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Keeping the Faith

(a sermon for May 3, 2020, the 4th Sunday of Easter, based on John 14:23-29)

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you… Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” 

Not only are these some of the most memorable words that Jesus ever spoke, for me, at least, they are also most certainly among the most comforting.  These are words that matter, especially in times like these:Jesus’ assurance of a peace that the world cannot give has a way of putting everything we face in this life, however debilitating, in a proper perspective.  It is a reminder that even our deepest grief and sorrow pales in comparison to the all-enveloping peace of God, made real to us in the person of Jesus Christ.  To quote David Lose, it “testifies to a sense of wholeness, even rightness, of and in one’s very being… even amid hardship, struggle, conflict and disruption.”

Peace I leave with you… my peace I give to you.  Beautiful, heavenly words… which makes it all the more interesting, and pretty ironic, that when Jesus was speaking those words about peace, all hell was about to break loose! 

Indeed, as we pick up on our text for this morning, it is not yet Easter, but in fact the “night of betrayal and desertion:” Maundy Thursday, the evening during which Jesus would be handed over to those who hated him and led to his execution.  And in fact, the events of that fateful evening had already begun to unfold: by this time, Judas had already fled the scene in order to betray Jesus; and Peter’s impending denials had also been foretold.  Moreover, there’s this palpable tension in the air, and though they couldn’t yet begin to understand it, the disciples all felt it; and it’s made all the more disturbing by the fact that Jesus is also making it quite clear that he’d be leaving them soon, and in fact was about to die.

And so, when Jesus finally says to them, “my peace I give to you… do not let your heart be troubled,” you have to imagine that it’s spoken with a tone of profound… sadness.  After all, there is quite literally a world of trouble and hurt about to descend; and nothing and nobody – not even Jesus himself – can keep it from happening.  Before the next day is out, Jesus will have died on the cross, and these same disciples who have followed him and placed all their trust and hope in him for the past three years will be scattered, lost and alone; and yet, somehow, they will have to carry on.  They will need to “keep the faith” even when everything has seemed to have fallen apart.  So though John never tells us exactly how Jesus says it, you know that it’s fraught with the kind of emotion that comes when you’re desperately trying to bring some kind of comfort to those you love so deeply, even as you’re preparing them for the worst. 

That’s the thing, you see; that’s what Jesus knew about living in this world back then, and sadly, it still holds true today: for as wonderful and as incredibly beautiful as it so often can be, there’s no denying that this world also brings a fair measure of trouble and sorrow to life and living. Be it the result of rampant violence and injustice or, for that matter, the spread of a global pandemic, the truth is that you and I live in a world that is marked by a definite lack of peace, and in fact, as Scott Hoezee has written, “what little peace [this world] has to offer us is always provisional, always suspect, always precarious.”

So I think you’ll agree with me when I say that to “keep the faith” in times such as these requires an assurance of peace; but yes, it’s a peace that’s going to have to come from somewhere else.  And that’s why Jesus is very clear to the disciples and to us that he does not give “as the world gives.”  It’s my peace I give to you, says Jesus; and that is what will make all the difference.

Understand, of course, that when Jesus speaks of peace, he is not referring wholly or even primarily to peace in the sense of the absence of any and all conflict but rather the peace that envelops us in the midst of everything that this world has to dish out.  To quote David Lose once again, it’s “a peace that allows us to lift our gaze from the troubles that beset us” and to recognize that come what may we can place “ourselves, our loved ones, our fortunes, and our future in God’s hands.” 

In the end, you see, it’s not that all the bad things in this world are simply going to go away, for we know all too well that oftentimes the struggles we face are ongoing. But there is true peace to be known in the midst of such strife; and the kind of peace that Jesus has to offer is that which brings tranquility, strength, hope, courage and purpose in and through it all.  It’s no accident, you know, that Jesus immediately follows this promise of his peace with the admonition to “not let your hearts be troubled,” a phrase that can also be translated as “take heart,” or “have courage.” In other words, the peace that Jesus gives is that which gives us strength to face all the troubles that the world has brought hurtling down at us; so that, even as everything else around us seems to crumble, we are equipped to keep the faith come what may.

