Sunday, July 27, 2014

Pastor Doug's Sermon: " Squishy Thuds"

Matthew 13:31-33
July 27, 2014

There are a certain series of sounds that when strung together in a certain way, not only capture my attention, but force me to completely re-focus my energies.

I may be listening to my favorite song on Alt Nation Radio…
                                                                   That comes to an end.

I may be in deep conversation solving all the problems of the world with Joanne…
                                                                   That comes to an end.

The kids may be deep into whatever they’re plotting together in the backseat…
                                                                   That comes to an end.

All comes to an end when that unmistakable chorus of sounds crescendos from the pavement in a cacophonous mixture of whines and rhythmic thuds literally stopping us dead in our tracks.
Maybe you’ve had a similar experience.

If you’ve ever been driving somewhere and you blow out a tire on your car, then you’ve probably experienced what our family did this past week while travelling home from Cleveland.

All is fine until you begin to feel that the car isn’t as steady on the road – and what you think is the road becoming noisier is in fact your car riding on a rapidly deflating tire.  Within seconds the whine evolves into a rhythmic thump which ultimately becomes a squishy thud and there you are – dead in your tracks – going nowhere.

Squishy thuds that stop us dead in our tracks:  Not just for cars anymore.
Jesus knows something about “squishy thuds”, for that is what he gives us this morning with six simple words:
          “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”

With these words, Jesus pushes me off balance with provocative twists.  He rearranges my faith furniture.
Jesus tells me that the Kingdom of Heaven is like:

A Mustard Seed

Though a horticulturalist will rightly tell us that the mustard seed is not actually the smallest of seeds, it is nonetheless a seed and therefore one can assume fairly small in stature and not yet what it fully will be.

But I don’t want a seed – I want an oak.  I want the Kingdom of Heaven to be mighty and sturdy and insanely tall – able to weather all kinds of storms. I want the Kingdom of Heaven to tower over everything else where there are more cars in our parking lot on a Sunday morning than at Wegmans.
I want brass bands and flags unfurled announcing that God’s reign of justice and mercy is not only here but is kicking butt and taking names.

I don’t want a seed which takes time to grow.  I want the promised shade tree now.  I want results right here – right now.  I want the silver bullet program that is going to bring hundreds of people into our pews next Sunday.

I want to be able to report on our ELCA Parochial forms that worship attendance at Incarnate Word is skyrocketing through the roof that synodical benevolence is the envy and talk of all the synod and that Joanne and I are the highly sought-after Biblical studies gurus in this synod and beyond.

But apparently that is not how Jesus works.  Or at least how the “squishy thud” of the Kingdom of Heaven works.  As much as I may want one, Jesus never speaks of a magical get-rich-quick scheme for the church.   He doesn’t come armed with a church program guaranteeing a 40% increase in worship attendance or your money back.

He doesn’t come with glitzy brochures plastered with a sea of happy, smiling faces promising instant success if you just add drums, amps, electric guitars and a big audio/visual screen to your worship space.
Instead Jesus gathers a bunch of illiterate, impoverished nobodies around him sending them out to bear God’s foolish, prophetic, outwardly feeble and scandalous Kingdom to a world addicted to success, numbers and organizational survival.

What congregation would ever call a pastor who didn’t promise to help preserve the institution by getting more warm bodies into their pews?  Especially young families with lots of money to toss into the offering plate? 

What faith community would call a pastor who said that worship attendance doesn’t tell the whole story of the congregation and that in some cases smaller churches are preferable to larger ones?  That it’s just in the DNA that some churches are small and others are large?  And that Jesus needs small churches just as much as he needs large ones?

Is it possible that when Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a mustard seed, he is not comparing it to the latest evangelism program of a 3.7 million member denomination?
Instead he is comparing it to your arms and mine …
extending an embrace,
          giving food
                   providing shelter?

Is it possible that what Jesus treasures is not more churches, but more followers?  Those who enflesh God’s reality of doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God? 

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed.

