“What’s Next?” April 15, 2018 sermon

While my job title is not Associate Pastor, that’s what it would be in most church settings. Someone else is the Lead Pastor (she’s awesome, by the way!). My responsibilities include  youth ministry as well as our justice and outreach ministries. As you might expect, I help lead our two Sunday worship services. But what is apparently a little odd about my situation (ok, one of the odd things) is that I get to preach regularly. Usually once per month, though occasionally more than that. I enjoy preaching. It is challenging and daunting and fun.

Yet, you won’t find many sermons here on my blog. I’ve written about this a few times before. I generally don’t preach from a manuscript, so I don’t have full text to post so that you could read my sermon. More importantly than that, however, is that I find sermons to be nearly exclusively auditory events. They need to be heard to be fully experienced. But most weeks, it is a CD that I have and the technical wherewithal to make a post with audio recording of the sermon that I lack. I can be kind of a dope.

However, recently, an incredible member of our congregation offered to take on the technological part of the task! (H/T to Reid and Kevin!) Thus, I intend to be much better at sharing that content here. Forewarned is fair-warned?

This past Sunday — April 15th — was week 2 of a series on the book of Acts. Our text was Acts 9:1-31. My thesis: The story of the early church has much to teach us. Acts continues the story of God calling and using unlikely people. People such as you and me and us.

At least that was the thesis in my head. I’d love to know what you heard.

I used some visual aids during the sermon. Seeing those will (should?) make the audio make more sense. Those are below.

Special thanks to pastor and illustrator Steve Thomason for sharing his amazing art with the Narrative Lectionary group and, you know, the world.

On to the sermon…

 

 

First, the book of Acts of the Apostles offered in the visual metaphor of a tree.

 

Next, two maps of the areas mentioned in the text for the week. An overview of the Roman Empire, allowing us to see Saul’s hometown of Tarsus. Then a closer look at the sections of Israel: Judea, Samaria, Galilee, and the road to Damascus.

Roman Empire of New Testament

 

 

Jerusalem to damascus map

 

 

Finally, my favorite: Thomason’s visual of the story of Acts chapters 8-9, that is also set up (loosely) as a map. So many intriguing stories here!

Acts Chap 8-9 illustration

 

The best note

UPDATE: Here’s the audio of the sermon that elicited this response that moved me so.

I was trying to say: Resurrection confirms God’s dream for this world. Resurrection invites us to bring God’s dream to life. What did you hear though?

 

I talk. A lot. It’s kinda my gig as a pastor. There are plenty of days when I wonder if all the words I say — all the prayers, all the songs, all the sermons — matter to anyone at all. Am I, are we as a church, making a difference in anyone’s life with all our unending words?

It seems that, for this week at least, the answer is yes. I hope you’ll forgive me as this is insanely self-serving, but this week we received this note regarding worship Easter morning:

As a first time visitor, I was struck by the all-inclusive atmosphere – on so many levels, including having children actively participating. This was in clear reflection of Pastor Dave’s sermon about not only being all-inclusive and welcoming, but to listening to people. his mention of what was and was not factual or reported in the Gospels struck a chord as well. This sermon and visit has given me rebirth in the belief that there are still many Christians who really reflect on what it means to be a Christian and to act thusly. Thank you.

Affirmation is so powerful. And humbling. And inspiring.

I hope we can continue to live up to what this person saw in us. I know it is that for which we are striving.

Celebrating Students

I am so incredibly impressed with the Parkland, Florida students’ response to last week’s horrific gun violence at their school.

Check that. It is not the response that is incredibly impressive; it is the students. They are immensely impressive. Their responses to the murders around them are a manifestation — a demonstration — of the impressiveness of their character.

Here’s hoping and praying those students continue to speak, march, organize, and vote until all our schools are safe. Until all assault rifles are banned. Until all politicians who put guns ahead of students — ahead of people — lose their seats. Because hopes and prayers are necessary, but they are also insufficient. Action is needed too.

