Thursday, October 10, 2019

God Has Brought You Together

It is really good to be here today.
Thanks to Trinity for hosting this great event.
And thank to Dave for inviting me to preach today.
For those that don't know Dave and I have known each other since 1996, but we became really good friends in the summer of 1998 at Camp Calumet.
That fall Dave invited me to live with him and his sister in a house they planned to rent in York, Maine.
It was during that year that Dave and I decided to go to seminary.
I will tell you that it was because of Dave that I finally made the leap.
We were living together in this house.
I was working at a home for abused and neglected kids in Portsmouth.
Dave was teaching math at a religious school.
I had come home from work, and Dave was sitting on the couch.
He said to me, "I am thinking of going to seminary."
And I said, "Oh yeah...I will go too that will be fun."
(If you ask Dave he will tell you a completely different story.
 It has to do with brunch at the cliff house, but I don't remember it that way."
You see I had been thinking of going to seminary for some time, but every time I went to visit and met other people at the seminary I just didn't see myself hanging out with the type of person that goes to seminary.
So when Dave told me that he was going I knew that I would have at least one person that I could hang out with.

I am suspicious of the idea that God has a plan for every little thing that happens in our lives.
If you take that position it leads down some fairly dark roads.
At its worst, It makes God into a puppet master, manipulating us to prove a point, or teach us a lesson.
The God that I know in Jesus Christ loves us too much to make life so difficult.
But what I do believe is that the people that come into your life are heaven sent.
And I am so thankful for Dave's friendship these many years.
I do believe that God put us together so that we could both hear the call to ministry.
Because I don't know if I would be a pastor today without Dave as my friend.

And I believe that Trinity Episcopal Church and Dave have been brought together by God at this time.
That here in this place you will do ministry together.
I ask you to believe in that today.
Because what we don't know is how it will all work out.
We don't know what that ministry will exactly look like.
We don't know all the twist and turns it will take.
We don't know all the ways that working together you will impact this community, and individuals within it.
We don't know all the ways that Dave will minister to you while he is your priest.
We don't know all the people that will come walking through that door who will need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.
All we know today is that right now God has brought you together.
We accept on faith that this arrangement is heavenly sent.

And in ministry these days we need that faith.
We are living increasingly in a post Christian world.
Less and less are people going to Church.
Recently, a chart came out that shows in 30 years the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA for short) will be gone.
I was talking about this chart with some of my Episcopal colleagues in Concord, New Hampshire, and they told me that they have seen the same chart for the Episcopal church in America.
Because of this, It is hard to be a person who likes to go to church.
It is hard to be a person who has given lots of their time, talent, and treasure over many years to keeping a church alive and moving.
I am assuming that there are people like this here at Trinity.
There are many of them at the church I serve as pastor.
And I want to say, "thank you and we need you."
I know that it is not what you remember it being, or that it is harder than it used to be.
We often feel like the disciples in our Gospel this afternoon asking Jesus to, "increase our faith".
I want you to know that pastors feel that too.
We are aware of the difficult nature of this work.
This is another reason I am so thankful for Dave, because we talk a lot about these challenges.
We have long conversations about all of the struggles that come with being a faith leader in this time and place.
But I want you to know that we still have faith.
I know that Dave and I have faith that even though the Church is struggling God is not going away.
We believe that God's grace and love are ever present for us, and for the people we serve.
I am asking you at Trinity Episcopal church to keep that faith with your new priest.
Believe what Jesus tells us in the Gospel today.
"If you have the faith of a mustard seed, you can  say to this mulberry bush be uprooted and it will be so."

I know we will hear this passage as Jesus saying something like, "With faith we can do anything!"
How we might hear this is, "If we just have faith God will give us more people in Church."
But I think Jesus point is much more subtle.
There are many obstacles in our way.
There are many hills to climb.
And it feels like we aren't doing anything.
Our congregation is shrinking.
We are losing money.
And all we have left is faith.
And my friends at Trinity Episcopal faith is all there is.
That is the point.
The reason for the church's existence is faith.
If everything went great all the time, if the building was full and the money plentiful would we need faith?

