Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Church of Action: Do we dare be that church?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace and Love,
Pastor Doug


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Where Heaven Touched Earth...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.  Come Lord Jesus…

Peace and Love,
Pastor Doug 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Gut Wrenching Jesus...

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace and Love,

Pastor Doug

Monday, July 13, 2015

Blockbuster Church? Shift Happens...

There is a building just down the street from Incarnate Word that haunts me to no end.  It is not some boarded up old mansion where “ghoulies and ghosties” slink around on creeky floorboards sending shivers down the spines of those who might live there.  Nor is it a creepy old mansion where neighborhood children are too fearful to trick-or-treat on Halloween.  The building in question sits on the corner of Monroe and South Goodman. Once occupied by Blockbuster Video, it stands now as an abandoned reminder of a company gone extinct.  Though the letters of the sign are no longer affixed to the front of the building, their imprints have been left behind on the building’s façade.  Not only that, but just inside the large windows stand the once bright yellow and blue counters; now dulled by years of vacancy.

There was a time when Blockbuster Video owned the market in movie rentals.  They perfected the concept of renting movies.  If you happened to miss a great movie in the theatres, no worries, in just a couple of months you could travel to your neighborhood Blockbuster Video and be sure to find it on the shelf.  No more having to deal with the inconvenience of movie theatre crowds.  No more standing in line for tickets and refreshments.  No more having to hear the annoyingly incessant whispers of those around you distracting and giving away the endings of movies.  Blockbuster Video promised all the enjoyment of “blockbuster” movies in the convenience of your own home, on your own time.  What a great concept!  What could possibly go wrong?

Well as with anything else in life, when it comes to paradigms, shift happens.  Enter Netflix with a new and crazy idea for movie rentals.  Imagine if instead of having to get in the car and drive to your neighborhood video store, you could instead subscribe to a video service which for a monthly fee delivers thousands of movies and television programs directly to your family room both by mail and over the internet.  Crazy right?

At its peak in 2004, there were 9,000 iconic blue and yellow Blockbuster stores, employing over 60,000.  Apparently when this upstart company called Netflix first emerged on the video rental market a few years earlier, Blockbuster was given the opportunity to purchase it for $50 million, thus adopting its radical ideas and technologies.  Unable to imagine how such a concept could fly, Blockbuster politely declined the offer, and well, the rest is history. By 2010 Blockbuster declared bankruptcy and its final 300 stores were closed in 2013.  Meanwhile, Netflix grew to become a multi-billion dollar corporation with over 50 million subscribers in more than 40 countries around the globe.

Back to my haunting.  Clearly Blockbuster lacked the ability to envision new ways of doing things.  I can just imagine some yuckity-yuck on Blockbuster’s board of directors exclaiming, “Videos by mail?  Downstreaming directly to televisions and computers?  We’ve never done it that way before.  If it ain’t broke…”

Sound familiar?  Well, if you’ve ever spent any time around a church, it certainly does.  How often have we either spouted these words ourselves or heard others around the table do so?
Has the church become like Blockbuster, refusing to change to connect with new generations of Americans who have different needs and expectations than their parents and grandparents? Put another way:  Are we a Blockbuster church living in a Netflix world? Have we failed to imagine new paradigms for doing and being church?  Have we failed to dream?  Have we failed to take risks?
A long time ago, in his first Pentecost sermon, where his life was endangered, Peter proclaimed

“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
   and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
   and your old men shall dream 
dreams” (Acts 2:17).

Lack of vision and fear of risk are not simply Incarnate Word phenomena.  They are cancers that have extended their tentacles around every congregation at some point or another.  They are  cancerous and they are deadly.  They lead to fear, stress, uncertainty, and anxiety.  They paralyze us.
Like it or not, we live in a Netflix world; a world that no longer assumes the church is legitimate.  We live in a world where many have either been hurt by the church or been discouraged by what they perceive to be hypocrisy and salesmanship fueled by an instinct for institutional survival.  We live in a world that sees us as irrelevant; talking of love but not acting upon it.

