Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Pastor Doug's Christmas Eve Message

Christmas Eve, 2014
Luke 2:1-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Pastor Doug's Sermon - December 7, 2014


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

            Speak tenderly to Ferguson and Staten Island…

            Speak softly to West Africa…    

            Speak gently to Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza…

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

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

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

Whose bearings are confused…

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Glorious buildings, family, and friends… All gone. 

            Erased.  As if they never existed.

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


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


While shedding our own exilic tears,

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

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

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

While lamenting the valleys of unspeakable poverty…

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

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

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

While thirsting for justice and righteousness…

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


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

 A new king is on the way…

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

 A new king is on the way…    

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

 A new king is on the way…

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

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





Sunday, November 16, 2014

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

Matthew 25:14-30
November 16, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scarcity versus abundance. 

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

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

Scarcity versus abundance:

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

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

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

Scarcity versus abundance:

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

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

 Scarcity verses abundance:

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the God in whose presence we gather today. 

            A God who calls us out of our fears…

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Enough about Ebola...

Okay.  I’ve had it with all the crap in the media about Ebola.  Enough already.  I get it.  Breaking news tells me that I need to be afraid of running a fever and more importantly of folks from West Africa.  Despite medical professionals telling us how difficult it actually is to contract Ebola, politicians are telling us that to stay safe, we need to close off our borders.  Hmm…  Who to believe?  Medical folks who have dedicated their lives to the art of healing, or politicians who play to the polls for job security?
Regardless of how you feel about the border and about politicians, the fact remains that those who have contracted the disease are the real victims and the real heroes.  Yup, that’s right:  heroes.  Remember Eric Duncan who died in Dallas?   In the midst of the Ebola epidemic in Liberia, Eric volunteered to carry his landlord’s pregnant daughter to a taxi so that she might receive treatment.   Knowing that she was at the most contagious stage of the disease, Eric refused to leave her.  Then when they arrived at the clinic, they discovered that there was not enough space and she was turned away. Eric then carried her all the way home again.  According to his fiancĂ©, Eric helped his landlord’s sick daughter because he was a follower of Jesus.

Soon after he contracted Ebola and died, but not before he showed up at a hospital with a fever, not in some West African infirmary where there are roughly two dozen doctors for 4 million people, but here in the “most advanced” country in the world.  Even after telling folks here that he had just arrived from Liberia, he was given Tylenol and sent on his way.  Would I have picked up that frail girl who was vomiting all over the place, knowing that to do so would put my own life in danger?  I would like to think so, but I don’t know.  Would you?   Eric did and for such empathy, he paid with his life.

Ebola’s other victims in this country are medical folks; those who have actively put themselves in harm’s way to try and bring about healing.  Nina Pham could have asked to be re-assigned or feigned illness to get out of treating Eric, but instead treated and honored him as a real human being, not the plague rat depicted by the media.
Craig Spencer who went to West Africa with “Doctors Without Borders” could have remained in his affluent environs, sipping lattes on a Manhattan street corner, but instead put himself in the trenches, engaged in hand-to-hand conflict with Ebola.  Would I have done that?  I don’t know.  I like my lattes.

Is Ebola a scary disease?  Yes.  It is like that sniper who with his first shot deliberately wounds rather than kills in order to create targets of the arriving medics.  And yet the media and their minions of politicians whom they lead around on short leashes, would have us treat like lepers those heroes who, knowing they are targeted by Ebola, still show up.

So my media friends.  Enough.  Stop the crap.  I will neither demonize nor leper-ize the victims of Ebola.  They are the heroes.  You are not.  They are the ones who remind me of Jesus.  You know, the One who a long time ago once said to his fearful disciples,

 This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-3).

 With you on the journey,
  Pastor Doug

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Sermon by Seminarian Emily Hamilton October 12, 2014

