Thursday, April 30, 2015

A Wonderful Time to Be the Church!



The church is changing and growing and always becoming something new. And I believe it is a wonderful time to be the church.

I grew up in the church, in a family that held the church at its center. In my congregation, as well as most congregations in my hometown, the pews were filled on Sundays. Most of my friends attended church and grew up as acolytes and choir members. We went to Vacation Bible School together and then on to church camp. My Friday nights were often spent at my friend's church who held the best dances in town and attracted literally hundreds of high school kids from around the town, and I brought them to our youth group activities on Sunday nights. There was never a question of where our family would be on a Sunday morning. My dad sang in the choir. My mom served on the Altar Guild every week. And when I finally passed that rite of passage when I could become an acolyte, and then a crucifer, along with my friends, we celebrated. In my small town, "everyone" went to church - it was just the way it was. Ah, the good old days!

Of course the church doesn't look that way anymore. Most congregations cannot boast of filled pews. Budgets are tight. Church dances attracting hundreds of high school kids are a thing of the past in most places. If asked, many members of congregations would say the best days are behind us, not before us. People are in fear of losing their image of what the church was, and try valiantly to hold onto a church that still tries to do ministry the way it has for the past 50 years. But that is no longer the church we have. Nor should it be.

I do believe it is a wonderful time to be the church. Because the world is different than it was in my childhood. Today pastors are not just needed to preach and teach and pray and visit the homebound, but to be missionaries, visionaries, and approach ministry with creativity, vitality, and newness. People are hungering for meaning, for ways to make a difference in the world. There is a hunger for spirituality, for a sense of connection with others. Social media such as Facebook and Twitter can be wonderful ways to connect with hundreds of people, but they are no substitute for community, meaningfulness, and a sense of God's grace. Connecting with friends on a computer screen late into the night cannot replace conversation, mutual sharing, worship, singing and serving together.

The church has an amazing opportunity to be that voice in the world for which so many are searching. We have an opportunity to provide places where we can join together to explore our joys and our doubts, and to engage ancient voices that come alive through Scripture. We can provide opportunities for service in our community and in the world, hands-on experiences that are life-giving and transformational for those we serve as well as for those who are doing the serving. There are few places in society where people can come together from various backgrounds, ages, experiences, and join together for a common goal. And as the church we have something that no other organization has - we have the gift of God's grace that surrounds us, fills us, empowers us, and then sends us out, reflecting God's light in all that we do.
It would be easy to throw our hands up and lull ourselves into thinking that vacant pews and leaner budgets are a sign of decline and failure. It would be easy to try to find things to blame for the decline of the mainline church. It would be easy to make excuses. But we have an opportunity to explore and find new ways of living out the love and grace God brings to God's people.


Yes, it is an exciting time to be the church. To be missionaries. To get out into our communities and learn the needs and gifts that exist outside of the walls of our congregations. To join with other congregations because we can accomplish so much more together. To create an environment of acceptance, love, welcome, and hospitality for all, regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, economic realities, or race. To pray together, sing together and share in the sacraments together. But always looking for how God is leading us, opening Godself to us, changing us, and calling us to be God's beloved ones.

Love,
Pastor Joanne

Friday, April 3, 2015

Pastor Doug's Maundy Thursday sermon



The following sermon was taken from another blog in which credit is given at the end.  In a world bent on exclusion, hear this radical letter from Jesus, whose command is simple:  Love.

"Dear Christians In Indiana (and those elsewhere, who might read this),

I’ve seen what’s been going on there lately. Actually, I’ve been watching you all along and I really need to let you know something, just in case you misunderstand:

This isn’t what I had planned.
This wasn’t the Church I set the table for.
It wasn’t the dream I had for you, when I spoke in those parables about the Kingdom; about my Kingdom.
It was all supposed to be so very different.
It was supposed to be a pervasive, beautiful, relentless “yeast in the dough” that permeated the planet; an unstoppable virus of compassion and mercy spread person-to-person, not needing government or law or force.
It was supposed to be that smallest, seemingly most insignificant of seeds, exploding steadily and gloriously with the realized potential of my sacred presence, becoming a place of safety and shelter for all people.
It was supposed to be something so very precious, such an obvious, invaluable treasure, that it would make all those who discovered and experienced it, feel like it was worth selling everything they had to hold onto it.
It was supposed my very body, here in your very flesh.
You were designed to do this, to be this.
My kindness, my goodness, my forgiveness; you were created to be the method of transportation for all of it.
You were made to deliver the greatest good news to a world so desperate for it.
This wild, extravagant, world-altering love I have for my people, was intended to travel from my aching heart, through your trembling hands, to my hurting people.
This has always been your calling. It has always been your purpose.
It still is. This very second it is.
I have placed you here at this exact place and time in the history of creation, not to defend me, as I need no defense; not to protect me, since I have already willingly laid my life down; not to judge others on my behalf, as this is far beyond your capacity and my instruction.
My beloved, I placed you here, not to defend or protect or replace me, but simply to reflect me.
That has always been my most critical commandment and your most pressing obligation; loving God and loving others. I thought that I was clear on that, when I was asked this before.
I showed you how to move in this world.
I kept company with priests and with prostitutes. I touched lepers and washed feet and dined with sinners, both notorious and covert. I served miraculous free meals to starving masses, and I allowed myself to be touched and kissed and betrayed and slandered and beaten and murdered… and I never protested.

