Friday, April 18, 2014

Pastor Doug's Maundy Thursday sermon

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
These words come as no surprise to us do they?  We’ve heard them before.  If you’ve ever been to church on a Thursday night in Holy Week, you’ve heard these words before.  In fact, the very name of this day “Maundy” comes from the Latin “Mandatum”, meaning “command”.   This is the day Jesus commands us to love.  It’s what we’ve come to expect isn’t it?  No surprises are there?  Jesus’ command to love one another is so old school for us that we could write the book on love.
Or could we?  Do we really have this love-concept down? 
I think if we’re really honest with ourselves, we’re going to acknowledge that Jesus’ command to love isn’t so easy.  We’re going to admit somewhere in the deepest recesses of our heart, that we just don’t get it.  We just don’t get why Jesus would give such an unreasonable command as to love.
But isn’t that what Jesus does so well? 
Just when we think we have him all figured out…
Just when we think that we have tamed him…
Jesus throws everything into disarray and confusion.
Just when I think I have him all figured out, I discover that Jesus isn’t who I thought he was. 
Like Peter in this evening’s gospel story, who can’t imagine that Jesus the Messiah would come to suffer and serve in the most demeaning and self- emptying way, I find myself baffled and crying out in protest that this isn’t how God is supposed to do things.
I don’t know about you, but the more I try to follow Jesus by taking his words to heart, the more I realize how much Jesus takes me out of my comfort zone.
He tells me to love and to serve the least of these…
 Yet I want to judge others who are different from me.
He tells me to love my enemies and to forgive those who do me wrong…
 Yet I want to hold a grudge.
He tells me to feed the hungry and clothe the naked…
Yet I want to store up my own treasures in heaven taking care of me and my own first.
Maybe I’m not the only one who has problems following Jesus.  Maybe the Church finds it just as difficult to follow Jesus as I do.  And maybe that’s the problem.  
Stuck in old habits of survival, I wonder if the church has lost its imagination for love.  Hearkening back to another era when pews used to be full…
Have we become so obsessed with church survival that we have retreated to safe places failing to see the Kingdom of God all around us? 
Have we become so obsessed with survival of our congregations that we have failed to see Jesus has moved into the neighborhood and is inviting us to join him there? 
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
Could it really be that simple?
Who else could command us to love, than the One who on this night was put on death row?
Who else could command us to love, than the One who was tortured and executed on a cross of death the next day all the while pleading “Father forgive them”?
Who else could command us to love, than the One who did not stay dead conquering death once and for all?

A recent story on National Public Radio tells the tale of St. Albans Episcopal Church in Davidson, North Carolina which recently erected a statue of Jesus on its property in an upscale neighborhood not too unlike the one here around Incarnate Word.
This is not an “old school” statue of Jesus for it depicts him not with arms outstretched looking down on us from above, but huddled under a blanket with his face and hands obscured; only the crucifixion wounds on his uncovered feet giving him away.
As you can guess, the reaction was immediate. Some loved it; but many did not.  Thinking the statue was actually a homeless person, one woman from the neighborhood called the police the first time she drove by.  That’s right, someone called the cops on Jesus!  (As if that’s never happened to him before).
Another neighbor wrote a letter to the editor saying that the statue “creeped” him out.  Many more complained that such a depiction of Jesus was insulting to God and that it demeaned the neighborhood.
So what would Jesus think of a statue depicting him as a homeless man?  Would he be insulted or would he tell us that how we treat the least of these is how we treat him?  Would he take his toys and go home claiming we had disrespected him or would he tell us to love one another (especially the marginalized and those at the bottom of the heap) as he has first loved us?
Clearly, St. Albans Church has stirred up its neighborhood by challenging folks to not only see Jesus in a new way – but to love in a new way as well.  Could Jesus be issuing this same challenge to us?  What would you think if we commissioned such a statue at our East Avenue entrance?  ( By the way, I know the name of the sculptor and where he lives). 
What would the neighborhood think?  What would this statue say about us?  What would this statue say about Jesus?  Perhaps it would say that Jesus takes this love-thing seriously – and so do we.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A Letter from Pastor Doug

“Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.  Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ, our Lord.” (Lutheran Book of Worship p.153). 

