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

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Another Shooting in Rochester

There’s been another shooting in Rochester.  Though every shooting and every death is tragic and there have been way too many of them this year, this particular event last night seemed even more cruel than usual.  In front of the Boys and Girls Club on Genesee Street, a place of refuge and empowerment, seven people were shot resulting in three deaths.  At this point two of the three have been identified; Raekwon, 19 years old and Jonah 17.  I know neither their stories, nor the circumstances that led to the violence perpetrated against them, but I do know that they were too young to die.

I cannot begin to imagine the devastating heart break overwhelming Raekwon’s and Jonah’s parents right now.  As a parent who has children of similar ages, my heart aches for their families.  Children aren’t supposed to die before their parents; especially children so young.  Sure, our kids get older and with every passing day they seem more and more adult-like, but they never stop being our kids.  We never stop worrying about them.  We never forget the days of diapers and bottles; cut knees, scraped elbows and the occasional bruised feelings.   We never forget the super-hero promises we made of keeping them out of harm's way.

The streets of our city have become a killing field.  The cemeteries of our city are swallowing up our children.  Rochester’s reality reflects the reality of the larger culture in which we live: A culture addicted to gun violence.  Add to that the systemic cycle of poverty and a powder keg emerges. 

At every homicide location, we’ve been gathering in prayer and sadly our prayer vigils have been occurring almost weekly.  At these vigils we pray for peace, understanding, and healing.  We pray that God will hallow the ground desecrated by the spilling of blood.  And yet the violence continues.  Shootings remain at epidemic levels.  As people of faith we can’t help but ask the questions, “Where is God in all of this?”  “Does God hear our prayers and laments?”  “Does God even care?”  These questions are not only fair, but they are faithful.  I ask these questions myself. Come on God, can’t you stop this insanity?  You could part the Red Sea, can’t you part the violence?  If only we had magic wands to make the violence disappear.

We don’t have wands, but here’s who we do have.  We have Jesus.  I’m not talking about Jesus walking and talking with me alone in some remote garden.  (Sorry, that old hymn gets it wrong.)  No, the Jesus we have is the one who knows about systemic poverty, because he was born and lived his entire life in it.  The Jesus we have is the one who himself was an innocent victim of violence as his tortured body hung dying on a cross.  The Jesus we have is the one who cried out in anguish on the cross to a God whom he thought had abandoned him.  The Jesus we have is the one who didn’t stay dead; who was raised by God thereby putting death itself to death.

And yet our children still die.  With blood stains fresh on our streets, Good Friday death still casts its ominous shadow.  Oh sure, we know that Sunday’s coming; that an empty Easter tomb awaits us; that God promises a future of healing, reconciliation, and life, but we can’t entirely dismiss the fear and discouragement of the present.  That Holy Saturday tomb looks so huge. 

Here’s the deal: In the midst of my doubts and fears; in the midst of tears that come way too easily; I will continue to keep Easter vigils on street corners and I invite you to join me.  Who knows?  Maybe our presence on street corners is the presence of God for which we’ve been praying.  Maybe our tears of Good Friday anguish are God’s tears.  Maybe our vigils, in which prayers for shattered tombs are offered, will give Easter hope to one sibling, one parent, one child.

Peace and Love,

Pastor Doug

Saturday, August 15, 2015

God's Scandalous Church

“’I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh’” (John 6:51).

Though I’m not preaching on Sunday, this verse from the gospel reading has been haunting me all week.  On the surface Jesus’ words seem fairly harmless.  “I am the bread of life”.  I can preach that and maybe even do a fairly adequate job of it.  I mean how hard is it to talk about getting nourishment from Jesus?  I could stand up in the pulpit and point out the differences between God’s nourishment and the hollow nourishment of the world.  I could point to the times in Scripture when God has miraculously fed God’s people on their long and arduous journeys of faith.  Or I could use this text as an opportunity to talk about the importance of being fed weekly at the altar table of God’s love with a piece of bread and a sip of wine.  I could go to all these places and probably offend no one; At least no one who has made the “journey” to church on Sunday morning.   But I can’t go there.  Not this week.

For some reason the radicalness of Jesus’ words won’t let me go.  They won’t let me tame Jesus and his scandalous call to follow.  These words won’t even let me preach a sermon on the “whys” of Eucharist.  Sure I could preach a barn burner of a sermon about our need to be fed daily with the body and blood of Christ.  But I can’t go there. Not this week.

