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As Bread for the Broken

(a sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost and World Communion Sunday, based on  Exodus 16:2-15)

I suppose that it was inevitable.

After all, it was now about six weeks out from their deliverance from slavery in Egypt and their subsequent journey across the parted Red Sea into the Sinai wilderness: just long enough for food supplies to run out, patience to wear thin and the harsh reality of their situation to settle in.  And moreover, to be fair, there was a certain vagueness to this whole enterprise.  There’d been a whole lot of talk about freedom, a better life and “a land flowing with milk and honey,” (Exodus 3:8) which was all very good, but so far no specific indications as to how that was all going to work out; nor had they had any real say in the process.  All they knew is that this pilgrimage through the wilderness had now become a battle for survival; bad to the point where they’d even begun to reminiscence that even in the worst of times back in Egypt, they “sat by the fleshpots” and ate their fill of bread!  So it was kind of understandable that what they did in response was exactly what any of us might have done under the circumstances:  they complained. 

Now, in other translations of scripture, the word used is grumble, but actually for my money the best translation comes from the old King James Version where it says that “whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured” against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.  The idea that out amidst the dry sand and blistering winds these people were murmuring their discontent, for me says it all: no rioting, no attempted coup or petitions for asylum; just this growing crescendo of fear and uncertainty, an overwhelming feeling of helplessness that builds into hopelessness, and then to anger and desperation.

And that we can understand, right?  Because after all, we are a people who want, need and expect some measure of control in our lives!  M. Craig Barnes says this very well: “Vague is one of our least favorite adjectives.  If you give a report or presentation at work, the last thing you want to hear is that you were vague… when your daughter announces she is getting married and you ask about their plans for the future, you don’t want to hear they plan to live on love.  Vague frightens us.  We are a people who prefer plans, strategies, numbers, and lots of details.”

The trouble with all this, however, is that oftentimes life is far out of our control; and just like Israel, we find ourselves wandering aimlessly in the desert.  Things are going along just fine, and then you lose a job; there’s a health scare; a cherished relationship comes to an abrupt end; a world-wide global pandemic (!) leads to months of quarantine… and suddenly that pathway you’ve been walking along every day of your life takes a sharp turn into unfamiliar territory. You’re totally disoriented, scared to death and wanting like anything to go back to the way things were, where at least it was safe. 

That’s the desert experience, friends; that’s what the Israelites were facing out there in the wilderness; and that’s what you and I very often have to deal with in the utter uncertainty of our own lives! In the face of that, murmuring just seems like the proper response!

But here’s the other thing about the desert experience:  while it is most definitely the place where we have to give up control, it is also the place “where we learn to receive the mysterious future God has for us.”  To quote Craig Barnes again: “The desert journey is hard because it is so threatening.  Resources and assurances are few; questions and anxiety are plentiful.  In the desert you discover you have no choice but to trust God, which is why it is a place where souls are shaped.

In today’s reading from the book of Exodus we discover that the Israelites’ problem is ultimately not with Moses and Aaron, but with God.  Even Moses can see this: it’s not he or his brother that the people can’t trust, it’s Yahweh; and that’s because they don’t know or understand that this same God who enacted their deliverance also plans to be with them in the wilderness.  They don’t “get” that while their plight is very real, God in his providence will sustain them for the journey ahead.  Once you’ve started crossing the desert, you see, there is no going back; the future and its promise lay ahead and Israel had not yet come to embrace the truth that only the God of mystery could get them there.

So what does God do in the midst of the murmuring?  How will God respond to a people who won’t trust him to lead?  Well, the answer comes in one of the most evocative images we have in the Old Testament:  God tells Moses that “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you.”  It’s manna, “a fine, flaky substance” appearing each new day with the morning dew, “as fine as the frost on the ground,” as Exodus describes it; in fact, we’re told later on in this chapter that “the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.” (16:31)  It’s a true gift of God, but it’s a gift that comes with instructions:  first, every family has to gather their own; you can’t hoard it because by the middle of the day it will have been spoiled by the worms; and only one day’s ration was allowed, except on the sixth day of the week, when you could have an extra portion for the Sabbath.  So, manna in the morning, followed by the arrival of quail in the evening for meat: not too much food, to be sure; but enough, just enough sustenance to keep them going on the journey.

Interestingly enough, while Moses is very reassuring in bringing this news to the people – “in the morning you will see the glory of the LORD, because he has heard your complaining,” he says to them – God, on the other hand, is more than up front as to how this is, in fact, a test of Israel’s trust and faith; a determination as to whether or not this measure of food will lead them in trusting that God will continue to provide for them along the way… or not!  If you read through the entirety of this 16th chapter of Exodus, at first it sounds kind of vindictive, the very vision of the judgmental God of the Old Testament.  But looking at it a little more closely, it makes perfect sense that God would see this as a test of faith; in fact, it actually kind of completes the gift!

