Saturday, October 25, 2014

Sermon by Seminarian Emily Hamilton October 12, 2014


Oh, Israel. How did you get here? The Israelites had been in the wilderness for all of three months when Moses was called to the mountaintop to talk with God. Three months ago the Egyptian army was thrown into the sea and the Israelites were singing and praising God for their deliverance.  They witnessed God save them from a threatening battle with Amalek. God allowed them to see Godself approach Moses in a dense cloud so they could trust Moses’ leadership forever. Then Moses went up to talk with God. He put Aaron and Hur in charge while he went to receive the law and commandments. He didn’t imagine they could get into too much trouble while he was away. Forty days and forty nights later, all hell broke loose.
I can see why the Israelites would be nervous. Moses had been gone for a long time and didn’t tell them when he would be coming back. He went up into a mountain surrounded by clouds and fire. Maybe he wasn’t coming back. Maybe he died. Who was going to take care of them? They needed to know for sure that God’s presence would be with them. They were tired of journeying to liberation. They wanted a quick, easy answer to their doubts. Years of oppression, months of wandering in the wilderness, it took a toll. They were ready to be completely free. How better to assure their liberation and God’s presence than to build their own, shiny, distracting God who can tell them exactly what they want to hear? “Make a sacrifice to me,” says this God, “and then you can have a party! The journey is over! Well done.”
We get this. It’s easy to get tired of the journey. Some journeys to liberation take longer than others. It has been over two months since Officer Darren Wilson shot an unarmed teenager named Michael Brown on the quiet suburban streets of Ferguson Missouri. It’s easy to think from up here that the protests are over, and the journey to liberation there is through. The news outlets have moved on to marriage equality in the courts and Ebola in Texas. Don’t get me wrong, those things matter, too. But making a distracting golden calf out of the news cycle that ignores Ferguson doesn’t change reality. The people of Ferguson, especially young African Americans, are still protesting every day. Young people are being arrested. Pastors are putting their bodies between black and brown youth and police response. This weekend alone, hundredsds of people are descending on Ferguson for a weekend of action and protest to demand justice for Michael Brown and his family, and liberation for people of color there.
The journey toward justice for people of color in Ferguson is not over. It isn’t over anywhere else, either. After all, it isn’t only about Michael Brown. It’s about Trayvon Martin, and Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride and Emmett Till, and four little girls killed in a school bombing. It’s about decades of lynchings of black men. It’s about the long legacy of slavery stretching back before the founding of this country and forward to the mass incarceration of people of color today.
Americans of all races, especially people of color, have been journeying together out of racist oppression toward liberation for centuries but still, the journey isn’t over. Why aren’t these stories in the news? Are our feet getting tired? Have we been settling for something less than God’s vision for us?
The Israelites’ golden calf was the outcome of human beings trying to substitute an easy solution, an easy peace and victory, for God’s peace and victory. We could do that. We could stop listening to God’s call to work for justice for all people. We could watch Moses go up the mountain and build our own God to reassure ourselves that our actions are just and the journey over. Many of the other things we could and do focus on are good! It is good to worship God, to feed the hungry, to house the homeless. The Israelites were called to do all of these things, too. They were also called to follow God on the long journey, together, to liberation.
One of the biggest golden calves we build today is the idea that we’ve completely dismantled some form of oppression or other, or oppression entirely. When we worship that golden calf, we can pretend the journey is over. Racism is over. The pattern of the killing of black and brown people in this country is over. But the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson tells us this is not true. Whole communities are responding to the reality of racism and violence in this country. In Ferguson religious people from around the country are on the front lines of protests, just as they are in Detroit, in DC, and wherever they call home. 
We, too, cannot stay too long in our weariness along the journey. As we look for inspiration to keep going, we find that the Bible is not the only place we can look for God’s messages about liberation. Look around our own city. Sometimes it is tempting to look at our history, at the 50th anniversary of the Rochester Race Riot and say, “This was over fifty years ago.” It isn’t the case. The neighborhoods most affected by the riots haven’t fully recovered – some of the buildings damaged in 1964 were never fully rebuilt. Like every other city, Rochester still has a problem with racism. We see it in jobs and lack of jobs, in education and lack of education, and in health disparities. Our congregation, too, needs to continue thinking about ways to work against racism here. People of faith of many races organized for years to create jobs and opportunities for people of color, and together they made great progress. Will we follow the lead of religious groups who followed God’s call by joining together in solidarity after the summer of 1964 to work for justice? Will we join groups learning about what’s happening in Ferguson, or talking about mass incarceration? Will we make partnerships with other congregations in the inner city working to improve access to health care, education, and job opportunities? 
As individuals we do lots of good work in both direct service and toward systemic justice. We can do the same as a congregation. This congregation can pray together for God’s guidance to choose our best way to bring about God’s kingdom in the city with others. Whatever we choose to do together as this community, we know that God’s justice is coming. God will lead us to the liberation of all people if we stay the course and do not settle for a quick fix.
          If we’re looking to follow the long road, we can look to ur heritage in Rochester and in the wider liberation movements for strength, for guidance, and for inspiration. One leader we can look to is Ella Baker.
Some of you already know that Ella Baker was a behind the scenes organizer during the Civil Rights Movement. She started her career at the NAACP as an organizer, and helped form both the Southern Christian leadership Conference. She saw students, both black and white, already taking on the work of the movement and encouraged them to form their own organization. This group was called the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, also known as SNCC. Her work and words inspired Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, a Black singer, song writer and activist. She worked during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s as a member of the Freedom Singers, a group organized by SNCC. She also founded the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock in 1973. In 1983 she wrote “Ella’s Song,” putting the words of Ella Baker to music. Ella’s song begins like this:  
“We who believe in freedom cannot rest.
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”
It continues,
“        Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons
Is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons.
Not needing to clutch for power, not needing the light just to shine
on me.
I need to be just one in the number as we stand against tyranny.
Struggling myself don’t mean a whole lot I come to realize
That teaching others to stand up and fight is the only way my
struggle survives.”
Ella Baker didn’t say, “We who are Black in America.”
She said, “We who believe in freedom.”

