Sunday, January 18, 2015

Let's Talk about Fornication!

Hi everyone,

Wow... the lectionary provided us with some pretty choice passages this Sunday. What follows is my take on 1 Corinthians 6: 11-20. If you'd like to see video of the sermon, you can check it out soon on my congregation's website, Messiah Lutheran Church.


Wow, the geniuses who came up with the lectionary really served us up a doozy this week. We have two stories in 1 Samuel and the Gospel of Saint John about God calling disciples… and neither of which is particularly uplifting. The Samuel story is really problematic because it ends with God being pretty mean to poor old Eli. The story from John isn’t too bad, but it’s just kind of dry, no? But then, we got one really coming at us out of left field with the epistle reading… it’s Saint Paul writing to those bothersome Corinthians all about the loaded topic of fornicating! While I firmly believe there’s good news in all these readings my sisters and brothers, they definitely all take a great deal of unpacking to get there, and given that we probably need a little something to warm us up on such a cold winter’s morning, let’s just talk about the fornicating! I figure it’s probably been a couple months since I’ve gotten too controversial in one of my sermons, so why not give it a whirl.

Has anyone here ever heard of the Houses of Hillel and Shammai? Although I had heard a bit about Hillel cause most Jewish student centers on college campuses are named after him, I hadn’t really heard the full story myself about Hillel and Shammai until I got to seminary either, so don’t worry about it. That said though, it might be a little bit too history-nerdish, but try to remember about Hillel and Shammai, because their story can definitely go a long way in helping us figure out difficult ethical issues and sort through difficult Biblical passages as Christians. This is a bit of an oversimplification of their story, but essentially Hillel and Shammai were two competing Jewish sages who lived not long before the time of Christ. Now when these sages disagreed about important matters of Torah or Jewish law, they and their respective followers tended to hold two competing schools of thought. The Shammai folks generally tried to stick more to letter of the law, to do things exactly by the book, while the Hillel folks tended to spend a bit more time thinking about context, how a particular piece of Torah would be applied, the sort of spirit and intent behind what was written in the Scriptures.

The most famous practical example of these two ways of thinking was in a bit of an argument the Hillel and Shammai folks got into over white lies. Now according to the last part of Leviticus 19:11, you’re not supposed to lie: “you shall not lie to one another.” But what happens (and this is the exact example Hillel and Shammai got in an argument about by the way)… what happens if on her wedding day, a not particularly attractive bride asks you if she looks beautiful? Should you lie, be nice, and say she’s beautiful, or should follow the law exactly, and truthfully say, “have a blessed wedding day darling, but no, you are ugly!” Now the right course of action I think seems obvious to all of us, but the Shammai folks would disagree… tell her she’s ugly they’d say, stick to the law! Now the Hillel folks wouldn’t say the law isn’t helpful in this matter, not at all! In fact, in order to give proper respect to the law, think about it a little, what Leviticus 19:11 trying to get at, what’s the intent? What’s the Spirit of the law? In the end, Hillel famously said, “every bride is beautiful on her wedding day.”

During Christ’s time actually, the Shammai folks were more popular. As opposition to Roman domination grew, the more hardline approach of the Shammai folks was more appealing. Eventually though, taking the Shammai approach to foreign policy with the Roman Empire is partially what led to Jerusalem and especially the temple being destroyed around 70 CE. As Jewish leaders reconstituted themselves in the succeeding years, Shammai’s way of looking at things was largely thrown out… you must take one’s context into account when interpreting the law. The spirit of the law is what truly matters! In the end, the Hillel approach largely triumphed, and it grew into majorly influencing the beautiful faith of Judaism we know today (and Christianity too by the way).
So when you see these controversial, difficult Bible passages my sisters and brothers, whether they be in the Old or New Testament, remember this whole Hillel/ Shammai thing… prayerfully try to discern the spirit of the author’s writing, and indeed how the Holy Spirit is currently at work in the author’s writing, right now, in this day in age, in twenty-first century Schenectady or wherever you might find yourselves.

Now when thinking about all this fornicating business, and indeed all the other various types of sexually-related sins listed around it in 1 Corinthians, let’s keep our context in mind. As Christians we’re all members of a religious movement that hasn’t always gotten matters of gender and sexuality exactly right over the years. All the women who were kept out of the pulpit simply because of their gender. All the folks told to stay in horribly abusive marriages by their local priest. All the recent divorcees, who in the midst of crisis, at the time they needed the support of their faith communities the most, were shamed out of churches. Now I imagine we may have some different views in the congregation related to marriage equality, LGBT issues and the like, but wow, I’d hope we could all agree that things like what happened this past week, when a church in Colorado decided to cancel a young woman’s funeral fifteen minutes after it was supposed to begin because she was gay, I’d hope we could agree that things like that are well, far less than ideal and certainly not reflective of Christian love.

Unfortunately, although many of the congregations in our denomination and others have been improving in recent years, it’s our history as Christians and notable news stories like the one out of Colorado this past week that have made so many folks, and not just people of my generation, associate Christianity not with God or love or Jesus but with being uppity and mean about matters of sexuality. I’ve seen it with my own eyes a bunch of times… Christians talking all about how their “pure” but in the end pretty much just putting themselves over someone else by shaming people who wouldn’t fit their standards of “purity.” These sort of actions, this sort of shaming that takes place far too often in Christian circles in matters related to human sexuality, is in the end complete hogwash, and needs to be called out as such, for at least two reasons.

First, when we put ourselves over and above someone else, whether or not what that other person is doing is actually sinful, it’s all too easy for us to forget about our own things that need improvement. Second though, and even more importantly, we end up just looking silly like Shammai, calling someone ugly on their wedding day. Paul wrote all this business about not fornicating to a church in the first century that was rife with conflict. The text seems to suggest people were committing all sorts of sexual craziness because they thought they were freed by forgiveness in Christ to do whatever they pleased, and as would obviously happen, the Corinthians just ended up hurting each other. They were messing up their relationships with God and with one another. If you take the Hillel approach, and look at the spirit of what Paul is trying to say to the Corinthians, here’s where you start to find the good news! In our day and age, in a time when the church has screwed up issues related to sex for so long and so many people feel so unwelcome in Christian communities because of it, it’s not as much the sexuality that’s getting in the way of being in relationship with God and one another, it’s this over-zealous judgement and shaming that’s the real problem. That’s not to say we should go out and be like the Corinthians doing whatever we want, not at all, misusing the gift of sexual intimacy can really hurt people, but wow, in our context, that over-zealous judgement and shaming is what's really hurt people and truly getting in the way of far too many folks knowing the joy of Christian community.

When you look at the spirit of what Paul’s trying to say with all this fornicating stuff, in the end, he’s saying take Christ seriously. Take Christ seriously! Outside of gathering to hear the Scriptures publicly read, being baptized and celebrating communion (all actions which involve other people, by the way), the best way we can know Christ in this world is simply by seeing Him in the face of other people, oftentimes in the face of people where you would not expect Christ to be. Christ is breaking into your life each and every day! Take that seriously! If you’re part of a community where sexuality is getting in the way of seeing Christ in one another like in first century Corinth, sure, chill out a bit with the sexuality. If you’re part of a community where judgement and shaming is getting in the way of seeing Christ in one another, as it certainly is in many of today’s churches, chill out a bit with the judgement and shaming! Christ, my sisters and brothers, is constantly trying to break into our lives, to heal us, to save us, to liberate us, to make sure that we know we our loved, no matter what. Christ is trying to teach us something too by sometimes showing up in the faces of those we’d least expect it. And indeed, Christ has promised to do these things. And yes, our God in Christ is a God who keeps promises. Amen.