I hear this all the time in subtle ways from different church people.
They think, "if only we had a better pastor then we could really do something."
I also hear it from pastors, "If I only had better parishioners I could really do something."
Sometimes you hear it from both the lay people and clergy in the same church.
And this is exactly the problem.
We have taken God out of the equation.
Because our faith is never in us, it is always in God.
It is our faith that leads us to believe that we have been put in this place together.
You have called Dave Dalzell to do ministry with you in this place and time, because you believe that God has sent him to you.
He feels called by God to be here with you at this time and place, because he believes God sent you to him.
That is the gift.
Have faith in that.
Believe that God has placed you together now so that you can do ministry together.

With that faith here is what I believe you will do together.
Forgive each other often.
No pastor is perfect, no church is perfect, we only survive by forgiveness.
Love each other.
I can tell you that Dave will love you, and as his friend I ask you to love him back.
Act on behalf of the poor and left out.
Together figure out who in this community is hurting and what they need and act together to make a better world.
Worship together.
Celebrate the grace and mercy of God every week through the Lord's supper, and hearing the word of God.

I can tell you that it might not seem like enough.
You might not feel that the mulberry tree is being uprooted!
You might not grow.

Faith is not a magic formal for God to do what we want, but it is about being faithful to our calling as God's people.
We will leave the rest up to God.
Trinity Episcopal Church and Dave Dalzell.
God has put you together have faith that it is all you need.

Saturday, September 21, 2019


This year I dropped of my daughter Phoebe for her first day of high school.
And then something unexpected happened.
I cried.
The crying part is not unusual for me.
But I didn't expect it in this case.
People kept asking me all summer, "Are you freaking out that your daughter is going to be in high school".
And the answer was no.
I was looking forward to it.
In fact, I love the fact that my kids are growing up.
They are more interesting to me all the time.
So I thought as we left the house that morning that all was going to be fine.
It would be no big deal.
Just another first day of school, like all the other first days.
I have been thinking about my reaction a lot.
I think what it was about for me was loss.
I was losing part of my daughter.
All the things that we had done up to that moment where gone.
She was not the little girl I once knew.
And even though on an intellectual level I knew this was all good.
I knew this is how life is, I still had to take a moment and mourn the loss.

And thinking about it this week in light of our Gospel for this morning I have come to understand that all of our lives are about loss.
Every day we lose something.
We lose moments that we will never get back.
We lose time.
We lose our age.
We lose who we were.
All of us have experienced this in our lives.
We have all lost things.
And when we lose those things we have to readjust.
And in losing those things we might even feel that we have lost a part of ourselves.

I was looking at the pictures on Facebook of people starting the new year.
Of kids that have grown.
Of parents who are rushing to keep up with the demands of life.
Of kids who are moving away.
And I realized that all of my friends and families are not the same.
Or at least we are not in the same part of our lives.
We used to be concerned with diapers, and middle of the night feedings.
And now we are concerned with homework, dating, driving kids from one place to the next.
And the truth is that in every phase there is loss.
When I had kids I had to lose parts of my life that I had when I single or without kids.
I remember one year, when my kids were little, my wife asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday I said I wanted to go to a movie because we haven't been in so long.
I got to see Kung-Fu Panda.
We had to leave before it was over because the kids wouldn't sit through the whole thing.

I have to let you know that in our congregation there are people dealing with some serious life things.
All of those things are about loss.
Death, illness, aging.
They all make us reexamine our lives and who we thought we were.
One person is going through a lot of stuff with family.
And they asked their spouse, "I hope I will be the same when all this is done."
And their spouse very wisely said, "Of course you won't be."
Life is about loss.

This would be a real depressing sermon if that is all there was to say.
The good news is that God is always looking for us.
Because of that we are never lost.
We never lose us, because we always belong to God.
In every phase of our lives while we are losing I ask you today to think about what is found.
What do you discover about yourself in the loss?
What truth is God unveiling to you?
How is the loss helping you grow in faith?

I am no longer the father of young kids.
That part of my life is lost.
And I didn't realize that I had to mourn it.
But now I am wondering what does it mean to be me in this time.
What ways will I have to rely on God now?

