Monday, June 29, 2015

Marriage Equality...

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right”                                                 ~ Justice Anthony Kennedy.

With these words, Justice Kennedy voiced his support of the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage in the United States.  Before some of us go off on a rant of opposition, it would be wise to be reminded that similar words were penned almost 50 years ago by another Supreme Court Justice; Chief Justice Earl Warren.  In Loving v. Virginia, in which the Supreme Court threw out a Virginia law banning interracial marriage, Chief Justice Warren wrote, “Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man,’ fundamental to our very existence and survival”.

Without a doubt, some will quote scripture in voicing their opposition to gay marriage.  Why not?  Folks did it 50 years ago in expressing similar opposition to interracial marriage and the ordination of women.  They did it as well 150 years ago around the issue of slavery.  But as was the case then, so it is now, literal interpretation of scripture from centuries ago, does not speak to the issues of today.

“Traditional marriage” is almost impossible to find in scripture.  Don’t look to Abraham for that, who fathered sons from two different women, one of whom was a slave woman who had no choice in the matter.  His son Jacob had two wives and two concubines having children with all four and apparently with God’s approval.  The ancient Torah took for granted that a man may have two wives.  Many of the kings of Israel were known to have large harems.  Oh and lest we somehow believe that Biblical marriage involved two consenting adults, an unmarried woman living in her father’s house, was transferred into her husband’s possession by his payment of the “bride price”.  Marriages in the Old Testament were arranged.  They were property transactions.  Does that sound familiar to us today?  Of course not.

What about Old Testament prohibitions against homosexuality?  Well, Genesis 19 specifically speaks to the issue of gang rape, not love between two consenting adults.   Likewise Deuteronomy 23:17-18 likely speaks to the issue of heterosexual prostitutes of other religions infiltrating Jewish worship; whether “gay” or “straight”, a committed same-sex relationship of love is not what’s being described here. 

Certainly in the New Testament Paul must have something to say about gay marriage.  Don’t go looking at Romans 1 for any help here.  Throughout the first chapter of Romans, Paul gives us a lengthy litany of all those who stand condemned by God; In addition to those who are “consumed” with de-humanizing passions toward others, the condemned also include those who gossip, slander, covet, envy, are boastful, as well as those who are rebellious against parents.  Has Paul missed anybody? Certainly not me!

But just in case any one of us believes that we don’t fall into any of these condemned categories, Paul nails the coffin shut in Romans 2:1.  “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”   Paul goes on to say “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”.  In other words all of us have seats in the sin boat.  But so too are we all recipients of God’s saving grace through the Jesus life raft.

Speaking of Jesus, surely he must have something to say about gay marriage.  Nothing.  Not a thing.  What we do know of Jesus is that in addition to being poured out on the cross in love for the world, he is always siding with those who are oppressed.  He eats with prostitutes and tax collectors;  he blesses children who, by the way, are the most marginalized in Jesus’ world; he speaks blessings to the poor; he challenges dehumanizing institutions, and when pressed by the religious know-it-alls, obsessed with determining who’s in and who’s out, he says that loving God and loving neighbor are the only two things that matter.

Whether Scripture informs your worldview or not, let’s take a step back.  Gays and lesbians who choose to marry, like their heterosexual counterparts, are affirming the goodness of marriage.  They are affirming the desire to enter into relationships of covenantal faithfulness.  They are willingly binding themselves to one another in lifelong commitments of fidelity and love.  Love and faithfulness:  Two words that abound in God’s vocabulary.  If they’re good enough for God, maybe they’re good enough for all of us.

