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The Way… of Life Abundant

(a sermon for October 27, 2019 , the 20th Sunday after Pentecost and Stewardship Sunday; last in a series, based on John 10:7-10)

(a podcast version of this message can be found here)

And Jesus said to them, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Perhaps it’s a by-product of having turned 60 years old this year, I don’t know; or maybe it’s simply that we’re now inching toward late autumn and there’s another long New England winter looming on the horizon, but I must confess to you that these days I’ve been thinking a lot about life… life, what it all means, and at the end of the day what makes it abundant.

Now, to have life is certainly a good thing; it’s desirable, important.  “How much more so, then,” writes theologian and pastor David Lose, is “abundant life. The chance to not simply persist, but thrive, to not simply exist, but flourish. To have a sense of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment; to know and be known, accept and be accepted.”  Lose goes on to say that if there’s one thing that “pretty much everyone” desires – “even if they can’t name that desire” – it’s this.  And I would agree; I mean, we hear this desire expressed all the time, don’t we?  That there’s years to your life, but what counts is that “there’s life to your years;” or that “it’s not the number of breaths you take but the number of moments that take your breath away?” Or maybe it’s simply the difference between being able to wake up in the morning and say, “Good morning, Lord!” as opposed to rolling out of bed and saying, “Good Lord, it’s morning!”

All I know is that’s the kind of life I want – that is, the “Good morning, Lord” attitude, not the other (!) – especially now that I’m (shudder!) looking – eventually, mind you – toward my “third act.” I mean, like anybody else, have a vision in my mind’s eye of how life should be.  But as I say, sometimes I do wonder about the way… of such abundance.

Of course, Madison Avenue and the ever shifting pop culture of this world would love not only to sell you on the idea of what abundant life looks like – you know, beauty, fun, romance, hope, identity, relationship, joy, community and popularity – but also that such things are attained through money and fashion and the perfect physique; by driving the best car, having the most up to date iPhone, and of course (and I hear this a lot on television), the ability and resources to “retire rich.”  Even social media gets into the act:  do you know that there’s been a move afoot to remove “like” buttons from sites like Facebook and Instagram – you know, the little “thumbs up” and “hearts” and “angry faces” that people put on your posts in re – in part because so many people have somehow placed their perception of personal popularity and success, or the complete lack thereof, on the basis of how many of those “likes” they’ve received, or conversely, on all the negative feedback they’ve received online; as though the meaning and abundance of a life could ever be determined by one’s identity on social media (my own podcast page on Facebook does  currently have 107 followers, which is pretty cool, but I digress…)!

The point is that there’s so much in this world and the culture that purports to provide a life abundant, but as the saying goes, “It hits all the right notes, but it is not the song.”  In fact, I’ll go one step further here: not only do these worldly efforts ultimately fail to bring life in any lasting or meaningful way – because it always ends up that the abundance that’s promised inevitably comes in the next big thing – it also tends to steal away the qualities of life that truly matter.  It’s actually not unlike what Jesus was talking about in our text for this morning when he refers to “the thief [who] comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”  We’re all seeking true life and to have it abundantly, but so often that which we desperately cling to for that purpose would rob us of that true life.  When it comes to providing abundant life, these are the thieves, the bandits, the imposters or even potentially the hired hand (!) that would actively seek to put the sheep (that is, you and me) in danger; but the good news is that we do have a good shepherd.  In the wonderful words of Nadia Bolz-Weber, “in a world where people are being fed spoonfuls of nonsense and told it is Jesus… we have a better Gospel.”  And that better Gospel comes in the Good Shepherd who not only stands at the gate for the sheep but who is the gate, and who says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Let me just say at this point that this whole section of the 10th chapter of John, from which our text is drawn this morning is amongst the richest, most evocative and – at least in terms of point of view – one of the more perplexing passages in all of John’s Gospel.  First Jesus talks about anyone not “not enter[ing] the sheepfold by the gate” (10:1) being a thief and a bandit; then it’s all about the gatekeeper whose voice the sheep recognize (v. 3), then, as we’ve said, it’s Jesus referring to himself as the gate (v. 9), and then, most prominently, it’s how he’s “the good shepherd” (v. 11) who knows and cares for his flock, even to the point of laying down his life.  Jesus is coming at this particular parable at a whole lot of different angles – which is why we preachers tend to divide up these verses in our sermons (!) – but do you see the overarching theme of this whole metaphor of sheep and shepherd and sheepgate?  It’s that Jesus is the one – the only one – who saves those sheep from all the predators of this world and who ever and always cares for the sheep that they have life and have it abundantly.