As people of God of every race we believe in freedom. We are tied to the story of liberation found not only in Exodus but through the entire Bible. We cannot, and will not, settle for easy answers. We are called to respond to God’s call as we hear it in the Scripture, from the people of Ferguson, and in the reality of our own city. We who believe in Freedom cannot rest. We who believe in Freedom cannot rest until it comes.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Pastor Doug's Sermon from 10/19/14



Isaiah 35:5-8, Healing Service
 
Amid rumors of war and desolation, the prophet Isaiah this morning unleashes an incredible vision upon us.  Having just spoken harsh words that warn of impending ecological destruction

                                              Devastation and despair…

 Isaiah suddenly throws our speeding car into reverse…
Abruptly stopping us in our tracks...

Scattering remnants of our metaphorical gear shafts across the road.
                                                                                                  And all of this done by a poem!

 Amid rumors of war and desolation…
             Death and destruction…
                       who would imagine that a poem could be so powerful? 
                                   That a poem could throw a monkey wrench into the endlessly                                   spinning wheels of darkness and death?

        That a poem could quench the thirst of those who are         withering on dry, parched, dead land?

And yet it is, precisely THAT:  A poem that speaks of healing in the midst of sickness…                             
                pools in the midst of burning sands
                                                     streams in the midst of desert.

 Some very wise scholars will tell us that the poem we have in this morning’s first reading from Isaiah 35 actually belongs later, somewhere between Isaiah 40 and Isaiah 55.  They will rightly tell us that the language in chapter 35 more closely resembles that of chapters 40-55.  And you know what?  They are probably right.  Isaiah chapter 35 is clearly an “out of place” poem.  It does not belong here!

The poem comes too early.  Someone jumped the gun in putting it here.  Who moved it?  And why did they move it?  When did they move it?  Inquiring theological minds want to know.