Peace and Love,

Pastor Doug

Monday, June 22, 2015

"Talitha Cum"

Let me just start by saying, I’m in a funk and I’ve been here for about a week now. The world is without a doubt beginning to move on from last week’s horrific murders in a Charleston, S.C. church.  So why can’t I?  Why can’t I seem to move on as well?  Families of the murdered have begun to publicly forgive the killer, inviting him to discover the healing that comes from Christ.
I know in my heart of hearts that what they are doing is right.  They are clearly looking at this killer through the eyes of Jesus.  Perhaps they are seeing what Jesus saw when he encountered a man possessed by an entire legion of spirits as told in Mark’s gospel.  Perhaps they are seeing a man possessed by the spirits of violence, hatred, and racism amplified only by a love of guns in a culture addicted to violence.  Perhaps they are seeing beneath these spirits to a young man who is someone’s child; a man, who along with the rest of us, bears the image of our creator.  Perhaps they are seeing yet one more broken person to whom Jesus came into this world to love with arms opened wide on a cross.  Clearly these families embody the words of Dr. King when he said, “hate cannot drive out hate.  Only love can do that.”

I want to be in this place with these wonderfully loving and faith-filled families.  I want to be able to see beneath the heinous act, to a child in need of love, mercy, and forgiveness.  But I am not yet there.  I cannot even bring myself to mention the killer’s name.  I want to be able to, but I’m just not there yet. 

Maybe I’m the hemorrhaging woman from Mark’s gospel as my ability to forgive bleeds away; as the grace entrusted to me by God soils the ground on which I walk instead of gracing the lives of those around me in need of mercy.

Perhaps I’m Jairus’ daughter as my faith teeters near the point of death still haunted by the question of how one human being can callously extinguish the lives of nine others – even after they have embodied Jesus by welcoming him in their midst with loving and open arms. 

So, here I am in my faith funk.  Here I am in my shock at such a brutal act;  in my sadness at the loss of so many innocent lives;  in  my anger that we live in a culture perpetuating violence and racism; in my frustration that in another news cycle or two, we will soon forget Charleston, convincing ourselves that things aren’t so bad.  Here I am still unable to let the killer’s name issue forth from my lips.

Regardless of who I relate to in next Sunday’s gospel story, one reality is abundantly clear.  I am in need of healing.  Like the little girl’s father, Jairus, who begs repeatedly that Jesus come and heal his daughter, I’m beginning to see that his pleas are my pleas.  Like the hemorrhaging woman who is exhausted and has spent all she has on cures and now will stop at nothing to touch Jesus’ cloak, I know that a touch is all I need to be refreshed and made whole.

And here’s the good news.  Jesus is here crossing in his boat to my “other side”; breaking down my barriers:  Even the ones to which I’m rather partial;  Jesus is here walking in our midst, cloak brushing up against our soiled brokenness; violating the holiness codes of our self- righteous anger and fear-filled confusion.  Jesus is here with hands extended to my nearly dead faith with these transforming words: “Talitha cum”:  “Little child, get up.”

Maybe there is healing after all.  For the victims of last week’s murders, for my nearly shattered faith, and maybe even for… (do I dare say?).. Dylann Roof.

Peace and Love,

Pastor Doug

Friday, June 19, 2015

Reflections on Charleston...

I just returned from a prayer vigil at Baber AME Church on Meigs St. where a couple hundred of us gathered together, Black and White, to mourn the loss of nine sisters and brothers in Christ at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.  We were told by their pastor that no liturgy was planned; that we just needed to come together in prayer and let the Spirit lead us; and lead us she did.

We heard the call of the prophet to let justice roll down like a mighty stream; we heard the words of Paul reminding us that Christ breaks down all barriers; and that if we don’t have love, we have nothing.  We heard a story of Jesus calming storms with a word; and we joined our voices in prayer and in song proclaiming God’s unstoppable and mighty acts of love.  To say that it was a powerful experience to worship with my Black sisters and brothers in Christ is an understatement.  

And yet in the midst of that kairos-time, the “elephant” of racism was still in the room.  Despite the feeling of being in solidarity with my Black sisters and brothers by hugs shared and hands held, the fact remains that I am not.  I am not in solidarity because I am a White, Anglo-Saxon male with all the racist privileges that come with it.  Unlike the young Black man helping lead us in worship, I can go into any department store assured that I will not be followed by security for fear that I might steal something.  I can walk down Main St. in Rochester and will probably never see women clutching their pocketbooks or crossing to the other side of the street fearing for their safety when they see me coming.  I can be assured that a routine traffic stop by police will not result in my being shot to death by those whose job it is to protect me.

