Every so often I joke with my friends about just re-reading the Scripture text assigned for a Sunday, in place of writing a sermon. It’s not that I don’t want to preach. Far from it. I love preaching, the craft of putting together and preaching a word about the Word is one of my most cherished prayer practices. Every sentence requires me to consider what I really, truly believe, what I really, truly know about life and trust about God.

But sometimes, there are texts that are so brimful to overflowing with nearly tangible Grace upon grace, that I just want to soak in them for awhile, like bathing in lotion after a particularly dry winter day. This Sunday’s Isaiah text is one of those:

 

Isaiah 43:1-7

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth – everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

 jacob

I remember when I was in college, just back from winter break, and this was the text on which hung the theme of God moving on the waters, the theme for the week of chapel. It was a theme chosen months ahead of time. It was a timely theme, almost painfully so, because that was the winter of a massive tsunami which wiped out so many lives in Southeast Asia. We were eager, as college students, to remain aware of the world, connected to its suffering in ways we could do something about, but this was tremendous, out of our control, out of our capacity to save. So we looked at these Scriptures about water and promises of deliverance, and of course that age-old question came up: Where was God when this happened?

 

If Truth is only true when life is comfortable, is it really Truth, or is it only a nicety? We wrestled, we prayed, we grieved for destruction and lives lost, even though we had no personal connections on those devastated shores. Then we looked again at the promises of God, at the Scriptures we had found ourselves in for the week following those storms. Where was God? We were all set to proclaim that God was in the life-giving waters of Baptism, all set to give the easy answer we had been taught in Sunday School and Confirmation class, but this was just too much to consider in the middle of all that pain. Except…

 

Except it was still true. IS still true. God was in those waters. God IS in the waters. The Truth of God’s promise and presence and faithfulness does not slip away that easily when the powers of heaven and earth seem to rupture all around us. Shorelines wash away. Trees are uprooted. God’s promise and presence and faithfulness remains. It is our grounding, our foundation, our salvation and deliverance. Where was God in the storms? In them. God was with those who suffered and died and were lost to us; they were lost to us but never lost to God. Perhaps we get this confused because our vision of God is too Hallmark, too fluffy, too small. If it truly is God with us in the waters, we should shudder every time we remember our Baptism, shake with awe and holy terror at the possibilities of the meaning of this God’s claim on us.

 

Isaiah 43:1-7

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth – everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

Pastor Nelson

Proclamation of the Birth of Christ

Today, the twenty-fifth day of December,
unknown ages from the time when God created the heavens and the earth
and then formed man and woman in his own image.

Several thousand years after the flood,
when God made the rainbow shine forth as a sign of the covenant.

Rainbow_1574
Double rainbow forming on the western outskirts of Innerleithen, Scottish Borders

Twenty-one centuries from the time of Abraham and Sarah;
thirteen centuries after Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt.

Eleven hundred years from the time of Ruth and the Judges;
one thousand years from the anointing of David as king;
in the sixty-fifth week according to the prophecy of Daniel.

In the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad;
the seven hundred and fifty-second year from the foundation of the city of Rome.

The forty-second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus;
the whole world being at peace,
Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father,
desiring to sanctify the world by his most merciful coming,
being conceived by the Holy Spirit,
and nine months having passed since his conception,
was born in Bethlehem of Judea of the Virgin Mary.

Today is the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.

–Pastor Andrew Nelson

 

An Open Letter to the Muslim American Community

Office of the Presiding Bishop
 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
 God’s work. Our hands.
(to be sent to ISNA, and the National Christian-Muslim Initiative)December 11, 2015

Dear Muslim Sisters and Brothers,

Grace and peace to you. I am writing on behalf of many Christians in this country who wish to share a word of solidarity, love, and hope with you in these difficult days.