At the church I serve, our Youth Ministry leaders and I will of course do everything we can to encourage and support the ways our students choose to engage in these actions. Such as the March for Our Lives on March 24th. Or the National School Walkout on March 14th and April 20th.

As our General Board of Church & Society (the advocacy arm of The United Methodist Church) reminds us:

The United Methodist Church urges “congregations to advocate at the local and national level for laws that prevent or reduce gun violence.”

However, I don’t want to just lift up our students’ possible future actions. I want to celebrate who our students are right now, today. Recently we asked them to anonymously write down something they are good at. (We then used their responses as part of a game wherein each person had to either act out or draw that written response for the rest of the group to guess. Because of course we did.)

I’m sharing their answers with you because I think it provides yet another glimpse into our students lives. Our congregation claims to highly value our children, and we actively strive to bring that value to life. Knowing our students helps us do that.

More generally, it seems to me that hearing directly from some students could curb the impulse some have to automatically assume middle school and high school students are vapid, phone-obsessed, and dismissible. I beg to differ. Vociferously.

What are you good at?

Science
Watching TV 🙂
Talking to friends
Baking
Drawing
Gaming
Listening
Math [Note: x2]
Playing my flute
Eating food and playing piano [Note: probably not at the same time]
Sports
Doing Yoda impressions
Finding synonyms
Video games
Speaking for a group
Being lazy

 

Finally, let me celebrate student insight. At this week’s youth group gathering, engaging with the Lenten Study book, Embracing the Uncertain, our students offered this understanding of the material:

Faith is to doubt as bravery is to fear. 

Yep, they named their takeaway in the form of a standardized ELA comparisons test.

Translated: Bravery isn’t the absence of fear; bravery is action in the midst of fear, in spite of the fear. Similarly, faith isn’t the absence of doubt; faith is action in the midst of doubt, in spite of all the doubts we feel.

Hey, our kids are pretty great…wouldn’t you say?

 

 

 

 

Ash Wednesday reflections

Three teenagers and one pre-teen helped make our Ash Wednesday worship gathering happen. One served as sound board apprentice, the other three led prayers or scripture readings. Having young people eager to participate in worship always makes my heart glad.

Glad hearts were in short supply this Wednesday.  Too much death. Always and forever, too much death. Yet, acknowledging our mortality is a key component of Ash Wednesday.  As is, at least at Woodridge United Methodist, a time of extended silent prayer. That fills my soul more than just about anything.

Our sequence this week:

-Singing “Come and Fill Our Hearts”

-8 minutes of silence

-This beautiful song by Over the Rhine

 

-My brief reflection:

Part of our job tonight is to remind ourselves of our inescapable mortality. Tragically, we have been reminded of that all too well today. A recent diagnosis of cancer, community members entering hospice care, and the mass shooting in a Florida high school.

So, yes, we have much for which we need to repent: the way we allow rampant gun violence; poverty; scapegoating of immigrants, and so much more.

Yet…I am convinced God’s favorite people are broken.

I am convinced we are not alone.

I am convinced we belong right here.

-Imposition of ashes

-Going out on this song by Gungor:

 

What was your Ash Wednesday experience?

 

Happy Christmas 2017

Merry Christmas!

The closest thing I have to a tradition on this blog is this Christmas day offering.

Each Christmas I post the Isaiah passage below (which is a reading for Christmas Eve worship every year); John Lennon’s “Happy Christmas (War is Over)”, which I find the world’s best and most challenging Christmas song; and a second song that changes each year.

Isaiah 9:2-7:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined…For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.

For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.

No, not “all the boots of the tramping warriors” or “all the garments rolled in blood” have been burned as fuel just yet. But I do believe there will be a day when both the weapons and the uniforms of war will be obsolete. I think that’s why I like “Happy Christmas” so much: it simultaneously acknowledges the reality of evil in the world and reminds us, with Isaiah, to hope for – and actively strive for – a better future. A war-free future.