Who better to talk of a seemingly small and inconsequential mustard seed than the one whose own birth seemed small and whose death seemed inconsequential?  Whose Good Friday seed of death (against all odds) blossomed into Easter Resurrection?  
So where is the Kingdom of Heaven?  Just look around and listen.  Looking and listening...
not for the loudest and the largest but for the least and the last.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed.  
Complete with squishy thuds and all. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Gun Violence: What’s a Church to do?

We have a serious problem in America and its time for the church to step up to the plate and do something about it.  There’s been yet another school shooting with fatalities.  Since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, there have been 74 school shootings in our country, with most occurring in K-12 schools.  We are now up to 1.37 school shootings per week.  What meaningful gun legislation or mental health reforms have taken place?  Our elected officials have either run scared from powerful political action groups or they’ve chosen not to care anymore.  Is there a problem here?  Though some may claim this is primarily a Second Amendment issue, we in the church know otherwise.

Those of us who have mentioned anything about gun control from the pulpit have perhaps already been harshly criticized.  We are told that religion and politics should not be mixed.  To that flawed argument I say that gun violence and any other kind of violence perpetrated on the innocent is primarily a religious issue. 

Contrary to the individualism running rampant in our culture today, where individual rights are held as gospel, the scriptures are more than clear that life in covenant with God is a life lived in community.  Individual rights are trumped by communal needs every time.  There’s no such thing as individualism in the scriptures.  Instead of being preoccupied with the morals and ethics of individuals, the voices of scripture are overwhelmingly concerned with public morality especially when it comes to issues of economic and social justice.  How the widow and orphan are treated matters to God.  How those living on the margins are cared for matters to God.   How victims of violence are healed matters to God.  Life in Christ has nothing to do with walking alone in some remote garden with Jesus, rather it is lived out in our responses to alleviate the suffering of the innocent.  For every admonition about personal behavior, the scriptures give five exhortations toward compassion and social justice.  

When violence in school classrooms and on our streets causes the deaths of children we must take action to heal it and stop it.  A church that claims to follow Jesus and yet stands idly by offering nothing is not worthy of being called a relevant church.

So where do we start?  It seems to me we begin by acknowledging the fact that the One we claim to follow was himself an innocent victim of violence as his tortured body hung dying on a cross.  Tell me where Jesus would advocate that the right to bear arms takes precedent over the right to not die by them.  Only after we have acknowledged that the One whom we follow defines who we are, can we begin to have meaningful conversations as people of faith about gun legislation, mental health issues, and the culture of violence.

How we address the violence inflicted on Jesus and on those who die violently in our schools and in our streets, will in the end prove what kind of a church we really are.  If we, whose Lord was an innocent victim of violence himself, don’t speak out for and act on behalf of all victims of gun violence who will?

Let the holy conversations begin.

Peace and Love,
Pastor Doug 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

My New Office!

I have a new office and man is it huge!  You should see it.  My desk sits in front of a huge window that looks out on a bustling street and sidewalk.  The walls have some of the coolest artwork you’ll ever see.  The furniture in my office is incredible too.  My ceiling lights emit some of the most awesome colors.  Red, green, yellow, and white everywhere! There are tables all over my office where folks can gather together and just chill out.   I even have an oversized couch and two of the comfiest lazyboy chairs you’ll ever experience.  Bring a pillow, you might just want to take a nap in my office.  Of course that is if you can fall asleep to the tunes of  “Cage the Elephant”, “Bastille”, and oldies like “The Ramones”, and “Pink Floyd”.  Did I mention the coffee bar in my office?  Lattes of all sizes and temperatures are available.  Would you like a Three-Cheese Panini with basil and tomato on multigrain bread with a side of kettle chips?  Come to my office and let’s have a meal.  It’s all here in my new office.