All that is happening these days, all the posturing and the debating and the complaining; does this really look like love to you? 
Do you really think that the grandstanding and the insult-slinging and the side-choosing, that it feels like me?
Do you truly believe that the result of your labors here in these days, is a Church that clearly perpetuates my character in the world?
Is this the Gospel I entrusted you with? 
To be honest with you, I simply don’t see it.
How did you drift so far from the mission?
How did you become so angry, so combative, so petty, so arrogant, so entitled?
When did you begin writing your own script for this story?
When did you turn it into your story?
My children, here’s what you may not realize, being as close as you are to all of this. You may not be able to see it clearly anymore.
You certainly don’t have the perspective that I do, and here from my vantage point, this is what I do see:
You are driving people from me.
You have become an unbreachable barrier between myself and those who most need me.
You are leaving a legacy of damage and pain and isolation in your path.
You are testifying loudly, not to my love, but to your preference.
You are winning these little violent battles, and you are losing people; not to Hell or to Sin, but to all of the places outside of you, where they go to receive the kindness and decency and goodness that you should be showing them.
This life is not about your right to refuse anyone. If I wanted to avoid serving those I found moral faults with, I would have skipped the planet altogether.
I came to serve.
Your faith in me, cannot be an escape clause to avoid imitating me. 
Asserting your rights, was never greater than following my example.
Your religious freedom, never more important than loving the least. 
Your central cause, should be relentlessly conforming to my likeness, despite the inconvenience and discomfort that it brings.
When I commanded you to deny yourself, I was speaking about the times when it is most difficult to do so, because that is when “self” is the most distracting, the most dangerous, the most like an idol.
Obedience to me, usually comes with sacrifice to you.
I can’t force you to reflect upon these words, and I can’t make you live as I lived or love as I love. This was never the way I worked or will ever work.
I can only tell you that you have surely drifted from the course I started you on, and as often is the case in long journeys, it is a divergence that unfolds by the smallest of degrees, almost imperceptible while it’s happening.
That is why what feels like victory to you, is really another slight but definite movement away from me, and from the reason you are really here at all.
Not long after I walked the planet, as my Church was just beginning to blossom and my Kingdom was truly breaking out, a Greek writer named Aristides, wrote these words about those who bore my name then:
“It is the Christians, O Emperor, who have sought and found the truth, for they acknowledge God. They do not keep for themselves the goods entrusted to them. They do not covet what belongs to others. They show love to their neighbours. They do not do to another what they would not wish to have done to themselves. They speak gently to those who oppress them, and in this way they make them their friends. It has become their passion to do good to their enemies.
They live in the awareness of their smallness.
Every one of them who has anything gives ungrudgingly to the one who has nothing. If they see a travelling stranger, they bring him under their roof. They rejoice over him as over a real brother, for they do not call one another brothers after the flesh, but they know they are brothers in the Spirit and in God. If they hear that one of them is imprisoned or oppressed for the sake of Christ, they take care of all his needs. If possible they set him free. If anyone among them is poor or comes into want while they themselves have nothing to spare, they fast two or three days for him. In this way they can supply any poor man with the food he needs. This, O Emperor, is the rule of life of the Christians, and this is their manner of life.” *
                                                                                                                                                                                         – Aristides, 137 AD
To the Christians in Indiana, and those beyond who are still listening today; you would do well to hold these words up daily as a mirror to your individual lives, and to the expression of me that you make together in this place.
Is this what you see when you look at yourself?
Is this what the world sees when it looks at you?
In your words and in your ways, Church; do they see me?
If not, then regardless of how it seems to you, you haven’t won anything.
May this be truth, that truly sets you free"   ~ John Pavlovitz. 