Our sisters and brothers in Israel/Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan, and so many other places, know all too well that war isn’t over. I’m convinced the Prince of Peace wants all wars to end. To worship the babe born in Bethlehem means facing reality, means seeking to end war. But following God in the way of Jesus also means we don’t believe in hopelessness. It means we’ve got some work to do.

I’ve used the same “Happy Christmas” video each time, but watching it today…I just can’t use it again. With all the images of war, especially of maimed or dead children, I just can’t. It struck me today as emotionally manipulative rather than as a beacon of light shining on tremendous evil. Maybe that’s a copout on my part. Maybe I simply don’t want to be confronted by those images. Or maybe it has always been manipulative and I only just figured it out. I don’t know. I would love to hear what you think about that.

In place of the graphic violence version, I offer this one with lyrics. I find the visual of those lyrics quite provocative, challenging, and demanding more of me as a peacemaker.

 

Last year at this time, I was too racked with grief to post my usual fun second selection. (My dad’s death and Trump’s election the main contributors to that grief.) But hope made a comeback in 2017. Obviously, there are still horrible, and horribly racist people doing and saying horrible, and horribly racist things (including from the White House). But this year feels like a tipping point for women being heard and even centered. A diversity of people are speaking out against all kinds of violence and hatred. The people of my congregation continue to feed hungry people, clothe people released from jail, and provide shelter and comfort for those experiencing homelessness. I still believe that the “moral arc of the universe is long and bends toward justice.”

So let’s enjoy a silly song: “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” by Joseph Spence. It may not make you literally laugh out loud, but I find it incredibly joyful. Plus, the artist is named Joseph. Can’t go wrong with that at Christmas. There are other versions with better sound, but I like this one because we get multiple close-ups of Joseph.

 

 

From the Buerstetta Family to yours: Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it! Happy Holidays to all others!

Working Again

Welcome Back
I work with truly wonderful people.

 

Thanks to Becky, our amazing Office Manager, that lovely greeting was waiting for me when I walked into my office today. My spiritual renewal is over so, for the first time in four months, I was back at work.*

As recently as, oh I don’t know, yesterday, I wasn’t so sure I was ready to be back. Being off — especially on Sundays — was really enjoyable. Then I stepped up to the church building, keys at the ready to unlock the door…but I didn’t even need them. Becky could see me; she buzzed me in. We chatted briefly; I went down the hall to my office. And I discovered I was glad to be back. I wanted to be there. I might have even smiled to myself.

Don’t get me wrong: there was no basking in a holy glow, nor a sounding of the heavenly chorus. I didn’t feel my heart strangely warmed. But being in that physical space again felt right. Maybe there is a deeper meaning to be found in that welcome, in having a door opened for me?

Whatever the reasons, I discovered, somewhat to my surprise, I am ready to work.

Certainly, there is much to be done in our country and our world as the compassionate, loving, justice-seeking hands, feet, and voice of Jesus. Let’s get to it.

 

*There are, I know, layers of privilege in that sentence (and this whole post). I intend to examine those layers soon.

It’s about time

14 months ago today, on July 14, 2016, my dad died.

As far as I can remember, this is the first time I’ve written that anywhere.

Why did it take me this long to write that? What is different today that I want to write it? I don’t know. I haven’t really wanted to write about much of anything for a while. Well, I want to but haven’t…or maybe I just want to want to write. Why haven’t I? Is it tied to dealing with his death? I don’t know that either. I guess I suspect so.

I do know that I’m on sabbatical spiritual renewal leave, (There is a difference, at least officially in United Methodist polity. More on that another day.) maybe that has finally given me the space and time to be ready to write that.