                                                                                                            April 2, 2014

 Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

Once every six years voting members from around our synod gather together in assembly to pray, discern, and vote in the election of a synodical bishop.  At our upcoming Synod Assembly in June, voting members of the assembly will do just that.

Two months ago, I was approached by a colleague from the Niagara Frontier Conference of our synod and asked to consider allowing my name to be put forward as a candidate for bishop.  After a great deal of prayer and discussion with Joanne and the kids, I agreed to allow my name to go into nomination.   In my twenty years of ordained ministry, I have never entertained the thought of serving the church in this capacity.  I may or may not be called to this servant office, but if this is a call of the Holy Spirit, I must be open to the discernment process.  This being said my first love is and has always been the parish.  I continue to give thanks to God for you and for the ministry we share here at Incarnate Word. 

There are a number of very qualified individuals who have been nominated for bishop this year, any one of whom would serve our church with faithfulness and integrity.  I am honored and humbled to have my name counted among theirs as those who might serve the congregations of our Upstate New York Synod as bishop.

As we journey together in the coming weeks, I would ask you to pray not only for all who are nominated for positions of synodical leadership, but for our Upstate New York Synod as well.  These are challenging times for the church.  No longer can we count on a culture to know our story of a God who has become one of us in Jesus Christ.  Now more than ever, all expressions of the church are called to be a relevant presence in the world.  As Lutheran Christians, we have a unique take on a God who not only becomes flesh and dwells among us, but who does so out of an abundance of amazing grace.

We are a church in mission.  No longer is the mission field located on the other side of the world.  It is right outside our church doors.  May we as a congregation and as a synod, let our holy imaginations loose as together in Christ we bear God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world.  If you have questions or would just like to sit down over a cup of coffee and chat, please let me know.  These are indeed challenging times, but what an exciting time to be the church!

Peace and Love,
Pastor Doug

Sunday, March 30, 2014

A View of Incarnate Word?

As promised this morning in Adult Forum, here is my dream for Incarnate Word, a congregation trusting and following Christ who makes all things new.  The following is an excerpt from The Practicing Congregation, by Diana Butler Bass.

“Church of the Epiphany, an Episcopal congregation three blocks from the White House in downtown Washington, D.C., was founded as a ‘city mission’ in 1842.  Throughout its long history, Epiphany has embodied the flow of American mainline history – antebellum volunteerism and reformism, tensions and divisions around the Civil War, the Social Gospel, establishment triumphalism, God-and-country fervor, missionary ecumenism, travail around civil rights and Vietnam, the impact of feminist and gay rights movements, and, eventually, decline.  By 1992, 150 years after its founding, not many people remained in the decaying old urban building and a dwindling endowment paid the bills.  There was talk around the diocese of closing it or combining it with another parish.

Ten years later, at the church’s 160th anniversary, no one even whispered of closing Epiphany.  Although not a big church – and certainly not a prestigious one – Epiphany bustles with new vitality.  During the week, the church offers concerts, daily Eucharist, labyrinth walks, and adult spirituality courses for downtown workers.  On Sundays, the 8:00 am service welcomes two hundred homeless guests to both Eucharist and breakfast.  The more traditional 11:00 am service no longer comprises Washington’s political elite and genteel aristocrats.  Gone are the white-gloved acolytes and massive paid choir.  Rather, a congregation of incredible diversity with multiple races, ethnicities, classes, generations, and sexual orientations now inhabits its pews.  Their bills are paid through surprisingly generous congregational stewardship (the typical pledge at Epiphany is nearly twice the national average).  They sing their songs to God guided by Taize music, gospel songs and spirituals, Bach cantatas, Native American and African chants, and Anglican hymns…

The old language has a new accent.  The privatized piety of old-style Protestant liberalism has been supplanted by a new sense of spiritual vitality and expressive faith.  People these days practice healing prayer, hospitality, silence, discernment, stewardship, and peacemaking; they attend retreats, quiet days, spirituality workshops, and Bible studies.

Down the long, hard slide from the pinnacle of establishment prominence, Epiphany has discovered that cultural marginalization, peeling paint, urban funkiness, global diversity, homeless congregants, and healing prayer are gifts from a generous God”   (Diana Butler Bass).