* taken from Jesus For President, By Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Pastor Doug's Christmas Eve Message




Christmas Eve, 2014
Luke 2:1-20


“But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart”.


O Mary, such words to treasure in your heart –  a heart that is no stranger to fear and darkness – a heart which has been taught that apart from your father, and now your betrothed, you have no identity;  A heart that has been filled with the enslaving notion that you are more property than person; a heart that has known the fear of conceiving a child out of wedlock in a world that would kill you for that.  And now this?

Mary O precious Mary, how could you have known that such a thing would happen to you?  You, who have nothing.  You, living in a community of migrant workers called Nazareth.  A place, like you, so small, so inconsequential it shows up no one’s map; least of all Caesar’s. 

Caesar Augustus, whose very name means “revered”; the one who calls himself “son of god”, the giver of royal edicts, so mighty, so god-like, whose soldiers pass by your town everyday never even casting a glance in your direction; as if you were invisible.  As if you never existed.

But exist, you do.  Though just a teen, you are the keystone connecting the history of God’s promised salvation to a future where those promises are fulfilled for all the world.  Though just a teen, your lips have responded to God’s grace with scandalous trust and a wisdom that spans the ages, rejoicing in your God, and proclaiming God’s reality of mercy where “the mighty are brought down… the lowly are lifted up and the hungry are filled with good things.” 

Your teenaged heart and body have made room for God. Space: holy space has been created in which you – you of all people Mary – have until this night kept God safe in your womb.  Your body has done the impossible.  Your body has nourished God’s.  Your body has kept God safe, providing all that is needed for God to do this new thing;  this new thing whereby God takes on our flesh and blood.

“To you is born this night in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord”

Words from on high, as Heaven bends to touch the earth this night.  Words of “great joy” yet words that cut like a knife, interrupting that most intimate space between mother and newborn.  Though filled with great promise, these words are a painful reminder that this baby does not belong to you alone; that this night does not belong to you alone.    For this is the One whom prophets of old foretold. 

This babe in your arms is the long-awaited Messiah who has been “anointed to bring good news to the poor; to proclaim release to the captives; to let the oppressed go free”

This babe in your arms is the long-awaited Messiah and yet he will never occupy palaces or seats of power. 

This babe in your arms whom angels adore and shepherds flock to see this night will one day enrage the religious and political powers-that-be by announcing that God looks with favor upon and is found within the displaced, the marginalized, the refugee, the persecuted, and the occupied.


O Mary, how can you even begin to fathom what happens in the years to come?  These eyes that gaze up at you in trust and love tonight will one day gaze with compassion upon thousands who hunger on a Galilean hillside.  The eyes of an infant fixated on your tender maternal face this night will one day look with pity and love upon the face of a synagogue leader whose daughter is near death.  The cries of a hungry newborn will one day turn to laments over Jerusalem, who “kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it”.   The coos and cackles of your newborn this night will one day turn to words of forgiveness for those who torture and execute him on the hardwood of a Cross.

Mary, O precious Mary, your tears of joy this night will one day turn to inconsolable cries of a mother who loses her child to violence and death. 

And yet God will not leave you there in the darkness and terror of grief.  God will not leave you tormented in your own personal hell.  For not only do angels tell shepherds in a field to “fear not”, but your own son, when he is raised from the dead, will utter those same hope-filled words to those mired in grief, despair, and fear.

Mary, the babe in your arms though found with you here on this holy night, will one day be found in other places.  Wherever God’s children are sleeping in the cold, fleeing from persecution and violence, or being born as refugees, we find your child, our Savior proclaiming God’s good news of great joy.  “Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom”.    

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Pastor Doug's Sermon - December 7, 2014


 



Isaiah 40:1-11
2nd Sunday in Advent
Rev. Douglas L. Stewart
 
 
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God…”

            Speak tenderly to Ferguson and Staten Island…

            Speak softly to West Africa…    

            Speak gently to Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza…

Speak lovingly to those in our city encircled by poverty and violence…

Speak soothingly to our youth who wonder if this will be the week that gun violence hits their schools as it has in 91 other schools since Newtown…

              Speak softly and tenderly to us who have lost our way..

Whose bearings are confused…

And whose vision is blurred by broken hearts and shattered dreams.

 

“Comfort, O comfort my people says your God…”   Words so familiar, and yet at times so far out of reach.  Words nonetheless offering the balm of healing to the festering wounds of exile.

 Exile.  A place the ancient Israelites have lived for the last 50 years at the mercy of their Babylonian captors… 

A place of confusion, despair, and darkness, away from everything and everyone familiar to them...