Unlike Pastor Simmons at Baber AME Church, I don’t have to worry about copycat killers coming into my church to kill because of my skin color.  I don’t have to wonder if I’ll come home alive tonight because of a Bible Study I’m leading.  And unlike my Black siblings in Christ who live in South Carolina, I don’t have to drive down streets named after Confederate generals who fought a war to keep me enslaved.  I don’t have to wonder why a Confederate flag , a symbol of racial oppression, flies over the very building in which lawmakers are entrusted with every citizen’s well-being; and even then why that flag continues to fly at full mast in the midst of the Charleston massacre.  I don’t have to listen to the viral hatred spewed by those who claim to be “losing their country” to people like me. 

So, though I may stand with my Black brothers and sisters in the struggle against racism, I must also acknowledge that I will never be able to know what it’s like to walk in their oppressed shoes.  I must come to grips with and confess my own comfort with White privilege.  I must confess my own tendencies to stereotype and categorize those who seem different from me.  I must confess my default mode of doing nothing to curb racism by convincing myself that everything is okay.   Only when I have repented of these sins can I come clean and truly stand beside my sisters and brothers who are oppressed.

I will continue to pray ceaselessly for the friends and family of those who were brutally slaughtered just because they showed up for prayer and Bible Study, offering hospitality to the stranger.  I’ll pray for peace and justice in our land; I’ll pray for healing and reconciliation among races; I’ll keep God’s prophetic mandate of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking with God before me as I strive for systemic justice and equality.  I will repent of my own racist tendencies as I continue to follow the One who himself died an innocent victim of brutal violence.  And I will give thanks to God that because violence didn’t ultimately have the last word in Jesus’ life it won’t have the final word in ours.

And may we all be reminded of the gospel proclamation found in the very name of the church in which this unimaginable violence took place:  Emanuel.  “God with us”. 

Peace and Love,
Pastor Doug

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Jesus Revolution

A friend of mine recently posted the following dialogue she had with her young son about a really cool word; “Revolution”.   She defined the word for him as “a big change that happens all kinds of wild and crazy”.  To which he asked, “Is ‘revolution’ a church word?”   What a great question!  Mom and Dad, you’re doing things right!

“Well … I guess it can be” she responded. 

“But IS it?” he asked emphatically. 
“I suppose when Jesus caused pretty big changes he was kind of revolutionary.  He changed the way a lot of people thought”.

“When did he change things?”

“Along time ago when he came”.

“Is he changing things now?  Is it a revolution?”


“Mo-om!  Is he changing things NOW?”

Bingo!!  From the mouth of a child comes the million dollar question facing the church today.  Is Jesus changing things now?  Sadly, I think the church has forgotten all about Jesus or we’ve never really known who he is and so we’ve come to expect that the answer is ‘no’.  We’ve failed to see Jesus out in the world.  We in the church have toned Jesus down.  We’ve tamed him.  We’ve made him presentable to the world by dressing him up in glitzy programs and reducing his words to mushy sentiments found in Hallmark greeting cards.  If I ever find these words of Jesus in a greeting card I will gladly eat my hat:

“When you do it to the least of these, you do it to me”.
“Love your enemy, forgive those who persecute you”.
“Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God”.
“If any would be my disciples, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me”.
“Do not worship power and status and prestige; instead, learn to be a servant”.

Tragically, we live in a culture that has hijacked the name of God and invokes Jesus’ name in justifying everything from state sanctioned killing and war to tax cuts for the wealthy.   We’ve used Jesus to exclude those who don’t look like us; think like us; or believe like us.  And even if our mainline churches are not actively excluding, we are certainly culpable when our voices remain silent as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people find only bigotry at the hands of the religious.