Oh, Israel. How did you get here? The Israelites had been in the wilderness for all of three months when Moses was called to the mountaintop to talk with God. Three months ago the Egyptian army was thrown into the sea and the Israelites were singing and praising God for their deliverance.  They witnessed God save them from a threatening battle with Amalek. God allowed them to see Godself approach Moses in a dense cloud so they could trust Moses’ leadership forever. Then Moses went up to talk with God. He put Aaron and Hur in charge while he went to receive the law and commandments. He didn’t imagine they could get into too much trouble while he was away. Forty days and forty nights later, all hell broke loose.
I can see why the Israelites would be nervous. Moses had been gone for a long time and didn’t tell them when he would be coming back. He went up into a mountain surrounded by clouds and fire. Maybe he wasn’t coming back. Maybe he died. Who was going to take care of them? They needed to know for sure that God’s presence would be with them. They were tired of journeying to liberation. They wanted a quick, easy answer to their doubts. Years of oppression, months of wandering in the wilderness, it took a toll. They were ready to be completely free. How better to assure their liberation and God’s presence than to build their own, shiny, distracting God who can tell them exactly what they want to hear? “Make a sacrifice to me,” says this God, “and then you can have a party! The journey is over! Well done.”
We get this. It’s easy to get tired of the journey. Some journeys to liberation take longer than others. It has been over two months since Officer Darren Wilson shot an unarmed teenager named Michael Brown on the quiet suburban streets of Ferguson Missouri. It’s easy to think from up here that the protests are over, and the journey to liberation there is through. The news outlets have moved on to marriage equality in the courts and Ebola in Texas. Don’t get me wrong, those things matter, too. But making a distracting golden calf out of the news cycle that ignores Ferguson doesn’t change reality. The people of Ferguson, especially young African Americans, are still protesting every day. Young people are being arrested. Pastors are putting their bodies between black and brown youth and police response. This weekend alone, hundredsds of people are descending on Ferguson for a weekend of action and protest to demand justice for Michael Brown and his family, and liberation for people of color there.
The journey toward justice for people of color in Ferguson is not over. It isn’t over anywhere else, either. After all, it isn’t only about Michael Brown. It’s about Trayvon Martin, and Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride and Emmett Till, and four little girls killed in a school bombing. It’s about decades of lynchings of black men. It’s about the long legacy of slavery stretching back before the founding of this country and forward to the mass incarceration of people of color today.
Americans of all races, especially people of color, have been journeying together out of racist oppression toward liberation for centuries but still, the journey isn’t over. Why aren’t these stories in the news? Are our feet getting tired? Have we been settling for something less than God’s vision for us?
The Israelites’ golden calf was the outcome of human beings trying to substitute an easy solution, an easy peace and victory, for God’s peace and victory. We could do that. We could stop listening to God’s call to work for justice for all people. We could watch Moses go up the mountain and build our own God to reassure ourselves that our actions are just and the journey over. Many of the other things we could and do focus on are good! It is good to worship God, to feed the hungry, to house the homeless. The Israelites were called to do all of these things, too. They were also called to follow God on the long journey, together, to liberation.
One of the biggest golden calves we build today is the idea that we’ve completely dismantled some form of oppression or other, or oppression entirely. When we worship that golden calf, we can pretend the journey is over. Racism is over. The pattern of the killing of black and brown people in this country is over. But the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson tells us this is not true. Whole communities are responding to the reality of racism and violence in this country. In Ferguson religious people from around the country are on the front lines of protests, just as they are in Detroit, in DC, and wherever they call home. 
We, too, cannot stay too long in our weariness along the journey. As we look for inspiration to keep going, we find that the Bible is not the only place we can look for God’s messages about liberation. Look around our own city. Sometimes it is tempting to look at our history, at the 50th anniversary of the Rochester Race Riot and say, “This was over fifty years ago.” It isn’t the case. The neighborhoods most affected by the riots haven’t fully recovered – some of the buildings damaged in 1964 were never fully rebuilt. Like every other city, Rochester still has a problem with racism. We see it in jobs and lack of jobs, in education and lack of education, and in health disparities. Our congregation, too, needs to continue thinking about ways to work against racism here. People of faith of many races organized for years to create jobs and opportunities for people of color, and together they made great progress. Will we follow the lead of religious groups who followed God’s call by joining together in solidarity after the summer of 1964 to work for justice? Will we join groups learning about what’s happening in Ferguson, or talking about mass incarceration? Will we make partnerships with other congregations in the inner city working to improve access to health care, education, and job opportunities? 
As individuals we do lots of good work in both direct service and toward systemic justice. We can do the same as a congregation. This congregation can pray together for God’s guidance to choose our best way to bring about God’s kingdom in the city with others. Whatever we choose to do together as this community, we know that God’s justice is coming. God will lead us to the liberation of all people if we stay the course and do not settle for a quick fix.
          If we’re looking to follow the long road, we can look to ur heritage in Rochester and in the wider liberation movements for strength, for guidance, and for inspiration. One leader we can look to is Ella Baker.
Some of you already know that Ella Baker was a behind the scenes organizer during the Civil Rights Movement. She started her career at the NAACP as an organizer, and helped form both the Southern Christian leadership Conference. She saw students, both black and white, already taking on the work of the movement and encouraged them to form their own organization. This group was called the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, also known as SNCC. Her work and words inspired Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, a Black singer, song writer and activist. She worked during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s as a member of the Freedom Singers, a group organized by SNCC. She also founded the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock in 1973. In 1983 she wrote “Ella’s Song,” putting the words of Ella Baker to music. Ella’s song begins like this:  
“We who believe in freedom cannot rest.
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”
It continues,
“        Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons
Is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons.
Not needing to clutch for power, not needing the light just to shine
on me.
I need to be just one in the number as we stand against tyranny.
Struggling myself don’t mean a whole lot I come to realize
That teaching others to stand up and fight is the only way my
struggle survives.”
Ella Baker didn’t say, “We who are Black in America.”
She said, “We who believe in freedom.”