It’s also no accident that Jesus assures us of another helper that will be there for us along the difficult way of this world: “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name.”  This word advocate is also translated as “Counselor” in other versions of scripture, or in the original Greek, “paraclete,” which means someone who is “called alongside” of another.  So what Jesus is giving us is a truly “holy” Spirit that will stand alongside us in our journey through this world, reminding us of Jesus’ words and teachings as we go; and whispering into our hearts all God’s sure and certain promises, lest we might otherwise forget in the strife and sorrow of it all.

These are the promises that matter, friends: the promise that love is stronger than hate; the promise that hope is more absolutely more resilient than fear and despair; the promise that light can and will break through the darkness of this world.  These are the promises that assure us that we need not be afraid, but take heart and have courage not only for the living of these days, but quite often in the facing of this very hour!  It is the reminder we need that in amidst all of the challenges of this world we have this divine peace that the world can neither give nor take away.

I’m reminded of a time back in high school when our Senior Class was putting on a production of “The Miracle Worker,” the play about Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan.  Now, on-stage at least, I really didn’t have all that much to do but I was assigned as understudy for one of the minor roles; which, to be honest with you, was a task I didn’t really take all that seriously until… opening night, when it became increasingly apparent that the young man who was playing the Keller family doctor was out of town competing in a cross-country meet and wasn’t likely to make it back in time for the play! 

And of course, immediately I started to panic because I hadn’t learned those lines; I didn’t think I had to!  But now, only a few minutes before show time, I’m all dressed up as a doctor and expected to go on stage!  So I’m desperately trying to memorize this handful of lines that I should have already known; and it’s only a small part, just a handful of lines, but in the stress of that moment and the abject fear of having to face a full auditorium of people, I can’t even remember my name, much less what I’m supposed to say once the curtain rises!

In my panic, I finally went to our director, one of my English teachers and confessed to her that I hadn’t memorized this part; that I wasn’t in any way ready to do this; and could I please just go home?  (Well, okay, maybe not that last part; but remember, by this time I was pretty scared!) And though I’m sure she was none too pleased, my teacher simply sighed and said, “Just do the best you can… and remember, there’s going to be a prompter just offstage who will help you with the lines if you don’t remember.”

Now, the happy ending of this story is that quite literally two minutes before curtain, the kid who was playing the part showed up and I happily let him take his place onstage!  But I never forgot that utter terror I felt in suddenly being in this place where I could feel so helpless and so seemingly alone; and yet in the midst of that terror there was also relief in knowing that I wasn’t alone after all, for in fact there would be someone there alongside of me, reminding me of all that I needed to know.

In truth, there have been any number of times in my life – even a few over the past several weeks (!) – when I have found myself overwhelmed and panicked by a sudden onslaught of worldly trials, tribulations and uncertainties… and unless I miss my guess, so have you… maybe that’s what you’re feeling this morning.  In times such as these, friends, it happens… so how wonderful is it that in moments such as these we’ve been this Advocate, this Counselor, this… Prompter; someone who teaches us again and again of God’s grace, love and peace;  someone who reminds us that we take heart, keep the faith and never be afraid!  For in Jesus Christ, in tandem with God the Father, you and I have a peace… true peace… that the world cannot ever give, and can never take away. That’s what we need to remember as these difficult days of quarantine continue. 

But… just case you need a reminder this morning – a prompter, so to speak – may I suggest that we have one today, courtesy of Jesus himself, present to us in the broken bread and the cup of blessing.  Beloved, wherever and however you happen to be today, you are welcomed to partake in this feast of grace and love that it might serve as a clear reminder of his presence, and most especially of his peace.

Thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

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

 

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Unabashedly Joyful

(a sermon for April 26, 2020, the 3rd Sunday of Easter, based on Philippians 4:4-7)

In pondering our text for this morning, and in my continuing quest these days to unearth some inspirational music from what might be referred to as “the grooveyard of forgotten favorites,” here’s one song that’s been running through my head all week:

“Here’s a little song I wrote,
You might want to sing it note for note
>Don’t worry – be happy!
For when you worry your face will frown,
And that will bring everybody down,
So don’t worry – be happy!
(Don’t worry, be happy now)”

— “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” by Bobby McFerrin

Now, speaking pastorally, if there’s going to be one song on our lips after this morning’s service it probably ought to be “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee,” but I do have to confess that “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” might just fill the bill at a time like this!  Because I dare say what we all need a whole lot of right now is joy; and given that for most of us joy is intermingled with feelings of happiness, one of the best ways to bring that forth is to sing it out!  Because to quote another forgotten favorite, “if you’re happy and you know it… then your face (and your voice!) will surely show it,” and so not only does that serve to inspire joy in those around you, it also becomes an affirmation of our faith and an act of praise.  And isn’t that, after all, what Paul is getting at in our text for this morning: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.  Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  The Lord is near.” 