A place from which they anxiously return home only to find their beloved city in ruins; only to find their precious land destroyed by drought; only to find their cherished homes laid waste…

 Is this the same land we left?  How could it be? Where has everybody gone?  The city once bustling with crowds of prosperous people is now an empty parking lot overgrown with weeds.

The city once teeming with the joyful laughter of children playing in its streets is now eerily silent. The Temple, the holiest place on earth, through which the living God nourished his people of old with his presence has been reduced to a pile of dead stones.

Glorious buildings, family, and friends… All gone. 

            Erased.  As if they never existed.

 "Where is God?  Has God abandoned us?  Does God even care?”  Not just words of disappointment and despair uttered by ancient Israel returning from exile, but our words as well.  Words cried by us confused by feet planted in two very different worlds.   The world of God’s promised blessing juxtaposed against the world of brokenness we see all around.

 

And yet, it is precisely here in the season of Advent where two worlds collide:  where the world of  brokenness and the world of hope walk hand in hand.

 

While shedding our own exilic tears,

Of relationships broken, of healthy bodies lost, of death’s sting too real…

An empty cross stands right here before us, reminding us that not even death can separate us from God; empowering us to dare proclaim God’s hope of restoration and healing.

 While navigating the winding roads of danger, fear, and brokenness, we dare to hope that our God lays down a super-highway in the wilderness, upon which in First-Responder fashion, God can both reach us and send us out quickly.

While lamenting the valleys of unspeakable poverty…

We dare to proclaim hope in a God who transforms food deserts and levels the hills of economic disparity… perhaps even using us to advocate systemic justice while feeding and clothing a hungry and hurting city.

 
While stumbling upon the uneven ground of gender, social, and racial inequality…

we dare to hope in a God who makes the rough places a plain by the boundary-shattering work of his son – especially in the Rochesters, the Staten Islands, the Fergusons and the Gazas of this world.

 
While thirsting for justice and righteousness…

We dare to imagine and follow a God of hope who not only gives us our thirst-quenched voice, but who leads us out into the world – into the wilderness places using our voice to comfort and prophetically stir the world.

 

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God…”

 A new king is on the way…

Not a warrior to impose our jaded agendas on the world, but one who came as a newborn so vulnerable, so easily approachable that no one needs to be afraid.

 A new king is on the way…    

One whose death upon a cross, touching heaven to earth, has forever transformed our cries of despair into songs of hope.

 A new king is on the way…

One who will gather the broken lambs into his arms, feeding and healing us that we may feed and heal the world.

 “Comfort, O comfort my people says OUR God..”.

 

           

 

 
           

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Pastor Doug's Sermon on Abundance v. Scarcity...



Matthew 25:14-30
November 16, 2014


There goes Jesus again, shocking us with some crazy story about 3 slaves who have been entrusted with gifts from their master:  Crazy, because… well… look at the numbers:
Take your annual salary and multiply that by 100 years:
That’s how much money the first slave is entrusted with…

Take your annual salary and multiply it by 40 years:                                               That’s how much money the second slave is entrusted with…

Take your annual salary and multiply it by 20 years                                                That’s how much money the third slave is entrusted with…

 Gifts once given are now being called back in.  The master has come back to see how the slaves have done in taking care of those gifts.  Here’s where the story takes an uncomfortable twist.    The first two slaves can’t wait to show their master how well they did with the gifts.  The Dow Jones was clearly at a high (maybe even a record high for these guys) and their investments show it. 

            100 years’ annual salary has been turned in to 200 years’ annual salary…

40 years’ annual salary has been turned in to 80 years’ annual salary…

The first two slaves have been faithful to do what the master has required of them. The master's response to each is the same. He commends the slaves for being good and faithful, entrusting them with more authority, and inviting them to enter his "joy."

Not so with the third slave whose portfolio has performed well below the Benchmark.  To his credit, this slave has not committed a crime.  For he has neither embezzled the money nor bet it on the ponies.  He’s just afraid.  Informed by a worldview of scarcity, he is afraid of losing the gift. 

Instead of seeing the master’s gift as one of abundance to be used in spreading abundance, this poor unfortunate slave has fearfully circled the wagons, stashing the gift under his mattress-- saving it for a “rainy” day.

The parable Jesus tells us this morning is very unsettling, because he is compelling us to ask the question; “which slave are we in the story?”  Are we the first two who blindly (and maybe even recklessly) trust in God’s abundance?

Or are we the fearful slave, who in response to the worldview of scarcity, becomes paralyzed and tries to safely stash God under the mattress?

