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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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Come Away…

baptism childI recently had the pleasure of leading a baptismal service in which the parents of the child who was baptized asked if I might include a passage of scripture that had also been read at their wedding a few years before.  Since that request sounded not only reasonable but also rather sweet, I quickly and easily agreed; but later I was quite surprised to learn that the reading in question came from the Old Testament Song of Solomon:

“My beloved speaks and says to me:
‘Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
and come away,
for behold, the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
The fig tree ripens its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
and come away.’”
Song of Solomon 2:10-13 (ESV)

A beautiful and poetic piece of scripture, to be sure; but I have to confess that my first response was to wonder what, if anything at all, this particular love song has to do with an infant baptism!

Indeed, the Song of Solomon (or “Song of Songs,” as it is sometimes known) has long been the source of a great deal of debate both spirited and spiritual; even when one rightly considers the rich and vivid imagery of two lovers in love as an allegory of God’s utter devotion to his people. To say the least, this is one bit of sacred text that even given our modern sensibilities still tends to bring forth a blush; so to extend this same metaphor to something as utterly innocent as the christening of a wiggly toddler might well be stretching things a bit!  However, the more I thought about it the more that this particular excerpt made sense to me in the context of what I often refer to as a “Sacrament of Welcome,” our Christian baptism that is an “outward and visible sign of the grace of God” in our life and living.

After all, what better parable for love, marriage, family and indeed, life itself, can there be than that of a remarkable journey to a wondrous new place filled with unending beauty and life bursting forth!  And just as two people in love will inevitably find themselves in something akin to Solomon’s own incredible experience of springtime and singing, so the arrival of children only increases a deep sense of life’s fragrant blossoming that comes about by God’s own creative and loving hand.  Of course, anyone who’s been there can tell you that the journey itself can often be long, sometimes arduous and always full of surprises; but just as certainly there are passages along that way that will bring unparalleled joy. And the best part is that while over time the vistas before us might change, by God’s power, grace and abiding presence the journey – and its wonder – never truly ends!  This is the sure and certain promise of our baptism in Jesus Christ; the assurance that in all things “we too might walk in newness of life.”

I was reminded of this truth once again this past weekend as the Lowry family came together to celebrate another great passage of life’s journey: that of our youngest son Zachary’s graduation from college and the beginning of a career in forest management. As you can imagine, this was an event tinged with both hearty laughter and a few tears, and wholly imbued with truly precious memories forged over the course of a still relatively short lifetime; and so, there has most certainly been some nostalgia involved!  Indeed, more than once over these past few days, I’ve lingered long at the recollection of holding this tiny infant in my arms who’s now become this young man full of verve and passion (not to mention a sheer and unyielding determination that’s only matched by the level of his conviction); and I’ve marveled at the amazing journey of his life that’s taken him from there to here.  But even more amazing is that far from being over, this journey is only now starting in earnest; and that the many wonders he’s already experienced on the way can only pale in comparison to what lay ahead. How that all unfolds for Zach will be an exciting thing to watch; but the true blessing will come in witnessing the many unique and wonderful ways that God’s Spirit will move in and through his life as it happens.

Actually, it seems to me that as we welcomed that little one into the family of God through the Sacrament of Baptism, praying together as family and friends for his “growth into full Christian faith and discipleship”  as his own young life unfolds, we could not have wished for anything better for him than that.

So come away… for this wonderful, amazing and miraculous journey of life and faith is just beginning.

c,2016  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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The Well-Connected Christian

00vineyard(a sermon for May 11, 2014, the 4th Sunday of Easter, based on John 15:1-8)

I’d actually heard this before, but to be honest with you I wasn’t sure I believed it; so I looked it up for myself, and sure enough: there are well over 300 words in the dictionary that begin with the hyphenated word “self.”

It’s true (and I counted, I want you to know)!  The word “self” has a definition on its own, of course; it relates to one’s “complete individuality,” “separate identity,” and “personal interest.”  And as you look at the long list of words that follow, it becomes apparent that most anything you can name can easily apply.  There’s “self-assurance,” and “self-determination;” also “self-control,” “self-improvement,” and “self-defense.”  You can be “self-made,” “self-starting,” “self-employed,” “self-sufficient” and “self-disciplined;” but you can also be “self-serving,” “self-seeking,” “self-indulgent” and “self-righteous,” but that’s apt to lead you on a path of “self-pity” and “self-destruction,” in which case you’ll stand in the need of “self-help” in order to regain your “self-respect!”