You see, just as God understood that the Israelites would most certainly not be wholly satisfied with what they were being given; God also knows that there will never be enough sustenance in this world, at least, to rid you and me of every concern and anxiety we carry; because the true nature of life, friends, is that life is predictably unpredictable!  In other words, just about the time we figure out what we need to survive whatever it is we’re facing today, here comes another challenge that needs facing tomorrow!  On some level or another we will always be hungry, we will always be thirsty, there will always be yet another unexpected twist and turn along the pathways we follow: like it or not, that is simply what life is, and if you and I are going to live that life with any sort of confidence or integrity or purpose, friends, we are going to have to walk those pathways trusting God, knowing that there will be more manna and quail when we need it.

Granted, we all do the best we can along the way: we put away money for the future, we build up our pension accounts, we get serious about losing weight and exercising more, we wear our masks and make every effort to stay socially distanced from one another.  But at the end of the day, that kind of effort only takes us so far, and the time will inevitably come when in the midst of our challenges, our “murmuring” and even our brokenness, we’ll have to give the rest over to God… this God who provides for us one meal, one day, one blessing at a time; truly giving us “this day our daily bread.”

Today, of course, is World Communion Sunday and in a few moments, we’ll be gathering – however remotely in 2020 (!) – at the Lord’s Table with believers the world over so that we might know his presence in the broken bread and shared cup.  It’s also, I think, a time to reflect on the true meaning of this sacrament as regards our Christian faith and moreover, a chance for each of us to remember and give thanks for how this deceptively simple meal has nourished our own spiritual growth. 

For me, this day is filled with the memories of moments when in either receiving or serving communion I was made newly and palpably aware of the Lord’s presence in the bread and cup, as well as the powerful movement of God’s Holy Spirit in and through my life and the life of the church of which I was a part.  But of all those memories, perhaps the one that stands out the most happened right here in this very sanctuary; shortly after I’d arrived here at East Church as your pastor. 

As most of you know, before we came here, I was at a place I like to refer to as “in-between callings.”  Lisa, the children and I had left Ohio and had come back to Maine, where I was going to focus all my attention on the search and call process and finding a new church.  And we did so knowing that in the United Church of Christ, this is a process that can take some time; but hey, it was summer, we had the camp and it was going to be fine!  But… as August turned into September and the days of autumn crept toward a long Maine winter with still nothing concrete about a pastoral position, I’ll be honest with you; I had begun to do more than just a little “murmuring” of my own! Now, in retrospect, I don’t know if I ever doubted God through all of that but I certainly doubted myself and day by day I was feeling increasingly mired and broken there in the middle of my own personal desert wilderness. 

But you all know what happened:  our wonderfully amazing graceful God managed to bring us together as pastor and parish here at East Church.  And now, about a month in, it was the first Sunday of the month, we were in worship and I was leading us in communion; something that as a pastor I’d done literally hundreds of times over the years… but this time it was different.

And I can tell you exactly the moment I realized it:  it’s when I said, as I almost always do during communion, “In the broken bread we participate in the broken body of Christ… in the cup of blessing, we celebrate the new life that Christ brings.”  I tore the bread, and the reality of it hit me like a ton of bricks:  I’d been broken!  All the challenges and struggles of the past few months, all of the uncertainties, all of the doubt, all of the lingering feelings of regret and fear and anger and… brokenness in my life: I was suddenly and profoundly and deeply aware that Jesus’ body was broken for my sake so that I might know redemption and hope and life, not to mention forgiveness and the ability to forgive; all of this even when I’d been too mired in my own feelings of being lost and broken to fully know and trust in it.  But now I realized that I was, in fact, “participating in the broken body of Christ,” a recipient of love infinite and unending… and able, at last, to truly and wholly celebrate the new life Christ brings.  As bread was given for the broken in the form of manna, at that very moment of celebration in our worship I was given the sustenance I needed.

And I’m telling you about this today because if right now you’re feeling broken – maybe seven months of pandemic has finally gotten to you… perhaps the onslaught of negativity and divisiveness in this election year has left you exhausted, angry and bitter… or maybe you’ve come to the sad conclusion that this roller coaster ride that is 2020 is much more than you can handle and now you’re just broken as a result – if that’s you, beloved, then know that this Holy Meal we’re about to share is for you.  As the song goes, “there’s life to be shared in the bread and the wine,” and whereas this act of worship might not change the ever-spinning nature of the world in these times, it will give you and me the sustenance we need for this desert journey…

…so let us come to the table so that we might be fed, and that we might know the presence, the power and the Glory of God in Jesus Christ in the process.