In this season of Advent, we, your Christian neighbors, are preparing to celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who commanded that “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart… [and] you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31, NRSV).loveThyNeighbor

In our love for you, our neighbors, we are distressed by the ways in which you are being forced to bear the fears held by many in our nation. Therefore, we renew our commitment to find even more effective ways to protect and defend you from words and actions which assault your safety and well-being. We believe God calls us to resist what is divisive, discriminatory, xenophobic, racist, or violent, and we want you to look to us as allies and friends.

The global refugee and migrant crisis and the acts of terror committed in this country and around the world are challenges that demand our collective efforts, and our common prayers. Therefore, we will seek to stand shoulder to shoulder with you as agents of peace, justice, understanding, welcome, and reconciliation, for the sake of the world that God so loves.

creationHands

In this holy season, when we anticipate the light that the darkness cannot overcome (John 1:5, NRSV), we are reminded of God’s gift of life abundant for all. Together with you, we are committed to building a stronger society based on the dignity of each human being, the value of diversity, the holiness of creation, and the common good. We pledge our partnership, and invite our local communities into continued dialogue and engagement to this end.

In peace,
The Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, Presiding Bishop
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Further signed by
Liz Macris, RN, Parish Nurse, St Timothy’s
Jo Page, Int’l Interim Pastor, St John’s Lutheran Church, Albany
Rev. Dr. Rahel L.C. Hahn
Rev. Gregory A. Tennermann, Athens
Duane Keeler, Conference Deacon
Mary Rainey, Deacon, Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Scotia
Rev. Alison Leitzel, First Lutheran Church, Albany
Rev. Andrew T Nelson, Christ our Emmanuel Luth’n Church, Chatham
Jacquelyn Menagh, Council V P, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Oak Hill
Rev. Lauretta Dietrich, Zion Luth’n , Athens/St Paul’s Luth’n, Oak Hill
Pastor Vernon A. Victorson, ELCA, Retired
Jacqueline Jefferson, Deacon, So. Columbia County Luth’n Parish
Richard Rieger, Pastor Emeritus, St Andrew Luth’n, Gansevoort
The Rev. F. Charles Schwartz, ELCA Pastor, Retired
Rev. Dr. Dennis R. Meyer, ELCA Pastor, Retired
Rev. David W. Preisinger, Lutheran Church of the Holy Spirit, Albany
Rev. Dustin Wright, Pastor, Evang’c Luth’n of Messiah, Schenectady
Pastor Amber Waugaman, Prince of Peace Luth’n Church, Clifton Pk
Rev. Jeff Silvernail, Sr Pastor,Prince of Peace Luth’n Church,Clifton Pk
Rev. Paul Rees-Rohrbacher, ELCA Pastor, Retired
Rev. Deron Milleville, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Glenville
Rev. Jim Hulihan, ELCA Pastor, Retired

Advent

One of the jobs of a part-time pastor in a small parish is worship planning, which can include writing prayers, picking the hymns, sometimes putting the bulletin together (although we have the amazing Sharon Smith taking care of bulletins for four congregations in our local Lutheran cluster!). In preparation for the addition of a 7pm Christmas Eve service, and trying to get ahead on the hymn choices for a few weeks, I’ve been paging through our latest greatest Lutheran hymnal (Evangelical Lutheran Worship), specifically the “Advent” section. We skip so quickly on to Christmas music that we miss the beauty and the longing of Advent hymnody. A lot of minor keys, as in Lent, and a lot of themes of waiting and hoping and buckets of sadness that the world is so broken. It goes well with the time of year, days getting shorter, nights getting darker, slowing down and reflecting on broken things that need time and space to heal.

adventCandles

As I was paging through, I came across what is quickly becoming one of my new favorite Advent hymns: Each Winter As the Year Grows Older. It’s written lyrically by William Gay, born in 1920, and musically by Annabeth Gay, born in 1925. Contemporary music, born in the hearts of people born during the depression, and I’ll just write out below the first three of five verses from our hymnal:

1. Each winter as the year grows older,
we each grow older, too.
The chill sets in a little colder;
there verities we knew
seem shaken and untrue.
2. When race and class cry out for treason,
when sirens call for war,
they overshoot the voice of reason
and scream till we ignore
all we held dear before.
3. Yet I believe beyond believing
that life can spring from death,
that growth can flower from our grieving,
that we can catch our breath
and turn transfixed by faith.

