Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Charlottesville - A Pastoral Letter

August 15, 2017

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

The events that took place in Charlottesville last weekend are a haunting reminder to us that the world in which we live is not only broken, but infected with the worse kind of disease there is:  Hatred.  The following prayer excerpt was offered by the ELCA Council of Bishops prior to last Saturday’s event.

“Just and merciful God, we give you thanks for our sisters and brothers – bishops, pastors, deacons, people of God – who this Saturday walk the way of the cross in Charlottesville, Va. On this day and in that place, they join other courageous and faithful people across time and space to stand against bigotry, hatred and violence; to stand with those who are intended victims; and to stand for justice and mercy, peace and equality for all people…By your might, break the bondage that bigotry, hatred and violence impose on their victims and their perpetrators. May your Kingdom come on earth as in heaven.  And, we pray, empower us in our own communities to follow their lead as fellow servants to your dream of a community in which all people and their gifts are welcomed and honored, cherished and celebrated as beloved children of a just, merciful and loving God; through Jesus Christ crucified and risen for the life of the world.”

No one, including myself, imagined that innocent lives would be lost that day.  Hundreds of torch bearing, white privileged “nationalists” many of whom bearing Nazi Swastikas and dressed in riot gear, beat and intimidated anyone who dared oppose their protest message of hate and destruction.  Make no mistake about it:  This was not a protest for equality.  It was a protest for supremacy.

We in the Lutheran Church have a tragic legacy of quietism when it comes to hate-filled crowds promoting themselves as a superior race and desiring the elimination of “inferior” ones.  With the exception of the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany, who refused to be silent in the face of human extermination, the Lutheran State Church of the 30s and 40s said and did nothing; even when forced to display swastikas as altar paraments. 

It would be easy for us to turn off the television and pretend that nothing is wrong; to claim the media is making mountains out of mole hills; to turn and look the other way when we hear stories of violence perpetrated against persons of different ethnicities and immigrants.  It would be easy for us to look away saying, “that’s just the way the world is” without asking what or who has unleashed and given voice to the hatred.

As followers of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, who reached across all boundaries and divides, advocating love and justice for the least of these, we know what we have to do.  We cannot and we must not remain silent.  We, like the psalmist, have voices that “sing to the Lord a new song”. A song that anticipates the lion and the lamb  coexisting in peace; A song that proclaims justice rolling down like an everflowing stream; A song that emboldens us to love recklessly as Christ on the cross first recklessly loved us; A song that declares love of God and love of neighbor are all that matter.

Let us raise our counter-cultural songs together as we engage in both conversation and action in the weeks to come. Let us not be fearful in the face of hatred.  Let us not remain silent in the face of racial atrocities.  For the world is now too dangerous for anything but Truth, and too small for anything but love.

Walking with you in Christ,

Pastor Doug

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Sermon Reflections for August 6th: Food for Thought

As he went ashore he saw a great throng; and he had compassion on them, and healed their sick...Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.  And they all ate and were satisfied (Matthew 14).

As I look ahead to the task of preaching on Sunday, I am struck at the scandalous, counter-cultural message of this story.  I don't think this is a tame story that can or should be watered down.  In fact, if we're doing diligence with this or any of the gospel stories, we cannot escape the cosmic transformational message of a God who has come to turn our world and our priorities upside down.

This is not a harmless story where some sick folks are healed and some hungry folks are fed. This is nothing less than a story of radical hospitality devoid of counting costs.  In the midst of collective brokenness, notice what Jesus does not do.

For starters when sick people are brought to him, he doesn't ask for insurance cards.  Nor does Jesus inquire as to any pre-existing medical conditions.  All we are told is that he sees the brokenness, has compassion, and heals.  By the way that word "compassion" in the Greek implies "gut wrenching".  Jesus' gut is literally turned upside down to the point of nausea as he lovingly yearns for the crowd's healing.