And may our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

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

 

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Word… and Sacrament

book-of-worshipIt’s called the Book of Worship, and for the uninitiated, it’s a collection of prayers, litanies and other liturgical resources for use in the worship life of congregations within the United Church of Christ, of which this pastor and the congregation I serve are a part.  From orders for weekly services of “Word and Sacrament” throughout the church year to the many other celebrations common to our shared ministry – Baptism, Confirmation, weddings, funerals and so on – the Book of Worship is, for clergy and laity alike, the go-to volume for worship materials that are both biblically and theologically sound, as well as rich in the history, tradition and diversity of our denomination.

As clergy and congregations we’re not required to use it in our services of worship (we’re far too independent and autonomous in the UCC for such a thing as this!), it is nonetheless one important resource that serves to truly unite us as the church, “linking the tapestry of the past and weaving the fabric of the future.” As I’m fond of explaining to those who ask, if you come to our church in New Hampshire this Sunday when we’re celebrating the Sacrament of Baptism, and then go to a UCC church in California next week where there’s also a baptism taking place, odds are you’ll hear pretty much the same service; and in fact, there’s great power in that.  Indeed, as the Book of Worship itself puts it, it’s a “means of praise and thanksgiving of the living God by [all of] God’s people in this time.”

I’ve had my copy (actually, two copies, but I’ll get to that in a moment) since shortly after it was published in 1986; and by any measure you’d care to use, it’s a book that’s seen better days! The binding is completely broken now (the book actually dropped out of said binding and on to the floor last year on Maundy Thursday, as I recall), the embossed printing on the cover has all but worn away, and a great many of the pages within are dog-eared, torn and covered with circles, arrows, and barely legible notes written to myself in preparation for literally hundreds of spiritual gatherings over the course of three decades. For me, it’s been a true “tool of the trade,” and truth be told, though I don’t always use it and over time have even come to know some of its liturgy by heart, there’s rarely a Sunday you won’t find me without the Book of Worship close at hand.

That is, you usually won’t.

A few Sundays back on what is always an occasion of great celebration at East Church, I had the joy and privilege of baptizing a bright eyed little boy who’s long been a part of the church family. The pews were filled with family members and friends, all was made ready for this blessed sacrament to take place, and our morning worship was about to begin… when I suddenly realized that my Book of Worship, which of course contains the proper liturgy I needed to do my job as pastor and “officiant” at this celebration, had been left in my office.  No problem; except that when I got to my office, the book as nowhere to be found!  And I do mean nowhere; after fairly well tearing apart my admittedly cluttered desk, as well as the surrounding environs, it was clear that it wasn’t going to be found before the call to worship, which was now five minutes away!

Again, no problem; because sitting on my office bookshelf is a second, loose leaf copy of the Book of Worship that I have kept for just such an occasion… except that somewhere along the line, that book had been dropped, all the pages had come loose and scattered, and in the process most of the baptismal pages had been misplaced, lost or destroyed! Frantically sifting through what remained, I managed to find a random page with part of the baptismal vows; but now, as the organ prelude had begun, there was no time to search for anything more.  I had to face the fact that I’d be doing this baptism pretty much on my own!

And the thing is, it went well!  Not perfectly, mind you, as I know I stumbled, and a lot.  I’m sure that as I nervously worked to pull key points of the liturgy from my addled memory, the language used was far less eloquent and graceful than what was on the printed page; likewise, my retelling of the story of Jesus welcoming the children came nowhere close to the New Revised Standard version!  But somehow, by the grace of God and the movement of his Spirit, it worked; there was laughter, some tears, and most importantly a child was formally and joyfully welcomed into the loving embrace of our Lord and into the care of a large and extended spiritual family.

In the end it was, in the truest and best sense of the word, sacramental. And it all happened without the Book of Worship.

This past Sunday, we gathered in worship for World Communion Sunday and once again I stood before the wonderful congregation that I serve, sharing in the simple yet manifold blessings of the bread and the cup.  And, yes, I did have with me the Book of Worship (that which was lost was indeed found, albeit a few days later; one of the groups using our Fellowship Hall had inadvertently stashed it in a cabinet), and together with other kindred spirits across the globe, we shared in a familiar liturgy of remembrance, faith and promise that’s been spoken across both miles and generations. And it was wonderful; though I must confess that on this particular day I was reminded that what made this service special happened way beyond what could ever be found in the pages of a worn book.  It happened both in the small and intimate ways we connected with one another as we shared in this holy feast, both eye to eye and heart to heart, and it happened especially in the multitude of ways that our Lord was being present to each one of us gathered together.