As people of God of every race we believe in freedom. We are tied to the story of liberation found not only in Exodus but through the entire Bible. We cannot, and will not, settle for easy answers. We are called to respond to God’s call as we hear it in the Scripture, from the people of Ferguson, and in the reality of our own city. We who believe in Freedom cannot rest. We who believe in Freedom cannot rest until it comes.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Pastor Doug's Sermon from 10/19/14

Isaiah 35:5-8, Healing Service
Amid rumors of war and desolation, the prophet Isaiah this morning unleashes an incredible vision upon us.  Having just spoken harsh words that warn of impending ecological destruction

                                              Devastation and despair…

 Isaiah suddenly throws our speeding car into reverse…
Abruptly stopping us in our tracks...

Scattering remnants of our metaphorical gear shafts across the road.
                                                                                                  And all of this done by a poem!

 Amid rumors of war and desolation…
             Death and destruction…
                       who would imagine that a poem could be so powerful? 
                                   That a poem could throw a monkey wrench into the endlessly                                   spinning wheels of darkness and death?

        That a poem could quench the thirst of those who are         withering on dry, parched, dead land?

And yet it is, precisely THAT:  A poem that speaks of healing in the midst of sickness…                             
                pools in the midst of burning sands
                                                     streams in the midst of desert.

 Some very wise scholars will tell us that the poem we have in this morning’s first reading from Isaiah 35 actually belongs later, somewhere between Isaiah 40 and Isaiah 55.  They will rightly tell us that the language in chapter 35 more closely resembles that of chapters 40-55.  And you know what?  They are probably right.  Isaiah chapter 35 is clearly an “out of place” poem.  It does not belong here!

The poem comes too early.  Someone jumped the gun in putting it here.  Who moved it?  And why did they move it?  When did they move it?  Inquiring theological minds want to know.

Barbara Lundblad, an ELCA pastor who recently retired from teaching at Union  Seminary in New York once said,

“The Spirit hovered over the text and over the scribes:  ‘Put it here’, breathed the Spirit, ‘before anyone is ready.  Interrupt the narrative of despair’. So here it is:  a word that couldn’t wait until it might make more sense.”

I love her words:  “put it here breathed the spirit…interrupt the narrative of despair”.
                              Interrupt the narrative of despair.
                                                              Now there is a mission statement for the church!

 Interrupting the narrative of despair, Isaiah dares to speak a word out of place.  Isaiah dares to speak a word that refuses to wait until it might make more sense.  As Hebrew Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has reminded us, “Israel’s doxologies are characteristically against the data”.

Characteristically against the data:   We hear and see the data every night on the news and every morning on the front page of the D&C.

Another shooting in Rochester…          
          Geo-political chaos in the Middle East drawing us closer to another war…
                          Growing fear and panic as Ebola claims thousands of lives…

Elected leaders treasuring political power over authoritative governance leading to gridlock and cynicism…

Add to that the data of our own lives:

            Awaiting test results from the doctor…
                             Mourning the death of someone beloved to us…
                                       Wondering if we’ll make it through the next round of layoffs…
                                             Pining for the days before our kids grew up and moved away
 Longing for those pre-retirement days when we felt a greater sense of purpose to our lives.

We know the data all too well and we long for a Word out of place.

Well I am here to tell you today, that here in this place and in this moment of time, there is a word out of place.

            A Word that goes against the data…

            A Word that dares to interrupt our narratives of despair…

A Word that speaks to all of us who have entered the wilderness of exile,

                        Who dwell in the land of darkness…

Who wait and wait and wait for God to come and breathe life into us…

                                                Whose hearts are scarred, torn, and withered…

Who with feeble hands, weak knees, parched throats, and aching hearts wonder when our exile will end.

Our narratives of despair are interrupted.