Dustin serves as pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church, a Spirit-filled church following Jesus Christ in Rotterdam, New York. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, he spends most of his professional time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with his fiancée Jessie, his amazing pup Willy Bear and pretending to know how to sing.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Jesus is Not the "Reason for the Season"

Friends,

What follows is a rough manuscript of the sermon I preached this past Christmas Eve at Messiah Lutheran Church in Rotterdam, New York, a Spirit-filled church where I'm incredibly blessed to serve as pastor. It's on the Saint Luke's nativity story, Luke 2: 1 - 14. Finally, you can find video of the sermon at Messiah's brand new website!

God's peace,
Pastor Dustin

So, is anyone here a fan of Saturday Night Live? Until a few months ago when I started spending most of my Saturday evenings writing the sermons which I tend to procrastinate about finishing throughout the week, I definitely watched the show pretty frequently… its pretty funny. I still occasionally get to see a few of the skits posted online though, and there was one a couple weeks ago that went pretty viral… you might have caught it. The skit was simply called “Church,” and it was a spoof commercial advertising how your annual trip to church on Christmas Eve to make your parents’ happy was going to be really different this year, because the local church, this place called Saint Joseph’s was planning on “going full throttle with their one night only Christmas Mass Spectacular!” That’s right… Saint Joseph’s Christmas Mass Spectacular! As the commercial begins to explain over the sound of blaring electric guitars, the main reason for Saint Joseph’s Christmas Mass Spectacular being so rocking this year is due to the presence of “all your church favorites,” all the folks who make Christmas Eve at Saint Joseph’s extra special.

Most of the rest of the skit goes on to showcase all those church favorites, the epic cast of characters who make Saint Joseph’s an especially rocking place to be. There’s Mr. Drubbler of course, who enthusiastically wants to shake your hand while sharing the peace, despite having the most incredibly sweaty hands possible. Then there’s teen soloist Bethany Opsal, who’s up in the choir loft singing it out for the Lord with soulful passion, “thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path! Huh!” Now if that’s not enough to get you excited, there’s Saint Joseph’s pair of exhilarating liturgical readers: twelve year old Ryan Welty who stands up in the pulpit in the hot, itchy Christmas sweater his mom made him wear and starts proclaiming the Word despite clearly not wanting to at all… “and lo, the angel Gabriel appeared unto Mary murmur murmur murmur” and forty-four year old Colleen Chapin who in a bright red festive suit jacket with lots of Christmas flair really, really does want to read this year… “This is reading. From Paul. To the Corinthians!” And whoa, my sisters and brothers, I might be a bit partial, but if you really want to have your mind blown, there’s good ol’ Pastor Pat. Now Pastor Pat might half fall asleep during worship, and he might chant really off-key and at constantly changing speeds… you know something like “all glory be to God the Father all mighty, for everrrr and everrrr,” but, he’s always got at least one incredibly soft sermon joke up his sleeve, to which the congregation of course will politely respond with an incredibly soft chuckle. And finally, after being awed by Saint Joseph’s Christmas Mass Spectacular, you might even have a chance to sneak a peak into Pastor Pat’s house, and see that he’s even got a table in there, just like everyone else has a table in their house! Whoa!!! Radical!!!

Now, of course, this SNL skit was an absolutely hilarious exaggeration of what church on Christmas Eve looks like, but there are some a couple really important truths in there too. For the many folks who only make it out to worship on Christmas Eve, and its awesome to have some of you here tonight with us by the way, this SNL skit probably serves as a legitimate indictment of what many churches have become in recent decades… these sort of antiquated, backward thinking communities, where goofy people do goofy things each and every Sunday that are hard to understand and then in turn often don’t embrace folks who might look or act or love in a different sort of way. On Christmas Eve, it might feel nice to go to church, or at least it’ll make Grandma happy, but otherwise, why would one ever want to wake up early on a Sunday morning or miss watching the big game for something like that? This, my sisters and brothers, is a legitimate point, a while I don’t think it at all describes our Spirit filled congregation, its a common concern that all faiths communities in our day and age definitely need to take seriously.

The even more important truth that the SNL skit perhaps inadvertently emphasizes though is also one that is at the heart of Saint Luke’s message for us tonight, in this place, in twenty-first century Schenectady. Every year, in a bid to turn folks away from all the gift buying and over consumption of the holiday season, you always hear folks exclaim, “Jesus is the reason for the season!” Who here’s heard folks say that before? Yeah, quite a few of us. Well, my sisters and brothers, I want to humbly submit to you this holy night that those folks, though certainly having good intentions, are completely wrong. Those folks are completely wrong. Jesus is certainly at the center of what Christmas is all about, absolutely, but no, Jesus is not the reason for the season. The good news God proclaims to us tonight through Saint Luke’s words is that the reason for this season that celebrates Christ’s continual birth into the world, and the reason for church, and the reason for all the hymns and rituals and prayers and coffee hours and potlucks and confirmation classes and service projects is people, the reason for the season is people, all people. The reason for the season, the reason for God’s continual, constant breaking into this world through Christ, is that guy with the really sweaty hands and the kid with the itchy sweater and the overly enthusiastic choir member and even the pastor who isn’t that funny and always chants off key. The reason for the season, the reason for Christ’s constant birth into this world, is you. The reason for the season is you, whether you’ve shown up here at Messiah every week for decades, or whether this is your first time and you’re looking for a new faith community to call home or whether you only show up once a year to make Grandma happy. The reason for the season is you! The reason for the season is you! The reason for the season, and Christ’s constant birth into this world to be with us is you and you and you!

We always tend to talk about Mary and Joseph tonight, but let’s focus elsewhere in the story… just look at what that angel says to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” The “good news for all people” the angel’s going on about is a much bigger deal than a Savior being born to Joseph and Mary. It isn’t that a Savior is born to the people of Israel. It isn’t even that a Savior has been born to God as the Father. While all those things are indeed true, the good news for all the people that the angel proclaims to the shepherds and to all of us, this holy night, my sisters and brothers, is that a Savior is born unto you! A Savior is born unto you! This holy night, and indeed every night, whether celebrating with family after a phenomenal year or battling with anxiety and depression, A Savior is born unto you! Whether all the talk about birthing and babies that happens around this time of the year brings up hard memories of struggling to conceive or whether you’re the proudest, happiest parent in the world, a Savior is born unto you! Whether you’re missing a loved one or have been looking for love in all the wrong places or are surrounded by family this evening without a care in the world, a Savior is born unto you! A Savior is born unto to you, to me, to all of us, to save us, to free us, to bring new meaning to our lives. Indeed, you are the reason for the season, you are the reason God is breaking into our lives, tonight, and each and every night, in liberating love. You are the reason for the season. Merry Christmas, and amen!

Dustin serves as pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church, a Spirit-filled church following Jesus Christ in Rotterdam, New York. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, he spends most of his professional time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with his fiancée Jessie, his amazing pup Willy Bear and pretending to know how to sing.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God

Hey everyone!

What follows is a rough manuscript of the sermon I preached yesterday at Messiah Lutheran Church in Rotterdam, New York, a Spirit-filled church where I'm incredibly blessed to serve as pastor. It's primarily on the appointed Gospel passage for this Sunday, Mark 1: 1 - 8. Furthermore, it's also the second of a four part sermon series I'll be preaching throughout Advent called "God with Us." Here's what I'll be covering in the coming weeks:

- Advent 1: God with Us in the Face of the Stranger
- Advent 2: God with Us in Rotterdam
- Advent 3: God with Us at Work
- Advent 4: God with Us in Family

Finally, I'll guess it might be worth noting that I wrote this pretty rapidly this morning before church after discarding what I came up over the past week... there's thus a much more sense of immediacy to it, and I hope it still makes sense. Thanks so much, stay tuned for future installments, and I hope you find this helpful!