Barbara Lundblad, an ELCA pastor who recently retired from teaching at Union  Seminary in New York once said,

“The Spirit hovered over the text and over the scribes:  ‘Put it here’, breathed the Spirit, ‘before anyone is ready.  Interrupt the narrative of despair’. So here it is:  a word that couldn’t wait until it might make more sense.”

I love her words:  “put it here breathed the spirit…interrupt the narrative of despair”.
                              Interrupt the narrative of despair.
                                                              Now there is a mission statement for the church!

 Interrupting the narrative of despair, Isaiah dares to speak a word out of place.  Isaiah dares to speak a word that refuses to wait until it might make more sense.  As Hebrew Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has reminded us, “Israel’s doxologies are characteristically against the data”.

Characteristically against the data:   We hear and see the data every night on the news and every morning on the front page of the D&C.

Another shooting in Rochester…          
          Geo-political chaos in the Middle East drawing us closer to another war…
                          Growing fear and panic as Ebola claims thousands of lives…

Elected leaders treasuring political power over authoritative governance leading to gridlock and cynicism…

Add to that the data of our own lives:

            Awaiting test results from the doctor…
                             Mourning the death of someone beloved to us…
                                       Wondering if we’ll make it through the next round of layoffs…
                                             Pining for the days before our kids grew up and moved away
              
 Longing for those pre-retirement days when we felt a greater sense of purpose to our lives.

We know the data all too well and we long for a Word out of place.

Well I am here to tell you today, that here in this place and in this moment of time, there is a word out of place.

            A Word that goes against the data…

            A Word that dares to interrupt our narratives of despair…

A Word that speaks to all of us who have entered the wilderness of exile,

                        Who dwell in the land of darkness…

Who wait and wait and wait for God to come and breathe life into us…

                                                Whose hearts are scarred, torn, and withered…

Who with feeble hands, weak knees, parched throats, and aching hearts wonder when our exile will end.

Our narratives of despair are interrupted.

 

You, who cannot see past the fears of a frightening diagnosis or an impending medical procedure…

“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,

 

You, who have been beaten down not only by sticks and stones but by words of belittlement, judgment, and derision blasting in your ears telling you that you are “junk”…

and the ears of the deaf unstopped;

 

You, who are paralyzed with fear because you can’t imagine how you’ll pay all the bills this month, especially when you’re not even sure you’ll have a job next month…

the lame shall leap like a deer,

 

 

You, who cannot bring yourself to speak words needed to heal the pain and anguish of a broken relationship…

                                                            the tongue of the speechless shall sing for joy. 

 

You, whose parched hearts still break over the death of a spouse, a partner, a parent or a child  and who feel like you are being swallowed up in grief

Waters shall break forth in the wilderness, streams in the desert, the burning sand shall become a pool, the thirsty ground springs of water

 

You, who wander through the dark valley of depression not knowing where the pathway lies or that there even is a pathway…

a highway shall be there; it shall be called The Holy Way

 

Into the face of despair – not denying its presence – right into the teeth of despair, Isaiah shouts a word of hope. 

Not only does God break the darkness by remembering you in this place of exile, but God has the power to do something about it.

 

For you see, God has a highway crew, and a road has been built.

  A road built by God’s prophets and sealed by the Cross of his son…

                                    A road where we hear the most incredible words of healing

                                                            “This is my body given for you…

This is my blood shed for you”

A road that leads us exiles home.

Not to some nostalgic place from our past, but home to God’s heart

where, as Eugene Peterson describes it, “all sorrows and sighs scurry into the night”.

 

You, whose feet are tired and worn-out from walking on burning sands of despair and brokenness…

            You, who know all too well the pain of being dis-connected in exile…

 

Take heart! 

For the One who stops us abruptly in our tracks is here…

            The One who interrupts our narrative of despair is here…

The One who joined us in our exile by taking our wounds with him onto a Cross is here..