You, who cannot see past the fears of a frightening diagnosis or an impending medical procedure…

“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,


You, who have been beaten down not only by sticks and stones but by words of belittlement, judgment, and derision blasting in your ears telling you that you are “junk”…

and the ears of the deaf unstopped;


You, who are paralyzed with fear because you can’t imagine how you’ll pay all the bills this month, especially when you’re not even sure you’ll have a job next month…

the lame shall leap like a deer,



You, who cannot bring yourself to speak words needed to heal the pain and anguish of a broken relationship…

                                                            the tongue of the speechless shall sing for joy. 


You, whose parched hearts still break over the death of a spouse, a partner, a parent or a child  and who feel like you are being swallowed up in grief

Waters shall break forth in the wilderness, streams in the desert, the burning sand shall become a pool, the thirsty ground springs of water


You, who wander through the dark valley of depression not knowing where the pathway lies or that there even is a pathway…

a highway shall be there; it shall be called The Holy Way


Into the face of despair – not denying its presence – right into the teeth of despair, Isaiah shouts a word of hope. 

Not only does God break the darkness by remembering you in this place of exile, but God has the power to do something about it.


For you see, God has a highway crew, and a road has been built.

  A road built by God’s prophets and sealed by the Cross of his son…

                                    A road where we hear the most incredible words of healing

                                                            “This is my body given for you…

This is my blood shed for you”

A road that leads us exiles home.

Not to some nostalgic place from our past, but home to God’s heart

where, as Eugene Peterson describes it, “all sorrows and sighs scurry into the night”.


You, whose feet are tired and worn-out from walking on burning sands of despair and brokenness…

            You, who know all too well the pain of being dis-connected in exile…


Take heart! 

For the One who stops us abruptly in our tracks is here…

            The One who interrupts our narrative of despair is here…

The One who joined us in our exile by taking our wounds with him onto a Cross is here..

                                    Right here!  In our midst.

Whispering into unstopped ears…

  “I love you with all my heart.

Welcome home."





Monday, October 6, 2014

Pastor Doug's Sermon from 10/5/14

Philippians 3:4b-14
So how is your resume?   That’s right, your resume.  If you had to find a job tomorrow how would you do? What would your resume say about you?  What information about your life would you highlight?  What stuff of your life would you omit?
So, here we go…

I just happen to have brought with me today, some tips on how to build your resume. 

How to:

And on and on and on…
Now don’t get me wrong.  Resumes have their place.  And when push comes to shove, they may in fact even be necessary.  Except when it comes to the church.

“If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more” says Paul: 
“Circumcised on the eighth day…

            A member of the tribe of Benjamin…

                      A Hebrew born of Hebrews…

                                    As to the Law – A Pharisee

                                                As to zeal – a persecutor of the church;

                                                            As to righteousness under the law – blameless”

There you have it!

If that’s not a church resume for success, I don’t know what is.  
A member of the tribe of Benjamin?  I mean if you’re going to be a member of any of the 12 tribes of Israel, that’s a prime one.

Even the name “Benjamin” in Hebrew means “son of the right hand”. (which, by the way, is the seat of honor that 2 of Jesus’ success-addicted followers, James and John, tried to climb and claw their way too).

Israel’s very first king came from the Tribe of Benjamin.  I mean can you imagine the bragging rights if you could say that George Washington was part of your family tree?

A Hebrew born of Hebrews?  Talk about pure ethnic stock.  There’s nobody more Hebrew than Paul.

            This guy’s got the brand name that’s going to sell tickets.

                        He is definitely Rock Star material in his church.

He’s like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Billy Graham all rolled into one.
A zealous and righteous Pharisee?  You want that guy who’s going to work 18 to 20 hours a day to make your bottom-line skyrocket?  Paul is your guy. 

Your profits will be off the charts…

Oh yeah and sales?  This guy is so righteous he makes “Honest Abe” look like a pathological liar.

He doesn’t just sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.  Paul wrote the sales manual on it.

Second only to Jesus, Paul is the guy that every call committee from every church known to humanity is looking for.  You want growth?  You want success?  Paul is your guy! 

“Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.”

Wait a minute Paul….  What do you mean “gains” have become “loss”?

 In the world of spread sheets, gains are good things.  Loss is not. 

Your decimal point must be in the wrong place. 

You’re talking “fuzzy math”.

That can’t be right Paul. 

Come on, Paul, get your head in the real world.  

Success and accomplishments are what we strive for…

But here’s the problem:  Despite his resume of success,

Paul himself does not buy into any of this.