Jesus tells us that the master is furious. He had entrusted this servant with a portion of his property in order that the slave would use his abilities; abilities that would help turn a profit for his lord. This slave, however, is too afraid to take a risk -- even though risky behavior has always been a part of the master's business. Instead, the slave attempts to secure his own well-being.

The master expects the servants to continue his business, to take risks to make a profit, and to emulate his behavior. Two servants are found faithful. Their faithfulness has increased the master's wealth and expanded his estate.

Now before I go any further I need to be perfectly clear about something.  What Jesus gives us this morning is NOT a story about the virtues of Wall Street.  Neither is this a story in which Jesus says the purpose of the church is to get rich and if we can just grow our bank account, God will smile mightily upon us.
No, what we have here this morning is a parable revealing two competing world views.  

Scarcity versus abundance. 

Do we look around our congregation fearful of finances, lamenting at all that we do NOT have?  Or do we put on fresh eyes, marveling at all that we are able to accomplish together in abundance?  I neither have the resources nor the strength to single-handedly feed 100 people at Mustard Seed Kitchen, or serve and house homeless families 4 weeks a year or come up with ¾ of a million dollars to undertake missional renovations to our building

But together, you and I have done just that: And done so with abundance.

 
Scarcity versus abundance:

Do we look at the Sunday School classrooms upstairs and become fearful for what appears on the surface to be a declining Sunday School?  Do we find ourselves longing for days gone by when every classroom was filled, fearful that we may have to close the doors of the church because we don’t have the same numbers of kids we had years ago?

Or do we give thanks for the young families we have now and for the authentic and faithful leadership our youth have given us now,  both in worship and in the mission field, whether it be locally, in Washington, D.C. or El Cercado?

We may not have the sheer numbers of kids we had years ago in Sunday School, but we are abundantly rich in young people who see themselves as the church of today, who will not be relegated to the sidelines, who have seen Jesus here in their midst, and who take their call to follow Jesus in love and service seriously being formed for a lifetime of loving God and loving neighbor.

Scarcity versus abundance:

Allow me for a moment to take off the “pastor” hat and put on my “dad” hat.  In all their years of being in church, my kids have never been in a Sunday School or youth group, with dozens of other kids their age.  I suppose I could lament that fact and be fearful that I’m not providing all that I can for my kids in their faith formation because somehow their Sunday School classroom is not as full as their public school classroom, 

Or I could give thanks that in all those years, my kids along with a whole host of other kids here at Incarnate Word, have been given the chance to take leadership roles in church and they have learned in abundance not only what it is to love their God and to love their neighbor,  but also what  it is to do justice and love mercy.

 Scarcity verses abundance:

 The third servant in Jesus’ parable this morning is not only afraid of life, but is unable to see the abundance that his master has entrusted him with.  Are we the same way?  In our fears, have we somehow forgotten that our God is a God of abundance? 

In our fears of scarcity, have we forgotten that a hungry people, having just left everything they knew behind them in Egypt, journeying in the wilderness find themselves recipients of God’s abundance as manna from heaven is showered down upon them, assuring them of life?

In our fears of scarcity, have we forgotten that the God of abundance once came to a fearful, young, pregnant, unwed teenager beckoning her not to be afraid, but to rejoice that she will share in God’s abundance by bearing the savior of the world?

In our fears of scarcity, have we forgotten about that band of smelly old shepherds abiding in the fields with their sheep, who suddenly find themselves surrounded by an abundance of heavenly hosts exhorting them to “fear not”, for this night in the City of David is born a savior out of God’s abundant love?

In our fears of scarcity, have we forgotten about Jesus’ friends, having seen him tortured and crucified, now hiding behind locked doors in fear, encountered by the risen Christ breathing an abundance of new life upon them with the gentle words “fear not… my peace I give to you?”

 Are you getting the picture here?  That our God is a God of abundance?  And that our God is known for going (dare I say) recklessly overboard with his love?  I mean, come on, his own son went to a cross for us.  I don’t know of anything more recklessly overboard than that.  Do you?

This is the God in whose presence we gather today. 

            A God who calls us out of our fears…

A God who invites us to look below the surface of scarcity to the reality of deeply rooted abundance…

A God who knows no boundaries when it comes to giving us everything… 

A God who will not be tucked away in safety beneath our mattresses waiting to be used for a rainy day…

A God who beckons us to join him in trust on the journey of abundance with hands open wide, sharing, healing, and serving.

This is the God, a God of reckless abundance,
                                             in whose presence we gather today... 
                                                              in whose presence we are fed today...
in whose presence we are sent out to labor together in the abundant vineyards of God's Kingdom.
Amen.