When my leave started I set a goal to write regularly. My initial plan was one post the first week, two the second, three posts the third week… But as my once-again-ironically-named blog shows, that didn’t happen. All the usual doubts and self recriminations set in: you put it off yesterday, you can skip today too. You’ve got nothing worthwhile to add to what has already been said by the world on Twitter. No cares what you have to say, anyway… Like that.

But screw it. I’m done with that crap. Today I face that truth that has affected me for months:

My dad is dead. I miss him.

Maybe for today at least, just sitting with that is enough.

‘God speed the year of Jubilee’

It’s Independence Day here in the USA. A day we celebrate our freedom…usually by eating and drinking a lot then blowing things up. Or at least watching things being blown up. 

On some level I suppose that’s pretty much perfect, given who we are. 

This morning I got a notice that the Washington Post linked to a speech by Thomas Jefferson to commemorate the day. 

Thanks to reading Fred Clark (aka Slactivist) over the years, I’m convinced there is no better tribute to read today than this one from Fredrick Douglas (who is being recognized more and more). Here’s a taste, but it really is worth reading the whole thing — especially if you, like me, are a person of privilege in this country. 

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced. 

Today, let’s commit to making the USA a country we can all celebrate, no matter what demographics define us. For when we’ve achieved that, we will truly fulfill the vision that started the nation. 

Having some fun on Trinity Sunday

This past Sunday, June 11th, was Trinity Sunday. While many complex and profound words have been written about the idea of God as Trinity, it seems to me that, at its core, it is a fairly simple — though still profound — idea: God, as God is in God’s self, is relational, communal. Because humanity is made in God’s image, we are ultimately relational too.

Bruce Sanguin put it like this in his book, If Darwin Prayed:

The Trinitarian intuition is that Ultimate Reality constitutes a community and not an individual being… A healthy self comes into being in and through relationships… Quantum science shows everything exists in relation to everything else…the universe is radically relational. Greeks used a playful word for the communitarian nature of Trinity: perichoresis, meaning “to dance around.” Each member of the Trinity is encircling the others in ecstatic dance. Celebrating Trinity is celebrating that the entire universe, including humans, emerges out of a relational matrix.

Or, as I put it on Sunday, we are created for community because we are created by community. 

I also tried to have a little fun with images of Trinity in popular culture, such as these:

 

Sometimes good sermon material gets left on the proverbial cutting room floor. This week was no exception, but I did tell those present about this video and encouraged them to find it. Too often in Christianity’s history, we’ve used doctrine of Trinity as club with which to beat each other up. Or as a fence to mark our territory and declare one another anathema. I think this video does a good job of poking fun at that tendency while also managing to teach a thing or two. At the very least, it made me laugh. I hope you enjoy it too.

It is 2016, going on 2017…

[Note: This is an end-of-the-year letter I wrote for our congregation, Woodridge United Methodist Church. I’ve adapted it here for, hopefully, appealing to a wider audience.]

I am often asked about that weird word in my title. Koinonia is a Greek word used in the New Testament. I’m not a Greek language scholar, but those that are write that koinonia means community. The way the term is used in the New Testament (e.g. Acts 2:42-47) suggests community that is formed through worship, fellowship, and living together justly. It seems to fit as my title, as my main areas of responsibility are youth ministry, outreach and justice projects, and worship.

Of course each of those areas also have a full committee working on them. Instead of telling each of their individual stories, I focus on an event that brought all three areas together in a vital, beautiful, inspiring, Spirit-filled way — creating community. Or, if I may dare to say it, creating koinonia.

With input from Youth Council and our youth themselves, we decided to go to Birmingham, Alabama for our summer youth mission trip. Immediately, our leadership team knew we needed to spend as much time as we could learning about the civil rights movement before our trip and as much time as we could visiting the movement’s special sites once we were in Alabama. Studying The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was a key component of our preparations.

But first we read the letter to Dr. King which prompted his now-famous epistle. Most of our group was surprised and disappointed to learn that two Methodist bishops were among the eight signatories of the letter accusing Dr. King of being an outside agitator who had no business being in Birmingham. With the context set, we dove into the letter itself.