It's one thing for Jesus to heal the sick, but feed the hungry too?  Jesus' followers can't begin to imagine how five loaves of bread and two fish will feed thousands.  They know what empty pews on Sunday morning look like.  In their "numbers-crunching" ledger, it is clear to them that there are way too many people to feed for the amount of food they have.  "Send them away" they tell Jesus. "Let someone else feed them.  We can't be expected to feed everyone can we?"

You and I know that they stand in the presence of Jesus; the embodiment of the God of abundance, so their talk of scarcity seems ludicrous.  It's a no brainer for us to see that in Jesus' presence all will get fed.  But I guess the question for me is this:  Do we see that same Jesus in our presence today?  And if so, do we trust that all will be fed and that God will use us to do the feeding?  Do we trust the call to throw caution to the wind, feeding and healing at whatever the cost?

Again, notice what Jesus does not do here.  He doesn't force the hungry to sit down and have a Bible study before they can be fed.  He doesn't check their communion cards to see if they are "in" or "out".  He doesn't make them join the Jesus on the Hillside Church.  He doesn't make them pass a theology litmus test.  He simply commands his followers to feed everyone.  Did you get that?  He commands.  Jesus doesn't make a polite suggestion of something nice to do.  If you are going to follow this guy, you better get your feeding hands ready, because there's actually work to do.

I'm not totally sure where my sermon will end up on Sunday, but these are at least a few thoughts that have been guiding me this week in my prayers and preparations.

Oh and in case you need some reinforcement of the idea that where Jesus is, food will be there also, join us this Sunday morning for Breakfast Church at 9:30 in the downstairs auditorium where worship and breakfast will be combined.

Let the journey begin,
Pastor Doug

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Pastor Doug's Easter Reflection

“But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.  They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body” (Luke 24:1-3).

God of resurrection, we come to the tomb bearing spices we have prepared.  We have seen death up close and personal and we know what to do; our spices in hand are testament to that.  We, along with the women who followed your son from Galilee, have stood at a distance watching these things paralyzed by grief and fear.  We, along with them, have seen the mocking and scoffing of a rigged justice system; a kangaroo court by which unjust convictions lead to death. In the chilled hours of early dawn we’ve walked among the tombs expecting nothing more than death. Journeying among the stone cold cemetery markers of an unlit day we see death everywhere and it scares us into euphemisms and denial;  And yet in our heart of hearts we know there can be no denial.  We know that death lives in our families, in our communities and in our world. We know that death will one day claim us.  It always does. We’ve seen it with our own eyes as your son closed his eyes breathing his last on the hardwood of a cross.  Death is all too real.  So like those early morning women, we sojourn with broken hearts; carrying our spices among the tombs imagining only death.

But you O God won’t have any of that, for you are the One that no tomb on earth can contain; not even the fancy new ones.  Indeed, you are doing a new thing.  Your voice shakes the mighty cedars of Lebanon. A word issues forth from your lips and creation itself is birthed into being.  Air from your lungs awakens life in our God-imaged bodies.  In your resurrection reality, Jesus doesn’t stay dead.  In your empty tomb reality, stones are cast aside like pebbles skipping across the rippling waters; grave clothes are left behind; tombs of death are transformed into gateways of life; stunned silence turns into good news of great joy; grieving friends on dusty roads are healed by the presence of a stranger breaking bread in their midst and when all is said and done, the Word goes forth:  Your Word goes forth riding atop our alleluias and nothing can stop it; not even death.

Palm Sunday “Hosannas” inevitably turn to Good Friday shouts of “crucify”, but no longer do we look for the living among the dead.  Life in the tomb is finished.  Alleluia! Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

Peace and Love,

Pastor Doug

Thursday, January 7, 2016

I want to see Jesus

“Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.  They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’”’ (John 12:20).