When my kids were young I used to pray that God would simply help me get through the day.
That I would learn how to be a better man so I could be a better father.
My prayers have changed.
I pray so much for them now.
I pray so much that they might know and understand how great they are.
I pray they will know how much God loves them.

Because that is the beauty of the parables that Jesus tells this morning.
How much God cares for us.
That God will leave everything, God will stop all the other work to search for us.
Think about what Jesus says God is willing to do.
God will light a lamp, sweep the house, search carefully.
And when God does find us God will rejoice and throw a party.

Think about how much we do to try and hide from ourselves.
How much we do to hide from God.
We put up such a good fight.
We put up all sorts of walls so that no one will know who we really are.
And the amazing thing is that all God wants from us is to be who we are.
Just be you.
Be lost.
Be out of sorts.
Ugly cry in the car after dropping off your daughter for high school.
Don't know the answer to why people you love die or get sick.
Don't know what to say to make it all better.
Be you.
Because that is who God is really searching for.
Not the fake you who likes others to think you have it all together.
Not the person who says, "It is great. No problem. I am glad she is going to high school."
When people ask you about a major life change.
It is in the loss that we are found.
There in that place we discover over and over again who we really are, and what we really care about.

Life is about loss.
And that is why we gather here this morning.
We gather to mourn the loss, but more importantly to celebrate that we are found.
This week as you go about losing, know that God is lighting a lamb, sweeping the house, and searching carefully until you are found.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

10 Years Later Still Rolling the Dice

Something of significance happened this summer for our congregation and me.
It has been 10 years since we have been together.
I will be honest I wasn't expecting it.
I told Phil Joseph early on in our ministry together that I thought I would be here either 3 years or 8 years.
It would be a short time, and I would realize that this was not the place for me.
Or it would be a good 8 year run.
I want to explain the eight years.
My grandfather was also a pastor, and according to him eight years is the perfect amount of time to be the pastor of a congregation.
It was long enough to build relationships and trust so that you could get things done, but not too long were you both wear each other out.
But here we are at ten years, and I have no plans on leaving as long as you will still have me.
I still feel called here, I still feel that we have work to do together.
God is still keeping things interesting for me, and I hope for you.

I mention because I have mixed feelings about our Gospel this morning.
Jesus tells us that to be his disciple we have to "count the costs".
That we have to figure out if once we start something do we have the resources to finish the job.
On the one hand Jesus is right.
It is important to take measure of things and figure out can we do this thing.
We bought a new couch this week, and before we did we looked at all the options, we figured out if we could do it financially, and then we bought the couch.
We counted the cost.
Many times in our ministry together we have done this.
Before the current Capital Campaign the council discussed if we thought it was possible to raise the money we needed, and to figure out what needed to get done and why.
And Jesus is telling us that when we follow him we should do the same.
That there will be a cost to it.
It will cost us our lives.
To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is not something we do on the weekend when we have no other plans.
It is something we are all the time.
No matter where we are, or what condition out life is in, we are called to give of ourselves for other people.
And maybe the Church in this time doesn't do a good enough job of helping people see that cost.
The Church is just happy when people show up, and we take Jesus message and make it easier for people to be here.
We don't teach enough what Jesus is actually calling us to.

On the other hand.
How can we really know what the cost is?
I am not sure either Concordia Lutheran Church, nor I really understood what we were getting into ten years ago.
I wonder sometimes if you had really counted the cost would you have called me as your pastor?
Did you realized that some people would leave because of the ELCA vote on gay marriage and clergy?
Did you realize that some people would leave because of our open communion table that invites all people regardless of age, sex, faith tradition, or anything else?
Did you realize that your pastor would be an advocate for repeal of the death penalty, the homeless, immigrants, or LGBTQ+ community?
Did you realize that our church building would get a makeover?
Did you realize that we would get new seating, new bathrooms, new doors, new carpet?
Did you realize that your pastor would be always looking to do and try new things?
Did you realize that we would be running an early learning center?
I want to tell you that I didn't expect or know any of that at the time.
I really didn't.
I had no ten year plan.
(I will say the one thing I knew when I started was we needed new flooring in the fellowship hall.)
I went back and re-read the sermon I gave on the Sunday that you  voted to have me as your pastor.
It was about rolling the dice.
Here is a portion of what I said,
"This morning you all have a decision to make.
This morning together we have to try and discern God’s will for the future of Concordia Lutheran Church.
You have to discern if you feel that God is calling us to do ministry with one another here in Concord NH?
Let me suggest that we both are rolling the dice in this instance.
We are deciding on a course of action that neither of us know the outcome of.
We don’t know if we will be successful together.
We don’t know for sure if we will be a good fit.
I myself have prayed and agonized trying to discern God’s will in this case.
What are we to do?
Well you could flip a coin I guess.
But what I have done in the process as I met with the call committee and then the council is to be open to God’s call.
I have prayed about it.
I have given this my reverent best guess that this is where God is leading and calling me."