“The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh”.  How in the world can the religious folks of Jesus’ day even stomach such a shock jock phrase?  A good religious person of Jesus’ day knows that any talk of flesh is unclean.  It is not kosher.  So, who does this Jesus think he is claiming that it is his flesh and blood that truly nourishes?  Jesus’ declaration turns everything upside down.  Every faith truth ever told; every faith assumption ever held is undone by this one sentence.  In Jesus’ day, flesh and blood are ritually unclean.  If contact is made with either, folks are cast out of community.  Without community survival is almost impossible.

Can we even begin to grasp the radical nature of Jesus’ words?  Surely these ancient kosher laws don’t apply to our lives, but in what scandalous ways does Jesus call us to follow?  In what scandalous ways does Jesus call us out of our safety zones?  In what scandalous ways does Jesus call us to abandon our theological certitudes?  In this post-modern world in which the church no longer finds itself at the center of society’s norms and mores, what is Jesus calling us to do and to be?  How open are we to God acting in new and creative ways?   How open are we to God’s reforming word re-defining all that we have taken for granted in the last 500 years?  How open are we to God changing the very definition of church?  The scriptural canon is certainly closed, but is it possible that God is still speaking?

Jesus’ words are radical both for his day and for ours.  But they are also filled with good news.  In keeping with the Hebrew notion of flesh and blood containing one’s total being, when Jesus talks about giving his flesh and blood, he is promising nothing less than the giving of his entire self.  I don’t know about you, but I can’t begin to get my head around that kind of love; that kind of love that holds nothing back.  And yet it is precisely that abiding love which not only nourishes and sustains us, but sends us back out into the world to feed God’s sheep.   How will we feed God’s sheep in the weeks, months, and years to come holding nothing back?  Join me in worship; in that place where the crucified and risen Christ has promised to be.  And let us discern together where God is calling us to travel and who God is calling us to be; no matter how radical and scandalous the call.

Peace and Love,

Pastor Doug

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Incarnate Word - Come Out!

“They were saying, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?  How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (John 6:42).

Surely by now, you grumbling religious leaders know who Jesus is.  He’s the Son of God.  Haven’t you been listening?  Haven’t you seen what he’s done?  Surely that wedding at Cana where he turned 180 gallons of water into the finest wine must have convinced someone.  Missed the Cana gig? Well, certainly you religious experts saw how Jesus healed the paralytic on the steps of the Temple in Jerusalem.  You groused enough about it; Something about it being unlawful to heal on the Sabbath.  Really guys? What about the stilling of the storm?  Or the feeding of the 5,000?  Haven’t you figured out who Jesus is yet?  Maybe you should have been with me back in second grade when the most incredible Sunday School teacher ever, Mrs. Barnes, told us what it meant that God put on our flesh in Jesus; That God took his love for us to a whole new level in becoming one of us.  You quote chapter and verse of scripture looking for God and can’t see that God is already here and has found you.  Jesus is God’s Word spoken at Creation made flesh; God’s Word of prophetic faithfulness made flesh; God’s Word of healing made flesh.  And still you can’t see beyond appearances? 

Truth be told, I too have a hard time seeing beyond appearances. I’m ordained.  I’ve been to seminary, studied Greek, learned how to dissect Scripture and put it back together again, all the while learning how to teach and preach this stuff.  But when push comes to shove I have doubts.  I have times when my holy imagination has run dry.  We clergy stake our entire lives on gospel proclamation and still we see churches dying before our very eyes; haunted hulks of once vibrant church buildings, now shabby specters of bygone glory.  We see dwindling numbers of people in church and the fear that evokes, experiencing that fear first hand in personal attacks and in some instances firings.   We see what the church could be and still feel the shackles of congregational anxiety holding us back from adapting to the culture’s needs around us.  We see budgets shrink and programs go unfunded and still have to explain why folks aren’t beating down the doors of our churches on a Sunday morning.   By all appearances, God at times seems absent.  Little wonder that so many clergy are lonesome, weary, depressed, and end up leaving the ministry after just a few short years.