So… given all that, what is this way of life abundant that Jesus offers us?  Actually, it’s all right there in Jesus’ words about shepherds and sheep, and it comes down to three things: protection, provision and presence.  “That’s it,” writes Karoline Lewis of Lutheran Seminary. “Not observable opulence.  Not assumed affluence.  Not luxury or lavishness.  No, it seems that abundant life, according to Jesus, is knowing that you will be safe and sound, trusting that your basic needs will be met, and believing that you are never alone.”

It’s worth noting here that Jesus’ words about the care of the good shepherd comes on the heels of Jesus (in chapter 9) having healed a man born blind – this man, who as you might remember, was reduced to begging at the pool of Siloam (9:1-9) – and by virtue of this healing was not only given the ability to see but also a whole new life; quoting Karoline Lewis again, even when afterward “the formerly blind man has been thrown out by the religious leaders,” (because remember, the Pharisees were not all that keen on the healing having taken place on the Sabbath), and even though he was “cast out again from community and exposed to the elements,” Jesus finds him and is there for him, bringing him the assurance of his protection, provision and presence (9:35) because that’s what it means to be part of Jesus’ flock; because that is the blessing of having Jesus with you always; because that’s what it is to truly have life and to have it abundantly.

It’s also why Jesus, almost immediately in John’s Gospel, responds to all of this by saying  to all those people who were no doubt confused with Jesus’ mixed metaphor here (and here’s The Message version of this passage), “I’ll be explicit, then. I am the Gate for the sheep.”  I am the Good Shepherd; I’m the one who will lay down my life for the sheep!  “All those others are up to no good – sheep stealers, every one of them… a thief is only there to steal and kill and destroy.  I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.”

At the end of the day, you see – all through the day, in fact – the way of abundant life is that life spent with Jesus and his protection, provision and presence.

Like I said before… I do wonder at times about my life; about what the future holds for me, and for my family and all the people that I love. I know; it’s still “a ways” off yet, but I do think about retirement and what that’s going to look like and how we’ll manage; and like many of you, I suspect, in these ever changing and sometimes insanely crazy times I can’t help but worry a bit about what this world is going to look like for our children and grandchildren.

And truthfully, beloved, I wonder what’s going to happen with this church as the future unfolds in its unpredictable way.  And don’t misunderstand me here; first of all, I’m not going anywhere anytime soon (!) but also because I don’t worry about this church.  Oh, yes, we do have our concerns and challenges and uncertainties in this place; and not only would I be less than honest, I wouldn’t be any kind of a pastor if I didn’t confess that there’s not a year when I don’t fret a little bit about budget and offerings and how the rest of the building will get painted.  But here’s the thing: I don’t worry because the Lord is our shepherd, our good shepherd, and he has come that we may have life and have it abundantly.  And so just as I know in faith that the Lord will most certainly see me in and through everything that comes in my own life, I am convinced that as you and I walk the way together, East Church and the ministry that we share will not simply persist, but thrive; and that we will not merely exist in this world and in this life, but flourish… not only right here and now, not just in 2020, but “from season to changing season, from age to age the same.”

You see, the great joy of walking in “the Way” of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is that wherever we go, wherever we’re led, wherever the windy and twisted road of life takes us we’re never alone on the journey.  And wherever that pathway goes and however long the journey, individually and collectively we walk as God’s children.  We are known, beloved; known by the God who has created us in his image and for his great pleasure.  We are loved with love unfathomable, we are protected along every step of the way in this life and eternally in the next.  And we are provided for; provided all that we’ll ever need by the one who is the very source of all of our blessing.  And we are strengthened and empowered by his very countenance; we have and shall always know our Lord’s presence times of trial and of rejoicing; so, as our Epistle reading for this morning puts it, “[we] may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that [we] may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

And if that is not life abundant, then nothing else can possibly be.

Beloved, may God bless you and me as we navigate all the joys, the challenges and the blessed uncertainties of this life.  May God bless all of his creation with inspiration as it struggles to live with mercy and kindness, with humility and divine peace.  May God bless his church – even this church – with power for love and to be Jesus’ disciples here on Mountain Road and beyond.  And may God grant us all life that is truly abundant; with the wisdom and the spirit to walk the way ahead in faith and with all manner of joy.