I’m not exactly sure who these “Greeks” are, but I can definitely relate to them.  Obviously they’ve heard of Jesus and now they want to see him.  Maybe they’ve heard of his first miracle where water became wine and they want to see what this blessing stuff is all about.   Maybe, like Nathaniel who openly wondered if anything good could possibly come out of the ghetto of Nazareth, they want to see what this guy from the wrong side of town looks like.  Maybe they’ve heard of his healing a lame man on the Sabbath, or his speaking with a Samaritan woman and they want to see what this boundary-breaking radical is all about.  Maybe they’ve heard how he fed 5,000 and they want to know his trick or at the very least his business strategy.  Maybe they’ve heard that he’s been teaching in the Temple and they want to know by whose authority.   I don’t know why they wanted to see Jesus or even what they wanted to see.  But I know this:  They wanted to see Jesus.  And so do I.  There, I said it:  I want to see Jesus.

We live in a broken world, albeit a crappy one, where the rich get richer on the backs of the poor; where an unarmed 12 year old black child is shot and killed by police while armed white men are allowed to lay siege to a federal building with very little consequence; We live in a world where the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms supersedes one’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  We live in a world where we are bombarded by media images designed to scare us into unreasonable fits of ethnic paranoia. 

Honestly, I’ve had enough.  I want to see Jesus.  And I have.

It all started on that Friday before Christmas when dozens of folks from around the city and county gathered together to remember the 14 homeless who died in our community this past year.  On that day, the names of those whom the world has long forgotten were remembered.  I saw Jesus that day, and his name was Luis, John, Alonzo, Brian, Jessica, Elmyra, Jeffrey, Mark, Jose, Thomas, Ernest, Shawn, Kevin, and Pierro.

I saw Jesus the following Tuesday evening, when a small group of folks with St. Mary’s Homeless Initiative journeyed under railroad bridges, down alleyways, and in the subway tunnels searching for the chronically homeless; bringing food, warmth, and hope to the invisible among us.

I saw Jesus in the faces of those whom we fed this evening at REACH Home as well as in the  volunteers and staff who have dedicated their lives to lifting up the lowly and binding up those who are broken.

In the darkness of this cold winter night; In the darkness of this world, I have seen Jesus.  He is the light that shines in the darkness.  He is the light no darkness can overcome.  He is the light no fear, no poverty, no amount of brokenness can overcome.  He is the light that not even my darkness can overcome.  He is God incarnate, made flesh and dwelling among us: And I’ve seen him in the most surprising places.  Blessed Epiphany everyone.

Peace and love,

Pastor Doug

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Funeral Sermon for The Rev. Robert J. Wennerstrom

Funeral Sermon for The Rev. Robert J. Wennerstrom
The Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word
Rochester, NY
September 19, 2015
John 10:11

The Rev. Douglas L. Stewart

Care for God’s people, bear their burdens…Witness faithfully in word and deed to all people.  Be of good courage, for God has called you, and your labor in the Lord is not in vain”. 

Words spoken to the newly ordained as they rise from their knees to their feet for the very first time with this newly placed stole draped around the shoulders…

Words spoken to those who have answered the call to care for God’s people; To Shepherd God’s flock…

Words spoken on that “hot and steamy” night at St.  Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Orleans – July 11th, 1954…

That night when the Church of Jesus Christ became abundantly richer and immensely blessed with the ordination to Word and Sacrament of Robert Joseph Wennerstrom…

“Care for God’s people, bear their burdens… Witness faithfully in word and deed to all people.”  
Not simply words for Bob, but a way of life.  One need not look far to see that.  Japan, the Philippines, New Orleans, Rome (NY), Pittsburgh, and Rochester:  All places where this faithful pastor, patient teacher, and wise counselor with the heart of a shepherd, embodied the Truth he proclaimed:  That God’s Word has become flesh and dwells among us.

After 18 years of parish ministry…

18 years of preaching, teaching, baptizing, marrying, burying, visiting the sick, praying for God’s people, nourishing them with the Word and Holy Sacraments, and leading by his own example in faithful service and holy living, I suppose Bob could have begun to coast his way toward an easier, more prestigious position in the church –  But not Bob.