Could this be Incarnate Word?  Let’s journey together and find out.

Peace and Love,
Pastor Doug

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Church Shopping...

“We are a designer society.  We want everything customized to fit our personal needs – our clothing, our food, our education.  Now it is our religion” ~ George Barna.

Without trying to sound overly cynical and snarky, it seems to me that George Barna gets it.    We are a consumer society and the church is seen by many as being one of many merchants with products to sell.   How many times have you heard someone say, “the church just isn’t meeting my needs”?  How many Sunday School teachers have felt the pressure of having to make Sunday School “fun” in order for parents to keep bringing their kids back?  How many music leaders are given an “audience” request list for favorite hymns to play, or how fast or slow to play the music in worship?

In his book, “Thieves in the Temple:  The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul”, G. Jeffrey MacDonald laments the consumerization of faith when he writes,

“Faith has become a consumer commodity in America.  People shop for congregations that make them feel comfortable rather than spiritually challenged.  They steer clear of formal commitments to Christian communities.  They flee when they are not quickly gratified or when they encounter interpersonal problems.  Changing churches has become as routine as changing jobs.  As a result, churches are no longer able to help people develop solid moral characters”.

So here’s the question.  As a church, do we feed people what they want or what they need?  A long time ago, Jesus sat on a hillside meeting the needs of thousands by feeding them with a few fish and a couple loaves of bread.   After his resurrection, Jesus came to his friend Peter and laying the foundations of the church on Peter’s shoulders commanded him to feed God’s sheep.  Clearly the act of feeding was really important to Jesus.  So too is it for us who would claim to follow Jesus.

There are lots of unchurched and de-churched folks who need to hear and be fed by the love and grace of Jesus.  Here’s my dilemma.  How do I do that in ways that are relevant and engaging without turning the priesthood of believers into a company of consumers looking to buy the most appealing “ministry” product?  

I completely understand that the church needs to be aware of and responsive to people’s needs and to meet folks where they are.  But it seems to me that meeting them where they are doesn’t mean leaving them there.

When Jesus first started calling people to follow him, he said “those who lose their life for my sake will find it”.  In these times of numeric decline for mainline churches, do we dare issue such a challenge?  When our pews are becoming increasingly empty, do we dare challenge faith consumers to get over their needs and to lose themselves to Christ?  If so, what might that even look like?

These are not easy questions to ask in a society as heavily soaked in consumerism as ours.   But ask them we must.  Who knows we might even find that in the end we have nothing to sell; just everything to give away.

Peace on the journey,
Pastor Doug

Monday, March 24, 2014

A thank you note...

A couple of months ago a hand-addressed envelope crossed my desk that included not only our full name, “The Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word – ELCA”, but also the name of one of our substantial outreach ministries, “Mustard Seed Kitchen”.

It was a Christmas card which simply read, “I hope your Holidays are joyous.  Love always, Frederick”. As a pastor I tend to over-think many things but I believe that in this simple act of sending a Christmas card our identity as a congregation was captured well. 

First, we are Lutheran Christians.   As such, our confessions speak of God’s commitment to a broken world through the free gift of Jesus Christ.  

We are Incarnate Word.   We are a congregation that not only speaks of God's commitment to the world, but lives it out as well through the “priesthood of all believers” as together our hands of outreach give flesh to God’s hands of love.

We are the ELCA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  “Evangelical” comes from the greek word, “euangellion” which translates literally as “bearer of good news”.  When I read of our denomination’s efforts of attempting to wipe out Malaria in Africa by 2015, which by the way is the second largest killer on that continent, I give thanks to God that my offering can be added to those of 4.7 million others to make that happen.  Our congregation does wonderful things.  But we alone cannot address this global killer on such a global scale.

Mustard Seed Kitchen.  This is where the Good News of Jesus Christ lived out in this congregation has touched Frederick’s life.    For him, receiving a hot meal in an atmosphere of biblical hospitality and dignity is church.  In his own way, by wishing us joyous holidays and love, Frederick is expressing his gratitude for what God has given him here.