Aptly, the name of the melody is “Carol of Hope.” It sings to so much of the present moment. I want to sing that third verse backed up by trumpets and timpani’s, it is so sorely needed. This is the time of year when our faith needs to be defiant, held up against the darkness of the weather and the news. It’s the time of year when God’s stubborn love makes me think of a 2-year-old kid throwing a tantrum against the power of every lie that would convince us we aren’t good enough to be loved.

Peace to you this Advent season. Keep hoping. Keep waiting. Winter is coming, but winter won’t last forever. Jesus is coming, and Jesus IS forever.

Happy New Year Potluck

I was listening to a radio interview with a Rabbi (Jesus was also a Rabbi, so it seemed good to listen to some other folks in his line of work), and heard something I’d known for ages but hadn’t connected with: Passover is celebrated in the home. The meal is a family event, with mother lighting the candles and the youngest child asking the questions, and this is the way they tell the, THE, massively most important story of their faith. Not in the synagogue, but at home, around the dinner table. Granted, there is a tradition of Sabbath dinners every weekend (how often do we sit down with our families -without our phones or the television as distraction- for a meal anymore?), but this central identifying story isn’t something left only to the synagogue to tell. It’s a story told at home, shared within the family. Shrinking congregations worry so much about filling the pews Sunday mornings, but what about encouraging what goes on at home? How do we strengthen families, with their busy schedules, to share holy time in their everyday time together? Surely God doesn’t wait until we’re gathered in the Sanctuary to speak to us words of forgiveness and grace.

potluck-imageSo Sunday, this first Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday of the new church year, we will gather around shared dinner tables for a potluck with prayer and Story telling. Instead of 10am liturgy (take your time driving home after Thanksgiving) our liturgy will be at 4pm in the fellowship hall downstairs (and our lift runs smoothly from the outside of the building to take you downstairs). We will gather and light candles, we will notice where we have noticed God lately, we will listen for God in the Scriptures and in each other, we will pray, we will sing, we will break bread and bless and be encouraged for the coming winter. Perhaps in this practice we will even find ways to shape our home dinner conversations, with our partners and our children and our neighbors, toward remembering who we are and the love to whom we belong. It’s a great experiment we take on together. So far it’s just the one Sunday night we’ve got planned for this sort of gathering, but perhaps with a little conversation we can see what works best for future alternative gathering times and styles. Come with your hunger and your curiosity and your imagination, and let’s explore where the Spirit will lead us while She feeds us in fellowship and Eucharist.

 

Shalom,

Pastor Nelson

Chatham Interfaith Thanksgiving a Joyful Celebration of Radical Hospitality

On the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving, St James Catholic Church at the corner of 66 and 203 was packed full of people gathered for songs, stories, prayers, blessings, as the annual Interfaith Thanksgiving event was a great success. When the planning began for this event, it was decided the theme would be “City of Strangers – Family of Friends,” both in response to the Syrian refugee crisis, and remembering the traditional Thanksgiving story of the first pilgrims being welcomed by natives all those years ago. Participants from a variety of faiths including diverse Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian traditions shared songs and stories and blessings on the theme of welcoming and being welcomed. Food offerings were collected for the local pantries, and money was collected for the United Nations response to the Syrian refugee crisis. The theme verse for the night was chosen from the Christian scriptures, the New Testament letter to the Hebrews, chapter 13: “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.”