After 18 years of parish ministry, Bob felt the call to expand the role of parish pastor to encompass life beyond the boundaries of a building or a single congregation. 

After just 5 years at St. Matthew’s Church in Rochester, Bob’s proclamation of the gospel extended into the surrounding city neighborhood – a neighborhood still bearing the wounds of poverty, racism, and violence inflicted by race riots just a few years earlier. 

Whether it be the formation of Group 14621, a grassroots community association dedicated to revitalizing one of the poorest neighborhoods in Rochester, or

His helping organize volunteers to go door to door in the community to speak with the elderly about medical issues, landlord problems, lack of funds for heat, electricity, or food or

His initiating JET Enterprises to help the poorest of the poor to develop basic job skills necessary to succeed in the workplace, with the heart of a shepherd, Bob embodied the Truth he proclaimed, That God’s Word has become flesh and dwells among us.

As if that were not enough, Bob found an abandoned bakery on Joseph Avenue where he started Community Lutheran Ministry:  A Christ-centered community offering after-school programs, tutoring, summer day camps, breakfast and lunch programs, emergency food, clothing and furniture for those in need, as well as offering programs of job preparation for neighborhood teens.
There he stayed for another 18 years with the heart of a shepherd, embodying the truth he proclaimed, that God’s Word has become flesh and dwells among us.

Surely after 36 years of ordained ministry, one might imagine counting down the days until retirement.  But not Bob. 

Not only did Bob take on the role of Visitation Pastor here at Incarnate Word,
but he fostered a relationship between this congregation and Joanne Peterson, in which we became partners in providing much needed health care workers to the most impoverished communities in the Dominican Republic…  

A relationship that thrives to this day as evidenced by our youth group who travelled there just a couple of years ago.

Surely this would be enough to do, but not for Bob.

Recognizing the pastoral care needs of an aging congregation, Bob helped train and support a cadre of Christian Caregivers here at Incarnate Word while at the same time providing weekly pastoral care to the seniors of our Wellness Center.  And in all of this, with the heart of a shepherd, Bob embodied the truth he proclaimed:  That God’s Word has become flesh and dwells among us.

My first encounter with Bob took place just over a decade ago, not long after Pastor Joanne and I began our ministry here.   When I first met Bob he was getting together every week with a couple who wanted to learn more about Jesus.  And so week after week, Bob took the time to read and study the gospel of Mark with them, fashioning good and faithful disciples.

There are folks in our pews today who are actively involved in the outreach missions of our congregation because Bob invited them to join him on an incredible journey of faith and discipleship.  With the heart of a shepherd, Bob embodied the truth he proclaimed:  That God’s Word has become flesh and dwells among us.

But Pastor Bob was not just ‘pastor’.  Pastor Bob was also “devoted husband”, “loving father”, “doting grandfather”, and “faithful friend” impacting lives in profound ways.  We already heard a bit of that this morning from two of his grandchildren, Catherine and Matthew, as well as from his long-time friend, Joanne Peterson, as they shared with us the depth of his inspiration in their lives.

Right about now, having reflected upon so many of Bob’s accomplishments, it would be easy to wrap up this sermon with the words “well done, good and faithful servant”;  Words that I am certain God has spoken and continues to speak to Bob now. 

But we all know that if Bob was sitting in a pew right here, right now, he would be waiting with bated breath to hear something more from this pulpit:

He would be anxiously waiting to hear about the Cross of Christ:  That place where Christ took on our death in exchange for His life: 

That grace event, described by Dietrich Bonhoeffer as the time in which “God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us.”

Or as Jesus himself once put it, “I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep”.

“Care for God’s people, bear their burdens… Witness faithfully in word and deed to all people.”  
Bob did not need a bishop’s admonition to do this.  This was Bob’s life.  A life lived in response to an event that happened to him on April 13th, 1930 at Faith Lutheran Church in Los Angeles, California. 

On that day the God of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Word made flesh, named and claimed Bob as His own in the waters of Baptism.