How did Jesus stop being a threat to the status quo?  When did the church finally decide that Jesus doesn’t need to change things?  When did we determine that it’s okay to reduce Jesus’ words to a bunch of innocuous moralisms?  I’m no rocket scientist and there are theologians who can argue circles around me on just about any topic, but it seems to me that a long time ago, when Jesus walked the earth, he was a threat to everyone because he changed things.  The religious folks hated him because he ate with people who never washed their hands; who never observed the cleanliness and holiness codes of the day and who had no use for dehumanizing religious laws.  The Romans were threatened by him because folks were ascribing titles to Jesus reserved only for Caesar.  “Son of God”, “Messiah” all the while singing songs about Jesus casting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly.  Even his own family got pissed at Jesus when he expanded the definition of family to include “anyone who does the will of God” (Mark 3:35)
Jesus was revolutionary because instead of talking about love, he embodied it.  He was revolutionary  because he envisioned a radical community in which the wealthy shared all they had with the impoverished.  Jesus was revolutionary because he labored for a kingdom where all were provided for and all were treated with dignity.

So, back to this young child’s question.  Is Jesus changing things now?  Yes!  Anywhere you see love being poured out for another, Jesus is changing things now.  Any time you see the hungry being fed and the naked being clothed, Jesus is changing things now.  The only question remaining is this:  Will the church join Jesus already at work in the world?  The very life of the church may depend on that answer.

Lovin’ the “wild and crazy”,

Pastor Doug

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

I'm just the gardener: A reflection on ministry

I may be a pastor, but in the big picture, I’m just the gardener.   It’s taken me 21 years of ordained ministry to figure that little piece of wisdom out.  Like the sower in Jesus’ parable, I have scattered all kinds of seed over all kinds of ground.  In 21 years, I’ve served 3 congregations in 2 different states.  I’ve preached and taught; I’ve visited the sick; I’ve comforted the dying; I’ve visited the imprisoned; I’ve fed the hungry; I’ve clothed the naked – well not literally the naked.  (There are boundaries after all.)    In 21 years, I’ve rejoiced and wept with more people than I can possibly remember; I’ve been encouraged by some and had my heart broken by others.  In 21 years I’ve made brilliant decisions along with a whole bunch of “bone-headed” ones.   I’ve been an instrument of healing and have without a doubt hurt a few folks along the way as well.

In 21 years of ordained ministry, I’d like to think that most of the seeds leaving my hands have taken root and are ushering in the kingdom of God in abundance; But probably not.  I’ve never served a church where there was a waiting line to get in the building on a Sunday morning.  Nor have I ever experienced the need to provide shuttle service from satellite parking lots in order to accommodate huge church crowds.  Instead I look out over more empty pews than I’d like.  I look at old church pictorial directories and am haunted by the sizable crowds that once filled our building.  I hear stories of packed Sunday School classrooms and the need for extra chairs during Christmas and Easter worship services.  In all of this I wonder, what I’ve done wrong.
Maybe I should have been more careful in where I dropped the seeds.  Maybe I should have studied the chemical make-up of the soil more so that I would know where seeds do well and where they do not.  There must be a way for me to replicate growth mechanisms in seeds so that I can produce my own growth on demand.  To see the mountains of brochures that come across my desk, you’d think that would be an easy task.  Here are just a few of the “do-it-yourself” items I’ve seen over the past year that have at times added to my sense of pastoral guilt:

“How to grow a church in 3 easy steps”
“4 reasons why your church is not growing”
“5 most important church growth principles”
“6 essentials for church growth”
“7 keys to church growth”
“8 characteristics of growing churches”
“10 enemies of church growth”
“Pastors…grow your church in 10 minutes for free”   (my personal favorite)

             But as I pray about the gospel reading coming up on Sunday, Jesus seems to tell a different story.  According to Jesus, the one who casts the seeds is not the one who grows them.  (Sorry church growth experts).  In fact the seed spreader “would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.  The earth produces of itself” (Mark 4:27-8a).   Or as the Greek literally says, “Of its own accord the earth bears fruit”.  In other words, the sower cannot make the seed bear fruit.  It is entirely out of the gardener’s hands.

             It’s a good thing, because in 21 years of doing this ministry stuff, I’ve learned there are at least 2 things I cannot do.  I cannot create faith, nor can I attract large crowds on Sunday mornings.  And yet despite these deficits and inabilities, I see the gospel taking seed in the hearts of more and more folks as our education and outreach ministries expand.   I see seeds of faith being nurtured in our young people as they become increasingly involved in all aspects of church leadership and advocacy, while at the same time discovering the freedom to wrestle with real life questions of faith and doubt.  I see the gospel alive and well in our monthly Dinner Church gatherings as well as our emerging Pub Theology nights.  I see seeds bearing fruit in abundance as we feed the hungry and house the homeless month after month.  And all of this is God’s doing, not mine.