In other words in what was probably one of the biggest decisions of my life I simply trusted in God.
I am assuming you did too.
And that is what is difficult about Jesus words this morning.
We don't know the full price always.
We don't know what it will cost.
We certainly don't know how it will turn out.

Jesus disciples were following him from the start of his public ministry, but they didn't even know how it would work out.
They followed in faith.
And maybe this is where our lives and this teaching are most important.
And that is all of our lives are lived in faith.
We have to at some point turn it over to God, because we simply cannot see all the things that will come at us.

I want to end this morning with something my wife always says.
She says that she had no idea what she was getting into when we got married.
She was young and in love and didn't realize all the things that go into a marriage.
She didn't realize she was going to have to put up with me for all these years.
She married me on faith.
I want to say for my part it was worked out wonderfully.
But her point is well taken.
We simply don't know everything.
But we go on faith.

So count the cost, crunch the numbers, take your best guess.
And in the end have faith that on the walk Jesus will be with you.
I believe he has been with us as a congregation for the last ten years.
I am grateful that you rolled the dice and called me as your pastor.
And I still don't know what the future holds, but I know that as we walk together I am ready for the wondrous, glorious things that God will do here at Concordia Lutheran Church through all of us working together to witness to the awesome God we worship.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Diet Coke!

I don't think we need a lesson on sitting in the lowly seats.
Because I notice in Church that everyone likes to sit in the back.
Perhaps that is a good indication that we have heard what Jesus teaches about not taking the seats of honor unless we are called forth.
But that is not really what Jesus parable is about.
It is not advice on where to sit at a dinner party, anymore than it is advice on where to sit at Church.
In fact, it is not advice at all.
It is a teaching about the reign of God.
About the way that God wants the world to be.
About the way that the world was when Jesus walked among us.
And the way the world will be some day.

Right now in our world we make all sorts of assumptions about positions of power and prestige.
People with titles get better treatment then people who don't have it.
People with money or fame get special treatment.
They might get the best table at a restaurant, a special hotel room, people who pay extra attention to them.
The comedian John Mulaney tells this story about Mick Jagger from the rock group the Rolling stones.
John Mulaney wrote for Saturday Night Live and Mick Jagger was the host.
As John Mulaney tells it Mick Jagger would walk around and say, "Diet Coke", and one would appear in his hand.
That is special treatment that we don't get.
I am sure that Mick Jagger makes a lot of assumptions about what he will get in life from other people.
And I am sure if tomorrow you got a call that said Mick Jagger was coming over for dinner at your house you would put on your best meal you could think of.
You would call up your friends and tell them that Mick Jagger was coming over for dinner.
(Just as a side note Mick Jagger is not coming to your house.)
You get my point, if you have money, if you have power, if you are famous, you get treated differently.
And to be fair to Mick Jagger we all have these assumptions about the way we should be treated to some degree.
This week I had to spend a good portion of my day on the phone with the phone company trying to switch over the phones to "With One Heart Early Learning Center".
And I want to tell you it was not the most pastoral moment of my life.
I get so annoyed trying to do things in the world where you can't seem to talk to a live human being, and if you want to talk to a live human being it takes a half hour to get one on the phone.
And then once you get a live human being it is not the right one and they have to transfer you to another department.
Anyway, It was not my finest moment.
But in that moment I made lots of assumptions about what was owed me.
That I was owed good service from the phone company.
But why?
Everyone else gets treated the same way.
In that moment I was like Mick Jagger wanting to snap my fingers and make a diet coke appear.