I must confess I could have gone on all day like that!  But, in all seriousness, I also have to tell you that as I skimmed through those pages in the dictionary, the thought occurred to me that this all represents a fairly clear reflection of a culture that has become – okay, I’ll say it – all-too…  self-absorbed!  It is true that just about every single day in ways both subtle and direct we are bombarded with the message that who and what we are is determined by what we make of ourselves: that the ways we help ourselves, heal ourselves, forgive ourselves, love ourselves, and ultimately seek to be ourselves will determine the direction and mastery of our own fate.  This idea that taking control your own life – to do it by yourself and to do it for yourself – is what’s going to make all the difference in your life; it’s the strong message of the world today…

…and it’s a lie.

Now, don’t misunderstand me; I’m in no way denigrating the need for self-exploration or the quest for greater self-understanding, because I think that’s not only laudable but also essential in today’s world.  I simply find fault with the contention that each of us is somehow autonomous and stands apart from the rest of the world; that everything we are and can ever hope to be comes about solely by our own effort, and that this alone determines our fate.

And that’s because in truth, friends, I find very little in my life that hasn’t been, at least in part, influenced, nurtured or challenged by something or someone else: my parents, for instance; you know, I’m 55 years old, which I suppose makes me pretty close to a grown-up (!), I have a life and a family of my own, but believe me when I tell you that there are places back in Maine where I am still primarily known as “Keith and Sylvia’s boy!” And that’s OK – kind of neat, in fact (!) – because that’s one of my strongest connections!  Likewise, the very fact that I grew up in a small town in northern Maine influences who I am and my world-view.   My wife Lisa, who I love, and my three incredible (and pretty much grown) children: they also make me, in large part, who I am; as does what I do for work as a church pastor, and as a servant of the Lord.

The point is that I don’t stand alone – none of us do – in fact, to quote the title of an admittedly obscure Beach Boy song of the late 60’s, “you need a mess of help to stand alone.”  Ultimately, you need connections in order to live with any kind of fullness: you need to be well-connected with family (in whatever form that takes!), with friends of every variety, with your environment, with all the many blessings of life and living.  You need all of these, and more; but above all you need a connection with God.

It sounds so simple on the face of it, but make no mistake: this is radical, counter-cultural thinking, and in fact, it is the gospel of Jesus Christ, who says to you and me, “I am the vine, you are the branches.  Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from you can do nothing.”  Larry Benning makes the point that “every one of us in this culture is under pressure to be our own creator, our own source of life… our own god.  But then along comes Jesus who says to us, ‘Uh-uh!  You are not the source of your own life, your own healing, and your own worth.  You are not your own creator no matter how much time [and how much energy] you spend on [it]…  I am the Vine.  I am your source of life; you are the branches who need the vine to live,” and without me, you will most certainly wither and die.

It doesn’t get much more straightforward than that!  In Jesus Christ, you see, we have a unique and personal relationship from which everything else that we need in our lives proceeds – our life, our health, our food, our relationships, our forgiveness, our hope for today and for eternity – but without that relationship, ultimately we have nothing.  No matter how hard we work at it personally, no matter how many other straws we grasp at in trying to make it happen on our own, true life cannot grow and flourish in the same way that it does in that close relationship with Christ.

It’s no accident that Jesus chose the analogy of the vine and its branches to explain this to his disciples and to us; it’s the simple truth that though a grape vine will grow easily to the point where it will take off wildly in almost every direction, it’s only when that branch is securely connected to the stem of the vine that it’ll flourish (or, to put it in biblical language, it’s only the branch that “abides” in the vine that bears much fruit).  Without that connection there’s nothing; even if something does end up growing, the grapes that result are inevitably tiny and withered and bitter.  Moreover, such “unabiding” branches have a way of negatively affecting the whole harvest; and that’s why vine growers are diligent about constantly pruning all these useless branches, so that the ones abiding in the vine will produce fruit that’s abundant and of high quality.