And ever and always, as we do may our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on October 27, 2019 in Jesus, Life, Sermon, Sermon Series, Stewardship

 

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The Way… of True Worship

(a sermon for October 6, 2019, the 17th Sunday after Pentecost and World Communion Sunday; first in a series, based on 1 Chronicles 16:23-31 and James 5:13-20)

(a podcast version of this message can be found here)

So the question is… why are you even here today?

Seriously… what motivated you to get up out of bed and come to worship on such a beautiful autumn morning as this?  Don’t get me wrong; speaking both pastorally and personally I’m very glad (and grateful!) that you’re here, but I’ll confess this is something I always kind of wonder about!  Have you come here, for instance, out of a sense of gratitude for the ways God has been acting in your life?  Does this place and our time together in worship serve as an oasis, if you will, amidst life’s many difficulties, not to mention respite from a world that that more and more seems to be spinning out of control? Or is it more of a matter of routine for you, something you do simply because it’s Sunday morning?  I don’t know, perhaps you’re here this morning out of some sense of obligation or even guilt; hey, it happens!

Now, I’d like to think that maybe you’ve come here today because in some way or another you’ve found some measure of comfort, inspiration and joy in what happens in our time of worship, and you’ve come seeking more of that:  that you’re needing to hear and to sing music that speaks to the heart and lifts the spirit; hoping perhaps to recognize yourself in scripture or song or prayer; wondering if today the preacher just might say something applicable to your own life (and I’ll be honest, I’m always hoping that’ll happen)!  Or it could be that you’re hoping that being here will help you grow in faith and, to quote the Rev. Christopher Winkler, a Methodist pastor and preacher from Illinois, to live your life a little “more faithfully tomorrow than you did yesterday;” and perhaps by being part of this sacred community of the church you’ll find the kind of fellowship, support and teaching that will help you do that.

Actually, I suspect that truth be told, the reasons that led you to worship here this morning likely encompassed all or parts of this, and so much more besides!  And I hope it goes without saying that it’s all valid; I mean, this all speaks directly to our personality as a congregation and about the vitality of our life together, right?  It’s all about who we are and what we do in the context of Christian worship.  And worship matters; in fact, I think it’s safe to say that our gathering together for worship is the central activity of our life together as the church; some might even argue that it’s our primary reason for being.  But all of this said, friends, I would like suggest to you this morning that the real purpose for our gathering together on this or any Sunday morning, “the Way” of true worship ultimately has little or nothing to do with any of these reasons we’ve been listing off here.  If we are sincerely engaged, as we so often say, in worshiping the Lord “in Spirit and in Truth,” then it’s not  primarily going to be about the style of worship, or the preaching, or the music, or the way we “do” communion, or how we pray, or how long the service lasts, or how great the refreshments are going to be after the service, but simply and wholly in “ascrib[ing] to the LORD the glory due his name… worship[ing] the LORD in holy splendor,” glorifying and praising God for his steadfast love that endures forever.

Without that being first and foremost in our hearts, then all the rest of it?  It’s all very well and good, to be sure, but in the words of a worship consultant by the name of Ken Lamb, it all ends up as “all the wrong reasons for all the right things.”

The great 19th century Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard used to use the theater as a metaphor for describing how most of us will misunderstand the role and purpose of worship. Kierkegaard would complain that all too often we imagine that the minister is the star actor or actress in a play, with the choir, the musicians and the rest of the worship leaders in supporting roles, and the congregation as the audience of theatergoers. In other words, worship itself becomes too much like a performance, in which those of us “up here” are engaged in offering up something of value to you “down there.”  And, trust me here, that’s not how it should be at all!  In fact, just the opposite; Kierkegaard says that in a proper “act and attitude of worship,” the worship leaders are in fact prompters helping to lead the congregation in offering up their best “performance” of worship and praise unto the God who is, “in the most earnest sense,” Kierkegaard writes, “the critical theatergoer, who looks on to see how the lines are spoken and how they are listened to.”

The way of true worship, you see, is not so much about what we’re getting out of the experience but rather about what we are putting into it!  I’m reminded here of a great story told by Craig Barnes of Princeton Seminary in which he recalled his years of being a church pastor, and how following a service of worship one day a member of the congregation met him at the door to berate him for the his choice of hymns for that day.  “Those songs you picked out were horrible,” she said.  “Not a single one of them were the least bit familiar, the words are all changed and they weren’t even singable… I hated every one of them.”  And to this, Barnes calmly replied, “Well, that’s okay… we weren’t singing them to you.” (I wish I’d thought of that!)  Ultimately, you see, our worship is not for us; our singing isn’t for our benefit nor our entertainment; our prayers of praise and thanksgiving and intercession is never meant to be an act of self-aggrandizement.