                                    Right here!  In our midst.

Whispering into unstopped ears…

  “I love you with all my heart.

Welcome home."

 

 

           

 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Pastor Doug's Sermon from 10/5/14



Philippians 3:4b-14
 
So how is your resume?   That’s right, your resume.  If you had to find a job tomorrow how would you do? What would your resume say about you?  What information about your life would you highlight?  What stuff of your life would you omit?
So, here we go…

I just happen to have brought with me today, some tips on how to build your resume. 

How to:


And on and on and on…
Now don’t get me wrong.  Resumes have their place.  And when push comes to shove, they may in fact even be necessary.  Except when it comes to the church.

“If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more” says Paul: 
“Circumcised on the eighth day…

            A member of the tribe of Benjamin…

                      A Hebrew born of Hebrews…

                                    As to the Law – A Pharisee

                                                As to zeal – a persecutor of the church;

                                                            As to righteousness under the law – blameless”

There you have it!

If that’s not a church resume for success, I don’t know what is.  
A member of the tribe of Benjamin?  I mean if you’re going to be a member of any of the 12 tribes of Israel, that’s a prime one.

Even the name “Benjamin” in Hebrew means “son of the right hand”. (which, by the way, is the seat of honor that 2 of Jesus’ success-addicted followers, James and John, tried to climb and claw their way too).

Israel’s very first king came from the Tribe of Benjamin.  I mean can you imagine the bragging rights if you could say that George Washington was part of your family tree?

A Hebrew born of Hebrews?  Talk about pure ethnic stock.  There’s nobody more Hebrew than Paul.

            This guy’s got the brand name that’s going to sell tickets.

                        He is definitely Rock Star material in his church.

He’s like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Billy Graham all rolled into one.
A zealous and righteous Pharisee?  You want that guy who’s going to work 18 to 20 hours a day to make your bottom-line skyrocket?  Paul is your guy. 

Your profits will be off the charts…

Oh yeah and sales?  This guy is so righteous he makes “Honest Abe” look like a pathological liar.

He doesn’t just sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.  Paul wrote the sales manual on it.

Second only to Jesus, Paul is the guy that every call committee from every church known to humanity is looking for.  You want growth?  You want success?  Paul is your guy! 

“Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.”

Wait a minute Paul….  What do you mean “gains” have become “loss”?

 In the world of spread sheets, gains are good things.  Loss is not. 

Your decimal point must be in the wrong place. 

You’re talking “fuzzy math”.

That can’t be right Paul. 

Come on, Paul, get your head in the real world.  

Success and accomplishments are what we strive for…

But here’s the problem:  Despite his resume of success,

Paul himself does not buy into any of this.

Writing to proud Roman citizens who

control the city of Philippi

                        Its economy…

                                    Its entire competitive system for status and social honor…

And its robust imperial cult, which regularly celebrates the Lordship of Caesar, Paul offers a

                        Reckless and even scandalous alternative.

 

“Yet whatever gains I had    (and you know he had a lot of them)

            These I have come to regard as loss because of Christ”

 

“For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things

            And I regard them as …. (wait for it…)  [rubbish]

 

Ok, I spent thousands of dollars on a seminary education to get this next piece of information, and today you’re getting it for free.

That word “rubbish”?  In the Greek, it’s not rubbish.  We’ve tamed it way down.  The Greek word here is “Skubula” – literally translated – and I’m going to try and say this politely… excrement.   Hey, don’t stone me, I’m just the messenger. 

I don’t believe for a moment that Paul uses this harsh word lightly, or as a joke, or because he wants to be a foul-languaged “shock jock”.

 I think for Paul, the gospel is serious business… 

            So serious he will use whatever language he needs, to get the point across!

I think for Paul, the Christ who poured himself out on a Cross, like he told us last week in Chapter 2 of Philippians, is the one who has “set the bar” for his followers.

If Christ, who is equal to God, (by the way that’s a great resume strongpoint) can be completely poured out in love for the world, how can those who would claim to be his followers do any less?