Of course, in all fairness, I suspect that when Paul speaks of rejoicing, he’s talking about something much deeper than to simply not worry and be happy!  What Paul is talking about here in his epistle to the Philippians is about real and unrestrained rejoicing: the kind of joy that lifts us up from the place where we are; the kind of joy that sets the standard for everything else in life, the kind of joy that comes in having ones heart and mind wholly guarded in Christ Jesus.  What we’re talking about here is the kind of joy that exists at the very core of our Christian faith and what ought to serve as the hallmark of our lives as followers and disciples of our Risen Savior.   It is joy unabashed and it is joy unrelenting; and therein lies not only its power and its great importance for our lives… but also its challenge.

And I suspect you know why!  I mean, especially right now: how do you speak of unrestrained joy in an age of pandemic?  How do you tell someone to rejoice who has had to suffer through the effects of the Covid-19 Virus, or worse, who has lost someone to that disease?  What are we supposed to say to all those people whose lives and livelihoods have been totally upended over these past few weeks, with no real resolution in sight? How do you think they’re going to respond to Paul’s exhortation to rejoice in the Lord always?  Quite frankly, I suspect they’d be apt to think it shallow at best and condescending at worst: your life is falling apart?  “Again, I say rejoice!”

 In that context, an unrestrained and unrelenting joy doesn’t seem all that realistic or reassuring, does it?  And yet, in this age as in every age that has come before, that’s exactly what you and I are being called to bring forth in faith! 

So… what are we to do about this? How do we reconcile this call to be “unabashedly joyful” with all the real-world difficulties and struggles that we face?  Can we really “rejoice always,” or not?  Was Paul simply naïve and blind to what was really going on, or when he tells the Philippians and us to “rejoice,” does he have something else on his mind?

Perhaps part of the answer lies with Paul himself.  After all, here was a man whose entire ministry in Christ was marked by worldly persecution and ridicule; who was himself driven out of several towns and cities (often under the cover of darkness), and through the course of his life was also shipwrecked, imprisoned, beaten, and exposed to death, danger, hunger, thirst, fatigue and cold, all for the sake of the Gospel!  At the time of this letter to the church at Philippi, it’s late in his life; Paul’s in prison again, this time under guard of the Imperial capital of Rome, and expecting at any moment that judgment will be rendered and he’ll be executed.  And as if that weren’t bad enough, it turns out that the Philippian church is full of problems: they are few in number; they’re filled with fear and doubt about the future, persecuted by everyone in the city; and what’s more, there’s in-fighting going on at just about every level of the church.

It was enough to make any of us throw our hands in the air and give up trying.  And yet, here’s Paul – who remember, is getting old and feeble and at a point where a bit of discouragement would be understandable – nonetheless saying, boldly and without hesitation, “Rejoice in the Lord always.  Again, I will say it:  Rejoice!”  In fact, Paul says this over and over again – sixteen times in only four chapters of this epistle (!) – and he can do it because this isn’t rejoicing merely for the sake of feeling happy, but because of the one in whom he rejoices.  Rejoice in the Lord, Paul says.  Rejoice in the Lord always!

It turns out that there are two basic types of joy: external joy, the kind that comes and goes with whatever is happening in our lives, and which is wonderful, but is finite and can be easily be displaced or destroyed at a moment of conflict or struggle; and internal joy, the kind of joy that comes from within.  When Paul talks about joy, he means the internal joy that the Lord himself places within us. The great theologian Karl Barth said it well when he wrote that the joy of which Paul speaks is “a defiant ‘nonetheless,’” which draws strength from the gospel story and “from laying one’s deepest concerns before God with thanksgiving.”  This is a deep joy that takes root even in darkness; joy that has its source in God’s great presence and God’s hope for whatever the future may hold.

To put it even more simply, it’s not so much rejoicing because of all the things that have happened to us in life; in fact, very often we rejoice in spite of all that has happened to us, and that’s because we look first to Jesus Christ and what he has done for us, and in us, and to us.  Our joy is to be “in the Lord,” and because of this, you and I can rejoice in all circumstances, even those that are difficult and painful and involve suffering; not because of what it is we’re going through, mind you, but because of the grace of the Lord; the hope, strength, love and understanding we’re given to see it through, no matter what!