God's peace,
Pastor Dustin

Let’s just revisit the first few verses of today’s gospel message again… “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare the way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. After being tempted by Satan, Jesus then begins preaching, healing and exorcising across the Galilean countryside, picking up a motley crew of disciples along the way, who continue to follow Jesus despite having no idea who He truly is. And this, as Saint Mark says, was “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

You know the rough shape of the rest of the story, right? Jesus isn’t accepted by his family in Nazareth, yet more and more folks seem to flock to him as he continues to heal, cast out demons, and teach in parables. While a demon knows Jesus Christ is the Son of God, yet even despite the transfiguration, ya know, that time when Jesus is on the top of a mountain and everything becomes all white and light and the voice of God says “this is my Son,” the disciples still can’t entirely figure out who Christ is. Even if the disciples couldn’t figure it out though, the people were healed, the people were fed across the Galilee, people learned about how God was active in their everyday lives, in the lives of their local community, in the lives of their families. And this, as Saint Mark calls it, was “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Jesus eventually decides to move south, to Jerusalem, to the local seat of power, to where the temple is, to where God certainly should be! Jesus enters the city triumphantly, yes, but after foretelling the destruction of the temple, and cleansing it, and admonishing the scribes and all the official sounding folks in Jerusalem, all those high and mighty, supposedly super holy people in charge conspire to kill Jesus. And even despite everything that happened at the Last Supper, and all Jesus prayers in Gethsemane, all those super holy religious officials along with the Roman officials put Jesus to death, and this wasn’t like Superman Jesus just hanging out there up on the cross like he is in the Gospel of John. According to Mark, this is a painful, excruciating, all too human process… God in Christ experiences the worst of human suffering in a fully human sort of way, even to the point of crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The disciples continued to deny Jesus, yet at least one unlikely person, a Roman centurion, knew Christ was. And this too, as Saint Mark explains in today’s gospel passage, was also “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

While all the bros were hunkered down terrified of what had just taken place, Mary Magdalene, another Mary and another woman named Salome went to go attend to Christ’s body after the sabbath was over. But when the went to the tomb, Jesus’ body was not there… only a young man in white who said “Do not be alarmed, you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will him, just as he told you.” Yet, at least according to the original ending of the Gospel of Mark, even these women, the most loyal of Christ’s disciples, dropped the ball… the very last sentence in the gospel reads “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Yet somehow, the word God out anyway… Jesus had indeed gone ahead to Galilee, and a seemingly radical, but in fact incredibly simple movement took shape. Increasing numbers of folks were healed, folks were fed from the local seat of power in Jerusalem, to the seat of global power in Rome, and folks learned about how God was active in their everyday lives, in the lives of their local communities, in the lives of their families. And this, as Saint Mark would characterize, was still only “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Now wow, despite countless martyrdoms, the sack of Jerusalem by Roman soldiers and conflicts with those same super holy religious authorities, predominately due to how well Christians care for the physical as well as spiritual needs of people, more people heard about Jesus, and eventually a few hundred years later, the entire Roman Empire converted! While good news in some ways, this also ensured that the Church, the body of Christ on Earth, would from that time forth tangled up in the political order of the day. Yet while the emperors and bishops and Christianity’s own supposedly "super holy people" argued about heresies and creeds, started all sorts of wars and schisms, folks were still healed, folks were fed, and folks learned how God was active in their everyday lives, in the lives of their local communities, in the lives of their families. And despite all the craziness, this too, my sisters and brothers, was still only “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

I know I’m skipping a few details, sure, but despite a ridiculous number of crusades and inquisitions, barbaric colonialism, the corrupt “super holy people” in charge and often silence in the face of immense injustice, somehow, folks were still healed, folks were still fed, folks still learned how God was active their everyday lives, in the lives of their local communities, in the lives of their families. Nearly ninety years ago, a Spirit-filled church following Jesus Christ was founded on the outskirts of a small northern city that electrified and moved the world. Through depressions and wars, and crazy social changes, and immense layoffs and outsourcing, and deindustrialization and a massive loss in population, generations of folks were still healed, still fed and stilled learned how God was active in their everyday lives. Right when things were maybe looking up, 9/11 happened, some controversial wars happened, the Great Recession happened, local tragedies and struggles with pastoral leadership happened, sure. The “supposedly super holy people in charge” often had no idea where or who Jesus was, and still don't, but yet, somehow, folks were still healed, still fed and still learned how God was active in their everyday lives. Just this past week, despite all the craziness and extra commitments of the holiday season, when two of our own families here at Messiah were facing immense difficulties, countless prayers were said, phone calls were made, cards were sent, people were visited and meals were prepared. At the same time, funds were being raised, and quite rapidly actually, to make sure a needy family in Rotterdam had presents under the tree this Christmas. While this was amazing, and I personally have never have been so proud of how supportive and active so many members of this congregation have been over the last week, none of this really was very new. Folks were healed, folks were fed, folks learned how God is still active in their everyday lives. And this too, yes, my sisters and brothers, is only the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

I was thinking about it on a long ride from New Hampshire last night, and while I see how it happened, it seems like absolute hogwash that religion, or at least faith in Christ, is often thought of as this sort of lofty, academic, hard to understand, super complicated sort of thing, ya know? I mean anyone that’s taught their daughter or son a bedtime prayer, or visited a sick loved one in the hospital or served a meal to a hungry family, knows just as much about Jesus as the most highly credentialed pastor or professor. Sure, it’s absolutely necessary to sort of work through our experience of God with others in community, but in the end, Christ comes to us not predominately in ancient treatises or esoteric teachings, but in the regular stuff of everyday life, in caring for one another, in raising families, in learning and growing, in trying to make our local community a better place. And as we continue to journey together through this Advent season, as the days continue to get shorter and colder, amidst all the craziness this time of the year brings, yet as we still await Christ’s coming in hope and longing, my sisters and brothers, know that this too things too is only the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Amen.

Dustin serves as pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church, a Spirit-filled church following Jesus Christ in Rotterdam, New York. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, he spends most of his professional time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with his fiancée Jessie, his amazing pup Willy Bear and pretending to know how to sing.

Monday, December 01, 2014

"Why Have You Hidden Your Face from Us?"

Hey everyone!

What follows is a rough manuscript of the sermon I preached yesterday at Messiah Lutheran Church in Rotterdam, New York, a Spirit-filled church where I'm incredibly blessed to serve as pastor. It's primarily on the appointed Hebrew Bible passage for this past Sunday, Isaiah 64: 1 - 9. Furthermore, its the first of a four part sermons series I'll be preaching throughout Advent called "God with Us." Here's what I'll be covering in the coming weeks:

- Advent 1: God with Us in the Face of the Stranger
- Advent 2: God with Us in Rotterdam
- Advent 3: God with Us at Work
- Advent 4: God with Us in Family

Thanks so much, stay tuned for future installments, and I hope you find this helpful!

God's peace,
Pastor Dustin

So a couple years back in the very late hours of Christmas Eve or early hours of Christmas Day I found myself sitting on a couch three stories up above Midtown Manhattan, staring out at these stark and lonesome, but also beautifully and atypically still city streets, just sort of taking stock of my life and wrestling with God. You see, I was in the middle of my internship year Saint Peter’s Church, where the final Christmas Eve service gets out quite late and a hot breakfast is served to homeless members of the community early every Tuesday morning, even if that particular Tuesday is Christmas Day. With this in mind, instead of taking the subway back to my tiny apartment in Queens after helping out with the Christmas Eve services, I headed up to the third floor of the church where there was an amazing conference space with massive panel windows on two sides and also an amazingly comfortable couch that I always took naps on Sunday afternoons between services. My plan was to spend the night at Saint Peter’s, wake up early, help with preparing and serving breakfast, assist in a short Christmas morning liturgy and then take off for a few l expected to be melancholy days with folks up in New England. I reasoned that especially on Christmas morning, there wouldn’t be many volunteers to help serve breakfast, or perhaps that our guests would be in need of pastoral care, so staying all night at church seemed like the both logical and upright, Christian thing to do.