But wait you say, how can all of this fit in your 15’ x 15’ office?  Well, actually it doesn’t.  My office at 597 East Avenue doesn’t quite have enough room for all of this, so I’ve undertaken an expansion effort.  This afternoon I took my office on the road – or down the street if you will and spent some time in a local coffee shop on Park Avenue.   Laptop in hand and work to be done, I spent almost two hours today in my newly found satellite office and I have to tell you I loved it!  And yes, I actually spoke to folks whom I would never have seen had I done the same work in my 597 East Avenue office.   Maybe it was my trusting face or the clerical collar I was wearing, but I actually had someone ask me if I would keep an eye on their computer while they went to the restroom.  Talk about trust!

Anyone who knows me is keenly aware of my obsession with coffee.  But that is not why I chose to turn my office into a coffee house.   Coffee houses and other places like them are where the world lives, not in locked up church buildings.  We are told in scripture that a long time ago the Word became flesh and lived among us.  Literally, the Word became flesh and pitched a tent among us.  I’d like to think that I pitched a Jesus tent on Park Avenue today. 

I pitched a Jesus tent at Boulder Coffee not because I desire to “sell” or “market” our congregation to the world but because I want to know people’s fears and doubts as well as the things that bring them joy.  I want to know that for which folks in our neighborhood hunger and thirst.  After all, I believe Jesus when he tells us that he is the bread of heaven who provides living water.  I believe Jesus when he promises to exchange our heavy burdens for his rest.

I did not expand my office today to bring people to church.  I did it to take Christ into the world.  This is not to say that I won't keep office hours at 597.  Of course I will.  That office is important too.  But I need to get to know my neighbors.  How else can I bear Christ if I don't know the neighborhood's needs?  So that you may join me anytime, I will regularly post my next coffee house office hours on Incarnate Word’s Facebook page.  After all it’s not just folks in our neighborhood who hunger and thirst.  You and I do too.

Peace and Love,
Pastor Doug

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Synod Assembly thoughts...

With Synod Assembly fast approaching, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking today about this concept of the body of Christ.  Beginning on Sunday, the ELCA body of Christ here in Upstate New York will spend three days together hearing about and sharing in a variety of ministries. 
We will celebrate the reception of a new congregation in our synod, Immanuel in Olean.  We will hear about how our gifts are being used to combat Malaria in Africa and hunger around the world and in our own streets.  We will engage in inspiring Bible studies which will remind us of what it means to follow a God whose love for us was poured out upon a cross.  We will hear from six nominees for the office of bishop who will share their love of the church with us as each lays out their vision for mission in Christ’s name.

There will be voting members from churches large and small, urban and rural, progressive and traditional, as different from each other as day and night.  But all of us will be in assembly, connected to each other by the waters of baptism – standing, sitting, praying, and singing at the foot of the cross.

Beginning on Sunday evening, we will gather together from across New York State visibly living out the reality that the church is one body with many parts.  We are one church with many sizes and many gifts.  If this is so, doesn’t it stand to reason that the body of Christ needs churches of all sizes?  Sure, I’ve had my moments when I’ve thought that just once I’d like to serve a congregation that is numerically growing through the roof.  Wouldn’t that prove that I’m somehow a great leader of a healthy congregation?

Sure, all healthy things grow. But I don’t believe that growth is ever as simple as healthy equals bigger. A pea will never be the size of a pumpkin and a rose will never reach the height of a redwood no matter how much you water them, fertilize them or teach them redwood growth principles. It’s just not in their DNA. All healthy, living things reach their optimal size at maturity, then they grow in different ways from that point on.  So again I ask the question, if this principle applies to churches doesn’t it stand to reason that the body of Christ needs churches of all sizes  - urban, suburban, and rural?

You are not a failure if your congregation reaches its optimal stage of maturity, then starts growing in ways other than butts in seats for weekend services.  Yes, we should always be striving to do church better.  But what works for one congregation may not and probably will not work for another.  In the body of Christ, one size does not fit all.  God doesn’t sell fast food franchises.