A few years ago, Lisa and I were invited with some others to the home of a Jewish rabbi, to share in a Shabbat meal, that is, a Sabbath meal; that night we did everything kosher, the food and the liturgy, and it was wonderful.  Having studied some Hebrew in seminary, it was nice to hear the biblical prayers spoken in their original language; all the traditions that go along with eating in a Jewish household are rich and meaningful, and the music – yes, we all had to sing in Hebrew, folks (!) – was fun and very, very joyful!  And how do I know this?  Because most of the songs we learned to sing that night had a chorus that the Rabbi promised that even we Gentiles could sing: “Di, di, duh, duh, di, di!”   I could do that!

Actually, one of the songs we sang that night I’ve never forgotten; it’s called “Dayenu,” and it’s a song for Passover.  I would not presume to sing that one here today, but suffice to say that the lyrics are a long enumeration of all of God’s blessings to his chosen people, but with a twist: with every verse, we sang about what would have been had God not given one of those blessings!  “Had he brought us out of Egypt, and not fed us in the desert, but brought us out of Egypt, well, then, Dayenu,” which in Hebrew means, “for that alone we would have been grateful.”  It’s a fun song to sing, and what it reminds us is that no matter the challenges we face in the present moment, we still have this relationship with a God who is present and powerful and moving in and through our lives in ways that we can’t even begin to measure or fully understand. 

When we have that, friends; even when we can only perceive it as though it were the size of a mustard seed; well, that’s when we learn to “not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let [our] requests be known to God,” truly knowing that peace which passes our human understanding… and rejoice.

I know… six weeks and counting in this time of quarantine and it’s all too tempting to let ourselves become sad and angry and embittered over what life and this world has “done” to us.  But it is faith in the wisdom, care and perfect mercy of God that strengthens us to transcend these difficulties of life so that we might know life’s real joy, which comes to us in Christ.  I’ve quoted a lot of songs today, but maybe the one we really ought to take to heart is the one about that “joy, joy, joy, joy, down in our hearts to stay.”  Because when others see such unabashed joy in us, they – and our world – cannot help but be the better for it.

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

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

 
 

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The Light That Prevails

(a sermon for March 29, 2020, the 5th Sunday in Lent, based on John 12:20-36)

As one who has spent some time camping out in the woods of Maine and New Hampshire, I can personally vouch for the importance of being properly prepared; and being properly prepared means having one of these – a Coleman Lantern – on the trip with you; as far as I’m concerned it’s the one thing that really cuts through a dark, enveloping night in the middle of nowhere!   Now, the purists among us will argue that it’s the light of a campfire that truly does the job, but firelight is fleeting and can’t be moved; likewise, the beam of a flashlight is narrow and limited, not to mention the fact that it exists at the mercy of a battery!  But a lantern; well, it can illuminate the entire campsite and draw hordes of blackflies all at the same time!

That said, even the mighty Coleman Lantern can run out of fuel; and if you’ve been out in the woods at night when that’s happened, it’s actually pretty interesting.  At first, the change is almost imperceptible: the light of the lantern starts to fade, but it doesn’t seem all that different; a little less brilliant, perhaps, and a tad more subdued.  But after a few moments the light does start to dim considerably, and things you could once see clearly start to lose their detail and focus; whereas before you might have been able to read a book or write a letter or play cards (!), you can’t see to do that anymore.  Even the campsite begins to feel like it’s closing in around you, because the light that was once flooding all around now just exists in a tiny glow surrounded by this vast darkness. And you sit there and you watch the light of the lantern’s mantle until it finally just… goes out… and now it’s very, very dark indeed.

One of the prevailing images of the Christian faith, one that’s found throughout scripture, is that of light.  And in the church it’s an image we carry with us as we make our way through the seasons of our faith and the gospel story: for instance, during Advent, we tell of the prophets’ promise of a light that is to come; at Christmas, we celebrate that light’s coming in Jesus, who is the light of the world; and during Epiphany, we rejoice in discovering the meaning and great expanse of that light.