The truth I didn’t want to admit to myself or to God however that night was that the reason I was trying to sleep on that couch perched high over Lexington Avenue wasn’t because I was a super good intern or fulfilling my Christian duties at all… Rather, I was burdened with the constantly dull but overpowering ache of depression, sadly anticipating the anniversary of my mother’s death, drowning amidst the chaos of a failed relationship, experiencing incredibly loneliness I what I viewed as a way too big city and feeling like I really had nowhere else to go. I could have easily gotten the holiday itself off, but going back home to Connecticut would only bring up more hard feelings about my mom and doing what I considered to at least be burdening a friend’s family with my presence didn’t seem like a good option either. And worst of all, much like the speaker in today’s first lesson from Isaiah, I felt like God had entirely hidden from me. Trying to sort out where God still was in the middle of all the garbage going on in my life, especially at Christmastime, was completely proving impossible, and as you might imagine, I didn’t sleep a wink that night.

That morning, our God of surprises definitely showed up. A former member of Saint Peter’s and pastor at another nearby congregation that didn’t have an early service on Christmas Day, showed up to lead what turned out to be a huge group a volunteers, one giant extended family with no previous connection to Saint Peter’s who had simply decided to spend Christmas morning helping folks out. I honestly wasn’t need at all… there were more than enough volunteers, and frankly just by hanging out with me, our homeless guests probably did more to provide me with pastoral care than the other way around. We engaged in a bunch of great conversations, especially about our guests’ service in our armed forces. Although this number has improved in recent years, as of 2013 still around 53% of America’s homeless population are veterans (according to HUD's "Annual Homeless Assessment Report" ). I got to hang out and laugh with the family who was volunteering too, and community was fostered on Christmas morning… our God of surprises definitely showed up.

Now don’t get me wrong, God definitely showed up in the face of the stranger that Christmas morning, but it wasn’t necessarily in this big, beautiful, idyllic sort of way… it’s not like Scrooge running around giving folks money and ham dinner in a Christmas Carol! Although this isn’t typical, we had to serve an unused catered fish dinner from a giant law firm a couple stories up that morning for breakfast, which thus made for a really stinky breakfast! We often romanticize poverty in our society, especially around this time of the year, but there were definitely a few guests, although not a lot, who showed up drunk or high on who knows what. I even remember banging my elbow like really, really hard and cursing pretty loud for being in a church building. My depression wasn’t cured overnight, the messy parts of my life weren’t immediately fixed, the rest of my year in New York while incredibly rewarding still turned out pretty darn lonely, sure, but our God of surprises definitely showed up. That sense of not joy, but stubborn, resolute peacefulness, community and most importantly hope that God freely gives us when Christ shows up, especially in the face of the stranger, was definitely present.

So two closing thoughts as we enter into a new liturgical year, into the season of hopefully longing that is Advent here at our Spirit-filled church following Jesus Christ. First, especially in the midst of the holiday season when we’re constantly told again and again in holiday movies, in commercials and even by family and friends that we should be especially joyful, know that in Christ it is absolutely okay to feel whatever it is you’re feeling. Check out verse five of our reading from Isaiah, where the prophet cries out to God, “because you hid yourself we transgressed.” I mean, Isaiah is at least partially blaming God for his people’s sinful behavior!! The prophet’s really discouraged by God seemingly not showing up as in days of old! And I mean, if the guy or woman who wrote that part of Isaiah, one of the most central books of the Christian Scriptures, can take anger and disappointment to God, I think God in Christ certainly gives us permission to do the same. If you are indeed feeling joyful and jolly this holiday season, that is awesome, rock on, but if you’re not, you have absolutely no reason at all to feel guilty about it.

Second, and relatedly, as Jesus cries out to us RIGHT NOW in twenty-first century Schenectady through today’s gospel, KEEP AWAKE! Yes, while God is present in our church, in our families, in all the places we normally experience Jesus, God in Christ is especially present in the face of the stranger! Last night I had a chance to rewatch Jill’s awesome sermon from last week, and the way she proclaimed the good news about serving our neighbors was amazing. Perhaps the best part of serving our neighbors, whether they be people who are homeless, or hungry, or a family where there isn’t enough money to buy the kids Christmas presents, isn’t about what we’re doing, but rather what God is doing to us in Christ. We know in faith that Jesus especially comes to us in the face of the stranger. I took a break from the news while I was on vacation last week, with the exception of course of watching the aftermath on the grand jury ruling in Ferguson, which outside of that city were not entirely but largely peaceful. Whether or not justice was specifically done in Ferguson isn't my specialty, but I couldn’t help but think when looking at the faces of all those peaceful protestors that from one perspective they were simply proclaiming God is present in the face of our African-American sisters and brothers. Yes, Christ is present in their lives and the lives of all who are crying out against a wider societal system where the sin of racial injustice is still certainly weighing down our country.


After everything the prophet Isaiah cries out to God in today’s lesson, there’s a turn near the end, did you catch it? Check out verse eight: “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” I’ll read it one more time, “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” Wow, despite things certainly being far from perfect in the prophet’s situation, that stubborn, resolute peacefulness, sense of community and most importantly hope that God freely gives us when Christ shows up is definitely present in Isaiah’s words. It may not always be joyful, it might not even always feel good, but God in Christ is certainly at work in your life and life, your life and your life and indeed all our lives, carefully crafting us, forming us, shaping us, showing up in all sorts of places, especially in the face of the stranger. Indeed, God has promised us in Christ that this is the sort of God who God is, and yes, as always my sisters and brothers our God is a God who keeps promises. Amen.

Dustin serves as pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church, a Spirit-filled church following Jesus Christ in Rotterdam, New York. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, he spends most of his professional time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with his fiancée Jessie, his amazing pup Willy Bear and pretending to know how to sing.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Zephaniah, Our Stuck Culture and How God is at Work RIGHT NOW

Friends,

What follows is a rough manuscript of the sermon I preached this past Sunday at Messiah Lutheran Church in Rotterdam, New York, a Spirit-filled church where I'm incredibly blessed to serve as pastor. It's primarily on the appointed Hebrew Bible passage for this past Sunday, Zephaniah 1: 7-18. I'd love to hear what you think!

So wow… pretty intense message coming out of our first reading from Zephaniah, huh? Earlier this past week I was in the office working out this Sunday’s liturgy with Tina when I went over the texts for the first time, and after reading that passage from Zephaniah, I had one of those face in palm moments… Zephaniah ain’t playing here! All that doom and gloom… “the great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter, the warrior cries aloud there. That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom… I will bring such distress upon people that they shall walk like the blind; because they have sinned against the Lord, their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung… ouch! Today’s passage from Zephaniah is a perfect example of one of those Biblical texts that makes a lot of confused Christians say things like, “Geesh, the way God’s portrayed in the Old Testament makes God sound pretty mean! That’s not the God I know at all, so it’s not relevant. It’s not relevant, so I’ll just skip those passages and get to all that nicer sounding stuff with Jesus in the New Testament.” Be honest, who here’s done something like that before?