If Christ can be poured out in love for the world, how can we, who would claim to follow Christ, do any less?

 Oh and by the way, in case we think that we can somehow pull ourselves up by our own faith bootstraps to make this all happen, Paul’s use of the Greek language tells us differently.

In verse 9 Paul talks of having a righteousness that comes through faith in Christ.  Sounds like first I have to accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior.  Nope! That’s not what the Greek says.  The likely translation of verse 9 doesn’t mention “faith in Christ”, but rather “faith of Christ”.

In other words, it is Christ’s faithfulness that makes any of this even possible.

 The church stands at a critical crossroads in its life

            We have some tough choices to make.

I’m not talking about what hymns we like and don’t like…

or what kind of a sign board to put out in front of the building..

or if our worship preference is traditional or rock band with projector screens.

Those are NOT issues.  They are DISTRACTIONS.

 

For they have the potential to distract us from seeing what’s really happening around us.

416 shelter beds in the city of Rochester and on any given night there are between 500 and 600 souls seeking a warm place to lay their heads at the end of the day… 

What do followers of the one poured out in love have to say about that?

55% of the city’s children living in poverty

And unlike other places around the country where that rate has gone down, that rate has gone up 6% here in Rochester since the year 2000…

What do followers of the one poured out in love have to say about that?

Growing numbers of people turned off and disaffected by church because all they hear from the church is talk of survival  

or even worse, moralisms seeking to judge whose “in” and whose “out” of God’s Kingdom.

            All they hear from the church is talk about “creeds”

                                                                        And not so much about “deeds”

Put another way,

The only question people hear the church asking is “how do we attract people?”

                        Not “how do we go out and feed them?”

What do followers of the one poured out in love have to say about that?

 Hey look, I get it. 

The church is not just another Social Service Agency, nor should it be one.

                        But neither can it be a museum of past accomplishments

 No where in any of the gospel accounts does Jesus ever invite his followers to sit back on their laurels, puffing up their golden calf resumes, while lamenting days gone by…

            Instead he sends them out as laborers in a vineyard, feeding God’s sheep.

 I’ve begun going out with a group of folks who, every month, seek to provide those living on the streets with blankets, coats, food, medical kits, and yes even vouchers for shelters and hotel rooms.

In the past 8 months, this mixed group of social workers, medical students, and church folk have found stable housing for 40 people.

            Does that end the cycle of poverty in Rochester?  Of course not.

 But is it work of the Kingdom?

Does it affirm that our city of Rochester is a beloved vineyard of our God where no one should go hungry and no one should be living on a dangerous embankment out in the open overlooking the 490?

 Folks, if Paul tells us nothing else, he tells us that life in the Kingdom is a matter of choosing a focus:

We can strive to be the biggest and the best…

            With the glitziest and most polished marketing campaigns…

We can strive to get our name up in lights with big programs and fancy feasts…

We can pound loudly on the doors of every television and radio station in Rochester pleading for them to promote our ecclesiastical resume…

 

Or we can focus upon a Cross where God himself experienced shame and humiliation…

 that Love may abound…

                                                That Love may win the day…

 

Yet whatever gains I had,        

            These I have come to regard as loss because of Christ”

 

You know, Christ…

            The One, poured out in love…

The One, who joins us in the vineyard with these simple yet timeless words, “Feed my sheep”.

 

 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Funeral Sermon for Charlie Pogue




Funeral Sermon for Charles Pogue
September 29, 2014
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word
Rev. Douglas L. Stewart

Isaiah 25:6-9
John 14:1-6
 
“Charles did many things, but his dream was the arts.  My name is Charles and this is my story”
So begins a four-page document entitled, “The Legacy of Charles Pogue” in which Charlie gifts us with pictures of his life – a life marked by profound experiences, unusual pathways, immense joy, and tragic heartbreak.