But now we’re deep into the season of Lent, in which scripturally and spiritually we’re drawing ever closer to the cross… and it’s different.  As the days pass and Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem, we begin to see that the light is slowly growing dim; and that the walls of darkness are starting to close in around Jesus and his disciples.  Jesus himself confirms this in our text for this morning as he tells the crowd at Jerusalem that “just as a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies” (12:24) for it to bear fruit, so also is he moving inexorably toward his death.  There’s no avoiding the darkness that’s to come; indeed, very soon now in the Gospel story this brilliant light will be extinguished through acts of betrayal, desertion, humiliation and finally, an excruciating death on a wooden cross.

Speaking both pastorally and personally, this growing and inevitable darkness is one of the most difficult aspects of our shared journey through Lent and into Holy Week, most especially this year; and yet, it’s precisely in the midst of this encroaching darkness that we discover what God’s plan has been all along.  As Jesus proclaims it, “the hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified;” (v. 23) understanding that this is a glory of another kind: not glory in the sense of worldly patterns of power or popularity, but divine glory that is revealed in suffering and death.  Truly, in what the world regarded as unabashed tragedy and the triumph of evil – the very Son of God crucified at the hands of a sinful humanity – our God was in fact proven victorious over sin and death forever, and in the process true and lasting light was revealed to the whole world, never to be extinguished again! 

And if all of this sounds like contradiction on a cosmic scale, you’re right:  it’s in fact the one glorious paradox that lies at the heart of our Christian faith: that our life, our true life, comes about through death.  Now, by our human way of thinking, that makes very little sense: we recognize that a seed that falls to the ground will likely die forever; yet by God’s intent, it’s the seed dying that’s required for it to bear fruit.  Likewise, the execution of one man on a cross would almost certainly signal for us not only the end of a life, but also the end of a movement and the end of hope; because our logic says that whatever it was the man stood for would be dead and gone along with the man. 

But you see, that’s not how God views it; in fact, it’s ever and always been God’s plan that the death of this man, his very incarnation on earth, would serve as the ultimate act of grace and love.  This was God’s means to conquer death forever, and the way God would assure his closeness to you and to me both in this life and in the life to come.

What we’re talking about here is the difference between what the Greeks described as chronos becoming kairos, which simply put, is what happens when our time (chronos) becomes God’s time (kairos).  It’s what happens when God comes to work a blessing even into our worst moments of suffering; it’s what happens when God enters into our places of pain and fear and anger and regret and sin, so to bring us closer to him and make us a place in his kingdom; it’s what happens when God comes even into our deep and encroaching darkness to bring light. 

For you see, the good news is that however intently that darkness seeks to overtake us… this light will prevail.

This is an important truth for us to remember, not only in these Lenten days of reflection, but also in all of our days as we make our way through life’s myriad and difficult challenges, most especially the ones we’re facing right about now. 

You know, one of the things over the past couple of weeks that has felt strange, and a bit ironic, is that even though that with the coming of spring our days are finally (!) getting longer, what with all the bad news surrounding the Coronavirus, in some ways it actually feels darker somehow!  In fact, I dare say that for many of us right now our anxieties and fears are such that we really do feel as though the light that has illumined our way seems as diminished as a failing lantern.  

That’s why it’s good news indeed that even in the moments when it feels like this darkness is going to overwhelm us we discover that there’s a greater light shining, a light that will prevail; if only we’ll let it in. Ours, you see, is the God of light who is relentless in coming to us even amidst the deepest of this world’s darkness and, it should be noted, is determined to shine forth that light amidst our own capacity for darkness as well.  Ours is a divine and graceful love that is determined to transform these days of difficulty and uncertainty into moments of victory and wonder and insight, bringing us unending light that will prevail for the way now and forever, and in the process, making each one of us “children of light” (v. 36)

At the very center of our Christian faith is this truth that in Jesus Christ, God was willing to enter into our suffering; and now as in our Lenten journey we draw ever closer now with Jesus to that “hill far away,” bearing the crosses of our own lives and living as we do, it’s important for us to remember that his light does prevail… as will ours.  As difficult and as overwhelming as these days have been for all of us, we can find our comfort and our hope in the fact that our time is God’s time, and even now God is seeking to work a blessing in and through our lives… as persons and as a people; as families and friends; as communities, as nations and as a world; and yes, as the church of Jesus Christ.  His is the light that prevails, beloved; so let each one of us let that light shine in!

And as we do, may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

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

 
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Posted by on March 29, 2020 in Current Events, Jesus, Lent, Sermon

 

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