We could learn a lot from Frederick.  What has God given you?  How have you been blessed here in this congregation in the past week, month, year, 10 years or more?  And what will your response of thanks look like?   Frederick has caused me to re-think and discern again my own responses of thanksgiving.  On Commitment Sunday, April 6th, I invite you to do the same as together in Christ we live and grow into our name:  “The Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word – ELCA.”
Peace and Love,
Pastor Doug

Sunday, March 16, 2014

On being the church...

Abram left his homeland on a promise. God called. Abram went. The Biblical text makes it seem so simple. There are no signs of struggle or doubt. There is no grief over what is left behind, only the forward look toward a new land and a new future. Leaving home for Abram seems so easy.  So what would it be like for him today?  That land from which Abram came and through which he journeyed is today Iraq and Syria.

Iraq and Syria.  War-torn lands to say the least.  And as with any war-torn land, stories abound of refugees who have left their country and their kindred to find a place of refuge.  Unlike Abram and his wife Sarai, these Syrian refugees do not leave on the promise that they will become a great nation.

They leave because bombs have fallen on their houses…

                        They leave because food has become scarce…

They leave because they have watched their loved ones die in the rubble as buildings have fallen to the ground.

As we enter into this season of Lent, it is fitting for us to pause and listen to their stories.

Remembering Christ’s suffering is more than an exercise in gratitude.

It is a chance for us to stand in solidarity with those around the world who suffer each day.

It is a challenge for us to take our own suffering (be it large or small) and connect it to the suffering of others and to the suffering of Christ on the cross.

As we seek out this sacred space of solidarity, the cross of Christ becomes a powerful connector across time and space. When we look to Christ’s cross, we see echoes of the same injustices that exist today. People still live under the yoke of poverty and oppression. People’s lives are still sacrificed on the altars of political ideologies — whether it be bombs in Syria or the war over minimum wage in this country. The same violent power that nailed God’s Son to a cross still crucifies the least and the last of this world.

And yet in some strange way, the cross of Christ offers a place where the suffering of the whole world is connected. “For God so loved the world that God gave his only son … ”  The Greek in this verse from John’s gospel cannot be any clearer.  This sentence is literally translated, “For God so loved the entire cosmos, that he gave his only son”.   Even the Greek word for love, “agape” refers to the kind of love in which one’s life is poured out selflessly and completely for the life of another.  What this one famous verse tells us is that when it comes to love, God holds nothing back – not a single fiber of God’s being.

If we as a church would claim to love what God loves, then we must love everyone. 

If we as a church would claim to love what God loves, then what happens to our sisters and brothers in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Rochester happens to us.

If we as a church would claim to love what God loves, then what happens to you happens to me.

After the bombing at last year’s Boston Marathon, a photo emerged of Syrians holding a banner showing their solidarity with us in the wake of this tragedy. The banner read, “Boston bombings represent a sorrowful scene of what happens everyday in Syria. Do accept our condolences.”  What a powerful reminder of the connectedness of all suffering.

In the cross of Christ, not only are we connected to his suffering, but to the suffering of those around us. 

In the cross of Christ we are called to dig up the roots of injustice and to prepare a place for the in-breaking of the kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God:  Not some great nation bound by borders, but a communal space of safety where we can imagine human flourishing.

The kingdom of God: A place where we learn to remember that because “God so loves the world” God enters into its places of suffering and death offering healing and eternal life.


Like Nicodemus in this morning’s gospel story, we are offered a chance to be born anew…

to take on the imagination of a child and dream God’s dream for a just world.

A world in which a vision of justice acts as a wrecking ball, tearing away what should not be, creating a place for safety, peace, and abundant life.

During this Lenten season, as we connect the suffering of our world to Christ’s cross, we are invited to become the hands and feet of Christ remembering all the while that his hands and feet bore the suffering of the cross. In other words, these are wounded hands, wounded feet, with which we love this world.

In the cross of Christ, God is with us. 

God is with us in the rubble of our lives,

 God is with us in the debris after the bombs have fallen.

But God is not content to leave us there or even simply to bring us out. The call of the kingdom of God is a call

to rebuild in the midst of all that is lost,

                        to bring peace where there is war,

to do justice where there is oppression.


The season of Lent calls us to make room for Christ to enter our lives. As you look to the cross I invite you…

to stare suffering in the face,

 to sit with it,

            to experience it,

            to not ignore it, as we are so prone to do.