There in the splashing wetness of that day, promises came cascading down upon a 3 year old boy that he would always live in the light of God’s forgiveness equipped with the promise of eternal life.
There in those swirling waters of baptismal grace came God’s first directive for Bob:  “Because I have delivered you through the cross and empty tomb of my son, Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven”.  And Bob did.  He let that baptismal light shine.  From Japan to the Dominican Republic and all points in-between.

For the past couple of years, we have seen Bob’s health steadily decline: Slowly at first, and more rapidly toward the end.  In that time we experienced great sadness as his recognition of us continued to diminish.  But at his bedside right up until the very last moment of his life, hung that beautiful banner reminding all who would see it of God’s great news:  Of God’s final sentence in the book of Bob’s life and ours:  “I have called you by name – you are mine”.

These were not simply words on a banner to Bob.  They were his life. 
In these words, Bob knew a God whose love for him was poured out on a cross.
In these words, Bob knew a God, who in the best and the worst of times, would always be with him.
So I guess I should not be terribly surprised that at the conclusion of our playing a recording for Bob in which a dear organist friend of his was playing the hymn, “Abide With Me”; Bob breathed his lastas the final chord of the hymn was played, 

In the final moments of Bob’s life on earth here are the words he heard: The words that, given the timing of things, clearly became his prayer.  His prayer to the God who loved him – His prayer to the God he loved.

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

I close this morning with one more prayer:  Not just any prayer, but a prayer, a gift offered by Bob for his family, (Always the pastor).  A prayer he shared with Joel 6 years ago in an e-mail:
“God, I thank you for Doris, for her faith, her love, her wisdom.  I pray for Ann, Catherine, Matthew, Elizabeth, Carol, Curt, Sarah, Adam, Joel.  Ground them in faith that they are redeemed, not with silver or gold, but with your holy precious blood and innocent suffering and death, that they may be your own, live under you in your kingdom and serve you in righteousness and blessedness and resurrection certainty.  Sustain their health, guide them in their work, and bless their friendships.
With many, many prayers and much love, Dad”.

Robert Joseph Wennerstrom, child of God – I have called you by name – you are mine: well done good and faithful servant.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Even the Crumbs of Faith...

“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:28).

Words spoken by a mom whose daughter is sick and who has just been told by Jesus to go away.  Yeah that’s right, to go away.  No sugar coating here.  In fact, Jesus calls both she and her daughter “dogs”; a cultural slur on a par with the “n-word” today.

If you were in church this past Sunday you may recall that in my sermon I made mention of Jesus’ racial slur, but I also spoke of Jesus’ mind being changed by a mom who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer; by a mom whose tenacious love for her daughter would stop at nothing for healing.  Like the prodigal dad who sells the farm to throw a feast for his wayward son’s homecoming, this mom refuses to give up on grace.  And so Jesus’ mind is changed. God’s mind has been changed before; just look at Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, and Jonah to see that.  In fact, Jesus’ mind is SO changed by this woman that from that point on in Mark’s gospel, Jesus goes to the most “gentil-ist” places ever:  To Sidon and the Decapolis – you know, those mini Roman cities.  It doesn’t get any more outsider than that.  Clearly this story is illustrative of our call to radical inclusivity.  But as I reflect further on this story, it seems I missed a point on Sunday.

Not only is this a narrative about breaking down barriers that divide, but it is also a story of abundance and this outsider’s recognition of it.  It appears that this desperate mom who is at the end of her rope recognizes a certain abundance in the things that Jesus is up to.  It’s almost as if she’s saying to the “insiders” who get to eat at the table, “Go ahead eat all you want.  But what if your table cannot contain all the food that Jesus brings?  What if there are leftovers like the time he fed 5,000?  What if there are so many leftovers that the excess food just starts spilling to the floor?  If so, I’ll be there on my hands and knees gathering up the crumbs because even the crumbs will do the job”.

