples are out on the crowded streets of Jerusalem, boldly telling their story and inviting others into the household of their faith.

It’s an amazing transition, friends; and you know this didn’t happen in a staid, well-considered, and dare I say, “church-like” fashion!  No; this was immediate and life-changing; and though Acts doesn’t exactly spell this out for us, what happened was far beyond anything those disciples could ever have imagined!  Remember that there’s a festival going on, with streets filled with people from all over, speaking a multitude of different languages! There’s no way that this tiny group of believers could possibly make an impact on this massive crowd, and yet, here’s Peter and the others running through the streets fairly well shouting this good news, and everybody’s hearing it and, even more amazingly, understanding it in their own language!  It was the kind of thing that just doesn’t happen every day – or at all! That’s why there were those in the crowd very quick to dismiss the whole thing as drunken behavior; how else would you explain that kind of all-encompassing, totally enveloping and utterly overwhelming revelry?

They didn’t understand; but now the disciples did.  Because at the very moment that Spirit came and, as The Messsage translates it, “like a wildfire… spread through their ranks,” they were inspired! Enthused! Jazzed, stoked and fired up (!); moved in a way unlike anything they’d ever experienced or felt or believed before! They could not do anything else at that moment but jump up and run out there amongst the people; and tell this amazing good news of last days, of sons and daughters giving prophecies, of young men with visions and old men with dreams; of the Spirit poured out on many, and the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 

Yes: this Day of Pentecost reminds us of the difference between what the disciples were – hesitant, confused, uncertain, and even fearful – and what they would become; bold witnesses of the risen Christ, ready to say and do all for the sake of the kingdom of God. And it was the Spirit that did it, moving them from fear to courage, from reluctance to commitment, from philosophy, as it were, to practice.

What we celebrate today is God’s own “inspiring” Spirit, how it was manifest in the first disciples, how it spread first in and through all the crowds of people on the streets of Jerusalem, and then across cities and nations and generations; and how it still, to this very day, continues to inspire people – people like you and me – to lives attuned to the unpredictable movement of the Spirit and to the all-encompassing and occasionally daunting, yet ever-fulfilling work of God’s Kingdom; truly moving us each and every day from inspiration to… perspiration!

And as odd as that might sound to a skeptical world, I know that there are many who know just what that means; many of us right here, in fact, who really do understand that though it’s indeed often in “mysterious ways,” God is working, and that there have been moments when we’ve been calmed, strengthened and empowered in ways both unexpected and unimagined.  From the personal crises we’ve somehow endured, through the moral and ethical dilemmas that ultimately ended up defining the depths of our character, to those wonderfully nagging little “nudges” that hit us out of nowhere but lead us to take some kind of action we couldn’t possibly have considered before: reach out your hand; tell that person you love them; follow that dream, answer that call, go to seminaryorwhatever!

The point is that there are moments when God, for the sake of his vision for us and his Kingdom, wants to stir things up for us, and that, friends, is what the Holy Spirit is for! Sometimes that Spirit comes as it did for those disciples, with “a sound like a strong wind, gale force,” (The Message, again), coming at us and enveloping us all at once. And yes, often it’ll come gently; and as naturally as a wisp of cool air on a hot summer day, as life-giving as a deep breath taken into the lungs.  Either way, however, it comes to inspire us; that we might grow, become, and serve the Lord in a multitude of ways with a variety of gifts.

It comes to move us: from philosophical thinking to passionate living, from quiet belief to inspired witness; empowering us as Christ’s disciples in active anticipation of his return in glory. From the inspiration of the soul to the perspiration of lives wholly devoted to the service of love – that’s what this Day of Pentecost is all about. And that’s also our challenge, friends, both as persons and as God’s people!

Because “Spirited” or no, the amazing things that can happen only happen when you and I are willing to let our guard down for a bit and follow the Spirit where it leads.

I’m remembering a moment when I was at Bangor Seminary – my first few days on the campus, in fact – a group of us living in the dorm were gathered in the social room for one of those wonderful “Getting to Know Each Other” sessions. And I’m not sure I remember how or why this happened, but suddenly one of our group suggests we all get in a circle and do “Father Abraham.”  Now, you probably know this; it’s a camp song, and kind of a “ring-around-the-rosy” thing, and there’s this song that goes with it: “Father Abraham had many sons, and many sons had father Abraham, I am one of them and so are you, so let’s just praise the Lord!”   And you sing it over and over again, adding a different body motion with each verse: right arm, left arm, right foot and so on.

Now, I know you will find this hard to believe, given my stellar performance of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” last Sunday, but I really didn’t want to do this “Father Abraham” thing!  Truthfully, I was a lot more reserved in those days, and more than a little bit shy about my new surroundings and somewhat intimidated by all these new people I didn’t know; moreover, I already knew I was a lousy dancer with two left feet, so I wasn’t about to make a fool of myself doing this; and besides, this was seminary (!), and shouldn’t seminarians carry themselves with just at least a modicum of dignity and godliness?

But, peer pressure being what it is (!), I did it anyway… and do you know what? I enjoyed it! It didn’t matter that I lacked the proper coordination; come to find out, so did they!  It was just fun; but more than this, it turned out to be a watershed moment for our little group.  Our different ages – which ranged from 22 to70 – our geographical, ethnic and social backgrounds, to say nothing of our denominational and theological particularities were melting away; we were becoming a community, this odd little family of faith, gathered by the hand and with the joy of a loving God, each of us in our own way seeking to follow the inspiration of the Spirit to do God’s work in the world – and in all honesty, it was this unexpected, foolish little game that got me to see that.  It was, in its own unique way, a high and holy moment, one that not only obviously served to unleash my “inner fool for Christ,” but also one I’ve been blessed to witness and share in congregations over the years and amongst a good many faithful people of my acquaintance.

So, how about you?  The Spirit is indeed moving, and God is doing amazing things; but the question is – the question always is – are you willing to accept and celebrate the high and holy moments that that Spirit is even now bringing into your lives? It’s a question of letting the divine inspiration of God become the perspiration of our lives; it’s being open to letting God’s purposes for our lives and living start to shape what it is we say, and what we do today, tomorrow, and for the whole of life.

And it makes a difference. After all, as Paul said to the Romans in our Epistle today, “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that that very Spirit bearing witness with your spirit that we are children of God.”  When we “are led by the Spirit of God;” that is, when we trust God’s movement in our lives and let it move us, like the disciples of old we are telling a story of good news by our very lives, and acknowledging with every word and deed that we are, truly, God’s children.

And so, in the words of an ancient prayer be ours this day:

“Come, O Holy Spirit, come! 
Come as holy fire and burn in us,
come as holy wind and cleanse us,
come as holy light and lead us,
come as holy truth and teach us,
come as holy forgiveness and free us,
come as holy love and enfold us,
come as holy power and enable us,
come as holy life and dwell in us.
“Convict us, covert us, consecrate us,
until we are wholly thine for thy using,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
 – prayer adapted by Charles Francis Whiston

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2013  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on May 19, 2013 in Holy Spirit, Pentecost, Sermon

 

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