And then Jesus comes into the world.
If you are like me and you believe that Jesus is God then how Jesus was in this world tells us what God is like in this world.
And Jesus destroys our notions of what we are owed.
Jesus doesn't come with a degree.
He is not rich.
He is not famous, except that he is popular with outcasts.
He holds no title, he not a king, a senator, a CEO.
He eats with undesirable people.
He places himself with the lowly, and he is lowly.
No wonder no one thought he was the messiah.
If Jesus came to your house for dinner what would you do?
Who would you invite?
Perhaps the right answer to that question is nothing special.
Jesus would be happy eating at your table the way you do every night.
Jesus would be happy with meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
Jesus would be happy just to sit with you and talk.
There would be no special thing needed.
When we pray before meals in our house one of meal time graces is "Come Lord Jesus be our guest".
We invite Jesus to come into our home and sit with us, among the everyday food we have.
We ask Jesus to sit as we share together our day, our triumphs and struggles, our gains and losses.
We ask Jesus to be with us this day as we struggle to be our best selves.
Isn't that the beauty of Jesus.
Jesus doesn't need a diet coke, just us in all of our human vulnerability.

The second verse to "Come Lord Jesus" is, "Blessed be God who is our bread; may all the world be clothed and fed."
We remember around that table that we are blessed, that we have something to offer the world.
Because there are places where there is no food, where families don't get to share their day with one another.
And we know that Jesus is in those places too.
That Jesus is where we can't see him, because we are blinded by our prejudices.
Jesus came to break down the lines that we put up to separate us from one another.

Then there is the day that Jesus tells us about.
It is different then what was or what is.
It is a day when God will reign.
When those divisions are no more.
When all will sit at the table together, and there will no greater or lesser.
There will be no more winners and losers.
There will only be us together enjoying a meal with our savior.
That is the day I long for.

Do you?
Do you wish it was different then it is?
Do you wish that the comfort you have others had too?
I believe that is what Jesus is asking of us this morning.
Maybe this side of heaven we have privileges based upon superficial human things.
Maybe this side of heaven Mick Jagger is treated differently than the rest of us.
Maybe this side of heaven I we get mad because the Comcast isn't being very helpful and feel that some great injustice has been done to us.
Maybe this side of heaven people starve to death.
Maybe this side of heaven kids are not safe enough to share their day with their parents.
Maybe this side of heaven we are not all treated the same.
But on the other side.
In the world that is to come none of those things are true.

On the other side of heaven Jesus is the main guest, the honored guest, but Jesus as we know doesn't want it.
Instead Jesus just wants to sit with us and enjoy our company.
Let us pray today that we are not so preoccupied with what we have, or what others have, that we miss out on that opportunity.
Let us hope we know that the only one we need or want at our table is Jesus.
"Come Lord Jesus be our guest."

Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Fire That Brings Grace! Should I argue with my family about politics?

There is a problem that I know many of you have.
I have had conversations with you about this problem.
It is talking politics with your family when you disagree.
You know you go to your relatives house for a BBQ and all of sudden uncle Fred and Lucy are fighting over tax policy, or immigration, or guns.
Suddenly everyone is uncomfortable.
I have a friend who would fight with his family over politics at almost every family event.
Eventually his mother had to make a rule that there would be no more political talk at family functions.
I actually gave him the advice that whatever someone said he should say, "Pass the ketchup."
This would be a great way to avoid talking politics.
I have been thinking about this for  awhile.
And last Sunday I was thinking about it.
So on Monday I started to read articles about it so that I could give you some advice today about keeping the peace with your families.
The articles all offered some good advice.
Things like listen more than you talk.
Try to get to why people feel a certain way.
Try not to judge.
So that is what I wanted to talk about this morning.
It was my plan.

