Upstate NY Synod Assembly

The word on the church street is that most synod assemblies are kind of “blah” this year.  For those of you who do not know, the synod assembly is a time for a geographic location of churches (or Synod) to gather together and attend to the “business” side of the church.  There are resolutions made and voted on, memorials proposed, many conversation, Bible Study and fellowship time.

Before the assembly actually started, I was lucky enough to be a part of Y’ALL (Young Adult Lutheran Leaders/Links).  During the assembly itself I drifted in and out of Y’ALL, spent some time participating in the assembly, hanging out with the delegates from my church and talked with people with whom I don’t see on a regular basis.  I would like to share some thought about my time at Y’ALL and the Synod Assembly.


Y’ALL was a group of six young adults between Buffalo and Albany.   We gathered and talked about discipleship.  Two of the many eye opening moments I would like to share with you.

The first happened Saturday afternoon.  We moved our discussion from who has disciple us on Friday night to how can we disciple other people on Saturday.  I group of six broke up into pairs and then we thought of a list of ten things that people in the hotel or surrounding community could do for them.  They started out with some easy questions (what is your name, where are you from, where were you born) and then moved to more difficult questions (can I have a dollar, will you take a dollar, can I pray with you).  Being an extrovert I have never really had problems going up to people I did not know and have a conversation with them.  But one of the young adults said he was more nervous doing this activity than he was going on his first date.

I gave them 30 min to complete the tasks and they all came back accomplishing their goal.  Their stories were awesome.  Some of them told stories about people who completely ignored them or gave them funny looks.  While others told stories about people really opening up to them some people asked for prayer in their life, and they told them things that they were struggling with, things they needed help with.  It was powerful to hear the stories and to see the power of conversation and prayer.

The other eye opening moment for me was our conversation with the Bishop.  We cooked dinner for the bishop which included chicken parm, steamed veggies, and rice all cooked in a microwave (it was pretty good).  For dessert we had angel food cake with strawberries.  During dessert the Bishop answered questions we had for her.  There were two categories:  Serious Questions and Silly Questions.  This is where I was very impressed with the group.  There were questions revolving the future of the church.  They wanted to know where the bishop thought that the church was headed, not only Upstate NY but the entire church. It did not revolve around the few churches leaving the ELCA because the decisions about the acceptance of clergy in same gendered relationships or the blessing of couples in same gendered relationships that the ELCA made last August.  It was about mission and vision.  That really warmed my heart to see these young people in our church interested in the church, the current status of the church and the future mission of the church.

After dinner I left to lead worship at my church then next morning.  But I drove back to the hotel to attend the Synod Assembly.

Synod Assembly

One the one hand I really enjoyed the Synod Assembly because I felt like the assembly was all about mission and vision.  In some ways the assembly seemed very “blah” because of the major excitement and passionate opinions that were expressed last year.  But I loved the focus we had on business at hand and the conversations that I was engaged in did not have to do with sexuality, but mission.  I really enjoyed having scripture shared throughout the assembly and I would like to share some of my reflections about the Bible studies that I experienced during the assembly.

The assembly was blessed with Bible Studies given by three very passionate yet different leaders in the church.   Sunday night Pastor Chuck Schwartz and his son John started us with our Bible study of the book of Philippians.  We actually discussed the entire book of Philippians over the course of the assembly.  I was so glad that we started with Pastor Chuck because I love listening to Pastor Chuck, he has a passion about scripture and the preached word I would love to bring into my own preaching.  The thing that really impressed me was the difference in how I heard scripture from when I just listened to Pastor Chuck tell the Bible Story vs when I followed along with Pastor Chuck as he read scripture.  The major theme Pastor Chuck shared with us was how the concept partnership and sharing. Just as Paul invited those in Philippi into a deeper relationship with God and with each other, Pastor Chuck invited everyone to hear God calling them into a partnership both within their own communities of faith and with God in Christ Jesus.  I liked this because I think this is a large part of my call in Baldwinsville.  I am asking the people of the church, how can we dive into a deeper relationship with God, with one another and with our community.