Here’s the thing though… despite the way Zephaniah portrays the voice of God sounding really mean and all, despite all the scary doom and gloom, the historical context Zephaniah wrote for couldn’t better match our own, and thus, definitely has some powerful and indeed profoundly good news to proclaim to us in this time, in this place, RIGHT NOW in twenty-first century Rotterdam. Zephaniah himself says he’s writing during the time of Josiah, sort of the last big, successful king of Judah before the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem in 587 BCE. And the times Zephaniah describes are certainly much like our own… “the people rest complacently on their dregs” the text says. Folks in King Josiah’s time lived in relative prosperity, things were okay, but the text repeatedly indicates there was a certain cultural “stuckness” going on in Judah. Sure there was injustice, all manner of sins going on, but in the end, perhaps folks’ greatest sin in that time was complacency or even apathy… a “stuck culture” where thinks weren’t really good, but not that bad, kinda meh… where folks didn’t either want or didn’t think they could do much to improve the situation. Yeah, they sort of continued to worship God, but they didn’t feel like God was all that active in their everyday lives… Zephaniah tells us the people said in their hearts, “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.” So, the people weren’t really active, and they didn’t think God was all that active either… they were in a “stuck culture.”

That sense of complacency, of cultural stuckness is definitely something we can all relate to. You might remember a few weeks ago when in the midst of writing my sermon I reached out to some close friends, asking them the question “why are we so pessimistic?” Well, throughout the week that followed, one of my friends and I continued our conversation, and at one point he sent me a few texts that describe our situation incredibly well:
Ya know why we’re pessimists… it’s because there is nothing good left to look forward to. Going to the moon for the first time ever. Creating the interstate highway system… the American Dream. We didn’t grow up in a time of great fear that needed to be overcome, yet we’ve just succumbed to the fear anyway. 
And summing it up using a slightly less kid-friendly word than I will, he said, “People don’t have the brass to achieve anymore.” I think my buddy diagnosed our stuck culture pretty well. Ya know this past weekend I saw what I think will be considered one of the best films of the decade, Interstellar. Has anyone else seen it? Yeah… it’s awesome… because outside of its entertainment value, while on one level it’s about a not-too distant future where humanity needs to leave planet Earth to survive, on another level, it has a lot to say about our own times as well… that sense of complacently, that cultural stuckness that while not always there, seems all too often to weigh deeply upon our hearts. Speaking in terms similar to my buddy, the main character Cooper diagnoses the stuck culture of his world and ours with some pretty powerful words, “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt… yeah, that’s exactly what’s going on… we live in an incredibly stuck culture.

But luckily, it’s into just this sort of situation, a culture of complacency, a stuck culture that Zephaniah proclaims strong, profound and indeed, incredibly good news. Sure, he uses some pretty harsh words, but he uses all the spilling out of blood like dust and flesh like dung for an important reason… to wake us up. My sisters and brothers, you’ve heard the gospel proclaimed to you week after week, year after year in ways that could be summed up, “God loves you no matter what,” “God forgives you, no matter what” or maybe “God saves you, no matter what.” Now, in Christ, we are promised those things are absolutely true, and they absolutely are, and being reminded of such things is as important as ever. Absolutely. But in our time, in our incredibly stuck culture, the gospel message God cries out to us in the words of Zephaniah echoing across the millennia is one that is perhaps even more powerful… in Christ, God is calling you into a life of incredible meaning. In Christ, God is calling you and you and you into a life of incredible meaning. On an individual level, in your families, when you help your children or grandchildren doing their homework, even if the way they teach math nowadays makes absolutely no sense, what you do matters. What you do has incredible meaning in Christ. When you go and visit a homebound loved one or help out a fellow coworker, even in a small way, what you do matters. What you do can’t get you to heaven or get you right with God, because God already takes care of that for us, but still, what you do has incredible meaning in Christ.

On a larger scale, as a society, God is calling us to lives of incredible meaning as well. This past week as I watched coverage of the annual Veterans’ Day ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers in Arlington, and especially as I heard about Gerald’s flight to DC where he was honored as a veteran of the Second World War, I’ve been haunted by the incredible bravery of our women and men who’ve served in our armed forces… and I know we have a number of them in our congregation. Please stand up or raise your hand if you’re a veteran. Thank you for all you’ve done, for all you’ve sacrificed in service to your country. Now while we prayerfully hope that doing something like defeating the scourge of Hitler never has to happen again, we should also know that we’re still called to dream and solve difficult problems and do incredible things in our time, RIGHT NOW, despite leaders in both of our major political parties and other leaders in our stuck culture neglecting to ask us as a nation to do much of anything… ending hunger, caring for people who are homeless or undocumented, curing cancer, all these things are possible with a collective societal effort. Living lives of incredible meaning, doing things that matter, both on an individual level and as a wider society, isn’t something to be relegated to the past, whether it be two thousand years ago or sometime back in the good ol’ days, whenever those were… God is confronting us with the profoundly good news that we’re called to lives of incredible meaning RIGHT NOW.

And of course, God confronts us with the profoundly good news that we’re called to a life of incredible meaning as a congregation as well. Now let me first say, when you sing in the choir, or help care for our property or teach our children in Sunday school, that already has incredible meaning in Christ. On top of that though, you might recall I spoke last week about a question that the Spirit has certainly put on my heart, and I know on many of yours… “Given all the growth we’ve experienced here at Messiah, what might God be calling us to in that growth?” There was also a homework assignment, if you remember… to brainstorm, to think about needs in our local community, here in Rotterdam and the greater Schenectady area. I apologize, as I know my sermons have been going a bit long lately, I promise to reign it in after my vacation haha, but just take a minute to turn to one of your neighbors and talk about what things you came up with, what some needs are here in our local community…

… We might not be called to build cutting edge low income housing or feed every hungry person in Schenectady as a congregation alone, but whatever needs you talked about, we’re certainly confronted with the profoundly good news that we’re called in Christ to in partnership with others, work on at least a few of those things. As we enter into a busy Advent season as Messiah Lutheran Church, as a Spirit-filled church following Jesus Christ, I pray the conversations you had keep going, that ideas keep bubbling up. Once we get past Christmas, say in early January, I already heard from a few of you that it’d be a good idea to have a bit of brainstorm session together as a community, to discern what we might be called to do.

Even if the things we come up with seem small, my sisters and brothers, with every hungry mouth fed or family with a warm place to sleep or harmful public policy changed through our efforts, treating our neighbors as Christ is something that always matters. And furthermore, perhaps in doing these things we can proclaim to folks in the ridiculously stuck culture we find ourselves living in that they are called to lives of incredible meaning, that they can and indeed often are doing things that matter as well. For as Zephaniah proclaims, both to the people of his stuck culture and to ours, in this time, in this place, RIGHT NOW in twenty-first century Rotterdam, God is constantly breaking into our lives, stirring things up, making things happen. In Christ, our God has promised to do just that, and yes, as always our God is a good who keeps promises. Amen.

God's peace,

Dustin

Dustin serves as pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church, a Spirit-filled church following Jesus Christ in Rotterdam, New York. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, he spends most of his professional time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with his fiancée Jessie, his amazing pup Willy Bear and pretending to know how to sing.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Wake Up!

Friends,

What follows is a rough manuscript of the sermon I preached this Sunday at Messiah Lutheran Church in Rotterdam, NY where I'm incredibly blessed to serve as pastor. It's primarily on the appointed gospel passage for this Sunday, Matthew 22: 15-22. I'd love to hear what you think!