I am fond of quoting the portion of King’s letter that reads,

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

While that first sentence is oft-quoted, the final two sentences seem to me even more vital. For they remind us that no matter how independent we think we may become, each of us is dependent upon others. We need each other and so we need to look out for each other, help each other, speak up for each other. Reading through Dr. King’s letter together transported us back those 60 years, evoked questions and concerns, and helped us consider our present time: In what ways is our society better? How can we better live into the ideals of the letter? What is the role of the Christian community in this? What is WUMC’s role?

The letter and all it provoked made us uncomfortable. Which is probably why it is so powerful and still relevant.

One of our members provided another milestone in our preparations. Thanks to her connections, the mission trip group was blessed with an evening with two leaders in the civil rights movement: the Rev. Dr. Stanley L. Davis, Jr. and the Rev. Dr. B. Herbert Martin, Sr. The duo shared stories of their experiences, suggested some sites to be sure to visit in Birmingham, and encouraged us to be faithful witnesses of God’s love for all people. Then Dr. Martin offered a closing thought that transfixed us and became our prayer for our time in Alabama:

Hate no one no matter how they have wronged you.

Live humbly no matter how wealthy and privileged you become.

Think positively no matter how hard life gets.

Give much even if you have been given little.

Forgive all, especially yourself.

Never stop praying for the best for everyone.

Always forgive. Forgiveness upsets, interrupts, and distorts the plan of Satan to defeat you. Always be forgiving.

Love is of God and God is love. Love is bigger than the past, our pain, our anger, fear, our scars, and yes, bigger than this whole world with devils filled.

There is somebody bigger than you and I. Behold the universe — the only thing bigger than you — walk there, live there in.

Do not worry about thinking outside the box — there is no box!!! There is no fence! There is no border!

Live free in God.

Thanks to one of the families on the trip, each member of the mission trip had those beautiful words laminated on a card along with Dr. King’s words that I quoted above. Our trip included meaningful work with community organizations, fun conversations on the road, vehicle mishaps, moving worship, laughs, tears, and lots of pictures. The attending youth were fantastic. They are why we do this.

I can never say this too much: our mission trips would literally be impossible without the dedication of and sacrifices made by our volunteer adult leaders. THANK YOU Lorie, Alma, Glenn, and Kevin.

As amazing as all that was, our time at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute was, at least for me, the most moving experience of any of my 20 mission trips. God’s Holy Spirit is in that place. God’s Spirit is at work in the people who are continuing the story of Exodus, the prophets, and Jesus by working tirelessly for all people to be truly free. I want to be part of that story.

So that is on my mind as I consider plans taking shape and ways we might show better hospitality in our church and our community in 2017. For some time now, our lighted sign reads, “We stand with Standing Rock.” I hope we will further our lines in God’s ongoing story of freedom by renewing and increasing our connection to the Standing Rock reservation, and finding ways to support their efforts to protect their water supply against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Our young people return to South Dakota in June 2017 for mission in Martin, South Dakota.

We look forward to confirming into full membership 15 young people in May, should the whole Confirmation class choose that path. Regardless of the final outcome, the families in that class are already deepening their connections with each other, with the congregation, and with the community — and, ultimately, that is why we have the program.

One way I hope we will expand koinonia in 2017 is through fuller participation with Northern Illinois Justice For Our Neighbors. If even some of the president-elect’s campaign promises are fulfilled, our neighbors who are recent immigrants could be extremely vulnerable. We can help JFON care for them. That is a way to love our neighbors we have left largely unexplored. I hope we begin to correct that in 2017.

To paraphrase the great Maya Angelou: As we work for justice for all God’s children, whatever challenges and roadblocks 2017 brings, I know that with God’s Spirit, like a song, still WUMC will rise.