Don’t get me wrong; the Word that we impart as pastors and worship leaders is important, dare I say essential, as it’s part of what brings us together as a worshipping congregation.  But ultimately, it’s what happens in and through that service that makes it a Sacrament.

And surely God is present there.

c. 2016  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
 

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If Only Just a Little Bit

"The Mulberry Tree" -- Vincent Van Gogh

“The Mulberry Tree” — Vincent Van Gogh

(a sermon for October 2, 2016, the 20th Sunday after Pentecost and World Communion Sunday, based on Luke 17: (1-4) 5-10 and 2 Timothy 1:1-14)

“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’”  And I have to say that I certainly understand the request!

After all, Jesus asks an awful lot of his disciples; and of us as well:  even in those four verses leading up to our gospel reading for this morning, Jesus is laying down some rather hard truths about not becoming any kind of stumbling block to “little ones” in trouble (in other words, don’t you be the source of their trouble), as well as some pretty high standards as to how we respond to those who cause us some trouble (spoiler alert: we’re to forgive them… again, and again, and… again!).  It’s nothing new, really; it’s all in keeping with Jesus’ constant admonitions that we’re to love one another in the way that we have been loved – wholly, unconditionally and sacrificially – even  and especially if that other happens to be the very one who’s injured us or has caused us to stumble!  Basically, it’s all just part and parcel of the gospel, and a central part of the Christian ethic…

…but it’s hard!  And here are these disciples listening to what Jesus is say and feeling completely inadequate to the challenges set before them, unable to imagine themselves living up to any of Jesus’ lofty expectations of them!  There may well have been a couple of them who at this point were beginning to wonder to themselves what it was they’d signed on for, because Jesus was now surely asking the impossible!  So Jesus, they finally say to him… if this is all what you expect of us, if this is what we need to truly be your disciples, then please, please, “increase our faith!”

And quite honestly… we get that, don’t we?  I mean, after yet another week in which the world around us seems to continue sinking into the abyss of random violence, divisive hatred and degradation – not to mention finger pointing and name calling coming from every direction – it’s kind of hard for us sitting in these pews to renew ourselves to loving as we have been loved and forgiving seven times, or for that matter, “seventy times seven!”  For you and I to live an authentic Christian life in this world, in these times, is hard; more to the point, it’s overwhelming: overwhelming to think that we can ever do everything that Jesus teaches and that we can truly live how we ought to live.  And it’s not that we don’t understand Jesus’ words, or what’s required of us. At the heart of it all, we know what Jesus says is right, we know it’s true; it’s just that, like those disciples before us, we find ourselves feeling like we need more faith for it to happen!  So if we’re going to get through, let alone make a difference in this life, then, O Lord, please, please “increase our faith!”

And it seems like a reasonable request, one coming from a sincere, heart-felt and very well-intentioned place… but isn’t it interesting how Jesus responds?  You might have expected him to both welcome and grant the request of the disciples; but he doesn’t.  In fact, in a verse that we’ve sometimes had the tendency to misread, Jesus kind of… rebukes them for it!  “If you even had a speck of faith,” Jesus says, even “the size of a mustard seed,” you’d have every bit of faith sufficient to uproot a mulberry tree and haul it into the sea!  And from that perspective, it does come off as rather harsh; it actually kind of seems like Jesus is saying to these disciples that they don’t have any faith to begin with, so why would they ever ask for more!  And in fact, if that’s what Jesus is getting at, then it would be next to impossible ever to live up to the challenges of true discipleship.

But maybe we’re missing Jesus’ point.  Perhaps it’s not that the disciples are faithless; maybe it’s that where faith is concerned, the disciples are wrong-headed.  And just maybe you and I have run the risk of making the same mistake!

Actually, The Message’s version of this story cuts right to the heart of the matter:  when the disciples come to Jesus and ask, “Give us more faith,” the Master replies, “You don’t need more faith.  There is no ‘more’ or ‘less’ in faith.”  In other words, faith is not something you can think of in quantity; faith is not “some kind of scarce resource that needs to be saved, spent, [or] added to.” [David Lose] If it were, we’d all be tempted to stockpile faith like we keep extra cans of soup in the cupboard, or put away money for a rainy day; we’d measure the use of faith by its importance in a given situation, and we’d save it up for the “big” things of life and living.  No, ultimately faith does not amount to how much you have of it that it does what you do with it!  To put it another way, in the words of the Rev. Jim Somerville, what Jesus seems to be saying to the disciples is, “You don’t need more faith, you only need the tiniest little speck… it’s not about having more faith, it’s about putting your faith in the right place; or, more specifically, in the right person.”