God's peace,
Dustin

So I got this buddy Pete… the only person I’ve ever became best friends with twice… You see, Pete and I became friends in pre-school when I was four years old, but given that you don’t have much control over your social life at that age we lost touch with each other. Fast forward a decade to when I was an awkward, goofy freshman in high school, and Pete and I became best friends all over again, despite only making the connection well into high school that we had originally been friends as preschoolers. While we had a bunch of friends in common, shared similar senses of humor, and all the rest, the reason I especially liked Pete though was that he’d drag me kicking and screaming into all sorts of adventures. And by adventures, I really mean adventures… one time shortly after we had gotten back to school from summer break, Pete suggested that we head out to this spot he heard about along the Connecticut river and go cliff jumping… jumping off the remains of some old foundation, a big rusty metal and concrete sort of thing and plunging through the air about thirty or forty feet down into the water. At first I did not think this was a good idea, especially as I really wanted to take a nap after school that day. Pete kept on me though, telling me it would be an awesome time, and eventually I caved. Now after trekking through about half a mile of tick infested tall grass (I always call this adventure the tick safari), we got to the cliffs, and Pete almost immediately jumped off that big ol’ rusty pile of metal and concrete. I timidly followed him, plunging down thirty or forty feet, and after painfully smacking the water, I realized I was having the time of my life! Pete and I must have jumped off that cliff at least ten more times each that day.

Circa 2006.
And ever since that point, I sort of knew to always trust Pete, that despite all my reservations, that whatever he suggested would be awesome adventure, one from which we’d get out from relatively unscathed. There was another time, probably the following spring when he suggested in early April that we should go off this rope swing and swim halfway across a reservoir to explore this island. Now granted, this reservoir probably still had ice in it only a few weeks earlier, and once again I argued that I wanted to go home and take a nap after school, but he persisted and after I eventually followed him off that rope swing, we somehow made it out to the island and hung out there for hours, having great conversation about girls, about growing up and whatever else teenage bros talk about. After swimming back later in the evening, I’m positive we got mild hypothermia, but no matter, it was an awesome adventure and I didn’t regret it a bit. Fast forward a few years, and despite going to colleges many hours apart from each other, Pete and I remained good friends. There was one year when I was suffering from a fairly major bout of anxiety and depression, it was spring break, and I wanted to do nothing but go home and waste the week away sleeping and watching TV. Pete had other plans though… he eventually convinced me to join his college outing club in a rock climbing and white water rafting trip. After experiencing yet another new adventure, meeting new people and just having some great conversation by the campfire with my best buddy Pete, things started turning around for me, and I always mark that weekend as the turning point of my recovery.

The last time I saw Pete was actually on his wedding day. He’d been dating an amazing girl for a number of years (who he met on the rafting trip actually), and after not hearing from him for quite a while, he called me up two summers ago to ask if I could preside at his wedding, which true to form, he and his fiancee had decided would take place in about a week’s time. I, like usual, was apprehensive at first… I was by no means allowed to preside at weddings before being ordained, I was supposed to do all that marriage counseling stuff beforehand, and not to mention Pete’s a sort of atheist or at least not a big fan of organized religion and that I’d have no idea what to say… you get the picture. But of course, like always, I found myself a week later, standing under a tent in Pete’s backyard, wearing flip-flops, rolled up jeans and a ripped flannel shirt, saying “by the power not vested in me by the State of Connecticut, I now declare you husband and wife.” And of course, that day will be a memory I cherish for the rest of my life… sharing a part of one of my best friend’s greatest adventures.

So, on top of being mortified about some of the situations your new pastor has found himself in over the years, you’re probably all wondering at this point about what Pete and I’s friendship has to do with today’s gospel message… what our adventures featuring a tick safari, hypothermia, a rafting trip and a last minute wedding unsanctioned by the proper ecclesiastical authorities have to do with one of Jesus’s most famous, most debated and yet most misunderstood teachings: Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s… Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. You’ve probably heard all sorts of interpretations… that this passage is about contributing more money at to your church, or giving more of your time to God, or maybe even that it’s about how your faith should or shouldn’t relate to what you think about public policy. Well, I’ll be honest on this one, I don’t know for sure, but I have a pretty strong inkling that while yes, Jesus’ message about giving to God the things that are God’s has some ramifications about how we should think about stewardship and public policy as Christians, that in the end, Jesus’ message is about something much bigger, and much more important than all of that… Jesus’ message to the Herodians and the disciples of the Pharisees and to us, in this time and place in twenty-first century Rotterdam, New York is about trust. And perhaps on even a deeper level yet, Jesus’ message to us today is also about hope.

Ya see, when I was younger I was a shy, awkward kid, who definitely had big dreams but struggled in figuring out how to work toward them. And there were other factors too of course as I grew up, but I think a big part of my go get ‘em attitude today stems from my friendship with Pete. Sometimes he’d just shake me up and say Dustin, dude, trust me, you don’t want to sleep the day away! There’s a big beautiful world out there! Dustin, trust me, things might be tough for you right now, but joy is still possible! New things are still possible! Dustin, trust me, sure you might be breaking the rules, but help me celebrate my wedding day. And in Pete’s unique ability to instill trust in me while shaking me awake at the same time, I discovered there were so many possibilities, I was reminded what was truly important, and in turn, I was drawn into the sort of free and merry spirit brought only by a deep, down to the core sense of hope for the future. Now Pete’s a great guy, trust me, but I mean, he’s also just a guy… Jesus has similar, even more profoundly good news for us in today’s gospel message.

When you read the whole narrative of this part of the gospel, beginning with Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem (ya know the story we celebrate every Palm Sunday), when he casts out the money changers from the Temple, and then all his difficult parables that we’ve all been struggling with over the last month or so… when you read all that, today’s message sort of pops out at you as unique. Jesus often condemns the Pharisees, the scribes, the Sadducees, and all those sort of religious officials for leading their people astray, but that’s not really who Jesus is talking to in this passage if you look at it closely… the Pharisees plot to entrap Jesus, but then they sort of send in their B Squad to do their dirty work… they send in their disciples, young Pharisee padwans you might characterize them as if you’ve ever seen Star Wars. The story reads like the disciples of the Pharisees go collect some low level supporters of Herod, or in other words some pro-Roman folks, and then simply do what their teachers have told them… they try to publicly entrap Jesus with a difficult question about taxes.

Jesus, in famously answering, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” doesn’t really seem to be speaking a word of condemnation to the young Pharisees in training, or to us for that matter… he’s speaks a message of trust, and on even a deeper level, of hope. Much like how my buddy Pete had that unique ability to instill trust in me while really shaking me awake at the same time, Jesus is saying to these Pharisees in training, “Sure pay the tax, whatever, but that’s not what’s important you silly people! Give to God the things that are God’s, which by the way is everything! Quit it with all this trying to publicly entrapping me nonsense! Your teachers are leading you astray! Wake up! Wake up to what’s truly important, to the truly amazing ways God is breaking into your world!” Any Pharisee in training having gone through Torah 101 would have known the first chapters of Genesis… God created the whole world, and it was good! Give to God the things that are God’s, because hey, everything is God’s? Yes, while this statement necessarily leads one to ask how to give everything to God, and that’s an important question, it’s not the central point. In the end, Jesus is simply saying to these impressionable Pharisees in training and the Herodians alongside them… wake up! Trust me! Stop being silly and wake up to what’s truly possible in God! Wake up to all the absolutely amazing things God is doing in your life!

And so, my sisters and brothers, Jesus confronts us with the same powerful message today, right here in twenty-first century Rotterdam, New York in our spirit-filled church seeking to follow Him. Jesus confronts us in that unique sort of way, just like my buddy Pete did for me, that begs our trust while at the same time shakes up awake. Sure, there’s are truly difficult things going on in most if not all of your lives… those Pharisees in training would have hated being reminded about the Roman occupation themselves… there’s truly difficult things going on in many of our lives… the loss of loved ones, illnesses, a rapidly changing and at times dangerous society, the ebola epidemic, economic inequality, yet another war in the Middle East and even concerns and worries too hard to put into words. So many of us are in profound need of comfort, of healing, of strength and it seems like we have nothing left. Yet the living Christ, my sisters and brothers, confronts us with just the sort of message we need. He shakes us up… saying wake up! This whole world is my Father’s, all is God’s and truly amazing things are still possible in a world were God is indeed in charge! Wake up, sure, there will be difficult things, you might have to “deal with the emperor,” but wake up! You are loved. Wake up! You are saved. Wake up! You are not alone. Wake up! Your life still has deep, profound meaning in me! Wake up! Wake up into the love of a God who has promised to walk with you no matter who are or what you’ve done or what you’ve faced in life. And yes, my sisters and brothers, wake up to the love of a God who keeps promises. Amen.