But here’s the deal, God has never been stopped by appearances.  Our white mainline Protestant churches may, like Lazarus, have the stench of death in their garments, appearing to be dead, but when the Word made flesh utters the words “come out”, death’s defeat has begun.  Old ways of being the church may be dead or dying and our congregations may seem lifeless, but when Jesus issues that same “Lazarus call” to us, new life has begun and the church is literally pregnant with possibility.
“Come out!”  Jesus’ words to Lazarus and to us.  Come out!  In the face of decline, come out!  Unwrap the grave clothes.  Breathe deep and step into the light.  Come out and be the church – be the Beloved Community God has called you to be; doing justice and loving mercy; not ecclesiastical entrepreneurs but God’s holy fools proclaiming life and hope in the midst of death and despair. Be the Beloved Community God has called you to be in the waters of Baptism; no longer fearing appearances of scarcity but trusting the promises of God’s abundance; trusting that God is not yet done with us and won’t be for a very long time.  Come out.  Dear friends in Christ, come out!

Peace and Love,

Pastor Doug

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Church of Action: Do we dare be that church?

“What must we do to perform the works of God?” (John 6:28).

Seems like a completely reasonable question given all that’s just happened.  Word of Jesus’ healings and feedings have gone viral.  The recently fed crowd of 5,000 wants more. So they begin looking furiously for Jesus and his disciples.  Much to everyone’s surprise Jesus is found hanging out on “the other side of the sea”; the other side of the tracks; the unclean side of the world; the neighborhood to which nice respectable church folk would never venture.  These folks are desperately hungry.  I mean come on, they’ve actually ventured into the 14621 zip code of their world.  Obviously they’ve been given a taste of something great and they want more.  And so comes the question, “How do we get more?”  Or put another way, “What must we do to perform the works of God?”   We’ve glimpsed what it means to be filled and we want more.

Hungering crowds are not just the stuff of bible stories.  The world in which we live is a perishable parched wilderness offering hollow nourishment.  Its inhabitants hunger and thirst for meaning; for value; for connectedness; for lives that are nourished and whole. Instead they find brokenness, poverty, and injustice.  They find profound loneliness in a world of social media that is anything but social.   

In our world, in our city, and in our lives storms rage.  So, where is the church in all of this?  Where are the followers of the Prince of Peace?  Where are those whose Lord sends them out to feed God’s sheep?  Do we, the church, have a voice in any of these storms and if so, where do we find that voice?  It is one thing to talk about feeding sheep, it is quite another to actually do so.

Don’t get me wrong, there is value in talking about feeding and healing.  We call that theology.  Theology is absolutely essential in informing us as to the “why” of mission.  Theology is how we talk about and live with God.  It grounds us in all that we do.  But if our theology is all talk and no action, then we are not the church sent out by the dancing flames of Pentecost.  And if we are not that church, then we are not the church at all; merely a dwindling social club of irrelevancy.  And why would we expect God to empower that? 

“What must we do to perform the works of God?”  Kind of a scary question if you ask a good Lutheran.  We abhor the word, “works”.  We despise it.  We run away from it.  Haven’t we been taught that “works” don’t get us into heaven?  Of course “works” don’t buy salvation, but they are absolutely essential to our relationship with God and each other.  Talk doesn’t feed my hungry neighbor.  Works of love do. 

I’m not quite sure where my sermon on this text will end up on Sunday morning, but of this I am certain.  God has fed us that we might feed others; and not just talk about it.  God doesn’t need another mouth house; another place where we’re all talk and no action.  In Sunday’s gospel story, Jesus is found on the other side of the sea; Feeding and healing in unclean, unsafe, scandalous places. Where will we be found?

Peace and Love,
Pastor Doug


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Where Heaven Touched Earth...

I’ve always suspected The Lord’s Prayer was real and probably even relevant.  But to be honest with you the words of that prayer have spilled off my lips so many times, in so many contexts, over so many years that they have become rote to me.  The words of the Lord’s Prayer have become so commonplace, oftentimes I don’t even hear them as I speak them.  Then comes the fear:  I think I may have been daydreaming, what did I just pray?  I’m just waiting for the time when one of our dear homebound members, for whom this prayer is powerful, stops me dead in my tracks to ask me what I just prayed.  So here’s the scoop:  I haven’t always given much thought about the Lord’s Prayer and the communal relationship it embodies.  That was until today.

 At noontime, seven of us gathered in prayer, holding hands, lifting up the latest victim of a Rochester homicide.  Jit Mongar, a 38 year old Nepalese refugee and sole bread winner for his seven children was robbed at gunpoint and murdered in the parking lot of Lake Food Market on Sunday night.

“Our Father in heaven.  Holy be your name.  Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

This prayer of holiness offered on the very ground that had been desecrated by the spilling of blood just three days ago.  “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done – especially here O Lord at 785 Lake Avenue.  Please God, bring healing to these precious children whose dad will never be coming home again.  Please God, murder can’t be your will, especially on the day of Resurrection. We need your holiness.  We need your peace.  We need for heaven to touch the earth.”