Writing to proud Roman citizens who

control the city of Philippi

                        Its economy…

                                    Its entire competitive system for status and social honor…

And its robust imperial cult, which regularly celebrates the Lordship of Caesar, Paul offers a

                        Reckless and even scandalous alternative.


“Yet whatever gains I had    (and you know he had a lot of them)

            These I have come to regard as loss because of Christ”


“For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things

            And I regard them as …. (wait for it…)  [rubbish]


Ok, I spent thousands of dollars on a seminary education to get this next piece of information, and today you’re getting it for free.

That word “rubbish”?  In the Greek, it’s not rubbish.  We’ve tamed it way down.  The Greek word here is “Skubula” – literally translated – and I’m going to try and say this politely… excrement.   Hey, don’t stone me, I’m just the messenger. 

I don’t believe for a moment that Paul uses this harsh word lightly, or as a joke, or because he wants to be a foul-languaged “shock jock”.

 I think for Paul, the gospel is serious business… 

            So serious he will use whatever language he needs, to get the point across!

I think for Paul, the Christ who poured himself out on a Cross, like he told us last week in Chapter 2 of Philippians, is the one who has “set the bar” for his followers.

If Christ, who is equal to God, (by the way that’s a great resume strongpoint) can be completely poured out in love for the world, how can those who would claim to be his followers do any less?

If Christ can be poured out in love for the world, how can we, who would claim to follow Christ, do any less?

 Oh and by the way, in case we think that we can somehow pull ourselves up by our own faith bootstraps to make this all happen, Paul’s use of the Greek language tells us differently.

In verse 9 Paul talks of having a righteousness that comes through faith in Christ.  Sounds like first I have to accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior.  Nope! That’s not what the Greek says.  The likely translation of verse 9 doesn’t mention “faith in Christ”, but rather “faith of Christ”.

In other words, it is Christ’s faithfulness that makes any of this even possible.

 The church stands at a critical crossroads in its life

            We have some tough choices to make.

I’m not talking about what hymns we like and don’t like…

or what kind of a sign board to put out in front of the building..

or if our worship preference is traditional or rock band with projector screens.

Those are NOT issues.  They are DISTRACTIONS.


For they have the potential to distract us from seeing what’s really happening around us.

416 shelter beds in the city of Rochester and on any given night there are between 500 and 600 souls seeking a warm place to lay their heads at the end of the day… 

What do followers of the one poured out in love have to say about that?

55% of the city’s children living in poverty

And unlike other places around the country where that rate has gone down, that rate has gone up 6% here in Rochester since the year 2000…

What do followers of the one poured out in love have to say about that?

Growing numbers of people turned off and disaffected by church because all they hear from the church is talk of survival  

or even worse, moralisms seeking to judge whose “in” and whose “out” of God’s Kingdom.

            All they hear from the church is talk about “creeds”

                                                                        And not so much about “deeds”

Put another way,

The only question people hear the church asking is “how do we attract people?”

                        Not “how do we go out and feed them?”

What do followers of the one poured out in love have to say about that?

 Hey look, I get it. 

The church is not just another Social Service Agency, nor should it be one.

                        But neither can it be a museum of past accomplishments

 No where in any of the gospel accounts does Jesus ever invite his followers to sit back on their laurels, puffing up their golden calf resumes, while lamenting days gone by…

            Instead he sends them out as laborers in a vineyard, feeding God’s sheep.

 I’ve begun going out with a group of folks who, every month, seek to provide those living on the streets with blankets, coats, food, medical kits, and yes even vouchers for shelters and hotel rooms.

In the past 8 months, this mixed group of social workers, medical students, and church folk have found stable housing for 40 people.

            Does that end the cycle of poverty in Rochester?  Of course not.

 But is it work of the Kingdom?

Does it affirm that our city of Rochester is a beloved vineyard of our God where no one should go hungry and no one should be living on a dangerous embankment out in the open overlooking the 490?

 Folks, if Paul tells us nothing else, he tells us that life in the Kingdom is a matter of choosing a focus:

We can strive to be the biggest and the best…

            With the glitziest and most polished marketing campaigns…

We can strive to get our name up in lights with big programs and fancy feasts…

We can pound loudly on the doors of every television and radio station in Rochester pleading for them to promote our ecclesiastical resume…


Or we can focus upon a Cross where God himself experienced shame and humiliation…

 that Love may abound…

                                                That Love may win the day…


Yet whatever gains I had,        

            These I have come to regard as loss because of Christ”


You know, Christ…

            The One, poured out in love…

The One, who joins us in the vineyard with these simple yet timeless words, “Feed my sheep”.