Dustin serves as pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church, a Spirit-filled church following Jesus Christ in Rotterdam, New York. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, Dustin spends most of his profession time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with his fiancée Jessie and pretending to know how to sing.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Chief Priests, Pharisees and Professional "Perfect People"

Friends,

What follows is a rough manuscript of the sermon I preached this Sunday at Messiah Lutheran Church in Rotterdam, NY where I'm incredibly blessed to serve as pastor. It's primarily on the appointed gospel passage for this Sunday, Matthew 21: 33-46. I'd love to hear what you think!

God's peace,
Dustin

So wow, upon first read this is a pretty tough gospel message, one that does not seem to have much good news at all… I’ll provide some context and also do just a bit of recap for those of you who, like I sometimes do, have a hard time staying focused on whatever’s being read up front in church. While I haven't been preaching a whole lot on ‘em over the past few weeks, this Sunday’s gospel passage is yet another one of Jesus’ “vineyard” parables, where the vineyard typically is meant to symbolize the kingdom of God. In this one, which follows right after our gospel message from last week in the Bible, Jesus is speaking to the chief priests, Pharisees, the professional “perfect people” in other words, who throughout history have often been found leading various religious institutions. A landowner sets up a vineyard, essentially builds a fort around it, and then perhaps goes on holiday. He sends over his slaves though at harvest time to collect his portion from the tenants left in charge of the vineyard, and then the tenants promptly decide to kill the slaves. This same thing happens a second time… even more slaves are thrown into the mix, who the tenants once again kill. Finally, in what seems like an oddly cruel decision, the landowner decides to send his son over, who is promptly killed as well.

Jesus then of course traps the chief priests, the Pharisees, the professional “perfect people,” by asking them what the owner will do with those no good tenants. “The tenant will puts those wretches to a miserable death,” the professional “perfect people” reply back, only later to figure out Jesus was talking about them. Jesus, seemingly confirms this, by in fact directly quotes Psalm 118, which is a song of victory: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.” He then goes on, “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” Now jeesh, this parable seems like quite the bummer! If we place God as landowner in the parable, first we have to deal with God being okay with having slaves, and then we have to be okay with God sending his slaves AND his Son to a certain death, and then worst of all we have to deal with the idea that we’ll be crushed by God if we mess up like those no good tenants. There’s another difficulty with the text as well, particularly since we’re reading it the day after Yom Kippur, one of the holiest days in the Jewish calendar. Texts, and these like it, have throughout much of Christian history been used to the support the foolhardy notion that God rejected the Jewish people with the coming of Christ.

So let me be pretty blunt here… by no means at all is Jesus saying to the chief priests and Pharisees that God has rejected the Jewish people or Judaism. Absolutely, positively, not at all. Jesus was learned Jew… he shows that much by quoting the Psalms in today’s gospel passage. Just a few verses before this passage, Jesus is welcomed with opens arms into Jerusalem, in the scene we experience every Palm Sunday. Let me be pretty blunt here… Jesus was and is completely cool with Jewish people. One thing Jesus is saying to the chief priests and Pharisees however is that God was in fact pretty darn upset with the religious elite of Judaism at the time, the professional “perfect people” who while pretending to act all zealous and holy, were simply leading all their followers astray. Now, anyone who’s spent much time at church over the last fifty odd years knows this phenomenon of professional “perfect people” at the head of religious institutions isn’t something relegated to first century Judaism… many Christians, and especially Christian clergy, haven’t done a particularly good job heeding Jesus’ warning as of late.

Whether its the more old fashioned fire and brimstone preaching or the more popular nowadays picture of the perfectly happy Christian family wearing inoffensive polos standing alongside the handsome young pastor in a really nice necktie, either way, for whatever reason, us Christians, and perhaps especially us clergy folks all too often like to portray ourselves and our families as perfect or at very least quite pious to the folks in our congregations, and of course, to the general public as well. And now after decades of church decline, partially as a result of having these “perfect people” as visible leaders in our congregations, we’re in a pretty dire situation. So many of the folks my age, a majority of my non-seminary friends probably, seeing church as a place full of judgement and backward thinking rather than a place full of the good news. And it’s not just young people who feel this way about church of course… all sorts of folks have been made to feel less than worthy of God’s love in many Christian congregations… folks who have gone through a divorce, folks who don’t fit inside heterosexual norms and folks who can’t afford a nice set of dress clothes are just a few of the groups who often are made to feel they don’t measure up to the “perfect people” in Christian congregations.

Now, upon first hearing it, today’s gospel message seems like one that solely condemns… you will be cast off by God, you will be crushed if you act like those no-good vineyard tenants! Now on one level, it does condemn. It especially condemns us folks who try acting like we’re perfect, who try acting like they have everything together, and especially us clergy folks, the professional “perfect people” found all too often as leaders of religious institutions, myself included. On one level, today’s passage from Matthew does condemn, but on such a more important level, my sisters and brothers, it holds a message of incredible promise. Remember, when Jesus is doing all that condemning, he’s quoting Psalm 118, which is a song of victory… “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.” And just listen to what comes after the verse he cites in Psalm 118… 
“this is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it! Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord. The Lord is God, and he has given us light! Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar. You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you. O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures for ever!”
Wow, now why do you think Jesus would quote a psalm like that if He wasn’t preaching good news?

On one level, God does expect a lot out of us. Jesus does shortly following the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 famously say, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect,” after all. We should do the best we can do as Christians, out of love for all the amazing blessings God gives us everyday. The funny thing though, and the thing the chief priests and Pharisees and far too many Christians, myself included, can’t always seem to remember, is that doing the best you can do for other folks and for your community usually means not being “perfect” at all! Indeed, in our human imperfection, in our human sinfulness, at least in terms of day to day stuff, it often hard to agree on what “perfect” would mean anyway. And in being “real,” in making ourselves vulnerable to one another, to be okay with bearing witness to our scars and flaws, that in turn creates space for our friends and family and neighbors to be themselves as well. And here’s the best part, and the most important part, that those professional “perfect people” couldn’t seem to get… in trying to be perfect, we make things all about ourselves, which in turn simply distracts us from the new and exciting things God is doing again and again and again in our lives and in the lives of our communities.

In today’s gospel message, my sisters and brothers, Jesus is saying geesh, get over yourself, get outside of your own head for a bit, but he’s not saying that in the end as a message of judgement! Not at all! Christ is instead calling us again and again and again to look at all the amazing ways God is constantly breaking into our lives, doing new things, making new possibilities no matter who we are, how we feel or what we’ve done. God is constantly breaking into our lives, making new and surprising things happen… the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone! So, my sisters and brothers, as we move into this month of hoping and thanksgiving together, know that everyday is a day the Lord has made, where in Christ new dreams are possible and new hopes will be stirred up in our hearts. Everyday is a day the Lord has made, everyday is a day where stones that have seemingly been rejected have become the cornerstones of new and exciting things in Christ. Amen.

Dustin serves as pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church, a vibrant congregation ministering with the local community in Rotterdam, New York. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, Dustin spends most of his profession time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with an amazing woman named Jessie and pretending to know how to sing.