As you remember the suffering of Christ in this season of Lent, remember also the suffering of the world – of the entire cosmos.

 As you draw near to the cross in this season of Lent, sit with stories from Syria, or from the Ukraine…

Listen to stories of economic refugees in this country who have lost their homes due to foreclosure or who work multiple minimum wage jobs but still cannot afford to feed their families.

As you draw near to the cross in this season of Lent, cry with the mothers in this city who have lost their children – their babies -  to senseless gun violence in our streets.

But whatever you do, don’t turn away. Dare yourself to sit with suffering.  And when you do, look for God there. God is always there in the midst of broken bodies and bruised dreams.

But let us not just sit with this suffering, let us be challenged as to what we might do as a congregation to not simply apply bandaids to the wounds, but to dig up the roots of injustice and rebuild the kingdom of God in our midst creating a sacred space of  refuge and peace.    

Creating a sacred space of refuge and peace.   

This is not only the call of the cross…

                        but the call of the Church which stands underneath that cross.

 So what shall we do with these wounded hands and feet?

I have an idea…      

            Let’s be the church!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Pastor Joanne's Ash Wednesday Sermon

And so it begins. Lent - this 40 day season of wandering in the wilderness; 40 days reflecting on how we don't live up to God's standards;  40 days of of denial, darkness and death.

 At least that is how I was brought up to see Lent. It was a season, quite frankly, of misery. A time that I gave up something I loved - usually cookies or chocolate. Going to church was a much more somber, darker experience. No alleluias, dirge-like hymns in minor keys replaced the beloved joy-filled music that always seemed to touch me with such hope.

 Lent always seemed to be about the loss of things we loved. And it was - well honestly it was depressing, a time I dreaded and endured, until we could finally get on with things at Easter.

 But I always obediently went through the motions, always searching for deeper meaning in this dark season. But all I could come up with was that I was expected to intentionally make myself miserable. And if I did it right, I would earn my place I heaven. In other words, if I felt badly about myself, then life after death would be a bit sweeter. Or at least cooler.

 I didn't grow up in a hellfire and brimstone church, but the message was there:  lent was all about where you would spend eternity - heaven? Or it's alternative, divine punishment?

Thank God I was shown a fuller, more hope-filled, and more grace-filled picture of Lent.

It came from reading Isaiah...  Why do we fast but you do not see? Why humble ourselves but you do not notice?  Is it to bow down the head like a bulrushes,and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?  Is this not the fast that I choose:  to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them.

Lent is not a time to fast without reason, to deny ourselves simply for the sake of denial. It is a time to focus on how we can better reflect the love God has given to us in our communities and in the world. It's a time to remember that in baptism God claimed us and gathered us in arms of love and made us a part of a community. A huge community of God's people of every time and every place. A community called to care for one another, called to love one another. A community called to clothe, to feed, to welcome.

 Jim Wallis:

"Ash Wednesday doesn't begin a hunger strike, but rather a season of self-examination, spiritual reflection, repentance, sacrifice, and focused prayer. Lent is a time to examine our hearts and lives, to acknowledge our sins, to look for the ways we are not choosing the gospel or welcoming those whom Jesus calls us to."

 He goes on to say:

"The Lenten season is the spiritual equivalent of an annual physical exam; it's a time to take stock of out lives, our hearts."

Prayer, fasting, and denying ourselves are ways we can do that. Gathering with others in prayer, study, and service allow us to live and grow in this community in which God has placed us. 

 Again, Jim Wallis writes, "It's time to go deeper into our hearts and lives. Lent is a gift to help us do that, when we focus on amplifying the cries of the poor and welcoming the strangers in our own lives, communities, and even in the lives of our political leaders."

In this place, in our own communities,  may this Lenten season be a time of renewal, a time of growth, a time of refreshment and yes, a time of joy as we experience God's reality for our lives. A time we see ourselves as a part of a community - a much larger community than we can probably imagine. We are a part of God's community called to rejoice in and take care of one another in love. 

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly. You shall call and The Lord will answer, you shall call for help and he will say Here I am. The Lord will guide you continually. You shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail.

Then we shall know our God's love. And we will rejoice.      Amen.