refugees-are-human-beings-okiThat’s the long and the short of it. Small town folk gathering for an annual celebration of gratitude and togetherness in all of our differences of belief and practice, centering again and again on the Golden Rule common to so many of the major world religions. In the word shared from Imam Salim Chishti from the Abode of the Message: “One is not a believer until he loves for his neighbor what he loves for himself.” Perhaps more commonly known as “love your neighbor as yourself,” or “do not do to a neighbor what is hateful to yourself.” Considering the latest fear-based rhetoric against a ‘land of the free and home of the brave’ welcome for Syrian refugees, this annual event carried extra significance especially this year. Remembering our vow to ‘never forget’ neither the sacrifice of soldiers made for a more peaceful world nor the horrific tragedies of the Holocaust when so many Jews seeking refuge at our shores were turned away and sent back to the oven, this annual Interfaith gathering was a joyful witness of love, and a powerful refusal to fear the neighbor, who is only a stranger until they are a friend. Voices joined together at the end of the evening in a loud and hopeful singing of Bill Withers’ classic “Lean on Me,” an appropriate culmination to the stories shared of compassion and healing, experienced as very real in our midst.

Pastor Andrew Nelson

Starbucks

I have a confession to make: I really want to say something before I go on vacation, as a way to keep the website updated, because we have to stay relevant. But I can’t get past this morning’s shift at Starbucks, because I have gotten far too angry about the red cups conversation. There was a man who ordered a drink and had us put ‘Merry Christmas’ on the sticker as the name to call when it was ready. This is NOT the way to keep Christ in Christmas. It is not cheery, it is triumphalistic. It is not festive, it is bullying. It is Rome occupying Jerusalem, not God in a manger.

redCupsWhat do I mean by that? God in Christ was putting aside all power and authority and living in the mud with the poor and outcast. Jesus was part of a community of people who were bullied and beaten regularly to be kept in their place. His followers were academic and social rejects. For the first hundred years of Christianity, being called a “Christian” was a slur, and many of us were killed for being found to follow ‘The Way’ of this Rabbi who took care of widows and orphans, who laid hands on the sick and ate dinner with rejects.

How have we fallen so far that more media attention is given to the way Christians get upset over holiday decorations than the way Christians are reaching out to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, bring justice to the oppressed? Why do we see, and readily jump on the bandwagon for, the arguments about a secular company running a business without keeping our particular brand of Christian symbols at the center, when there are children being bought and sold for sex, refugees being thrown out of their homes because of wars they did not want, veterans returning home from war only to succumb to suicide, and myriads of New Yorkers working three full-time jobs who still cannot afford decent housing and a healthy meal? How have we come to the point where we would rather sit in the relative comfort of positions of power than take an honest look at the broken world and our place in that brokenness and seek the healing God has brought for the whole cosmos?

GodChristianity is not easy. It doesn’t guarantee life will be easy. It doesn’t guarantee we will always be right, or happy, or successful. It doesn’t even guarantee that people will like us. Jesus told his followers he would be the source of family division, even setting mother against daughter and father against son. If we’re torn apart by something as passing as red paper cups, what will happen when we’re called on to make real change for justice, or to decide between keeping our pension and standing by our values in a way that might lead to losing a job or actually put our life at risk? There are black college students right now in Missouri who feel threatened, and have had their lives publicly threatened in the last week, just for being black (it’s there in the threats themselves that they’d better stay home away from campus lest they get shot), and white administration and white students are not taking them seriously, are not standing up to protect them and take down the threats. But where is God to be found in all of this if not among those who are crucified? Where is God to be found except in the eyes and the heart of children who are bought and sold for sex and cheap labor? Where is God except in the overly tight shoulders of a single mom working three full-time jobs to support her kids so they can get a good education? Where is God except in the community of families sitting up all night at the bedside of a loved one who still has not woken up two months after a car accident? Where is God in our world if not in the muck and the mess of the manger?

That’s what “Merry Christmas” means, brothers and sisters. For the Christ Mass is the celebration of the Anointed One come into the world, God-With-Us in every nook and cranny and hiding place where we would rather not be found, Emmanuel in every spot of shame brought to the light and set free, when every piercing pain of our hands and hearts is born in His heart and hands. It doesn’t mean we always get our way, thank God. It means God stops at nothing to save us all. Not even death can keep God from making this scattered and shattered world, even us and our inane arguing over icons, whole again.

Pastor Nelson

Seeking & serving with hope, love and faith in Chatham, New York