           God has made the seed and gives the seed the ability to bear fruit.  Not me.  I’m just the gardener; the one who is called to care and nurture the seeds.  I can do that!  And I am more than happy to let God do the rest.  It's only taken me 21 years to figure this out.

            In thankfulness for being on this journey with you in love and patience,

Pastor Doug

Monday, June 8, 2015

Crazy Jesus!

“He has gone out of his mind” (Mark 3:21).
How many times have you heard that said about Jesus?  Not exactly the most flattering of confessions.  I’m just trying to imagine what it would look like if on Sunday mornings we added that description to Jesus. 

“We gather in the name of the Father, and of the Son (who’s out of his freakin’ mind) and the Holy Spirit.”

“The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ (who’s gone loco on us)….”

“The Peace of Christ (who flew over the cuckoo’s nest)…”

“Lamb of God (who’s finally lost it)… you take away the sin of the world…”

The thing is; Jesus hasn’t gone out of his mind.  He’s doing the work of the Kingdom over and against the institutions of the day. 

Watch out Caesar, Jesus is taking you on from the very first verse of Mark’s gospel.  “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  It’s common knowledge in Jesus’ day that Caesar is not only the messiah-like “son of god”, but that only Caesar can be the bearer of “good news”.  Not so, that’s Jesus!

Oh and you, the religious establishment?  Yeah, Jesus is taking you on too.  Healing those who are ritually unclean?  Strike one!  Healing on the Sabbath?  Strike two!  Healing the unclean, on the Sabbath in the synagogue?  Strike three!

Oh yeah and family values?  Jesus is duking it out with you too.  Apparently blood is not thicker than water.  In the face of Jesus’ mother and siblings trying to reign him in, Jesus re-defines family right before their eyes.  “Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35).  

In a world of rules, safety nets, and barriers, Jesus is clearly breaking them down and re-defining everything. So why then does the church, who claims to follow Jesus, so often live comfortably behind walls buying into the status quo? Why does the church remain silent in the face of racism?  Where are we, followers of an abundant God, in the midst of overwhelming poverty and violence? Where are we, disciples of the Prince of Peace, when wars are waged and bombs are dropped?
If yesterday’s gospel reading shows us nothing else, it reveals that Jesus was not into institutional preservation.  So why then are we?  I’m not saying the church as an institution doesn’t do good.  In the context of history, the church in North America has played a pivotal role in the abolition of slavery and in the enactment of civil rights.   But the church cannot be the object of our ministry.  The gifts in our offering plates cannot just be about turning on the lights or paying your pastors.  They must be about ushering in the Kingdom of God.  After all, this is what Jesus’ ministry is all about; ushering in a kingdom of justice and peace; a kingdom of mercy and risk taking.  But be careful when you do this Kingdom of God stuff, because according to Mark’s gospel, it doesn’t attract many followers.  In fact, it actually turns people off.  Throughout Mark’s gospel, folks can’t get away from Jesus fast enough, until finally at the end, Jesus is left alone on the cross screaming out in forsakenness to God.  Now, there’s an evangelism program for you.

Maybe our numbers, as well as those of other churches are down, because we’ve been focused on self-preservation when the world around us has no interest in such things.   Well the gig is up.  Folks in our neighborhood don’t care whether or not we have money to turn on the lights or the AC; they don’t care about endowment fund balances or drainage issues.  But what they are looking for is an authentic community; a beloved community in which they can help make the world a better place; a place of justice and peace.  A place where all are included; where no one leaves the table hungry, and all are cherished.

Do we dare be that boundary breaking church living outside the safety nets?  Do we dare put the neighborhood’s needs before our own?  Do we dare be the church that is totally out of its mind?

Peace and Love,
Pastor Doug

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.

Pastor Joanne