The next day we started out with a Bible study from Pastor Dean Hunneshagen who had more of an intellectual Bible study.  He posed questions to us and lead us down a road where we talked about how we are the body of Christ and sometimes we feel disconnected from that body but we are drawn back in to go deeper in the joy we find with Christ.  I don’t know about you but I feel that way a lot.  Sometimes I feel that way because someone said something and I questioned my faith, or why I am part of the church.  Other times it is brought upon by my own internal dialogue.  Whatever the reason, the one thing that brings me back is a community of faith.  There are so many people who I look to when things are tough and I thank God everyday for those people.

Our third experience with Philippians was not a Bible study but a sermon. Bishop Jerge preached on Philippians during worship.  She began with a narrated poem punctuated with the phrase “I know how you can get.  I know how you can get when you haven’t been out drinking love,” and conversely, “I know how you can get…when you have.”  This is from the book Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words.  She used this imagery to depict the body and blood of Christ shared in communion.  It was very powerful and moving.  I know the way that I can get if I am not able to share with the community of Christ, if I am not able to share in communion with my brothers and sisters in Christ.

So we started the assembly with a Bible study of passion then we moved to a Bible study of  intellect, we  joined together for communion and we listened to a powerful and moving sermon and we ended the assembly with a Bible study from the heart.

Our last Bible study together was with Assistant to the Bishop Amy Walter-Peterson.  I have to be honest, I don’t remember too much with what Amy said, but I do know how I felt and the others in my group felt.  She got us into a place where we were able to share from our hearts, we were able to share deep inside of ourselves and I know tears were shed in many of the groups around the assembly hall.

Thank you Upstate NY Synod for a great and moving assembly, focused on God, scripture and mission.

Positive Thinking

If we put all our energy into positive thinking, what are we to do with our feelings that are not so positive?

I try to be a positive thinker, but sometimes I can confuse my desire to think positively with my need to deny other negative feelings. Have you ever felt sad or angry about something and then buried the feeling deep inside of you because you believe that it’s best to look on the bright side of life?

This happens because we are told that it is proper to be happy, and that we need to think positively all the time. Especially as Christians we are told to turn the other cheek, and that everything will be okay as long as we pray about it.

Now, I’m not saying that we should hold on to the negative feelings that cause discomfort or pain.  We need to let them go, but before we let them go I believe that  it’s important to let go of these feelings after we recognize them, name them and deal with them in a proper way.

All of our feelings are important, the happy and positive ones as well as the sad, angry and hurtful ones.  All of our feelings; need to be acknowledged and looked at before we can release them. To deny feelings is to say that there are certain parts of us that do not have value, that there are certain parts of ourselves, our thoughts and our ideas that are not important.  But God says we are all important, that every hair on our head is important and the ideas inside of our head are important as well.

Throughout the Bible we read stories of people expressing to God their inner most thoughts and feelings and God accepts them all.  God accepts us all so we can accept all of our feelings no matter what they are.

Accepting and acknowledging our feelings is the first step to gaining control over them, then we have the power to deal with them and to work with them in a helpful and healthy way.  If we deny and repress them we are sure to give them control over us.

Our Family Names

I stand before you today, not as Pastor Joe McGarry, but as Pastor Joe Whitney – because you see on February 4th 1930 my father was born and his birth parents were William Whitney and Betty Winnan, but only after a few days he was adopted into the family of Dr. Thomas F. McGarry and his wife Cecilla.  My father has no memories of his birth parents.  He was told that when he was four years old his birth mother brought him a bike for his birthday, but that was the last contact he ever had with them.

It was about fifteen years ago my parents really started to search for my father’s birth parents or any one connected to the family.  Lo and behold they found George Souls – my fathers brother by birth.  It was a joyous occasion for my father and our family.  Suddenly we were welcomed into another family with open arms.

It reminded me of the prodigal son, as God our father ran down the road to his son who has been away for so long.  He did not ask where were you, he did not ask what have you been doing or where are you coming from .  He welcomed his family member into his home, put his finest clothes on him and threw a party for his return.

As we hear in the Romans text for today.   When we become the children of God, adopted into God’s family, we are welcomed with open arms.  We know that we are not left out there in the openness of the universe alone.  Sometimes that’s what we think.  We are not asked where do we come from, what have we been doing or where we have been.  That does not matter to God.