It’s about God.  Every part of our worship is to be directed toward and for the praise and glory of God.  I’m here as a prompter, so to speak, as are Kat and Susan and our choir; we are here to prompt your worship of God.  And in that regard as worshippers we’re all the performers, and the Lord God is the audience.  But it’s in that all those gifts grace and healing and forgiveness and wonder come to pass.

Our Old Testament text for this morning from the 1st Book of Chronicles has to do with David’s reclamation of the Ark of the Covenant, which was the container that ancient Israel had created to house the fragments of the stone tablets on which were written the ten commandments (and yes, in case you were wondering, that’s the same Ark of the Covenant that Indiana Jones went searching for in “Raiders of the Lost Ark…” but I digress!).  Biblically and historically speaking, the backstory here is that King David had done just about everything possible to return the Ark to Jerusalem and now it was finally happening; and with much music and shouting and food, not to mention David himself “leaping and dancing,” (15:29), there is this incredible celebration that now, at long last, the Ark – this symbol of who God was to them and everything God had done – the Ark  has been returned and now there would be this place of worship where the presence of God lived amongst his people.  There’s great rejoicing, and it all culminates with David calling the people to thanks and praise for all of God’s wonderful acts, “his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples.  For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised.”  You see what’s happening here?  It’s what one commentator I read this week refers to as “theology set to music;” a song that declares how wonderful God is, sung before the very presence of God!

A celebration of the presence of God amongst us; a joyous affirmation of the movement of God in and through our lives; a much-needed reminder of the reality of God’s unending hope and to give thanks and praise for his power amidst the living of these days:  that is what worship is supposed to be all about.  It’s what informs every part of this time we spend together every Sunday; it’s what my preaching, no matter the text or subject matter, has to be about; it’s why we sing and play the songs we do as a choir and congregation; and it’s what leads us in everything else we seek to be as the church of Jesus Christ, God’s Son and our only Savior.  It’s what makes us who we are as a church and the “Way” that we walk… it is first to ascribe to God the glory due his holy name.

But, of course, that not where it ends.

Our other text for this morning, from the New Testament Letter of James, is another of the so-called “pastoral epistles” that seek to encourage us in the ways that we seek to live as disciples of Christ within (and beyond) the life of the church.  Specifically, it’s about dealing with those are sick or suffering or lost or enmeshed in sin (“Are any among you suffering?  They should pray.”), or even cheerful (!), in which case, a song of praise is in order!  The message here is that “the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective,” and that’s important to remember; but it seems to me that the larger point is that our prayer and praising, while of first importance and absolutely essential for us as God’s people, is never meant to happen in a vacuum.  We are called to bring true worship unto God and God alone, that is true; but by our worship, we are also meant to be transformed, day by day, more and more into the people God created us to be.  In other words, we should never leave here on a Sunday morning the same way we came in.  In some small, even perhaps at times in a seemingly imperceptible yet nonetheless palpable way, we ought to leave our time of worship feeling different… changed, somehow… challenged in our thinking and living… relieved, maybe, or strengthened, or filled up with something akin to true joy and real love.  Scripture is filled with stories of men and women and entire nations coming into the presence of God and being changed – body and soul and heart and strength – forever; and so it ought to be, each in our own way, with you and me.  What’s the saying about faith being a journey and not a destination?  Well, beloved, it’s God’s presence and power experienced in true worship that sets us forth on that journey.

In just a moment we’ll be answering this divine invitation that’s been given us, joining with countless other kindred hearts on this World Communion Sunday in feasting at the Lord ’s Table, sharing in this wondrous experience of knowing his presence in a simple meal of bread and wine. Now I know that in many ways, our sharing communion today is no different than it is on every other first Sunday of the month when we have communion, and that we have our “way” of having communion that’s wrapped up in tradition and liturgy and “the way we’ve always done it.”  And the truth is, at times I worry that this truly blessed meal becomes for us routine.  I hope and pray that this won’t be the case for any of us today, but that perhaps as we pass the bread from one to another and drink from the cup of blessing we’ll see it as an opportunity to fix our full attention on God; to truly give God our whole thanks and praise for the life abundant and eternal that’s been given us in Christ Jesus; and by our prayers, both spoken and silent, ascribe to God the glory due him.  But then, having been refreshed at this sacred table of joy and life, let us be moved to go… go and become the people that God has always intended for us to be.

This, beloved, will be the way of true worship, and I have no doubt that each one of us, and our world, will be the better for it.

Thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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