Monday, September 29, 2014

God Is at Work in You!

Hi friends,

What follows is the manuscript for a sermon I preached yesterday at Messiah Lutheran Church, the amazing, spirit-filled faith community following Jesus Christ in Rotterdam, New York where I'm blessed to serve as pastor. It's primarily on one of the appointed texts for the Sunday, Philippians 2:1-13. It'd love to hear some feedback and thanks for reading!

In line with the style of this week’s children's sermon, this sermon will be a bit participatory adventure as well… So if you could take out your bulletin, open it, and focus on the right inside panel, where it has all the announcements and those sort of things. Now look near the bottom of the page in the box that says Messiah Lutheran Church and lists our contact info. Who here could read for me that first sentence below our wonderful sexton Nicole’s name? Just the first sentence… Thank you! Now there’s a bit of a typo there, but it’s pretty close… Our mission is “to be a spirit filled church following Jesus Christ.” So if you wouldn’t mind, repeat after me… Our mission is “to be a spirit filled church following Jesus Christ.” Our mission is “to be a spirit filled church following Jesus Christ.” Alright, awesome!!! Now say it one more time so you can keep it in you head while we chat for a few more minutes… “Our mission is to be a spirit filled church following Jesus Christ.”

Members of our busy kitchen crew last night @ Messiah.
So as you all know, it’s been a pretty busy time in the life our faith community, and frankly in my own life as well this past week. There was a lot of time spent preparing for the roughly one hundred folks showing up later this afternoon for a beautiful evening vespers, to celebrate all the amazing stuff we’ve achieved together over the past couple months, followed by an equally celebratory, awesome and I’m sure to be delicious ham dinner organized by our very own Kitchen Committee. Some of my family members are of course coming up to Rotterdam in a couple hours for the festivities, most of them for the first time, so I had a whole lot of house cleaning to do, which my increasingly mischievous pup Willy Bear has been making pretty difficult. Our new bishop in the Upstate NY Synod, Rev. John Malcholz, visited Messiah for the first time this past Thursday as well… he loved the new paint job in my office by the way. And on top of all that, you might be aware that I got engaged this past weekend to the beautiful Ms. Jessie Morton. Two of her closest friends, Ms. Brooke and Ms. Hailey, who are joining us this morning in what I think is both of their first Lutheran services, even flew up to spend this special weekend with us.

So given all this, I gotta confess I was pretty much running on fumes all week, not really on my “A game,” a fact that became most apparent when it occurred to me about ten minutes before I was scheduled to lead our first adult education class this past Wednesday evening that I had completely forgotten to plan anything, not even the briefest devotion, for the class at all. Given that I’m the pastor and all here I felt pretty irresponsible, kinda angry and really disappointed with myself, and definitely frustrated about how nuts things have been lately at Messiah, even though all that craziness has stemmed from pretty much all good, and in fact amazing things… new faces and returning old faces joining us during Sunday worship, a new girl scout troop and Home Bureau group using our building, new classes and programs galore… even plans for creating a whole new youth room in the works. We’ve indeed experienced growth in every way over the last couple months here at Messiah, and you’ve all contributed so much to this process, and on top of all that I was just about to celebrate some truly amazing moments in my own life, but no matter, I really upset and even angry about how busy and worn out I was feeling.

Our wonderful volunteer servers last night @ Messiah.
Luckily I had a copy of this week’s bulletin on me, as I was starting to think about today’s sermon, and that’s when I first spied that powerful mission statement of yours… our mission is “to be a spirit filled church following Jesus Christ.” Now mission statements are something folks usually argue over in various committees every five years or so and then promptly forget about, but I figured, hey, that sounds like a pretty good one to describe the mission of folks here at Messiah, so let’s talk a little bit about it and your accompanying dove symbol at the beginning of our adult education class. And guess what folks, we ended up having a fabulous conversation… we spoke about how when first coming here as prospective members looking for a new faith community, it was apparent how the Spirit was truly moving amongst the people of Messiah. We reflected a bit deeper about the how Holy Spirit works as well, about how we experience the Spirit in passion, in emotion, in movement, in making things happen, yet how the Holy Spirit’s presence is also one of indescribable stillness of the soul, and yes, of peace.

And it’s just that sort of thing, the presence of the Holy Spirit, that odd combination of making things happen, of passion yet peaceful stillness amidst it all that Paul’s referring to in today’s passage from the Epistle to the Philippians. Now a couple weeks back we were talking about those troublesome Corinthians… the new rich, people always trying to one up each other and that sort of thing, but the Philippians were a different crew entirely. Acts tells us they were Paul’s first church in Europe, some of the closest supporters of his ministry, and indeed, some of Paul’s closest friends. Paul writes them from what’s probably a Roman prison, in what was probably an extremely difficult situation, and writes predominately to share in the joy of Christian community with his friends and companions in sharing the Good News that is Jesus. And what he write’s them is truly awesome… first he quotes what was probably one of the earliest hymns about Jesus in order to urge the Philippians to be of the same mind as Jesus…
whom though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the God the Father.
And wow, it sounds like a pretty heavy deal… Paul’s urging the Philippians, and indeed us, to become obedient, even to the point of death, even to the point of death on a cross. We’re to empty ourselves? Just like me nearly panicking amidst the busyness of life this past week or just like us as community scrambling to feed a hundred folks ham dinner from our humble little kitchen and working through the growth happening all around us, or all of us while we’re dealing with all types of difficult challenges in our individual lives, when we hear stuff like that, to be obedient, to empty ourselves, we can’t help but throw our hands up in the air sometimes and yell wow God, how the heck do you think I can do something like that?

Yet all times, and especially in those moments, my sisters and brothers, when we have no idea at all what we’re gonna do, we also need to look at what Paul says to his dear friends the Philippians next… we need to look at what Paul indeed proclaims to us next here at Messiah Lutheran Church in Rotterdam, New York across the millennia… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. For it is God who is at work in you! It is God, my sisters and brothers, who is at work in all of us, every single day, no matter how imperfect or overworked or worn out we feel like we are… working through that odd combination of passion, of making things happen, and that still sort of peace that is the Holy Spirit. Although it at times may feel like an incredible burden, it’s an incredible promise… God is at work in all our lives, both in what we do here at Messiah and in our wider lives, whether you’re doing big things or seemingly inconsequential things… maybe you’re trimming the bushes outside, or visiting folks who can’t make it out to church anymore or making an emergency repair to the sink in the girls bathroom or volunteering as bartender’s at Proctors or caring for your grandchildren or helping your parents prepare dinner… God is at work in you!

Our Messiah community during Sunday worship.
Whether you’re getting ready to teach a Sunday School lesson or researching the prices of haunted hayride trips for confirmation class or sending out press releases or serving as ushers in worship or struggling to care for your aging parents… God is at work in you! Whether you’re keeping track of church finances or coaching your daughter’s softball team or cooking ham dinner or leading Messiah’s children in singing songs about God or journeying across the country to support a sick loved one, God is at work in you! Whether you’re being silly up in the choir loft or sewing together shopping bags for needy individuals at the SICM food pantry or dropping you kids off at a sporting event or learning more about prayer at our new God Talk series, God is at work in you! In our Spirit filled church following Jesus Christ, and indeed in all aspects of our lives, God is at work in all our lives, moving through that odd combination of making things happen and peace that is the Holy Spirit. In Christ my sisters and brothers, our God has promised to be at work in all our lives no matter who we are, and yes, our God is a God who keeps promises. Amen.


Dustin serves as pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church, a vibrant congregation ministering with the local community in Rotterdam, New York. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, Dustin spends most of his profession time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with an amazing woman named Jessie and pretending to know how to sing.