I’m sorry to say but 1959 is gone.  So too is 1985.  Heck, for that matter so too is 2004. We can no longer assume that if we just open our doors on a Sunday morning, folks will flock to join us because we are nice or if we just put the right program or person in place, young families will fill our pews and Sunday School classrooms.

Though I continue to be haunted by the old vacant Blockbuster store down the street, I deliberately drive by it every day.  In so doing, I remind myself that as your pastor, I will not simply let Incarnate Word go the way of Blockbuster.  Not when we’re feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and holding weekly prayer vigils for homicide victims in our city. (just to name a few things).

Folks in our neighborhood are looking for an authentic community of faith where they can connect with others, making a difference in the world around them.  They are looking for meaningful relationships in communities grounded in justice and guided by unconditional love.  Who better to offer that than the ones who follow the God who declares,

“See the home of God is among mortals…God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more…See, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:3-5).

God does make all things new.  Together in Christ, let's dream dreams. Let's not be a Blockbuster church.  Let's adapt to the brave new Netflix world out there.  Yes, it is that simple.

Peace and Love,

Pastor Doug

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

"God's Work Our Hands..."

If you weren't in church on Sunday, you missed a great sermon by Pastor Joanne, in which she brilliantly spoke to the radical call of community to which Jesus calls us.  Using Mark’s narrative of Jesus sending out the twelve with “nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts…”  PJ spoke passionately and eloquently about the blessing that is community.  The twelve are sent out with all “authority” and yet they are to depend not on themselves but upon the generosity of those they meet. 

If you ask me, that’s the hardest thing about being a follower of Jesus; giving up self-reliance.  As a recovering control freak, that is not easy for me to do.  My entire life I’ve subscribed to the cliché, that if you want something done right, you must do it yourself.  I’m good with that.  No compromise is needed.  No conversations are entailed.  It’s not that I don’t play well with others, it’s just I’ve found that being on a committee of one is much easier than having to work with others.  Scheduling is a breeze when it’s just my calendar on the table.  Consensus is even easier.  But apparently that’s not how Jesus works, nor is that the lifestyle to which Jesus calls us.

For the twelve being sent out by Jesus, there is no survival without community.  Maybe that’s the point. 

Earlier this spring, each congregation of our synod was challenged to raise $400 for ELCA World Hunger.  I challenged the saints here at Incarnate Word that if we raised $1,000, I would cycle from Rochester to Brockport delivering food to the Brockport Food Pantry in memory of Monika Andrews.  In typical Incarnate Word fashion, this community rose to the challenge; raising over $2,300!   

So, this past Sunday five of us dawned our bright yellow “God’s Work Our Hands” t-shirts trekking 21 miles to Brockport.  There we were in our matching yellow God shirts, cycling along the Erie Canal Trail.  At one point a young girl even shouted out to us, “nice shirts!”  Had it just been me riding the trail, “God’s Work Our Hands” would have gone unnoticed.  But with five of us riding in tandem, folks we encountered knew that God was up to something; something involving community.
We are each called to follow Jesus in lives of discipleship; thankful lives shaped by sacrificial love and service.  But we are not called to do that alone.  We are called to live those lives in community.  To work alongside others; to depend upon others; even those with whom we don’t normally associate; even those we don’t especially like.  I guess that’s what makes us a church and not a club.  We are not like-minded.  We come from different backgrounds with very different points of view.  And yet we come together in community, enlivened by God and fashioned in God’s image, holding each other up, sharing our gifts with the world.

By the way, during our trek one of our cyclists was taken out by a low hanging tree branch along the trail, suffering cuts and scrapes.  Though he would have certainly made it to our final destination, because he was in community infection was averted. Neosporin was administered and cuts were bandaged.  Who better to do that, than the ones whose lives are shaped by the confession plastered across the front of our yellow shirts?  “God’s Work Our Hands”.

Peace and Love,
Pastor Doug

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