So here’s a radical thought:  What if Jesus doesn’t see small churches as part of the problem, but part of his plan? What if it’s been his idea all along to populate every corner of the globe with pockets of his followers – some large, most small – so that everywhere you go you find his people?

And what would happen if we realized this truth and got to work with Jesus on planting, supporting and multiplying healthy small churches, alongside our healthy big siblings?

I don’t pretend to have the answers for how to do ministry.  It just seems to me that if my toes were as large as my leg, it would be really hard to get around.   The body of Christ is a beautiful, living being uniquely gifted in more ways than any one of us could possibly imagine!

So I can’t wait to get to Synod Assembly this weekend.  I can’t wait to see how my sisters and brothers in Christ, from congregations both large and small are being poured out in love as they follow the One who makes all things new.

Peace in Christ,

Pastor Doug

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

I saw God

A wonderful thing happened in church on Sunday.  I saw God.  Now I know it sounds a bit strange to say something like that because don’t we always see God in church?  Yes, but… well that’s a conversation for another time.

But here’s the crazy thing: this God-sighting didn’t happen where I expected it to.  It happened at the tail end of Lulu Grace’s baptism.  After having promised to support and pray for her, we welcomed Lulu “into the body of Christ and into the mission we share”.   And then it happened.  Lulu grabbed Joanne’s extended hand and off she went down the center aisle smiling and waving her little princess wave to everyone.  While Joanne was reminding all of us of the great promises that were made to Lulu by God, her parents, and her congregation, Lulu took a dive.  Yup!  Down to the floor she went.  Here’s where I saw God.  No, God didn’t push her or trip her.  As Lulu began to stumble, at least a dozen hands extended out to her to try and cushion her fall.  There was the church in action!  There was God!

Later in the worship service, we heard about Jesus going away and sending an advocate to be with us.  In just six verses of that gospel reading, Jesus extolled his friends to “love” five times.  Not the gushy, emotional, nutritionally empty feeling of love that we have no control over, but the self-sacrificing, agape “I’d die for you” kind of love that we can control and that Jesus poured out for us on the hardwood of an executioner’s cross.  We heard that this advocate is one who pulls up alongside us in “agape” love to be our voice and to accompany us on the journey of life.  Then we heard that to be a spirit-filled church, a community of the Spirit, is to come alongside each other to comfort and encourage as Jesus first did for us in his incarnation.  We were then challenged to become such a Spirit community where we grow in our ability of coming alongside each other in faith and love.

That’s what God’s people do.  Contrary to those who see the church as a “crock”, we come alongside those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; we come alongside those whose courage falters; those whose hearts have been shattered; those who cannot imagine a tomb of death being empty and we become advocates for each other; partners on the journey.
This pulling up alongside in love stuff?  It’s real.  It’s what Jesus first did and what the Spirit, the Advocate, continues to do.  Where you see that, you see God. 

So, Lulu you won’t remember this, but God was with you on Sunday.  I saw it first-hand.  And you know what?  Wherever you go and whenever you fall, get ready for a flurry of hands to lovingly reach out, ready to buffer your fall because that’s what God’s church does.

Your partner in the Spirit,
Pastor Doug

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

My Easter Doubts

If you were in church this past Sunday you might have heard me preach about why Luke’s story of the road to Emmaus is my favorite Easter text.  For starters, the risen Jesus comes to two common, every day, unknown folk, one of whom is never even named.    Sure the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee are the first to hear of Jesus’ resurrection early that morning from two men in “dazzling clothes”, but it is Cleopas and his unnamed companion, who find themselves late in the afternoon inadvertently walking in Jesus’ presence discovering firsthand that Jesus hasn't stayed dead.  These two folk are so ordinary that we never even hear of them again.  They are like us, ordinary people struggling to keep faith alive.  That Jesus comes to them and to us is indeed good news!
Here’s what I didn’t say in Sunday's sermon and probably for good reason.   Where the gospel reading was intent on conveying how Jesus accompanies us on our journeys of doubt, confusion, and fear, our first reading in Acts (from the same author) provided a different glimpse of resurrection reality that quite frankly wears me out.