In reading through Charlie’s “legacy”, one cannot help but wonder and marvel at all that Charlie’s eyes saw in his lifetime;  All those places and events upon which his gaze fell.  We cannot today even begin to scratch the surface of all that his eyes saw; those gentle, warm, intelligent, and inviting eyes that made you feel like you were the most important person in the world when you were in Charlie’s presence. 

From a horse-drawn delivery wagon driven by his father to a piano played by his mother for the silent movies in his grandfather’s theatre, right from the very start of his life, Charlie’s eyes were exposed to vastly different worlds. 

A quiet young man, active in his church, Charlie would have gone into the ministry were it not for his innate love of performing.  I have no doubt that Charlie would have been a phenomenal pastor had he followed that path bearing the light of Christ with a spirit of compassion and gentleness.

But that pathway was not to be.  Charlie had the “bug” for performance.  And it was this “bug” that took him to New York City where he not only attended acting school on a GI Bill, but landed a job with NBC doing production work and set design; even befriending Jimmie Durante whom he referred to as “a good performer and a kind person”.

But that was only the tip of the iceberg:  not only did he work for NBC but while in New York, Charlie got to know “gangsters” – real life gangsters who took him under their wing not because they had “jobs” for him to do, but simply because he was a heck-of-a-nice-kid and they just liked him.  Charlie once mused that with his new-found friends, he had access to private bars all over New York and never once had to pay a bar tab.  Once, he even told of the “girl” whose job it was to hold the gangsters guns for them while they were in the bar.  O Charlie what your eyes have seen…

And of course there was the war and all the savage brutality that comes with war.  Places like Austria, Switzerland, France, England, and Germany were not tourist spots for Charlie, but theatres of war:  Places where he not only saw soldiers and civilians die, but where he himself almost became a mortality statistic.  But not even a devastating war in Europe could stop the performance bug.  Charlie may have been labeled as “Private First Class” by his army papers, but his job description was – get this -- “Entertainment Services”:   Providing respite for those engulfed by the horrors of war.  O Charlie, what your eyes have seen…

Charlie was not immune to tragic heartbreak in his own life.  In what surely could have been the subject of a Hollywood romance script, Charlie’s engagement to the love of his life, Rosemary, was cut tragically short when she died of cancer.  With a broken heart Charlie returned to his work, and never married, remaining single for the rest of his life.  O Charlie, what your eyes have seen…

 Are you kind of catching on that Charlie experienced life to its fullest?  That he was blessed to know a rich life? 

Well, let me tell you, God too knows something about a “rich life”. 

“On this mountain” says the prophet Isaiah, “The Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear”.  No rock-gut here.  Only the finest of wines.

Charlie might have had it made with gangster bars in New York, but they can’t hold a candle to a mountaintop bar where God is not only the bartender, but the guy who makes the wine of life and gives this wine of grace freely in abundance.

Oh yeah and on this mountaintop, that bartender God makes a promise that not only will those events that have broken our hearts and brought tears to our eyes, and to Charlie’s eyes, be wiped away, but even death itself will be swallowed up forever. 

Today – in this place – and in this time, you and I are gathered on that same mountaintop of promise.  Here in this place and in this time, that same God stands in our midst not only assuring us that Charlie has received his baptismal inheritance of life with God forever, but that we too stand in the light of that same baptismal promise of love and life:  That baptismal promise that not even death itself can take away from us.

Here on this mountaintop today, Jesus assures us that he too knows a little something about “set design.”

            “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

The last three times I visited with Charlie at Elder One, I played for him a youtube video of the hymn, “Abide With Me”.  At the sound of that hymn Charlie’s face lit up and he couldn’t hold my smartphone close enough to his face. 

Clearly the words of this hymn became the words of his prayer:

“Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes, shine through the gloom and point me to the skies; heavn’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee.  In life, in death O Lord abide with me”.

O Charlie, what your eyes see now, your heart has suspected your whole life long:  God is with you, enfolding you with his tender care.  With those beautiful eyes may you see your redeemer face to face and enjoy the sight of God forever.

Amen.