Well, likewise in a strong, “abiding” relationship with Christ, we are given what we need to thrive and grow and bear the fruit of a faithful life: things like generosity, kindness, humility, the capacity to love others as we are loved, the desire to do the things that make for justice and peace, and to have, dare I say it, self-control in all things!  The trouble is that for most of us there is just so much useless foliage in our lives that literally sucks away the nourishment and strength and beauty of our lives in Christ; and these are things like anger and hatred and greed; old regrets and even older misunderstandings, misguided ideas and (here I go again!) a tendency toward “self-ishness.” And what Jesus makes very clear in this passage is that these are precisely the kind the things that lead the vine grower (that is, God) to start pruning:  “Whoever does not abide in me,” he says, “is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”  A harsh thought, to be sure, and pretty judgmental; but it underscores the need for you and me to truly “abide” in Christ in and through every part of our lives.

Actually, you know, the very word “abide” is an interesting one:  it’s an old-fashioned word that technically means to remain with something or someone; but we don’t talk about “abiding in a hotel overnight,” or that Alex Preston, our favorite “American Idol” from New Hampshire will continue to “abide” after this week’s nationwide vote!  No, “to abide” has more to do with persevering, continuing, lasting, staying with something no matter what, and that’s a rare thing indeed.  We live in a world where things quickly change, contracts are easily broken, and people regularly move on from situation to situation; but in Christ, we are given a relationship that abides:  he in us, and us in him.

Jesus makes it clear that our relationship with him is not about beliefs, first principles or philosophical propositions; it is to abide in him: to live in him, cling to him and be a part of him.  William Willimon writes that in the end, faith in Jesus “is a simple willingness to stumble along behind Jesus, a willingness to be behind him.  The faith is in the following.”  And if we do; if we abide in him, stay with him, follow him through all and in all, then we are going to grow and flourish; our lives and our living will be like fruit fresh on the vine, glorifying God and giving us a sense of beauty, purpose and joy in everything we know and do.

One of the truly moving aspects of our daughter Sarah’s graduation at Hope College in Michigan last weekend was how in at least one respect it closely mirrored the experience of their opening convocation four years ago when she and her classmates started as freshmen.  Lisa and I were there on that orientation weekend back in 2010 – because, trust me, we needed as much orientation as they did (!) – and the most memorable and remarkable part of that event was how the entire faculty of Hope College came into that convocation and literally encircled the whole freshman class, symbolizing how they would be surrounding these students with their nurture, and wisdom and love over the next four years.  And now it was happening again: as these now graduating seniors were walking to the baccalaureate service at the chapel, and later on into the commencement itself, the faculty created a pathway for the students; and they clapped and cheered and high-fived them all as they walked through, all 900 of ‘em!

It was a pretty impressive thing to see, I must say; and at least from this Dad’s point of view, just as emotional an experience as it was four years ago!  It’s the same reason that Hope College doesn’t do “honor parts,” or choose to have some of the students wear “honor cords” at the ceremony; not that there’s anything wrong with that, and not that the students aren’t recognized for that kind of academic excellence.  It’s just that where the graduation ceremony is concerned their philosophy is that these young adults began this journey together and they’ve reached their goal in the same way: together, ever and always linked to one another and most especially anchored in the love and HOPE of Jesus Christ.

Granted, I was pretty filled up with parental pride at that point, but I have to tell you that I came away thinking that to be a pretty good parable for the kingdom of God!  It’s the good news of the gospel for this day and every day: that whatever other endeavor or discipline we employ to find meaning for our lives, in the end what will truly give us true “self-fulfillment” is going to be that good and abiding connection we have with our Lord Jesus Christ!  What a thing to think of our Lord as the one who walks with us on every step of the journey; who applauds our achievements, who slows us down when we veer off track and joyfully “high-fives” us with every new day!  That is, after a fashion, exactly who our Lord is; truly, ours is the Lord of Life, you see, the whole of life; he is the one who will walk with us every step of the journey, enveloping us with love and unending hope; and when we come to the place of finally bearing fruit – just as we were created and nurtured to do – he will rejoice with us in the incredible harvest of our very lives!

We are truly “well-connected,” both with Christ, but also with one another – so what is true for us as individuals is also true for us as the whole church of Jesus Christ!  So let us continue to grow and flourish as are meant to do:  because no matter where we are in life’s cycle of seedtime and harvest, there’s plenty of fruit to be borne – plenty of ways for Christ’s joy to be in us, so that joy might be full.

Something to think about as we work on our own personal “vineyards,” beloved…

…and as we do, let our thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2014  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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