And it did.  Heaven bent down to touch the earth today in the words of a little girl who walked by our ecumenical prayer circle with her mother.  “Look Mommy, those people are praying”.  That’s all she said.  That’s all she needed to say.  In years to come, she may or may not remember that a father of seven was murdered on that spot, but she will remember that in her neighborhood, victimized by poverty and violence, some people stood around in a circle, holding hands in prayer.

Thank you God.  Your Kingdom came near today, but not as I imagined it.  It may have come near in the prayers we offered, maybe not.  But I know for sure heaven touched the earth today in the curiosity of a little girl who proclaimed words of hope on that Rochester killing field, “Look Mommy, those people are praying…”

“Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  I think I may have seen that today not only in prayers spoken but in prayer proclaimed.

Amen.  Come Lord Jesus…

Peace and Love,
Pastor Doug 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Gut Wrenching Jesus...

“As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them…”

This is one of my favorite verses taken from this past Sunday’s gospel reading.  Up to this point in Mark’s story, Jesus and his apostles have been healing and teaching like crazy – they’ve been swamped by crowds of folks hungering and thirsting for healing and wholeness – folks who have seen a glimpse of the Kingdom and want more.  They have been ravenous for new life.  In fact the crowds have been so overwhelming, there’s been no time to eat.
Finally, seeing the need for rest, Jesus invites the Twelve to come away with him to a “deserted place”.   So, they get into a boat by themselves and not even a single verse passes before they are recognized again by more crowds in what can only be described as pandemonium.  Jesus and the Twelve have definitely attained “rock star” status.

So what does Jesus do in the face of more crowds?  If it were me, my introverted side would take over and I would probably turn the boat around looking for an even more deserted place; staying out on the water all night if that’s what it took to catch a break from the throngs of people.
But that’s not what Jesus does.  Rather than seeing mindless crowds of people looking for a free hand-out, Jesus’ eyes see something different.  Jesus sees beloved people fashioned in the divine image of their creator and he has compassion for them.  Having compassion; now that sounds safe.  We all like to think that when push comes to shove we play well with others; that our hearts are full of compassion.  Except what Mark is referring to here is not compassion of the heart.  The greek word for compassion literally translates as “gut-wrenching”.  Upon seeing the broken and hurting people, Jesus’ stomach turns somersaults.  In other words, not only does Jesus’ heart feel for the people, but so too does his stomach.  For Jesus, hunger and brokenness is not academic.  It’s enough to make him feel sick to his stomach.  Jesus’ breath is wrenched away.

If that kind of compassion is good enough for Jesus, maybe it’s good enough for us as well.  I wonder if we in the church are even capable of that kind of compassion.  In the face of numeric decline both in pews and in bank accounts, are we really able to feel gut wrenching compassion for the broken, hurting, and dispossessed around us?  I tend to think not.  Oh sure, we’re nice people.  We have our “cute” little table prayers that affirm “God is great, God is good...”;  we can agree that the “golden rule” is a noble way to live our lives; sometimes, we might even find ourselves talking about poverty, violence and racism. But when push comes to shove, are these the concerns that cause us to be ill?  Does another murder in our city keep us awake at night wondering where Jesus is in the midst of it and how we might be God’s instruments of peace?  Do we even give a thought to the single mom in the RAIHN program, working two jobs and unable to make ends meet?  Do our stomachs churn restlessly as we continue to remember and mourn what happened in Charleston a few weeks ago? Or have we taken the media's lead and stopped making ourselves aware of the racism around us and in us?

Sadly, this is often where Jesus and the church part ways.  In Mark’s gospel, Jesus and his followers go on to feed thousands on a hillside, while the church continues to seek its own survival; looking to its financial bottom line as an indicator of health.  Yes, we are those folks hungering and thirsting for wholeness.  But we are also the church, named and claimed by God in the waters of Baptism to bear God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world.  We are tired and broken and yet we are fed each week that we may feed.

We are the church and the church is not called to survive.  We are called to be poured out in love for the world.  Because love first found its way to us on the Cross of Christ, we are compelled to the gut wrenching compassion that stops at nothing to love the loveless, feed the hungry, and heal the broken.  As far as I can tell, Jesus never counted the cost of such compassion; so why in the world would we?

Peace and Love,

Pastor Doug