I think that’s what Jesus is getting at here, and that’s why right after he says this to the disciples, he goes on to talk about the relationship that servants have with the landowners; that servants don’t work so they can eat at the same table with the landowners, and that they don’t do what they do to garner the huge thanks and praise of the landowner.  Servants do their jobs because the job needs doing, and this, says Jesus, is more what faith is like; simply the willingness to do what needs to be done.  Faith is not some big, quantitative thing; moreover, to quote the Rev. David Lose, from Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia, “faith isn’t always heroic.  Indeed, it usually isn’t, but instead is simply and humbly doing what needs to be done, big or small, great or mundane, just because it needs doing.”

And friends, that’s an important message for you and for me who are seeking to be “faith-full” in this world and in these times.  For what our Lord Jesus reminds us here is that even though there seems to be so much around us that just appears to be spiraling out of our control, we need to have faith… if only just a little bit (!)… understanding, however, that faith may not always be found “in the mighty acts of heaven but in the ordinary and everyday acts of doing what needs to be done, responding to the needs around us, and caring for the people who come our way.”  You see, it’s in doing the smallest, even the most unnoticed of things every day and doing them in the name of our faith in Jesus Christ that even the mightiest of mulberry trees get uprooted and hurled into the sea.

And here’s the beauty part, friends: being faithful doesn’t always mean being religious!  Oh yes, sometimes it does (!); but there are indeed many ways of being faithful that go beyond Sunday mornings and church services!  Like showing up for work and doing a good job.  Like taking the time to listen when someone wants to talk, and being a friend to someone in need.  Like being present – and the example – for the children in your lives.  Like cooking supper; or delivering a plate of cookies; or writing a thank you note to someone who’s done something like that for you.  Like praying for a neighbor who’s going through a “rough patch.”  Like volunteering to help, wherever and whenever.  Like staying strong so others can find their strength in you; and for that matter, like letting your own vulnerability show forth so that they might know that there is strength in weakness as well!

The list goes on and on, but the one thing all these small, everyday, seemingly ordinary parts of life have in common is that they have the potential of being powerful acts of faith.  Maybe they aren’t extravagant, or costly, or earth-shattering… perhaps it constitutes only a “little bit” of faith in a crazy world; but in truth, these are the bits of faith present the true evidence of our trust in God and our belief in things like prayer, and love, and forgiveness and grace;  and as such, in ways way beyond we can begin to account, these are the things that will change the world for the sake of Jesus Christ.

I think it’s a good thing, especially on this World Communion Sunday, for you and I to take stock of what we’ve been given in faith, this “good treasure entrusted to [us],” as Paul describes it in our Epistle reading this morning.  I’ve always been particularly fond of this passage, especially in how it recognizes that faith is very much something that is passed on to us in the faithfulness of those have gone on before:  “I am reminded of your sincere faith,” Paul writes, “a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.”  But understand there’s more going on here than simply the sharing of memories; Paul is also calling us to “rekindle [that] gift of God” that is within us, adding that “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” 

In other words, because there have been so many whose faithful acts instilled that gift of God within us, we are behooved to do the same for others.  And that begins, Paul says, with each one of us stirring the coals of our faith to see what sparks are there and discover what might catch fire simply by virtue of who and whose we are, and what we do by God’s grace and empowerment!  Each one of us has the faith we need; but what we have before us is the challenge to live out of that faith with a spirit of power, love and self-discipline; to hold to a standard of “sound teaching,” adhering to love and hope in the myriad of little things we do from day to day, in how we choose to live with each other and how we seek to move forward into the future.  Even in the smallest of amounts, this is what makes us true disciples; this is what Jesus has always intended for us to be.

As Don Hoffman has written, “Faithfulness is the key to faith.  Every catcher needs a pitcher.  Every landing requires a takeoff.  Every receiver needs a transmitter.  Every harvest depends on a planting… you can only have faith by being faithful.”

Beloved, we are called to have faith, if only just a little bit; but then, that’s all we need, because the Lord will give us everything else for the job that needs to be done: the hope, the courage, the sense of vision.  And he’ll even give us the feast of his presence to strengthen us; right now, in bread broken and wine poured.  This morning, we will have our Lord’s guidance that we might indeed be faithful in our lives, and in our world.

It’s a wonderful gift; so let us, with joy and gratitude, receive it at the table of blessing.

And let our thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2016  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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