Unlike Cleopas and his companion who walk in fear and doubt, Acts tells of Peter, a post-Easter superhero of the faith, who stands with bold certitude calling all to repentance and baptism.  He’s so persuasive we’re told that 3,000 people are baptized right there on the spot!
So who would you want as your pastor?  Peter the bold-hearted with thousands of adoring fans or Cleopas the sometimes doubting, confused and fearful one?  The choice seems obvious to me.

What congregation wouldn’t snatch Pastor Peter up in a heartbeat with those kinds of statistics under his tunic?  I mean, come on 3,000 baptized in one day?   So what do we know about that other guy Cleopas?  Very little.  We know that he and his nameless companion are confused, fearful, and full of doubt.  Their hearts have been broken by the sting of death.  Their world has shattered all around them.  They stand in need of healing.
We also know what happens next.  Incognito Jesus engages them in conversation for hours without judgment and finally at the end of the day breaks bread with them, suddenly revealing that he is alive and well!  Without hesitation, these two companions make haste to get back to the other disciples, eagerly proclaiming this healing news of resurrection!  They just can’t help it  This news is too great to keep to themselves!

Both Peter and Cleopas convey good news of resurrection but in very different ways.  Yet when push comes to shove I will hang out with Cleopas over Peter any day.  Cleopas has doubts about faith.  He has fears about life.  He gets confused easily and doesn’t appear to have all the answers.  I have those days, weeks, and months too and I bet so do you.  And yet in the midst of my own doubts, God still seems to join me on the journey.
On my walk of faith, I don’t want some hot shot super-pastor placating me with clich├ęs about how God is awesome.  I want someone to walk with me who knows something about fear and doubt. I want someone to walk with me who admits that they too don’t have all the answers.  I want someone to walk with me who acknowledges that sometimes life just sucks.  Because you know what? Sometimes it does. And yet despite my struggles, Jesus still seems to come to us doubting and confused people, breaking bread, opening eyes and making all things new for us too. 

Blessed to walk with you on the journey of joy and doubt,

Pastor Doug


Saturday, May 3, 2014

Prayer for pastors on Easter

The following prayer comes from Brian McLaren.  Disclosure:  Finally a prayer that has nourished me.

Pastor Doug

A prayer for pastors on Easter

Dear Lord, I pray for all the pastors today
Who will feel enormous pressure to have their sermon
Match the greatness of the subject
and will surely feel they have failed.
(I pray even more for those who think they have succeeded.)
Help them to know that it is enough
Simply and faithfully to tell the story
Of women in dawn hush ...
Of men running half-believing ...
Of rolled stones and folded grave-clothes ...
Of a supposed gardener saying the name of a crying woman ...
Of sad walkers encountering a stranger on the road home ...
Of an empty tomb and overflowing hearts.
Give them the wisdom to know that sincere humility and awe
Surpass all homiletic flourish
On this day of mysterious hope beyond all words.
Make them less conscious of their responsibility to preach,
And more confident of the Risen Christ
Who presence trumps all efforts to proclaim it.
Considering all the Easter choirs who will sing beautifully, and those who won't,
And all the Easter prayers that will soar in faith, and those that will stumble and flounder,
And all the Easter attendance numbers and offering numbers that will exceed expectations
And those that will disappoint ...
I pray they all will be surpassed by the simple joy
Of women and men standing in the presence of women and men,
Daring to proclaim and echo the good news:
Risen indeed! Alleluia!
For death is not the last word.
Violence is not the last word.
Hate is not the last word.
Money is not the last word.
Intimidation is not the last word.
Political power is not the last word.
Condemnation is not the last word.
Betrayal and failure are not the last word.
No: each of them are left like rags in a tomb,
And from that tomb,
Arises Christ,
Help the preachers feel it,
And if they don't feel it, help them
Preach it anyway, allowing themselves
To be the receivers as well as the bearers of the Easter