Sometimes it takes an outsider, someone with “fresh” eyes to see the most obvious things we miss.  Here, a desperate mom not only recognizes, but bears witness to the abundance of Jesus.  No proper doctrine articulated just a mom, her tenacious love for her daughter, and some crazy-ass trust that Jesus is all about healing and abundance.  Is there a lesson here for us?  Sitting in a sanctuary which is emptier today than 20 years ago, is it possible that all we see are crumbs of scarcity when in reality there is abundance in our midst?  Maybe we need this desperate mom to show us what it means to cling to Jesus trusting that he will do what he says he came to do. 

I don’t know about you, but I’m going to look for her this Sunday, in fact I’m going to look for her every Sunday.  I’m sure she’s been here before and I know she’ll be here again clinging to each and every crumb of good news that she hears; fiercely convinced that even a crumb will heal.

Peace and Love,

Pastor Doug

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Pharisees and Green Monsters, Oh My...

Let me begin with this disclaimer; I’m a huge Boston Red Sox fan and have been my entire life, even following their Triple A farm team, the Pawtucket Red Sox, since I was seven.  (Sorry Rochester friends, when the PawSox come to town, they’re still my team).  My being a fan may have something to do with my New England origins.  Or it may be due in part to the fact that when my dad’s brother was dying from Leukemia in the 1950s, the great Ted Williams made regular trips to Mass General just to visit him.  Then again there’s the iconic Citgo sign parked out beyond left centerfield which has been a Boston landmark longer than I’ve been alive.

But as I think about it, my love for the Sox is probably due more than anything else to the great Fenway Park with its 37’ 2” high left field wall, affectionately known as the “Green Monster”; the highest wall of any major league baseball stadium; towering over left fielders since 1912. 

So imagine my surprise and subsequent outrage when in the 2002-03 off-season, the Green Monster was renovated with the installation of 274 seats, with even more added in 2005.  I realize Fenway Park has one of the smallest seating capacities and with players’ salaries skyrocketing, it takes more fans to generate more revenue, but really guys, the Green Monster?  You had to desecrate the holiest ground at Fenway Park by installing seats on her?  Have you no decency?  Is nothing sacred?

I wonder if these were the questions on the minds and hearts of the Scribes and Pharisees in Sunday morning’s gospel reading from Mark.  Is nothing sacred?  Jesus’ followers have not only been associating with all kinds of unclean people, but they don’t even wash their hands before eating as the religious tradition dictates.  How can they call themselves followers of God and not abide by God’s traditions?  From the Pharisees’ perspective, Jesus’ followers are not simply neglecting God’s statutes, they are spitting on the holiness of God.  They are threatening the very fabric of Israelite existence with their cavalier ways.  So yeah, the good religious folks are a bit upset.  They’ve drawn their line in the sand.

Before we launch off on some tirade against the Pharisees and their apparent close-mindedness, maybe we should look at the lines we draw in the sand.  Make no mistake about it, when it comes to life in the church, we all have them; we all have those lines you better not cross.
What if we cut the Congregation Council in half while at the same time eliminating Core Groups and their subcommittees in favor of a more agile congregation?  What if we were to move the altar table around the sanctuary on a seasonal basis?  What if we removed all the pews in order to make our worship space more flexible on Sunday, while creating a daily dining space for the homeless?  Do you see where I’m going here?  We all have buttons to be pushed.  We all have traditions we are unable or unwilling to forsake.

It’s taken all these years for me to finally accept what the Red Sox owners did to my beloved “Green Monster”.  I see now that their motives were not malevolent. As much as I may hate to admit it, they may have had the well-being of both the team and the park in mind.   And if I’m honest with myself, I have to acknowledge that my precious Green Monster wasn’t always green.

Once again this week, I’m not entirely sure where my sermon will end up on Sunday.  But my guess is that it’s going to have something to do with being open to the Spirit; being open to God working in new ways; trusting that God’s not going to lead us into bad places.
Join me on Sunday and let’s see where God takes us.

Peace and Love,

Pastor Doug