On Tuesday my plan went off the rails for two reasons.
The first was that I realized I have no good advice for you.
Just saying, "pass the ketchup" is really bad advice.
Because if we can't talk about hard issues in our families, with people who love us unconditionally, then how are we going to have those conversations in our country.
I want you to talk to your families about everything.
But even more I don't know how to have these conversations with people I love and care about.
I am bad at it.
I usually avoid it too, because I don't want to say something I will regret.
I don't want to spend my life mad at people who I count on to be my support in this life.
Life is hard enough.
There are lots of really hard things to deal with, I don't need that kind of strife.
I am assuming that is why we are all avoiding these conversations.
Even in our congregation.
I would love nothing more than to not talk about these things here.
I would love to avoid the unpleasantness that comes with learning that we don't all agree.
Church is the place that we come together.
It is the place where we love each other unconditionally, it is a place of peace.

But the second thing that stopped me from giving you advice from the articles I read was Jesus.
I couldn't avoid the text for today.
How can I get up here and say, avoid talking about politics, or controversial issues, and then have Jesus tells us that he comes to divide us.
Jesus comes not to bring peace, but fire to the earth!?
Jesus this week tore apart the sermon I wanted to give.
I couldn't tell you something that I read in a article online as good advice we should follow, and then have Jesus directly contradict it in the Gospel we read.

So, is Jesus telling us to go into our family BBQ and mix it up.
Start a fight with uncle Fred.
So what if your family meal time together devolves into a yelling match.
This is what Jesus would want.
I don't think this is the message either.

Let me ask a question.
Is it possible to say that you are Christian and have it not mean anything to your life?
This is often the misunderstanding of many Lutherans.
That being saved by grace doesn't really mean anything for our lives.
It only matters when we die so we can go to heaven.
I think the opposite is true.
It means more.
If I am going to believe that I am saved by grace, it means I have to believe that we all are.
It means that the way I see the world, the way I understand other people is through the lens of grace.
It means that there are no points for doing good, or being good.
It means that the person I hate is loved by God just as much as me.
It also means nothing I can do, or say, will ever be perfect.
Because we don't believe in perfect.
We believe in grace.

And this is controversial.
Jesus offers peace to people all the time.
It is the peace of knowing grace.
It is offered to marginalized people who have been told that they are not good enough, that they haven't worked hard enough, or done enough.
It is offered to the rich and powerful who think that it is their money and power that have saved them.
It is what the world cannot see and does not accept.
And yes it is political.
It is political to believe in a world of equality under God.
That is the view that Jesus gives us.
It is the view that we heard about last week from the prophet Micah.

Here is what I know.
Some people cannot, and will not accept it.
They don't want to believe that the world is not what they thought.
They don't want to believe that God's grace is free.
But Jesus knows the cost of his message.
He knows that as much as God wants it to be peace it will not bring peace, but rather division.

Think of all the historical figures who talked of peace, but who were killed.
Dreamers who told us to imagine a world without the divisions we humans make.
People who told us that race didn't matter, nations didn't matter, economics didn't matter, sexuality didn't matter.
That the only way to peace was through acceptance of our similarities, not through what makes us different.
And those people were killed for it.
This is what Jesus is trying to tell us this morning.
No message, however good or well crafted will be accepted by the status qou in our world.
The only way to get there is through fire.
Is through the hard conversations we have around the dinner table, by the coffee pot in church, at the water cooler at work.
We can't avoid conflict.
We can't avoid people misunderstanding our intentions.
We can't avoid being called names.
But what we know is that through these things God's grace is at work.

I want to end this morning with a personel story.
I was in City Year.
Doing my year of community service.
I was talking to one of my friends in the core.
And I said something that was racist.
I don't remember exactly what it was.
I didn't know what I said was racist.
It was something I had heard a million times by other white people.
My friend called me out on it.
At first I was defenses.
We had a heated conversation.
I left mad.
But I thought about it, and in the end I realized that she was right.
Only through the fire is grace understood.

I don't know if you should argue with Uncle Fred at your family BBQ.
I don't know if you should avoid all uncomfortable conversations just to keep the peace.
What I know is that real peace comes from the fire.
It comes from God's grace that is shown to us through our failures, our misunderstandings, through our asking for forgiveness.
Jesus this morning reminds us that we can't run from that, because there in the fire we really experience the grace of God that binds us all together.