Knowing that we have a heavenly family is a great and wonderful thing.  We know that we are not alone.  That is the hardest thing for me to overcome when talking with someone who doesn’t have faith.  What happens when you die? I ask them.  Their usual response is “nothing” is their usual response.  I don’t know about you, but I love the idea that I have a family waiting for me with open arms to welcome me in the heavenly kingdom.  I know that because the Spirit of God gets inside of me.  It moves me and makes me alive and convinces me once again that I am a child of God, that I do have a heavenly father and that I can call this heavenly father by name and that I have this inheritance of a future life, and I have hope in that, I have confidence in that and I have that assurance.

That brings peace to my life.  As my father was welcomed into his adoptive family, I too will be welcomed in my heavenly father’s kingdom as a child of God.

On this Holy Trinity Sunday, that is one part the Trinity —  God

Lisa Stoferson, a 29 year old single mother of two in Atlanta Georgia has had a rough run of it for the last 2 years.  Her long time boyfriend and father of her two children left her after a 8 year relationship.  She at first moved into a small apartment just outside of the city of Atlanta.  But between day care costs, working at a minimum wage job and all the other surprises life brings you

Lisa made the phone call.

She called her mother and asked, no begged her to take her and her two kids into her mothers home.  Lisa did not know where else to turn.  With her mothers help, Lisa was able to keep her job, start school again and not worry about who her children are with, because her mother is taking care of them full time.

This is not an uncommon example of another type of adoption, grandparents raising their grandchildren.  Sometime we get in over our heads and when that happens we do not know where to turn.  In many examples there are grandparents or other family members baring our burdens, lifting us up when we need it most.

In our texts today from Romans we are told that we will be set free from bondage and decay.

The one who frees us in Jesus Christ.  It is in Christ that we are able to shed our burdens, we are set free from our bondage and we are clean from all decay.  It is in Christ that we are saved.  It is in Christ that we can experience the highs and lows of being a part of a family.  As a community of faith gathered here today we are part of the same family, the family of God in Christ Jesus.  Our identity as a church and as a community is based on our faith in Jesus Christ. Because it is in our faith that we are saved.  It is in our faith that we come here today. It is in our faith that we leave here as a body of Christ ready to proclaim our family identity with the world.  That identity is found in Jesus Christ.

On this Holy Trinity Sunday, the second part of the Trinity is  Jesus Christ.

As a first call pastor, we are required to have a mentor.  Someone who is there for us answering questions during our first years in ministry, helping us out when we mess up, celebrating with us when we past certain milestones in our career.  I have had the privileged of having Jim Jerge as my mentor.  By coincidence Jim was supplying here at St. Mark’s during my call sermon last June.  We really hit it off and later he became my mentor.

In general most of mentor/mentee relationships are put together by chance.  Sometimes they work out and other times they do not work out.  We have great mentors here at St. Mark’s  in our youth and Sunday School programs.  I am continually impressed with the high quality of leadership that we have in those areas of ministry and I am very thankful for all the work that they do.

But mentorship adoption doesn’t only happen in the Church.  There are so many organizations that have mentorship programs that we can be involved in.  Mentorship takes time, energy and determination and form of adoption.  It is through the Holy Spirit that these relationships are formed and developed.  And it is with the Holy Spirit that these relationships can develop and take on new meaning for each individual participating.

As these relationships grow, both in the formal and nonformal mentor/mentee relationships the spirit in side of us which leads us becomes alive, and it begins infusing all our decisions.  Like we are lead by our mentors in our lives  – we follow them, listen to them and take their advice.  It is the same with the Holy Spirit.   The holy spirit comes inside of us and it is up to us to listen to the holy spirit to disern God’s call for us in Jesus Christ is coming to us through the holy spirit.

On this Holy Trinity Sunday, the third part of the Trinity is the Holy Spirit.

Generally the greatest relationships we have are with our family:

Our Birth family

Our adoptive family

Our family of friends

Our extended family which may include guardians who raise us

Our mentor/mentee family

Our family in Christ Jesus

And many other family groups that I might not have mentioned

We are blessed to have our identity as a family of God centered on Jesus Christ, Centered on Water and the Word, Centered on the Sacrament of Holy Communion.  We are blessed to have a supportive body of Christ that can come together even when things might seem difficult, we can over come them and come out the other side stronger than before.  And I am blessed to be a part of that family.

Children of God, that’s what we are- We are a part of Gods family, of a God who loves us and who cares for us as a mother, father, brother, sister, mentor, grandparent  and savior.